Strange New Worlds

Gaming as a second life

I’ve been told that collectively we all live in something called reality. Despite regular reminders of this supposed fact I have made a concerted effort to remain in a world of my own making. The truth is that we all create some variation of the real world through all of the art, entertainment and stories we choose to surround ourselves with. Through music, film and countless other mediums this has been possible for a long time, but thanks to our favourite new digital medium of video games we can now slip into constructed worlds on a regular basis.

In our quest to elude “reality” and enjoy these alternative worlds we have embraced thousands of games over the years but it is true to say that some video games and even some other entertainment forms like alternate reality games have offered far more immersion and a larger scale of content than other texts. Some of these are high budget productions provided by big developers while others have emerged from the most surprising and meagre of roots.

A Matter of Time

Often when we buy a new game we wonder how many hours of entertainment we will get for our money. Some action games and most FPS experiences will offer around ten hours while RPGs like Mass Effect or the Final Fantasy games will offer something between thirty and fifty hours depending on how involved we get in side quests. This does vary tremendously of course- BioWare’s recent epic Dragon Age: Origins, for example, runs up to about one hundred hours in one play through if you care to explore enough of the side quests.

Simple as it may seem, time is an important factor when it comes to the line between a game that provides an enjoyable experience and one that offers a world to delve into. That said, length is nothing without detail- branching narratives, optional dialogue, character customisation and, to some extent, world customisation are all contributing elements to a virtual world. It helps if a player can feel that they are affecting and changing the world that they are a part of.

World of Warcraft

The length of conventional game narratives may be impressive in terms of value for money when compared to the immersive experience of a film or a book but it becomes insignificant when we shift our gaze to the MMORPG genre of gaming. Fifty hours is small change to a dedicated MMORPG player building a character over hundreds or even thousands of hours of play.
The MMORPG can be described as a classic RPG on steroids, featuring regularly updated game content and quest lists coupled with, of course, massive multiplayer servers. All of this comes at a fee though, and this can range between £5 and £15 a month. But to so many who find the lure of another, more exciting, more magical world to be preferable, this is not too great a price.

By far the most popular online MMORPG is the now famous World of Warcraft. The game itself has been available since November 2004 and since then it has accumulated over twelve million subscribers. When you consider that twelve million exceeds the population of some small countries, it’s not much a stretch to suggest that the World of Warcraft has not only established an alternate world but it has populated it too.

While the World of Warcraft went online in 2004, it already had a sizable backlog of lore to draw on for its back story. World of Warcraft is based on Blizzard’s series of Warcraft strategy games. Established in 1994, the Warcraft series ensured that its MMORPG counterpart would have more than enough background to support a virtual history.

So the World of Warcraft has a virtual history and a virtual population of avatars to fill it (multiply twelve million users by the many characters they have each created and we have a substantially larger population than is initially apparent). Topping all of this off is a fully functional internal economy and countless events, quests and items to explore.

The Sims 3

As a virtual world WoW has seen many players getting absorbed in its reality and it has adapted to offer in game simulations of real world scenarios. Marriage is the most obvious of these and the game has now played host to many virtual marriages. There has even been a viral outbreak in the WoW reality- the now famous Corrupted Blood Plague incident. This was a damaging effect that spread from player to player by proximity and managed to spread across entire servers. The spread of the malady was so realistic that scientists have expressed interest in using systems like WoW to model human behaviour during viral outbreaks.

Another virtual event in the WoW reality has been the source of much controversy in over the years. When a popular online player passed away from a fatal stroke her companions in her WoW guild decided to remember her with a virtual funeral in Azeroth. The funeral went ahead but was disrupted when another guild callously decided to raid the player characters in attendance. Naturally this has given rise to a great deal of controversy regarding the virtual nature of the funeral and whether the attacking clan had indeed done anything wrong.

In terms of immersion and effective scale of a virtual world WoW certainly has taken hold of the top spot. Expansions have ensured the game’s continued success and with the Cataclysm expansion soon to be released (an add on set to completely reshape many parts of the WoW world) Warcraft seems set to persist and to continue growing for some time yet.

Something More Subtle

Despite its success Warcraft certainly doesn’t have the monopoly on fully established virtual lives. Second Life has been around a little longer than the World of Warcraft and it has enjoyed considerable success of its own. Second Life isn’t exactly a game; in fact there has been some debate over exactly how to classify it. On a basic level Second Life is a virtual world constructed almost entirely by its residents.

The software enables residents to create an avatar and use it to socialise with other residents, explore, take part in activities and, most interestingly, construct and sell virtual objects. Second Life uses a currency called the Linden dollar which can be purchased using real world money. This currency is then used to buy in world objects, virtual land or to pay for premium services. According to the developers a large number of players have made profits using Second Life with some making over $5000 in one month. There are a few very successful users of Second Life who have managed to earn over a million US dollars a year.

Mass Effect

The Second Life world is limited only by the imagination of its residents and the capabilities of the in world construction tools. Players can seek out areas of the virtual world dedicated to pretty much anything from dating to entertainment. Religious organisations have even begun to open virtual places of worship in the world of Second Life with several Christian churches being established and land also being purchased for Muslim worship. Humanist, Agnostic, Atheist and freethinking organisations also have a presence in the virtual world. If all of this wasn’t enough there have also been several political embassies set up in the Second Life world to offer services and information.

Virtual Casinos

Online gaming has now become more convenient and widespread, with people teaming up to participate in death matches on Xbox Live and Playstation Network, as well as bluff at a hand of poker, or even join up on virtual Roulette tables – all for real money. With the gaming world at your fingertips, you can now play at any time of the day. Fancy gambling on your lunch break, or at 4am in the morning? Well you can, and you don’t even need to travel far or wait around for a free table or slot machine. You can get instant access to a vast array of casino games online with ease – more than most real casinos offer.

Not many people will believe that online / mobile gambling can live up to the bright lights of the Vegas Strip, but with the fast advancement of technology, particularly in the video / mobile gaming industry, the virtual casino games of today are of very high quality, replicating the real thing perfectly, with no need to travel and arrange pricey accommodation. Many people now shop around for the best online casino bonus instead.

There’s now a huge list of websites to play roulette at, which is by far the most popular casino game as it requires no strategy and is very simple to play. There’s also many UK and US Casinos online that offer Poker, Slots, Blackjack, Baccarat, Keno, internet video poker and Craps, with easy access, multiple payment options, and big money on offer. Even some of the best casinos in Vegas, Atlantic City or Blackpool don’t have the huge variety of games on offer than online casinos do. Sure, they offer a great range, but they’re simply not big enough to house the huge selection that the virtual world can.

Back to the “Real” World?

Alternate realities are not confined to digitally engineered worlds and games. We’ve also seen some incredible real world games that bend the borders of reality. ARGs (alternate reality games) are cross media narratives that involve players taking action not only in the digital world of the internet but in scenarios established in the real world.

ARG narratives change depending on the actions of involved players and are controlled by the game’s designers and organisers. Players will interact with each other and characters designed as part of the experience. Mail, telephones, email and the internet all play key roles and the community of players usually co-operate to overcome the challenges posed by the game. Mysteries may be digital in nature but they may also involve the physical world. Fascinatingly, ARGs are rarely advertised to an audience and instead use secrecy to lure interested players to them. The games are designed so that it will require a collective of players to overcome the challenges and, once engaged, players will often bring in new people with particular expertises to face the mysteries presented. ARGs blur reality by being based in the real world while using a fictional narrative. Websites, phone numbers and locations in the narrative will be real and, if necessary, manufactured by the designers. Players therefore dance on the line between reality and fantasy.

It’s All Subjective

There are many virtual worlds and reality bending games out there for us to enjoy but our thirst is unlikely to be sated anytime soon. From video games to MMORPGs and ARGs, there’s something for everyone and for every level of immersion. It doesn’t stop with designed games though; we create virtual worlds around our digital entertainment. Forums, user created content, strategy sharing and game mods are all examples of how we expand our entertainment into lifestyles. So many options and so many worlds are available to us. Some may say “get a life” but perhaps they should be pitied for only having one.

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