Go Virtual, Young Man

“Did you think this was all a game? Is that what you thought? We are not a game … We are real. This room, here, it is real.”
The Last King of Scotland

The “second life” massively multiplayer online games offer is not merely a distraction or an addiction. It is a space for reinvention and exploration. These games offer a new frontier, and while they are home to much of the same antisocial behavior and vices of real frontiers throughout history, they nevertheless offer genuine opportunities and benefits that should be fostered, not condemned. Frontiers have always been an escape valve, and in a world with increasing social regulation and decreasing space, it may be that a virtual outlet is the best we can hope for.

West of Reality
In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner revealed his famous Frontier Thesis, arguing that America’s greatness and vitality sprang from the freedom found in the nation’s frontiers, frontiers that had by then become closed. Faced with the loss of these “free lands,” Turner wondered what changes to the nature of democracy, individualism and other American ideals were in store.

The Wild West, after all, like the New World before it, had been an outlet in an often stifling world, a place of autonomy (due to the lack of enforced order) and economic opportunity (due to the presence of massive unclaimed resources and few constraints on trade or industry), and – perhaps most importantly – a place for rebirth, where old class norms, past offenses and personal shames could be escaped. With the closing of the American frontier, there was just no place left.


Robert Heinlein ends his own ode to anarchic frontiers, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, with free spirits leaving behind their increasingly civilized Luna for the asteroids. But it was computers, not space travel, that gave the Wild West back to the future.

A New New World
A bit over a century after Turner declared the frontiers closed, Origin Systems unveiled Ultima Online and opened a new one. To be sure, other games – from text-based MUDs to early graphical MMOGs like those offered on AOL or the Sierra Network – had provided virtual space for a variety of interpersonal interaction. But it was UO, with its wealth of options and strikingly detailed environment, that spawned the first mass migration from the real world to a virtual one.

From UO onward, MMOGs have been home to exactly the sort of behavior one might expect in the Wild West, whether it was land speculation rife with fraud in Second Life, prostitution and muckraking in the The Sims Online, dishonest bankers and bank robbers in EVE Online, banditry and bounty hunters in UO, and – naturally – virtual slave labor by Chinese workers. Fringe societies attract fringe elements, of course, and thus online gaming – like real-world frontiers – has the same distorted reputation of wildness and anti-social behavior that we associate with the Wild West. To be sure, there may be more griefers in WoW than there were bandits in Dodge City, and just about everyone makes his way as a cold-blooded killer for hire (of mobs if not Apaches), but nevertheless focusing on the negative elements of MMOGs is ultimately not the most productive way of understanding those communities.

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Beyond the lurid and sensational stories of mayhem and corruption in these games – and who can resist tales like the assassination of Lord British or the corrupted blood plague in World of Warcraft? – is the more prosaic experience of millions of players grinding out an existence as crafters and warriors, perhaps akin to the unsung ranchers and tradesmen of the West. And while our society pays a grudging measure of respect or at least curiosity to flamboyant assassins and exploiters in these games, the rank-and-file players generate at best bemused scorn. Why are people wasting their lives in these games?


Room to Make a Big Mistake
Above all else, online gaming – online presence in general – is marked by pseudo-anonymity. Not anonymity, although that can be had in some measure as well. The key wonder of MMOGs is the chance to create a new identity and live it, leaving behind the burdens of one’s past, like an emigrant bound to the New World or a settler drifting west. Just as the internet has assured that none of us can escape our history in the real world, it has offered an outlet in a virtual world where one can be anyone he wants and win a reputation from scratch.

It is likewise a place for experimentation, because as devastating as online opprobrium may seem, it’s escapable by means of a new avatar or username, or – in the worst of cases – by moving on to a new game in a new world. Little wonder, then, that we see gamers acting out precisely those fantasies that bear unacceptable costs in the real world: Avatars are the masks that let players rob banks, as well as the getaway cars that let them escape the consequences of their actions. Where but in games can one be a jerk who plays with guns for a couple hours a day and not have it catch up to him?

Our real world is defined by safety restrictions (no more dodge ball at recess), structure, monitoring and endless digital paper trails. Like the oppressive atmosphere of early modern Europe or 19th century New England, it is a world that requires an outlet. As Mark Patience (speaking of virtual identities!) recently noted here in The Escapist, gaming is probably a safer one than a drug habit. Even when that outlet takes bizarre forms, like the drudgework of gold farming or juggling a career and housekeeping in The Sims, it is still a chance to freely choose one’s life, without strings or chains.

Go Virtual, Young Man
For all the horror stories of game-related killings, neglect or death by exhaustion, most players aren’t driven to madness or despair by their online playing. The strongest, most convincing criticism is that they are wasting their time, or more precisely, their lives, in a virtual world while letting the real one slip away. For that reason, there has been since the advent of home game systems a clamor to regulate or restrict games.

But that view may be altogether too narrow. Far better, it seems, to move the griefers and cheats into virtual space where their harassment carries little real world cost. Far better, too, to offer an environment where one can flirt with such troublemaking without getting inextricably caught up in it.

Catharsis and escapism aren’t the only values to online play, though. Increasingly, there is an economic justification to time spent online. I remember a Far Side cartoon from years ago in which parents watch their son play Nintendo and dream up a wanted ad offering $60,000 a year for anyone who can rescue Princess Toadstool. Today, much to those same parents’ chagrin, that dream has become a reality, as gamers sell everything from virtual magic swords and horses to spaceships and mansions for real-world money.


It is hard to view that as anything other than funny money – a market supported only by obsessed, over-rich gamers – but luxury goods always cater to consumers whose judgment seems distorted to others. In most cases, we are buying the idea of the thing rather than the thing itself, the experience rather than the product. How “real” is the satisfaction of owning a real work of art rather than a perfect reproduction, of attending a live symphony rather than listening to a CD, of wearing a shirt with a logo rather than one without? Is there a sustainable distinction between buying a new golf club and buying a magic sword?

Perhaps the new frontiersmen, like trailblazers heading off to the unimaginable world beyond the borders of civilization, are merely eking out a living those left behind cannot wholly fathom.

The Frontier in Blizzard’s Pocket
On one level, it is impossible to get past the fact that one world is real and the other is virtual. But frontiers are ideas as much as they are real places. Perhaps more than their virtual nature, what distinguishes these new frontiers from their physical counterparts is that they are not free. They are commercial creations existing at the whim of corporate overlords.

On a trivial level, Jesse James couldn’t be nerfed for being overpowered, nor could George Washington have his account banned for defying Britain’s terms of use. But on a more fundamental level, real frontiers enabled a person to take ownership of his life, while the virtual ones give that ownership to a third party. As long as that is the case – and it seems likely to stay that way until reality catches up with science fiction and the government builds a giant, computerized world – there is no real autonomy in virtual worlds. And at the press of a button, the new existence one carves for himself becomes of no account.

So maybe the best analogy isn’t to settlers heading west, but to explorers from Spain, the fortune hunters who sojourned in the New World and returned home, perhaps having remade themselves and perhaps simply worn themselves out from too many adventures. If so, it’s probably for the best that it doesn’t take a transatlantic voyage to reach Azeroth.

Marty O’Hale has written stories for a number of computer and videogames, primarily roleplaying and strategy games. He has also published a number of works of fiction. Currently, Marty’s career is in the law.

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