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A New Life Just a Few Clicks Away
MMORPGs are changing video games into virtual lives
Pierre Joo (pierre_joo)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2006-05-17 16:23 (KST)   
Whatever their themes, traditional video games are more or less based on the same principle: players get to challenge their skills against computer-run opponents in a computer-run environment. Some games may allow for multiplayer options enabling two or three players to challenge one another in the same game, but the overall purpose of most video games has remained unchanged: beating the computer in a preconceived scenario.

MMORPGs, an acronym for Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, are changing the way we play video games. MMORPGs appeared with the expansion of fixed-fee broadband internet connections in the late 1990's, and are based on a client-server model: by running a client software on their computers and paying a monthly fee, players get access to a server-run world. Each player, materialized by an avatar, can then interact with any other player logged on at the same time.

As a result, thousands, if not millions of other players are constantly logged on, and each world created by MMORPGs continues existing and evolving, even when you may be outside running some errands. Moreover, the game is not about beating your computer anymore; it's about socializing with other online gamers, seeking alliances with them for a common quest or defense against a common enemy, asking pieces of advice to grow stronger, or even trading items used in the game. MMORPGs have revolutionized video games by offering a permanent world to gamers.

Most people probably think of MMORPGs players as hardcore gamers the way we usually picture them: young, mostly male, with little if any social life. In other words, not normal people. Most early players may have had such a profile. These "no life" players, as gamers themselves label them, may still account for a significant part of the population of MMORPGs players.

Yet, with more than 6 million people worldwide -- the equivalent of the population of Finland -- playing "World of Warcraft" (WoW), the most popular of all MMORPGs, online role-playing games are more than the obsession of a few video game addicts. This skyrocketing popularity of MMORPGs was made possible because what they offer is incomparably more valuable than just a game: MMORPGs provide players with a second virtual life, in addition to their real one. Such is the case with a growing number of people around us: white collar employees, school teachers, even company CEOs in real life may hold a second identity as dwarves, sorcerers, or knights in virtual life.

Behind these eccentric characters lies the same social interaction in real life, and succeeding virtually requires the same social skills needed to succeed in real life. Achieving a quest in WoW, for example, may require a coordinated action that must be studied, discussed, practiced, and scheduled well in advance by 20 members of the same guild. Some members of the guild will take initiatives, some will coordinate, some will execute, while some may be of no use to the group, and in the end give up or get expelled. In fact, Wired Magazine reports that in at least one case, Yahoo! has positively considered one candidate's achievements in MMORPGs to recruit him.

While playing MMORPGs might get you a job in real life, some gamers have done the opposite reasoning that playing MMORPGs might provide them with an income that will enable them to get rid of their real-life jobs. Today's role-playing games are not solely about virtual networking, but also about virtual trading, as advancing in a game requires the use of specific items or powers. All these assets have a value expressed in a virtual currency, and can thus be bought or sold by players. In fact, MMORPGs have generated some powerful economies.

Few people may have heard of a country called Norrath. Yet, three years after its creation in 1999, some economists estimated this country had a per capita GDP superior to China's or India's, while its currency's exchange rate with U.S. dollars was higher than the Yen's. However, those attempting to locate Norrath on a world map will surely be unsuccessful. In fact, it only appears in computer screens of those playing an MMORPG called Everquest. The GDP of Norrath was computed on the basis of prices at which virtual items from the game were sold on e-Bay.

Not only can virtual items be traded against real money, so can virtual identities. As building a powerful and feared on-line character requires a tremendous amount of time and energy, some lazy or busy players may be tempted to just buy an already matured avatar. Some companies, notably in China, have specialized in the breeding and selling of such avatars using cheap labor to meet a growing demand. The job of employees of these companies is to accomplish the usually time-consuming and fastidious tasks required to reach a certain level of power, before selling the "mature" avatars in auction sites or specifically dedicated online marketplaces.

Jon Jacobs, a Miami player of the role-playing game Project Entropia has even gone one step further by reallocating his assets from real to virtual life. Project Entropia is one of the only games that allows its players to convert their virtual currencies into hard cash. The company behind this game even plans to launch an ATM card enabling players to easily withdraw hard cash out of their virtual accounts. With real to virtual conversion made so easy, the Miami player did not hesitate to invest all of his $100 000 fortune in a virtual space station. Jacobs is currently developing the station into malls, hotels, condos, and a stadium, all of which is so far generating a monthly revenue of $15,000 (real) dollars.

As more and more people join MMORPGs and put their creativity into virtual initiatives, these games gradually provide everything real life has to offer. Second Life is probably the MMORPG that leaves players with the most freedom to do whatever they want. Players are provided with a computer program enabling them to design any 3D items of their choice, which will contribute to making the virtual world in which their virtual selves live a more elaborate one.

Found your virtual significant other and want to experience a physical relationship with him or her? Not a problem, both persons just need to design themselves genital organs. The game then provides various intercourse sequences. Love or seduction need not even be involved, as some players have decided to become virtual prostitutes in this role-playing game.

Are real lives and virtual ones destined to collide? In the minds of some extreme players, the two worlds have already merged. In 2005, a Chinese MMORPG player borrowed a virtual laser sword from another player and then sold it to a third one. He later got killed -- not virtually this time -- by the angry initial owner of the sword.

Fortunately, the huge majority of MMORPG players do make the difference between their real and virtual lives, and know what to expect from each one of them. Obviously, virtual life cannot replace the real one, but many have come to appreciate how well it can complement it.

It may not be everyone's dream to become a feared sorcerer full of mysterious powers, but it is indeed thrilling to start a new life in a world where success only depends on you, not your social, racial, or family background. A world that is virtual, but where the ideal of equal chances is a reality; just a few mouse clicks away.
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©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Pierre Joo

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