The MW files: Game’s Over

(First published in Man’s World, February 2001)

Twenty seconds to Doomsday, the warrior had no idea what was about to hit him. His weapons were in order, his special skills honed, his nightvision glasses unfogged. He’d been moving through this level for quite a while now–about three months in real time, about 70-odd Net hours–and thought he was prepared for anything the bright dudes who’d dreamed up the game could throw at him.

They came through a security hole, and the first he knew of their existence was when they took his weapons. Then they stripped him of his armour. He just had time to type the first word of a disbelieving message to the games co-ordinator–“Whaddafuck?”, was what came unoriginally to mind–when they got him.

A continent away, a fellow player stared at her screen in complete disbelief. One of Diablo II’s Top Ten players had just been obliterated, wiped out, terminated, Xed. As she watched, another went down, and then another. About an hour later, the Internet knew: the top ten players in a popular role-playing game were all dead. Blizzard, the games site that was hosting Diablo II, had been hacked. The chat boards were going wild with messages, some shocked, some clinically analytical, some actually tearful (“I just saw Pokemon die. This is worse than Pearl Harbour,” posted one overwrought gamester). This was an endgame no-one had anticipated.

The world of role-playing games is infinitely strange and complex: warped in its intensity, liberating in its lack of limits. It’s a subculture that is feared by many–rightwing Christian and Islamic groups unite in their conviction that this is an instrument of Satan, professors of urban culture theorise that the levels of engagement demanded by most of these blood n’ gore constructs lead to a rise in crime, parents worry when they see their kids spending too much time within the boundaries of a world that doesn’t exist outside the Net.

The games themselves vary widely. Some are ‘quest’ games, the offspring of fantasy, myth and SF, where the characters have to work hard at developing skills before they even start to understand the nature of the grail they’re seeking. Some are oddball psychological exercises, designed to test your responses over a long period of time. Some are nerdish takes on pathfinding games. All too many are the blood-and-guts games of parental nightmare–sophisticated variations on Wolfenstein or Doom or their ancestor, Dungeons and Dragons. All of them require a level of commitment from players that needs, perhaps, to be experienced firsthand: newbies aren’t necessarily cut much slack until they learn to shaddup and learn by observation.

It’s a relatively alien world to me, just another of those aspects of the Net I never really turned on to. But for loyal gamers, role-playing offers an escape into a richer, quirkier world than the one they presently inhabit. The DiabloII incident has sent shockwaves round the community, just as a much earlier (and well publicised) incident of ‘virtual rape’ did about five years ago on another role-playing site. The question in both cases is similar: just how much damage accrues to the psyche of a player whose gaming identity is under attack?

It’s not a question I can answer from personal experience. When I engage in a role-playing game, I tend to invest very little of myself in my alternate identity–which is one reason why you’ll never find me in the Top 10. Game ends, I disengage; couldn’t get to play today, no problem; won’t be allowed to play tomorrow, minor irritation. That, however, is not the way most players work it.

Part of the fear is experienced by players who feel as though they’re losing an alternate self in which they’ve invested time, effort and emotions. For these players, the prospect of being kicked out of a game by an anonymous hacker or having to watch as their ‘character’ is subjected to abuse is almost as traumatic as actually being mugged or raped. It’s an assault on their mindspace, often made worse by the fact that they thought they were relatively safer in this virtual cocoon than out in the big, bad world. There are, notably, exceptions: others who, like me, shrug it off as just another bad trip in the insecure world online, or are mildly upset at the security rather than the psychological implications of having your RPG character hacked into. There are also the scoffers, the ones who think that a vicious assault on some tinpot imaginary characters in La-La Land are just the wake-up call these idlers needed. “Maybe now you all can go get a life outside your computers,” posted one unsympathetic visitor to the ruins of DiabloII.

There’s a bigger problem, however, behind these seemingly trivial disruptions in the gaming world. Most gaming sites thrive on anarchy, or at least on a system of as little outside or internal control as possible. Attacks by hackers and vicious gamers force all of us to confront the classic problems facing any society emerging from the state of grace of Paradise into the real world. In his stunning essay My Tiny Life: A Rape in Cyberspace, Julian Dibbins chronicled the transition of a gaming site from comfortable anarchy to a prickly form of government by mutual consent.

A complete lack of controls on a game site is tempting, and it often works well at the outset: players tend to respect each other’s limits and arrive at rules by mutual consensus. Eden does work, in that first glorious stage, but only as long as the snakes stay away. As Dibbins pointed out, it only takes one rebel, one nasty guy, one paedophile for even advocates of freedom in cyberspace to start attempting some basic form of self-governance. That can be exceptionally tricky, considering that site members range all the way from civil libertarians and anarchists to those who demand a dictatorship to take over and relieve everyone else of the burden of governing themselves. At its best, it’s democracy in action, often far more efficiently than in the real world because everyone has a voice and everyone gets equal space for their views. At its worst, sites have been known to collapse as users go into flame wars, or shift off-topic, or break down under the stress of having to work out basic civic principles. There are always minders and webmasters, but they tend to operate on the basis of as little intervention as possible.

As I write this, Blizzard, the chaps who host DiabloII, have restored the identities of the characters who were mowed down that night. Gamers are already moving back into harness; the show’s still going on. But the small community of players who make up the world of DiabloII online have been changed irrevocably. And somewhere out there, there’s a rogue guy who’s deciding to have himself a hootenanny at the expense of yet another website. Someone’s virtual character is in his hairsights, sometime tonight a message will flash on someone’s screen somewhere: “Game’s over. You’re dead.” And another community will go into spasm, until they figure out a pathway from paradise to practicality. Welcome to the real world.

Nilanjana S Roy

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