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When 2 Worlds Meet

'EverQuest' fans take online role-playing relationships beyond cyberspace, finding friends and disappointments in real-life get-togethers.

April 26, 2001|ALEX PHAM | alex.pham@latimes.com

Tiffany Haag has a real-life husband and an online husband.

Her flesh-and-blood partner is a slender 29-year-old computer programmer with brown hair, while her digital spouse is a swarthy warrior of the woods named Nitewolfe.

The three met for the first time in a hotel lobby near the San Diego airport and the trio did their best to act normally, chatting jovially as planes roared overhead.

For the most part, they made this unconventional meeting appear as natural as springtime. That's because it took place at a convention for players of "EverQuest," an online role-playing game in which players temporarily escape their mundane existence for a virtual world full of dragons and danger.

Face-to-face meetings of online comrades have become an increasingly common rite of passage among players who develop friendships and even love affairs in virtual lives that sometimes are richer than their real lives.

So popular are these meetings that they've given rise to a cottage industry organizing them for the hundreds of thousands of players who have extended part of their lives to the sprawling realms of online games such as "EverQuest," "Asheron's Call" and "Ultima Online."

As engaging as these worlds might be, however, some players seek a true melding of reality and fantasy. The results run the gamut from pleasant surprise to bone-jarring shock, leading to some of the most contorted emotional adjustments and awkward introductions since the days of arranged marriages.

Often, online characters bear no resemblance to the physical appearance or personalities of the humans who create them. Someone who plays an angry, bloodthirsty ogre might actually be a shy engineer. A seventh-grader could become a swashbuckling warrior. Haag's online husband is played by a burly, mustachioed information systems manager.

"He looks nothing like his character," said Haag, a software engineer from Fort Collins, Colo. "It's weird meeting. Online, you can have any personality you want. It's kind of scary. You wonder what people will be like when you meet them for real. It can really change your online relationship a lot."

Haag said she was not surprised by the encounter because they had exchanged pictures and talked on the phone beforehand. She was, however, shocked to meet her "game master," a Sony employee whose online character assists players with technical problems.

"Our game master is a giant troll, but in real life he's this really nice guy," Haag said, pointing to Keith Rekoske, a slight man cradling his newborn baby.

Of the 1,200 players who attended the weekend confab, most had never met, even though they might have spent months together online, watching each other's backs, slaying monsters, sharing loot and even marrying. The result was a strange amalgamation of intimacy and awkwardness as people who had never physically laid eyes on each other hailed each other as long lost friends.

High-fives and bear hugs are rampant amid deafening chatter. Eyes dart from name tag to name tag. Few know who they're looking for by sight. It's the character name that's relevant.

Cindy Archuletta, a Sony employee who began organizing EverQuest "Fan Faires" a year ago, described her meeting several months ago with a fellow player.

"It was like seeing an old friend," she said. "We immediately hugged. It just seemed like the most natural thing in the world. People obviously don't look like their characters, but their personalities show through. When someone's kind and friendly online, chances are that's how they are in real life."

But the meetings could also go awry, creating surprises or even dashed expectations.

"I have friends who met through the game and have gotten married," Archuletta said. "But I also had a friend who met this guy from Sweden. They were perfect together online. So he flew out for a week, and we met in Las Vegas. The instant they met, they hated each other."

Stoking players' expectations are the appearances of the avatars, the online embodiments of characters. Female characters are buxom, young and impossibly thin. Many start out scantily clad and acquire additional clothing and armor along the way. Many male characters have exaggerated features--bushy beards, bulging muscles and an ageless quality.

"A lot of people said they were surprised at how I looked," said Shane Summers, a 6-foot-3, 230-pound salesman from Fort Worth. "My character is a small, light wood elf. He's just this little guy."

For Summers and thousands of other "EverQuest" fans, such games allow them to role-play and socialize across vast geographies. The role-playing tradition started in the 1970s and 1980s with paper-and-pencil games such as "Dungeons and Dragons."

With the Internet came games played over multi-user domains, or MUDs, which drew players from all over the planet. And as computers became speedier and more powerful, text-based MUD games turned into games based on a virtual world rendered with three-dimensional graphics.

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