Role-Playing Games, Offering a New Reality The real and the virtual converge in role-playing games such as World of Warcraft and Second Life. Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby write about the phenomenon in Smartbomb: The Quest for Art, Entertainment, and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution.
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Role-Playing Games, Offering a New Reality

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Role-Playing Games, Offering a New Reality

Role-Playing Games, Offering a New Reality

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook. Coming up, name a mountain after yourself, as long as it's an underwater mountain.

But first, the digital virtual reality of the future is actually reality now. It's everywhere. The Nielsens now measure videogame audiences. The McArthur Foundation is investing millions to develop educational videogames. And millions of kids and 30-somethings are spending more and more of their lives in virtual reality instead of real reality.

But a new generation of so-called massively multiplayer online role-playing games, MMORPGs, which are neither video nor game, is erasing the boundary between those two realities. We're joined now by Heather Chaplain and Aaron Ruby, co-authors of the book Smartbomb: The Quest for Art, Entertainment and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. AARON RUBY (Co-Author, Smartbomb): Thank you for having us.

SEABROOK: Let's start with you, Aaron. First, quickly explain what these massively multiplayer online role-playing games are.

Mr. RUBY: Okay. Essentially in a virtual world you're interacting with other real people who are logged in over the Internet from all over the world. Essentially what ties them all together is that there is a server that runs a simulation of a world, whether it's some sort of Tolkien-esque world or a world very much like our own. That world runs whether anybody's logged in or not. It's kind of like the old tree falling in the forest question.

But in virtual worlds, the trees fall, seasons change, and creatures prey on each other, whether anyone's there to see them or not.

SEABROOK: So people are walking, they have a character and they make it walk around. They use basically the arrow keys or a mouse or something...

Mr. RUBY: Exactly...

SEABROOK: To walk around in a landscape that they see on their computer.

Let me ask you, Heather. I mean how do we go from the plumber breaking bricks with his head - you know, Mario Brothers in the mid-'80s - to this virtual world?

Ms. HEATHER CHAPLAIN (Co-Author, Smartbomb): Well, I think most people would trace the rise of the massively multiplayer game to something that was called MUDs.

SEABROOK: And what does MUDs mean?

Ms. CHAPLAIN: Stands for multiple user dungeon. But it was work that came out in the '80s and it was, you know, some of the very early computer adopters were playing similar games in terms of role-playing and adventure. Like games like Zork...

SEABROOK: Yeah, Zork. But not to lose the people actually listening to this, those were sort of, you know, the computer would text out - you are in a dungeon, it is dark.

Ms. CHAPLAIN: Exactly.

SEABROOK: And you would say, move north, and it would say, you are now in a room that blah, blah, blah. So now we have the same kind of thing except you see pictures. This sort of fantasy or Tolkien-esque world or the shoot-em-up world of World or Warcraft. But people do all kinds of things now that have nothing in these worlds, that have nothing to do with the game, the mission that's set out for you.

Ms. CHAPLAIN: Yeah. I mean that is definitely one of the things that's getting a lot of publicity, these games. And I think Second Life is probably the best example of that. That's a relatively new virtual world. A lot of people wouldn't even call it a game because there isn't prescribed game play. It's more like a sandbox which invites play but isn't actually a game in and of itself.

And what's so interesting about Second Life is that it's all what they call player-created content. You basically come into this world, you create an avatar, which is your representation in the world and...

SEABROOK: Of yourself...

Ms. CHAPLAIN: Of yourself or any vision of yourself, which is one of things that's so interesting, is the fluid identity issues that are going on.

SEABROOK: So how do people act inside these games in general? I mean is it really just like, you know, a great big analog for real life? Or do people actually act different when they're in a virtual world than they would in the real world?

Ms. CHAPLAIN: I would say why would you go onto one of these worlds if you're just going to act like yourself? I think people come - one of the reasons that they're appealing to people is that you get a chance to act out a different side of yourself. For example, a large percentage of men play women characters, which in itself is sort of interesting. Or there is always the people who like to play really violent, you know, nasty characters, or there's people who really try to play wonderfully, you know, kind - more kind and generous than they would be in real life. And I think it's - I think that that's sort of a healthy thing.

SEABROOK: What kinds of things do people envision coming out of Second Life? For the rest of us that don't live in virtual reality but live in RL, the real - the real - what do they call it? RL is...

Mr. RUBY: Real life.

SEABROOK: Real life, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUBY: Virtual worlds can become the beginning of an interface for accessing the Internet in general. So you could have your office, you can go into your virtual office and essentially click on your computer, and then, you know, run your basic applications just like you normally do. But then maybe you want to go shopping and instead of just going to the Gap site, you can actually walk your avatar into a Gap and start shopping there and actually have a three-dimensional experience that you wouldn't have otherwise. Now, that's more of a commerce-oriented thing.

There are all sorts of interesting ways that this kind of technology is being used to give people who are on other sides of the planet a sense of being and sharing the same space.

Ms. CHAPLIN: And if I can just throw in a real world example to back up what Aaron was saying. You mentioned in the intro that the MacArthur Foundation announced that it was giving $50 million to Digital Media Learning Initiative. And I was at the press conference this week where they were announcing it. And they were alternating taking questions from real life and from Second Life. And then...


Ms. CHAPLIN: the screen behind them would suddenly pop up and they'd say, okay, well, we're taking a question from someone in Sydney, Australia. And you'd see all these avatars sitting around in the screen behind the academics and, you know, some of them with wings, and some of them with funny hair...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHAPLIN: ...and some of them normal. And this avatar would come up with raven hair and huge, blinking, purple eyes and ask the question. And no one even tittered. It was just like, yes, we're now taking questions from a fake person on a screen in Australia.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHAPLIN: Okay? Next? You know, and they're talking about how they're going to overhaul the education system in this country, you know, using video games.

SEABROOK: Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby, co-authors of the book Smart Bomb: The Quest for Art, Entertainment, and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. RUBY: Thanks for having us.

Ms. CHAPLIN: Yeah, thanks for having us.

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