Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 135 / NOVEMBER 1991 / PAGE 96

The online games people play. (The World of Electronic Games)
by Peter Spear

This is a story about the basic facts of life. It's a story about birth and death, love and sex, and cyberspace.

Ralph McAuley is a 57-year-old grandfather from Sarasota. He is no longer the Type A personality who roared across Florida blacktop at over 100 miles per hour. The former owner of a computer software company, McAuley spent 30 intense years dealing with Big Oil, Big Banking, and Big Government. His life changed forever when a heart condition disabled him and enforced inactivity became his bottom line for survival.

"Reading, playing with my computer, and watching TV was all I did. No interaction with people. I felt like a vegetable and would become despondent because I couldn't be mentally active and challenged. Then I discovered Prodigy and Baseball Manager. For the first time in five years, I look forward to getting up in the morning. Baseball Manager may have saved my life."

McAuley is talking about an interactive, multiplayer, online computer game--one where he competes against other people. Played on Prodigy, the computer network created by Sears and IBM, Baseball Manager is one of dozens of games available on major national online services. While both single-player and multiplayer games exist on these networks, the interactive ones enjoy the greatest popularity. These games include most of the traditional types--adventures, fantasy role-playing, interstellar trading and fighting, combat simulators, and the like. In general, they cost anywhere from $2.00 to $12.50 per hour to play, depending on the service, the time of day, and your modem speed. Baseball Manager is the exception to the rule. It's a "rotisserie" baseball leauge. For $119.95, you can purchase a team to play for the season--and that's on top of Prodigy's $11.95 monthly fee. Ralph McAuley bought six teams to start.

"I can afford it," he explains, "but if someone had told me six months ago that I'd be doing this, I wouldn't have believed it. It opens up a whole new world and new friends to me. I meet two or three new people every day, and the interaction is so deep. But because this is fantasy, there is no stress. It's definitely role-playing, but using real events." It is this combination of interaction and role-playing that gives online gaming its greatest appeal.

For many people like McAuley, online gaming and online relationships can be their chief connection to the outside world. Disabled people, people with few friends, the socially inept, people who have difficult times forming relationships because of their appearance or size--all these people can interact equally online.

Ken Williams is the cofounder (along with his wife Roberta) of Sierra On-Line, the publisher of the King's Quest series of computer adventure games, the Leisure Suit Larry series, and other titles. Despite the company name, however, Sierra had nothing to do with online gaming. That changed in May when the country's newest national online service became available. The Sierra Network (TSN) is unique in the field because it ignores all of the other traditional offerings of the online universe, concentrating instead on interactive game playing and chatting. Right now, the games available include backgammon, checkers, chess, bridge, hearts, and cribbage. "I wanted a place for my grandmother to be able to play a bridge game 24 hours a day," said Williams.

As meager as these choices seem, they do fulfill Williams's promise to his grandmother, so much so that this part of TSN is named Constant Companion. TSN plans to make two other familiar game-playing environments available early in 1992--Larry-Land and SierraLand. In Larryland, players will take on roles and interact with each other's alter egos in bars, convenience stores, and other sleazy locations from the Larry games. It could have a pretty adult tone to it. SierraLand will include interactive adventure and combat games like Red Baron. "The closer people get to the game-playing experience, the more they'll behave like real people," Williams says. "Role-playing is always fun. Soon we'll be seeing lots of 'virtual reality' worlds online where people can live."

What does Williams mean by "soon"? He predicts that in five years online game playing will be more important and more popular than the games we buy in boxes today. Williams and others see a merger of disk-based and online gaming as inevitable. Some of that is already happening.

In June, America Online introduced Neverwinter Nights, a fantasy role-playing game based on SSI's series of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons games. The game looks, plays, and has the same interface as the Forgotten Realms titles, except that the online players can talk to ane help each other. SSI worked with America Online in developing the product, leading to unconfirmed speculations that soon there would be software "hooks" in SSI games to allow characters from the boxed games to move to the online game.

This fall, GEnie is introducing Multiplayer Battletech, an online version of Activision's box product Mech Warrior. GEnie already has a multiplayer version of Harpoon available Along with TSN's promised Red Baron, these games just might be the first overlaps toward the predicted merging of the two gaming environments. It that happens and you've never played games online, you'd better be prepared to enter entirely new world. Carrie Washburn administers the Multiplayer Games RoundTable on GEnie. She first got involved in online game playing just after her son was born in 1986. "Paul was 14 weeks premature, 13 inches long, and only weighed two pounds, three ounces. In the neonatal intensive care unit, he seemed more wires than baby." During the 2 1/2 months Paul was in the hospital, Carrie and her husband discovered Island of Kesmai on CompuServe.

"Kesmai became our link back to reality. After a day of work and our time in the hospital with Paul, we would enter a fantasy world in order to forget the real one. The online friends that we met there helped pull us through."

Washburn became addicted to Kesmai and stayed with it even after her first marriage ended. She admits to a phone bill of over $2,000 one month and others of over $500. In the fantasy role-playing game, her identity became Lynn De'Leslie--adventures and tease. "More of a slut, really," she admits.

Ironically, it was there in Kesmai that she met the man to whom she's now married. They had a two-year online relationship both in Kesmai and the real world before serious romantic involvement.

"On of the great things about meeting people online is that you get to really know them," Washburn enthuses. "The entire relationship is built on talking." Their marriage in May, though, is not unique by online standards. Carrie's assistant at GEnie also met her husband online--she was in Florida, and he lived in Seattle--but they do live together now. TSN had its first marriage less than three months after it was launched. "It's getting to be commonplace," is an often-heard description of this phenomenon. "There are also divorces and bankruptcies," interjects Wasburn. "It's just like real life."

What makes online gaming so addictive seems to be not so much the games themselves (which tend to be quite good anyway), but the idea that they are an excuse for interaction among players. Jim Pasqua, game product manager at CompuServe, contends that people like to play games with other people.

"There's a range of emotions with online games that you just don't get with PC games. There, if you with, you feel as if you've just beaten the machine or the game's designer. Online, you beat other people." Ralph McAuley describes his experience as "more than just a computer interchange . . . an interchange of personalities."

Perhaps even more significanct, though, is the idea of role-playing. A significant number of people in the online world are not know by their real names. It is customary to take on what is known as a handle, a name that you are known by online, such as Big Bad Mama, Slasher, Scorpia, CyberPunk, or something even more (or less) colorful. Many people spend years online with few ever learning their real names.

Online gaming takes this even farther. Handles become identities, and this makes virtually every major online game an exercise in role-playing. When you start asking questions, it becomes apparent that this just might be the point behind spending several dollars an hour in connect time charges.

Carrie Washburn: "The role-playing is at least as important as the games themselves."

Ken Williams: "People want to vicariously live other lives. The game is irrelevant. The game gets people together and gives them a chance to chat and interact. We tell people on TSN, 'This is a play; you are the actors.'"

Brenda Laurel should know about actors. She holds an M.F.A. and a Ph.D. in theater from Ohio State and has worked in the personal computer business for 15 years. Laurel consults on interactive entertainment for people such as LucasArts and Apple Computer. Here's her take on online role-playing: "A lot of the punch of gaming is empathy--being someone other than yourself. It's a new way to learn . . . a real life what-if."

This what-if often goes well beyond assuming the identity of an adventurer, air ace, or some powerful and mysterious sorceress. Often it ventures into the forbidden realm of what sex we are.

To pursue this matter further, it really helps to try to understand reality as it exists online. If you think about it, there you are chatting and/or playing a game with several folks. You are all together, but where are you all? You're no place physical--that's for sure. But there is no denying the reality of the place. Welcome to cyberspace.

Author Bruce Sterling is one of the founders of the form of science fiction known as cyberpunk, a genre in which people plug their brains directly into electronic networks.

Sterling defines cyberspace as "electronic spaces within which people interact with one another." When you're online, you're in cyberspace, and (if you'd like to) you can think of each individual online service as a different cyberspace. With each a new frontier for you to explore, this diversity of non-spaces encourages you to experiment with new roles for yourself and even allows you to be sexually neutral. Needless to say, these environments are difficult to find anywhere else.

For example, online, a person named COMPUTE has no apparent gender identity and must be related to as a person, as opposed to a male or female person. Opinions and friendships are formed based on what people say and do, and not on how many X chromosomes they possess. Gender roles disappear, and equality of the sexes is theoretically achieved. A meeting incyberspace can be a true meeting of minds.

It should come as no surprise, then, that when sex is clearly identified online, the old male-female games get played along with the online games. As a result, contends CompuServe's Jim Pasqua, "women get more help playing games than men, and men play less aggressively against women."

So much for equality. The joke may be on the chivalrous, though. Online, it's sometimes impossible to tell the boys from the girls. Gender switching occurs more often than you think.

Rick Mulligan, one of GEnie's game gurus, says such role reversal is quite common there. "Eighty percent of our subscribers are male, but in our games and chat areas . . . if you just look at the names . . . it's closer to 50-50." Spokespersons from CompuServe and America Online both admit that a lot of gender switching goes on, although not to the extent GEnie observes. And while everyone in the online community admits it happens (and often), very few will admit to having experimented with it. One person who gender-switches as part of the job on one of the services ("I check out reports of guys hitting on women.") asked to remain anonymous because of the embarrassment of making the gender switch public. It doesn't stop there. Tell someone that you gender-switch online, and you're likely to be asked if it's the same as being a transvestite. And are you one? It's as if this one particular form of role-playing is somehow dirty, or worse. I took the gender-switch challenge, and I admit that it was quite a kick. The question is, was I a sicko? Or was I looking into a future where being online is merely an excuse to play more significant games?

Brenda Laurel is sure it's the future. "Mutability of gender is more acceptable now, especially to younger people, and in ten years, things will be a whole lot different. Cyberspace will change us; we're only two inches into it now. As we penetrate the landscape, we will change the land, just as it changes us. Later we could change into something new."

She might very well be right. But what would Ken Williams's grandmother think?