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Meet me in the dungeon

Gamers play roles when they meet online, but that can morph into friendship or romance.

November 24, 2005|Susan Carpenter | Times Staff Writer

Forces at play

IMAGINE: It's a Monday and you're speeding down a rainy street in a stolen yellow cab, trying to rescue some fellow thugs who are under fire by the Liberty City P.D. Your tough guy rep is at stake on these crime-infested streets. Anyone who gets in your way gets run over. The next day, your squadron is attacked by a droid army. Even though the Wookiees and Jedi Master Yoda come to your aid, you lose plenty of good men. But there's an opportunity for a comeback later in the week. Somehow, you manage to rack up 112 yards and score a couple of touchdowns -- despite a sore hamstring. Plus, your agent calls and offers you another movie role. Not bad for a week's work.

Some might say these three experiences are examples of video gaming, but fans know they're much more. Gaming allows us to live different lives or change history or have a sex change -- or change species altogether. It is a $25-billion industry, and that sounds like serious big business.

On the pages that follow, Calendar Weekend takes a look at the sprawling world of video games. We explore the phenomenon of massively multiplayer online role-playing games. We check in on a dream job for some -- game testing -- and let you in on a little secret: You can actually major in game design at a few colleges and universities. We'll give you a brief history of gaming and preview some of the big titles of the holiday season. We'll even survey art and music inspired by gaming.

Hmmm -- maybe it's all about fun after all.


THE first time Ben Clark met his online gaming friends in the real world, he was nervous. For months he'd been playing World of Warcraft with a group of other gamers, masquerading as a surly green "orc" to protect them from pickpocketing rogues and spell-casting warlocks in the popular medieval fantasy role-playing game. Clark knew only a handful of the gamers from real life. The rest he met and got to know by chatting on the WOW instant-messaging system between bouts with enemy players.

"I think we all had the same apprehensions," says Clark, a Boston-based computer programmer who met the flesh-and-blood versions of virtual friends "Devries," "Kazuuru" and "Tirzah" during a business trip to Seattle last spring. "We're normal, but what about this [other] person?"

Having spent 12 hours each week of the last year playing with them, the 27-year-old now ranks his gaming friends "on par with all the college buddies I still see a lot," he says. "Sometimes even more so."

He's even dating one of them. Today, Clark is spending Thanksgiving with his girlfriend and two other players he met online.

Clark isn't the only gamer whose virtual life has crossed into reality. Strangers who've bumped into each other in make-believe realms often find themselves communicating in tangible real-world ways, coordinating playing times, instant messaging with each other and talking over free Internet voice programs.

It's this sense of community that's helped propel WOW in particular and massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) as a whole to new plateaus in the U.S. Once a niche market for hard-core gamers, there are now as many as 2 million players in North America, up from just 10,000 when the first MMO came out in 1997. MMORPGs are played simultaneously by thousands of players worldwide and feature vast, highly stylized worlds for gamers to explore in character. They play in "persistent environments," in which the online world continues whether or not they are logged on. Working as teams, or guilds, they accomplish various goals as they advance through the game, accumulating wealth, acquiring skills, exploring new territory and destroying whatever obstacles get in the way.

Chris Lye was minding his own business as a monarch in the popular medieval fantasy game Asheron's Call when one of his minions approached him in the virtual town square to say hello.

"I didn't think much of it at the time," says Lye, a swordsman who'd worked his way up in the game.

That changed the next time Lye, 37, met up with her. She was trapped in the Dungeon of Shadow.

"Just as in real life, Sara has a terrible sense of direction, so she managed to get lost right at the bottom and she was asking for someone to lead her out. I said, 'Yep. I'll come down and help,' " says Lye, who started playing the game in 1999. "That's when we started talking for real, like real people."

In-game chat soon led to on-the-phone chat, then a cross-country flight to meet each other. Soon they were dating long-distance between Seattle and Philadelphia. It wasn't too long after Lye's dramatic, damsel-in-distress rescue that they were married.

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