I’ve been struggling for the best way to explain what it’s like to “live” in a massively-multiplayer online game (MMOG) like World of Warcraft. After all, these games draw thousands of people into the same virtual community. They gossip, argue, work together and build a sense of fellowfeeling, just like a real neighborhood. So what is it like to be their neighbor? It’s a hard experience to define for anyone who hasn’t tried it. (And if you haven’t, go find a Warcraft trial disc and give it a try. It’s a strange mind-out-of-body experience, like the first time you ever watched yourself on television.) But a good way to start may be to talk about my life in online games. Usually, I’m a schmuck.
I’ve tried several online games, including a year of on-and-off Warcraft play, and in the social hierarchy, I’m always a nobody. Most of us are. You play these games in a virtual world, surrounded by thousands of players who look a lot like yourself. Everyone gets an adventure, but unlike a single-player epic, no one gets to be the hero. As veteran designer Richard Garriott puts it, most players lead a “mediocre” life: You crash through the same castles and battlefields as everybody else, and nobody gets the chance to save the world.
Now, I don’t mind being an average Joe. Playing with so many other people is pleasantly sociable, like bowling in a pick-up group or knowing you can find a game of Capture The flag anytime you’re up for it. But I’m also comfortable with it because I’ve given up on the idea that the whole world should revolve around me. And I’ve started looking for something else: I want to be a citizen.
Modern MMOGs know how to entertain their players, but they don’t ask for much in return. In the same way that Disney World will hum along with or without a given family of five, World of Warcraft is always open, and the game will keep running if you don’t show up that night. Some of your fellow players may get to know you and count on you, but the community at large could care less.
Compare that to some other virtual communities, like Second Life, which started off as nothing but scrubland and blank terrain: Everything that’s in the game is built, maintained and shared by the players. And as Second Life grows and evolves, a good section of those players speak out about new policies, rate changes and other issues. Their word carries weight: Without them, there is no Second Life. And plenty of other games live or die by their communities—from online gaming on Xbox Live, to alternate-reality games and augmented scavenger hunts like I Love Bees or Perplex City. If you pay the fees but don’t use your voice, aren’t you just submitting to taxation without representation?
Game designer and scholar Jane McGonigal has talked about the difference between the “superidol” and the “superhero.” With the idol, everything’s about me; but everyone can be a hero, in his or her own way. And while commercial games like Warcraft sometimes invite their players to a gamewide cause, it happens rarely and it rarely makes a difference. When you want to believe in a world, duty is as compelling as freedom. So in the next generation of online games, I want to be somebody—even if nobody knows it. I want to be called to service (like jury duty), or at least know there’s a service I’m blowing off (like jury duty). I don’t want to tell people I saved the world: I want a game that makes us feel as if we’re all saving it. And that it wouldn’t be the same without every single one of us.