Enter this brave new world at your own risk

22 Jun

June 22, 2009

By Geoff Meeker

There are two worlds out there.

There is the one we all know, the one we can see, smell and feel.

And there is another, hidden world that many – perhaps your neighbour, at this very moment – enter on a daily basis to collaborate, connive and conflict with people the planet over.

It’s the world of online gaming, and it’s bigger than many know – except the millions who are already immersed in it.

To play, you need an Internet connection, and one of several platforms that enable game play, such as personal computers (PCs), or game consoles like Xbox 360, Playstation3 or Wii. A high-speed Internet connection is essential. In all cases, players choose an animated character, called an ‘avatar’, which becomes their online identity.

They roam an animated world populated by other avatars, representing players from across the street or around the world. And it’s this human dynamic that separates and elevates online games from other game play – there’s really no way to appreciate the experience until you’ve tried it for yourself.

I don’t play, but my boys do. They use the xBox platform and Windows Live service (about $60 per year, with additional charges for game updates), which enables them to take their games online and engage in all manner of fighting, from World War II raids on the enemy to UFC mixed martial arts.

For example, my boys play Call of Duty, an almost photo-realistic recreation of World War II battlefields, with a lot of zinging bullets, blood and gore. (They are 15 and 17, and in my view mature enough to play such games, though the battle scenes always make me wince.) Players can wear a headset, which enables them to talk with their fellow players.

Imagine, then, how it feels to be part of a platoon, approaching an enemy stronghold, in a battlefield that looks, feels and sounds real. You are planning strategy with fellow soldiers, agreeing on a plan of attack, when bullets start to fly in your direction. The enemy is engaged…

I have a neighbour who goes online with his xBox every evening, playing with his teenage son, who lives in another province. It’s their way of having fun together, despite being thousands of kilometers apart.

Yes, online games can be fun. They can even be addictive.

Which brings us to World of Warcraft (WoW), a massively popular game played on PC. There are more than 11 million subscribers to WoW (about $15 per month, plus about $20 for software), which is set in a medieval world of magic and dragons. One of those subscribers is Jerry Cranford, who runs Flanker Press in St. John’s.

“It’s basically Dungeons and Dragons on crack,” Cranford said. “You create a character and you go to it, fighting monsters, doing quests, and so on. It’s very addictive… There is a lot of strategy involved and you have to think a lot.”

There are two opposing factions in the game – the Alliance, composed of humans, dwarves and elves, and the Horde, which has more monstrous, undead and mean looking characters. One side is not necessarily more evil than the other, though they are sworn enemies and a battle usually ensues when they meet.

However, the game is not nearly as violent as Call of Duty or Halo, another popular online game. “There is no blood or guts or gore,” Cranford said. “There’s really none of that in WoW. It’s basically you, casting a spell or swinging a sword at the enemy. A numerical value of damage appears… not blood or guts.”

Cranford said he limits his game play to two hours per day, but knows of people who play non-stop. There have been news reports of marriages that have fallen apart because the husband refused to do anything but play his online game. For this reason, one needs to wade carefully into this realm.

One final word: I don’t recommend online game play for small children, with the exception of dedicated and secure platforms like Webkinz. There are safeguards in games like WoW, such as language filters that recognize and neutralize profanity, but I would be uneasy letting young children roam freely in an environment where they could intermingle with unknown adults.

Geoff Meeker is a communications consultant with a soft spot for technology. He also writes a blog about the local media scene, which is hosted at http://www.thetelegram.com.

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