By Aaron Light
A little over a decade ago, the world was introduced to a newly surfacing concept of online role-playing games that would go on to become one of the biggest Internet phenomena ever seen. Like a computerized version of “Dungeons & Dragons”, these games, called Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games allowed people from all over the world to create online fantasy characters so they could interact with each other in a virtual world.
MMORPGs were established in 1991 with a game called “Neverwinter Nights”. This AOL-sponsored game was the first of its kind to move from text-based gameplay (so-called Multi-User Dungeons, or MUDs) into actual graphics, revolutionizing the Role Playing Game world forever. Many companies soon followed suit, creating MMORPGs of their own, including “Runescape”, “Everquest”, “Ragnarok”, “MapleStory”, “Second Life”, “Guild Wars” and the ever-present “World Of Warcraft”, also referred to as “WoW”. Even movie series have licensed MMORPGs now: The Lord Of The Rings Online, The Matrix Online and Star Wars Galaxies, just to name a few.
“I’ve basically been playing ‘WoW’ since January of 2005,” 18-year-old City College student Philip O’Connor said. “I was just hanging out at the Apple store one day, and the guy there just started shoving the game in my face. I already knew about it, and he wouldn’t leave me alone, so I just kind of bought it. I didn’t make an account, though, until I knew my friends played as well.”
O’Connor is one of approximately 10 million players who have subscribed to “WoW” since its release in 2004 and contributed to the $1 billion MMORPGs made off of western revenues in 2006 alone. So how did MMORPGs become so popular?
“Five years ago the only people who played [MMORPGs] were nerds,” 20-year-old City College student Allison Gladwell said. “Games like “WoW” and “Runescape” just made them so much more accessible. As soon as word got out that you didn’t need to be a super geek to play them, the addiction just spread.”
Almost as essential as gameplay to “WoW” legacy is its addictive effects on the masses who play it. According to a June 20, 2005, Euro Gamer article, a four-month-old child in South Korea suffocated due to neglect by her “WoW”-addicted parents, who were at a nearby café playing the notorious game. Even “South Park” satirized “WoW”-addiction in their recent episode “Make Love, Not Warcraft”.
“I’ve quit multiple times, but I’ve got one friend who’s pretty much played the game non-stop for the past two and a half years,” O’Connor said. “It has been, and still is, pretty much his whole life.”
Regardless of any negative press “WoW” may receive, Blizzard Entertainment, the company behind the game, has a hit on their hands. And with “Wrath Of The Lich King”, a new expansion coming out later this year, even more people are sure to be jumping on the bandwagon.
However, “WoW” costs $15 a month, leaving many to seek for a free alternative.
“Everyone focuses on ‘World of Warcraft’ when they think of MMORPGs, but it’s kind of a waste when there are others out there that don’t cost a thing,” 19-year-old City College student Jimmy Carthers said. “That’s where “Runescape” comes in.”
With an estimated 10 million active accounts, “Runescape” is the world’s most popular free MMORPG. Although the graphics are of a lesser quality than the lush 3-D landscapes of most other MMORPGs, “Runescape” makes it up to its users by having seemingly limitless possibilities. Players customize an avatar and travel around the virtual world of Gielinor, battling both monsters and fellow players, completing quests, trading, and acquiring all kinds of items.
Focusing less on the strictly fantasy-driven aspects of MMORPGs like “WoW” and “Runescape” is “Second Life”, which allows players to wander a humongous virtual world by way of a human-looking avatar to chat with each other, participate in individual and group activities, such as creating virtual businesses where they make and trade items, and literally fashion themselves a second life. Like “WoW”, some have become addicted to “Second Life”.
An August 10, 2007 article in the Wall Street Journal describes a man who spent roughly 20 hours every day playing the game. He even had a virtual wife, with whom he was spending more time than with his real spouse.
“Second Life’s” virtual landscape has also been used by leading psychologists as a testing ground for experiments, such as the recent repeat of a 1960s study that was stopped due to ethical concerns. The study, from the University of London required test subjects to administer what they thought were electric shocks to strangers at the command of an unseen authority figure.
So, what does an MMORPG player get from his game of choice? “In the sense of real-life investment with some long-term rewards, nothing really,” O’Connor said. “I play the game because I have fun playing it. What more could you ask for?”