Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Artificial Life

A couple of months ago, my nephew introduced me to the world of online internet gaming. In my case it was RAN Online, a Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG) gaining popularity in Lianga and introduced in the Philippines by internet game publisher, IP e-Games. It also publishes other online games locally with improbable titles such as Granada Espada, O2 Jam, Supreme Destiny and Audition Dance Battle.

The game concept is basically simple even for one with little or no previous knowledge about internet gaming or computer technology. You simply go online at the local internet cafe where the game has been installed in their computers or install the game yourself in your own system after downloading the game installer for free. Then you log into the game, create an online character or avatar and then you are set to immerse yourself in the sights, sounds, vistas and, of course, the battles and conflicts of the virtual RAN universe.

It is a universe gone fantastically mad, where the rules and limitations of the real world may not apply or can be circumvented at will. This world is a place of magic and sorcery, powerful monsters and evil villains that you on your own or, better still, with the help of fellow online players have to vanquish and destroy in order to restore order and sanity to the virtual world.

Failure, defeat or death in battle are nothing to be feared since all three are simply temporary and inconvenient interludes to an eternity of chances to try and try again. There is no death in this universe, just unlimited chances at resurrection and restoration. One merely restarts and resume the action where he left off. One can wish that the real world can be as forgiving or as generous.

As you traverse the overt and hidden places of this imaginary world you make contact and cement friendships, form parties, gangs and guilds with fellow players from all over through their avatars or characters. Or you can simply duel with each other for supremacy and domination of the game world.

Not all is about fighting though. You can engage in virtual commerce through the hunting, buying and selling of virtual game items like skill scrolls, weapons, armors and potions. You can choose to accumulate virtual gold to supply your avatar or characters with the game items you desire or, like many players who prefer to make real money in the real world, sell the same virtual items for real money to fellow game fanatics.

After all the internet game publishers make their money the same way through their selling of game cards you can use to "top up" your game accounts. You then can use the credits to buy virtual items for your characters at their "e-store", not a bad marketing strategy since the game is essentially "free" to play. The RAN Online universe may be imaginary but like the real thing it still runs on money and gold, both of the virtual and real kind. Nothing after all, even in the realms of the imagination, is truly for free.

I can understand the allure of the MMORPG's and why my nephews as well as thousands of others, most of them teenagers and adolescents like them, are attracted and even "addicted" to them. This is classic escapism of the digital kind. Dark, gothic fairy tales brought to life by computer and electronic magic for those willing to pay for the privilege of living someone else's distorted version of reality.

There is admittedly something fascinating and attractive in the stylized violence, simplistic (corrupted?) moral code and surrealism of the world of RAN and the other MMORPG''s. It is like being in a Japanese anime graphic novel, the violence and conflict made essentially beautiful and artistically mesmerizing by itself, totally separated and insulated from both its cause and effect. Gore and bloodshed made esthetically pleasing and an art in itself.

"It's just a game!", my nephew would say while wondering out loud what the fuss is all about.

I look at the young faces in the internet cafes in Lianga, eyes intent on the flickering action on their monitor screen, their fingers dancing on mouse and keyboard, the outside world temporarily set aside, forgotten and irrelevant. Mountains out of molehills?

I wonder.

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