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The Quest for Reality: Gamers Log Off for Thrills

'Medieval' Battlefields Give Players Real Pleasure and Pain

November 16, 2000|P.J. HUFFSTUTTER | p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

Jonathan Reynolds was doing just fine, until a strange man in a medieval helmet and full body armor came charging across the forest, shrieking madly and wielding a sword.

It's something he has faced dozens of times in his favorite computer games, such as "Asheron's Call" and "EverQuest," where he has fought his way to cyber-victory and the occasional cyber-death. But as he braced himself for battle, this time the pain would be real.

The edge of a broadsword--a 4-foot-long rod of rattan--slammed into Reynolds' sternum. Tears of pain welled, blurring his vision.

"Good Christ, I felt that," Reynolds wheezed as he slid to the ground, his chest starting to throb. "Man, that hurt."

Pain and pleasure and excitement, these are all things the avid gamer imagines when he plays on the Internet. But Reynolds scoffs at such electronic thrills, knowing he can't actually feel any of it--regardless of the vividness of his imagination, the power of his computer or the speed of his modem connection.

Deep within the subculture of computer gaming is an even tinier subculture, one that is fomenting a backlash against virtual life. While digital technology opened the door for a small but hearty bunch of game players to explore their fantasy life, they ultimately found that the machine got in the way.

Technology was supposed to bring about the greatest revolution in exploring our fantasies since the printing press brought tales of epic adventures to the masses. And in some ways, it has: From chat rooms to computer-generated fantasy games, the Internet has created a safe place for people to play dress-up with their inner selves.

But as the masses explored their secret side, some people began to want more out of the experience. They could see and hear the action on the computer--but they couldn't feel it, smell it, taste it. Even in the midst of their most heroic moments, people found themselves merely staring at a computer screen and typing furiously.

Reynolds gave birth to his virtual identity on the Net: Aldric of Avignon, a fighter whose escapades existed only within a computer game called "EverQuest." It is a sword-and-sorcery title, in which the Bay Area programmer regularly joins hundreds of thousands of other people online to create a game character, battle demons and explore fantasies.

In the beginning, Aldric was like Reynolds, weak and soft. Even tiny digital rabbits sent him scampering into the forest. He was a wimp in too-short pants, armed only with an electronic slingshot.

Months passed. Reynolds got better at the game, and Aldric evolved. His fighting skills improved and he became meaner. He smashed the monsters, stepped on the rabbits. And then, something strange happened: Reynolds became Aldric.

"So many people knew me online as Aldric that they'd leave messages for him on my answering machine," Reynolds said.

Of course, the programmer reasoned, it was only a game and Aldric wasn't real. It's hard to lose yourself completely when you're staring at a computer screen, clicking on small, boxy shapes that bounce around in a cartoon world. You can't smell the wood burning in a bonfire or taste fear while battling in fantasy.

Bored at work, Reynolds was browsing through Web sites filled with medieval lore when he stumbled across a page promoting a five-day annual event organized by the Society for Creative Anachronism.

The historical re-creation group was hosting a mock war, in which 3,000 people would gather to mimic a culture that died centuries ago. All this in the midst of El Dorado Park in Chino.

Blood. Bruises. Bashing his way to glory. And that's how Reynolds found himself gasping for air and tasting dirt.

"Well done!" Reynolds' foe said cheerfully, as he pulled the young man to his feet. "Next time, keep your shield up."

But technology was supposed to have eliminated the need for such entertainment altogether. Online games were designed to allow people to play over vast distances and to allow self-exploration in a secret and safe environment.

Why spend as much as $1,500 on a suit of armor when it costs only $9.89 a month to play "EverQuest"?

"It's the dream," said Carolyn Zitny, an Orange County resident and longtime member of the SCA. "It's the moment when everything fades away and you're in the game. You believe you are the person you play, at the time you are playing. It's what drives us, that search for the dream."

The search ends on a Friday night in Chino. Fog creeps into the campground, cloaking the rows of canvas tents. Gone are the telephone poles, the nearby housing complexes, the airplanes growling overhead.

Without such visual cues tying the crowd to the modern world, the fantasy becomes real and intoxicating. Belly dancers gyrate around a roaring fire. Glass flasks filled with homemade apple-honey brandy are passed between fighters. Discussions about the merits of chivalry take on a more urgent tone.

Reynolds knows he can't get this from playing on the Net.

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