World of Warcraft (WoW) is an online video game set in a medieval fantasy environment populated by knights, wizards, dwarves, elves, trolls, orcs, and strange human-animal hybrids. People in WoW travel by foot and on steeds (not all of them horses), wear armor and wield swords and magic against monsters and each other. They go on quests and raids, for experience and fame and fortune.
WoW is probably the best known and most commercially successful MMORPG, or massive multiplayer online role-playing game, in the history of the genre. The game currently has 6 million active subscribers, which is about twice the number of people living in Chicago. Other popular MMORPGs include Final Fantasy XI , City of Heroes, Legion, Ultima, Entropia and Second Life.
I’ve been reading with increasing fascination the past few months about how events in these virtual worlds are mirroring events in the real, or “offline” world in bizarre and sometimes creepy ways.
People are giving up jobs in the real world and opening up businesses in virtual worlds; players pay real money to buy weapons and armor and clothes (and islands and space stations ) that exist only as bits on a hard drive and pixels on their screens; there are virtual criminals and cyber prostitutes , leading some to wonder whether offline laws can, or should, be extended to virtual worlds.
In Asia where MMORPGs are popular, Korean Legion players engaged in a “ virtual genocide ” of Chinese players after they were discovered stealing (virtual) money and objects and selling them on the internet for (very real) cash.
And earlier this year, a WoW player was issued a warning and threatened with expulsion from the game by the game maker, Blizzard Entertainment, after she started “Oz,” a guild for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders. (The player challenged the warning and Blizzard has since issued a formal apology .)
With all the parallels to real life occurring in these online worlds, some academic have realized there is a goldmine of scientific data to be found in MMPORPGs. Beneath the medieval fantasy setting and characters are humans building relationships (even getting married ), forging alliances, inventing culture, mastering crafts, selling products and learning skills. And because everything occurs in a virtual setting, every action is recorded and quantified.
Most of the research done so far on MMORPGs center around economics and law. In 2001, Indiana University economist Edward Castronova concluded that Norrath, the virtual setting of EverQuest , is the seventy-seventh largest economy in the world, with a GNP per capita between that of Russia and Bulgaria. In the latest issue of Legal Affairs, Julian Dibbell has an article examining the question of whether profits generated from the selling of virtual goods can be taxed by the IRS.
Researchers in other fields like psychology and sociology and anthropology are beginning to look seriously at MMORPGs, too. At Trinity University in San Antonio last spring, students in an undergraduate ethnography class wrote papers on the interactions of players in WoW. Among the subjects covered were sexism, game addiction, altruism and trade.
Even epidemiologists are getting into the act. Last fall, a virtual plague swept through the online world of WoW and affected thousands of players and researchers used the opportunity to study how infectious diseases spread and how the public reacts to them. A disease called “corrupted blood” was initially caught by a few players after killing a boss in the game but then spread via virtual pets to other players. (The disease didn’t do any lasting harm though: those killed by the disease were simply resurrected.)
Online games are so immersive that some worry they can be addicting. The quests and raids in some games can require hours to complete, and it’s not uncommon for players to spend 11 to 15 hours a day in their virtual worlds.
Last fall, a Chinese girl who went by the name of “Snowly” in WoW died after playing the game for several days straight and neglecting her health. (Following news of her death, an online funeral service was held, which was attended by thousands of Chinese WoW players.)
One former player commenting on a BBC story about gaming addiction wrote:
“I told my partner I had a new job for three months whilst every day I played EverQuest from 7:30am till 5:pm. When She came home I pretended I had just got in as well…”
Another player, who eventually broke the habit, explained the experience this way:
“The real world fades and all your worries surround a new magic staff or mighty sword. Unlike books, or perhaps even TV, you gain absolutely nothing. When you stop playing you’re at the same point as when you started; all the achievements of your 10 hour session are irretrievably locked in the game and, since you’ve gained nothing in the real world, you may as well pile on more achievement in the fake one.”