First came computer games. Then came DSL, and broadband online access, followed very closely by computer games where you can play with other real people sitting in front of other real computers, somewhere else in the real world. This functionality has led to the development of several phenomenally successful “Massively Multiple Online Role Playing Games,” or MMOs as they have come to be known in the industry.
One of the most successful of these games is “World of Warcraft,” or “WoW”, which currently is believed to have about seven million active online players. Like many of its genre, World of Warcraft is built on the classic medieval fantasy model, a combination of Tolkien, Camelot, and a liberal dash of unique original elements mixed into the hoary stand-bys. The world is filled with magic spells, swords and shields, gold pieces and assorted items of value, and skills both worldly and otherworldly that a character can acquire with practice and effort – and hours online.
A player in this game creates an avatar – a fictional character whose role he (or she) assumes in the online world. The game is a never-ending series of quests that leads to slaying monsters, acquiring wealth and property and higher levels of skill – and interacting with other players in order to accomplish many of these things. Typically, a player will create an identity with a certain set of skills that allows him to join a guild of similar artisans, wizards or other virtual professionals.
There is a significant social interaction component to this game and other MMOs. Indeed, game designers build “virtual third places” to encourage interactions. Quality time in World of Warcraft can be time spent with others, be it raiding a dungeon in a group, socializing with bystanders in a cantina, or chatting with remote guild mates while exploring the wilderness on your own.
One would assume that World of Warcraft is another extension of high-school and twenty-something gamers having it out online. There is a good deal of that – but it is also clear that the game’s popularity has extended well beyond the original gaming demographic – as has interest in other MMOs such as Second Life.
The clearest indicator of the intensity with which the game is played and its extension into the world of working adults is the role -so to speak – that the game has taken on in the real world. Players have taken to developing skills or acquiring rare and virtually valuable in-game properties and selling them for real money on such exchange sites as eBay. This is not something the game developers want to encourage, and is generally forbidden, not just by World of Warcraft, but most MMOs.
The market for these products exists, though, and will continue to exist as long as their popularity continues. An author of a book on the MMO phenomenon interviewed several players who were involved in significant expenditures for game pieces such as swords, real estate or magic spells. Among them he found a carpenter, a bread truck driver and other working men with families.
Another class of “player” he encountered is the people who have quit careers to trade full time in World of War paraphernalia. Some of these individuals sell their products online – just as those who are quitting the game or having financial difficulties will sell entire characters. Rare in-game items such as powerful swords, and powerfully developed characters can bring several hundreds of dollars. While these activities help drive the popularity of the game, they are still considered against the game’s “terms of service.”
WoW has continued to shatter records for MMOs, and its combination of addicting gameplay and social interaction has proven tough to beat. Players invest a lot of time and a monthly subscription fee to enjoy the experience on a regular basis. With the deeper penetration of internet connectivity and broadband internet, the popularity of these MMOs may well grow even larger.