It is an idle August Sunday afternoon when I step into Wynbertson Ngie’s room. At first glance, it looks like a normal college freshman-year double, but a cursory inspection reveals that games – in the form of several PCs, an XBox, two PS2s and a GameCube – occupy much more of the room than the inhabitants themselves, who have left only a pair of mattresses, some dirty dishes, and some scattered clothing to indicate that they actually live there. Unfortunately, the occupants’ Spartan utility extends to the room temperature, and the heat generated by the critical mass of hardware makes the outside Southern California dry heat outside feel like a welcome relief in comparison. Or perhaps it’s just my own weakness talking; neither Wyn nor his high school friends seem to notice. As I shake his hand and pound his fist to indicate the official beginning of business – that is, the gathering of material for this profile – he nods and merely says to me, “I’ll be honest, I have no life.”
My first impression of Wyn was fairly unremarkable. He stands at average height and build with jet black hair and is wearing the standard lazy basketball-shorts-and-t-shirt that is so prevalent in these parts. He is a newly 21-year old Southern Californian, born in the Philippines, who graduated from a local high school and is currently living with his parents. He takes community college classes on an infrequent basis and works as a traffic cop at the college most of the time, presumably enforcing parking violations and the like.
By night, however, Wyn is known in the world of Square Enix’s Final Fantasy XI as Wynbert, a high-level Black Mage who runs a guild (called a “Linkshell”) named TeaStation, which is roughly 90 people strong at the time of this writing. As his friends – all of whom are gamers in their own right – explain to me, he discovered FFXI sometime during the summer after high school, and things just weren’t really the same afterwards. This is nothing new to me, of course; most of us can probably recount at least one or two tales of good friends who simply vanished once a certain online roleplaying game came about, and whether the game happens to be EverQuest or Lineage or World of WarCraft, the moral of the story is usually the same as Wyn’s.
Having arrived at Wyn’s house, we pick him up and head over to a local Cantonese-speaking diner and spend the next hour and a half soaking up the air conditioning, unlimited lemon iced tea, and cheap eats. Despite the mocking hopelessness Wyn’s friends expressed about kicking the habit, it becomes pretty apparent from listening to everybody banter that all is not lost. While FFXI is still occasionally present in the general conversation – mostly in the form of Wyn nagging someone to try and catch up with his guild so they can play together – the topics of interest are usually those near and dear to the heart of any early-twenties male.
Long after dinner was consumed, he sat there discussing opinions on cars, money, his recent twenty-first birthday (celebrated at Hooters), bad Hollywood sequels (Matrix Reloaded and the entire Star Wars prequel trilogy come up as particular disappointments) and so on. Even once the topic of gaming is broached, FFXI is hardly mentioned; instead, Wyn and the others opt to discuss current events like the XBox 360’s recently announced pricing structure (“It’s just the industry’s way of squeezing money out of your pockets”) and Nintendo’s long-awaited DS title, Nintendogs (Wyn: “It’s just like a Tamagotchi. If you’re going to spend that much time and money on something, you might as well get a girlfriend.”) By the time we return to his room, the favorite topic is an upcoming camping trip. Wyn himself sternly reminds one of his other friends, a Battlefield 2 junkie, “No computers. Well, maybe a laptop.”
Upon our return, preparations begin for tonight’s main event – a routine run intended to maximize TeaStation’s odds of finding high-level items to dole out to their members. Between the hustle and bustle and the bantering of old friends, Wyn is careful to emphasize to me that his clan is different from most of the high-level FFXI groups: “The atmosphere that I try to create isn’t just any kind of work environment. It’s actually a game where you know people, so you can enjoy the game with people that you know,” Wyn says, “they have clans out there that have work environments – certain people are supposed to be here, do this, do that. We try to do the endgame stuff as well, but we do it to have fun.”
And I’ll admit that despite my personal ambivalence toward MMOGs, TeaStation’s exchange of casual joking and camaraderie does look fun. A few minutes later, noticing my eyebrows rise in reaction to one of the off-color jokes a fellow TeaStation member made, Wyn explains, “It happens, basically, during late nights, and they talk about sex, porn, whatever. Look at that, sex, right there.” Soon afterwards, Wyn’s brother and sister, both of whom are also logged into the FFXI server, type a few lines from oldies classic “Build Me Up Buttercup” which prompt several other members to apparently reprise an earlier “Linkshell karaoke night” in-joke.
Despite the joking, it quickly becomes clear that Wyn takes his guild seriously. He doesn’t hesitate in explaining his duties to me: “I’m responsible for everything, basically. It’s a game, you know, people argue, people fight, people have misunderstandings, and you kind of have to come in between them. It’s time-consuming and frustrating sometimes – kind of like taking care of kids. Whenever they need something done, they approach me – recruitment, drama, whatever.”
When I press him for specifics, he pauses to think for a second and replies, “I have to take care of them, set up events so there’s something to do besides the grinding, and help people out whenever they need something. In a way, it’s kind of like a 24-hour job. You set up events to make sure everybody’s able to go, if not, you do one event, make sure everyone else shows up for another so they can join as well. It’s evening everything out so no one gets left out. Even when we lose an event, everyone enjoys it, when you’re dying, you’re still laughing about it.” He says this very casually, as though it’s perfectly natural for him to talk with such grave seriousness about a game, and all of a sudden the differences between Wyn’s life and mine, as a college student involved with both planning campus-wide events and peer mentoring, are remarkably less clear.
Something appears to have delayed the preparations, so Wyn is able to take his eyes off his computer for a few minutes and show me a few pictures. Amid screenshots of various in-game events are pictures of a barbecue, or maybe a few young adults getting dim sum and horsing around. Wyn is pleased to inform me that these are actually many of his fellow TeaStation mates; “Everybody knows each other in real life. These guys came down from Sacramento, this guy lives in Arcadia, we’d go drinking and have a barbecue and everything. If you’re not very sociable, I don’t think this game is for you, because this game centers around the people.”
Still absentmindedly scrolling through the pictures, Wyn looks at his siblings and continues, “You can ask these guys why they play, you can ask them if they’re willing to quit.” I do, and Wyn looks expectantly at them until his sister replies in the negative – “because of the people.” But he already knew what the answer was, of course. Hesitantly, I ask him if he thinks he’s addicted, unsure if I should expect denial or acceptance. He surprises me – and really, I should be used to this now – by thoughtfully answering, “I have to admit, it is an addiction to a point, but as long as you have control over it, I don’t think it really matters.” Another brief pause. “An addiction to a game – this is the way I look at it – is better than an addiction to what stupid people do – drugs, alcohol, stuff like that. This is gaming, man. This is the greatest pastime ever.”
The topic of conversation is thusly changed to quitting FFXI – however unspeakable of a thought that might be – and Wyn relates to me, “Some people see real life getting in the way of the game, but it’s more like the game getting in the way of real life. Some people have stuff to take care of, and that’s your thing – you gotta take care of it.” During his span of almost two years, he has taken a break or two, confident that others can administer to the guild in his absence.
But it seems clear enough to him that just I don’t get it, and so he pushes FFXI to the background in order to show me a commemorative video made by some members of a different, now-defunct FFXI guild. Despite the initial oddity of watching a bunch of gameplay footage set to Coldplay’s “The Scientist,” the emotion conveyed is painfully clear, and Wyn and his brother have ceased paying attention to me in favor of pointing out old friends and recounting war stories. Finally, the video culminates in a goodbye ceremony, fireworks appear around all the players’ avatars, and the leader discards the pearl that represents the clan, forever deleting the Linkshell from the server’s binary consciousness. It is a solemn moment, certainly no less grave as learning that Darth Vader was Luke’s father or helplessly watching Aeris get impaled.
And so Wyn looks back at me, and I think he sees something he didn’t before, because he tells me, “Every time I see this video, I wanna cry, man. The leader just drops the pearl. That’s the end.” No doubt he is thinking of what will happen to his own pearl, one day, when his TeaStation comes to an end and the daily bantering and porn jokes and coordinated events are no more. But the preparations are complete, after an hour or so of waiting, and off TeaStation goes into the wild blue yonder of San d’Oria.
The rest of the evening is pretty uneventful – the hectic melee that I’m watching on the TV is far beyond my comprehension, and before long it is time to go, so we pile into our borrowed Honda Civic and leave Wyn to his own devices. He’s got me thinking, though. While the rest of the gaming population writes off online RPG gamers as escapist addicts (which may be true) that are addicted to running the level treadmill (which, no doubt, many are) it seems a little bit less fair to do so.
No, Wyn will not leave FFXI with a degree, nor will he obtain the kind of work experience he can cite on his resum