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What's in a game?

If you don't know what's going on in online gaming,

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I can hear my heart beating as I take one step forward, then another, until I’m in a full jog. I feel strangely powerful and my green eyes are so alert they practically light the forest. I’m somewhat anxious yet girded for whatever may come. I’m toned, fit, and agile.

And my enormous breasts don’t seem to get in my way at all, even though I don’t appear to be wearing a top.

Behold! I am Bicwielder, or rather Bicwielder is I! Or is me. Whichever sounds more impressive!

SCREENSHOT FROM WORLD OF WARCRAFT:  Illustration by Alex Zuniga - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • Photo by Steve E. Miller
  • SCREENSHOT FROM WORLD OF WARCRAFT: Illustration by Alex Zuniga
Bicwielder is my newly born avatar, an orange-haired, sword-wielding human warrior in World of Warcraft, or WoW, the massively popular so-called massively multiplayer online role-playing game [MMORPG]. It is considered the best and most engrossing of this style of never-ending online fantasy game, and I’m certain Bicwielder would kick massive ass in it if I could only figure out how to, you know, have her do something.

The stunning movie-like trailer that introduced me to the game encouraged me, to an epic soundtrack, that “Now is the time for heroes,” and in spirit I’m all in, but I’ve been online for about an hour and so far I’ve done nothing but run around my medieval “realm” doing random things. I’ve battled and killed two wolves and, in a test of my skills and weapons I later feel badly about, one cow.

I’ve run into an inn and eaten meat, I’ve been warned by a wizard not to go down a road (I went down it anyway), and I’ve had a lot of people ask if they can help me, but I can’t seem to take them up on it.

I’m a noob, a newcomer and the lowest level of life in WoW and my avatar is only a Level 1 warrior in a world where levels top out at 70. That makes me extremely vulnerable, because the realm I’ve chosen is one where anybody can kill anybody, and I’ve already witnessed a bunch of duels.

It’s all, frankly, a bit confusing to me, but I’d been warned that the learning curve would be steep; it’s estimated the majority of people who play this sort of game devote 20 or more hours per week to them, so it can’t be the sort of thing a person picks up quickly or it wouldn’t keep them engaged for months on end.

I think it’s worth the time. I’ve recently become convinced that video gaming may well be the most potent cultural media product in existence today, with the power to addict people and fight diseases and turn back the atrophying of people’s brains and simultaneously connect people from vastly different cultures and break up real-world relationships and recruit people to an Army that on its face has few attractions.

Put simply, online gaming is massively powerful.

And the weird thing is, a lot Americans know nothing about it.



Facts of the realm
If you’re one of those people who thinks they know a lot about popular culture or if the last thing you knew about video games involved putting quarters in Donkey Kong, ask yourself:

• Did you know that the U.S. Army draws kids to its America’s Army online game, where they get to shoot the bad guys on a virtual commando team that includes real Army soldiers playing the game at the same time?

• Did you know there are games that allow people to play out their most violent and horrifying fantasies, including rape and pedophilia?

• Did you know there are games that allow cancer kids to blast away their tumors—and the games seem to actually help their recoveries?

• Did you know there are games designed to address memory loss that may be able to help people turn back the biological age of their brains by 10 years?

• Did you know there are games that require teams of people—real people, from all over the world—to work together to solve problems (although those problems often involve killing monsters)?

• Did you know some experts argue that video games are diabolically crafted to maximize our learning potential and may be helping, not hurting, the people who use them?

• Did you know that the American Psychiatric Association is considering categorizing online gaming addiction as a mental disorder and that people have dropped out of college, lost girlfriends and wives, abandoned jobs, and stolen credit cards because they’re addicted to games?

• Did you know there are “sweatshops”—is this the right term when you’re talking about playing games?—in Asia where people do nothing but play video games all day long, “grinding” their way through the more boring levels of role-playing games so they can sell the levels and skills online? That’s sell as in real money.

• Did you know that it’s a massive business, with some estimates placing the real money traded on WoW as greater than the economies of some countries and the entire gaming industry worldwide worth more than the movie industry? Sales of one game, Grand Theft Auto IV recently hit $500 million in one week, a record.

• And did you know that the fuzzy little bunny that I bought my daughter for Christmas was actually an introduction to a role-playing game called Webkinz World? She now begs me to allow her to spend time in that world so she can buy and build more virtual rooms for the virtual version of her bunny, which requires regular feedings and must be put to bed before logging off.

The evidence goes on and on.



Addiction
I’m at Cuesta College, at an all-day conference on video game compulsion, and most of the people attending are local psychiatrists and psychologists who’ve come to learn strategies for working with patients who are either obsessed with gaming outright or who simply play so much it affects their life in a negative way.

The conference is being put on by a San Luis Obispo couple: Pamela Shavaun Scott, a marriage and family therapist who has become an expert in the field of gaming compulsion, and Michael Balzer, a technology expert who has worked in the gaming field and looks a little avatar-like in real life, with jet-black hair and a dramatically shaved beard.

Both of them are gamers, and they pepper their engaging presentation with video clips of their own avatars (his always tend to look like her, a fact that she says she finds a little weird) doing the actual deeds in question.

The visual examples offered are key because many of the people attending clearly have no idea what the world of online gaming is about and wouldn’t otherwise know an avatar from an ottoman.

That’s clearly not the case with the young lady sitting to my right. She’s not paying attention to the presentation because she’s obsessively thumb-typing on a phone that is much more than a phone.

She’s addictively gaming at the addictive gaming conference! For the record, Scott avoids the word “addiction.”

There’s no surprise that people are concerned about gaming’s influences; new media draw new fears. It’s a well-documented step along the path of the development of new media that has been demonstrated in everything from radio to television.

The inventor who invents the technology is followed by the tinkerer who explores its possibilities, who is followed by the entrepreneur who introduces it to the public and exploits it for maximum gain. And they’re all followed by the parent groups and pastors who become convinced the new medium is endangering their children.

For Scott, there’s no debate that video game obsession is a real concern, and a person can’t leave her conference that features videotaped interviews with a half-dozen gamers with much of an argument left.

Yet hers isn’t a shrill voice.

She sees positives and negatives in online gaming but says there are certain elements of the worlds that hold maximum potential for hooking people. Mostly, the couple’s conferences—another version for parents is planned at the SLO library in July—are dedicated to educating people about what’s “healthy” in online play and what’s not.

“There are some good things about gaming, but there are some very dark things too,” she said.

Among the most engaging, and thus potentially addicting, aspects of online gaming, she says, are those games like WoW that require large groups of people to work together to accomplish goals. On its face that may sound like a positive force and exactly what we try to teach our children in schools, but the games can be hard to leave. It can take a full work day to accomplish some of the quests or raids, and that means that a team of people from around the country or world has to commit to working together for that entire span of time no matter what commitments they may have made in their real lives during that same period.

To quit in the middle can end the raid for everyone and, for obvious reasons, is just not cool. That’s a reinforcer psychologists call “social embedding.” In other words, it’s hard to quit because all your friends do it and are counting on you. The games by their very design can also be devastatingly addicting because they often act on the concept of variable reinforcing: Characters don’t get a new power every time they move a certain brick in a castle wall, but only every 49th time.

Variable reinforcement is one of the touchstones of repetitive behavior, and it spans all manner of obsessions from surfing to meth use; it’s why a dog barks at a closed door—sometimes it opens.

And then there’s the other truly disturbing thing about virtual reality games: People use their second selves to do not just kinky but unspeakably horrible things to each other.

One game is called Rapeplay, which pretty well says it all, and there are other worlds, even within mainstream sites, where pedophiles meet, trade porn, and act out their own fantasies on each other.

And on a much more socially acceptable level there are games such as the Grand Theft Auto variations and the first-person-shooter games that are premised on murder.

Grand Theft Auto is so over-the-top in its premise—you’re a bad guy on the loose in a fictional city stealing cars and hiring prostitutes and killing cops and bystanders alike—that it’s easy to see it as satirical. But that’s less so for the first-person shooter games such as Counter-Strike, Halo, or Doom.

I sat down in the well-appointed apartment of Steve E. Miller, our New Times photographer and a remarkably talented first-person shooter.

I watched as he effortlessly made his way around a war-ravaged Arabic town in Call of Duty 4, murdering other players before they could murder him.

He was really good, but maybe that’s to be expected. Over the past year that he’s owned the game, he’s played an aggregate total of 15 solid days.

Finally, it was my time to play. I raised my weapon and fumbled with the keyboard keys that made me run around. I saw a lot of guys and shot at them. Unfortunately they shot at me too.

It was all no use: It was kill or be killed, and I was killed. Over and again. Fortunately, in this game you just get to get right back up. (That’s not true in America’s Army, the recruitment tool/free video game. There, if you’re dead, you stay dead for the rest of the game, which I suppose is designed to teach potential recruits one important lesson.)

Desperate, I even tried to lay in wait in sniper mode, hoping for someone to come around a corner and meet my bullet. As I waited, I got killed myself, shot from behind as I lay on the ground. One of the lessons in these sorts of games is: keep moving.

So I was up and moving again, lugging my weapon and moving into a jog as I stumbled around a Russian town. In real life I was becoming agitated, angry. This was a game about killing, and I couldn’t!

Finally, a guy popped up around an open doorway. He raised his gun and I raised mine, but I blasted him first. It was my first kill. It felt good. I felt in control. And then that same guy killed me about 19 more times before I gave up.

No sweat, I handed the controls back over to Steve, and he promptly cleaned the floor with all those guys.

At least it was free.

If there’s an upside to gaming addiction, it centers on price. This is one relatively inexpensive addiction.

For even the most expansive game worlds, it can cost as little as $15 per month to play. And most games cost you nothing more than the original $50 or so to buy them the first time; the online aspects come free. One gamer I talked to told me people can actually save massive amounts of money when they become dedicated to gaming because they no longer have social lives or necessarily even eat, so they can put money in the bank.

What kind of company makes an addictive substance and then fails to capitalize on it?

Of course, there are still lots of ways to spend real money, by buying extra powers earned in those Asian sweatshops, just for starters. Economists have been studying these games, looking at the exchange rate between on-line currency and real.



My avatar and me 
The media studies are full of frets and concerns about how well represented minority cultures are on prime-time television, or about the messages that are conveyed in advertisements and what that says about “us.”

Largely those concerns have been answered, if not addressed, in those mediums so that same-sex couples can now kiss on television, and Hispanic, black, and Asian families also have moronic sitcoms.

In the video games, though, things haven’t yet gotten to the window-dressing stage.

Although a person is generally allowed to chose things like skin color or hairstyle on their avatars, I have yet to see an option that would allow a person to choose a woman who didn’t have enormous breasts or a man who wasn’t outwardly manly (although there are gay gamer groups who wonder at the sexual orientation of various characters).

There are whole activist groups of women who wonder why this is so. It’s certainly not because video gaming is a man’s world. In fact, about four in 10 online gamers are women. But it’s still largely true that men make the games.

And they’re not all that bad. My avatar on WoW is more Dove lady than Ax Body Spray. Although her breasts are enormous, she looks powerful and athletic. That’s not so for many others, where they are impossibly long legged and top heavy. As one female gamer put it to me: “The men look tough and rugged, but usually still like someone you might see on the street. The way they make women, most couldn’t even exist physiologically.”

Bicwielder, however, does not care about these issues. She is not concerned with your petty cultural meanderings. She has worlds to explore, and monsters to battle.

And maybe, a few more cows to kill.

 



Managing Editor Patrick Howe is Bicwielder’s avatar. He can be reached at phowe@newtimesslo.com

 

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