You log into an online game for the first time. The introduction is easy and takes you into a virtual environment that thousands of players can access at the same time, like a shared dream.
You step out on a moonlit meadow above a white city with golden spires. The only sounds are the game’s nocturnal insects and the sleepy, blue-lit hum of your computer. Behind you, another player enters the game, a young man in green leather, with a bow and a quiver on his back.
“You new here too?” he says. The letters of his question hang in the air above him. You don’t know where to talk in the game’s user interface, so you just look at him.
“Me too,” he says. “Well, my quiet friend, it’s been nice meeting you. Maybe I’ll see you again later?” He turns and runs down the hill towards the city.
You do see him again. He’s hunting the same animated boars and wolves as you. The rewards are virtual currency and experience points to reach the next level and make the character stronger, necessary to take on more difficult quests and earn more experience points for even more levels. It’s how these games work.
“Let’s play together,“ he types. You’ve found where to type in the user interface and say yes, the letters bright like a smile above your character’s head.
The synthetic environment is part renaissance painting, part fairytale illustration. The forests shine green, the mountains blaze white, the fortresses are indomitable, the causes always noble. You’re like the protagonist of a long and epic poem.
You play together all evening, every day. When you log off at night, he’s still playing. When you log on after work, there he is, a ding and a smile in your chat window. Soon he’s many levels above you.
“Go on without me,“ you say. “I'll catch up.“ But he doesn’t do that. He saves the quests until you come online, so you can play together.
One evening he tells you his parents have refused to let him play any more.
“Do you really play that much?” you say.
“I failed my exams, so I need to take a break from the game. Will you be here when I come back?”
“Yes,” you say. “I’ll definitely be here.”
A month later he’s back. You have moved far into the game and all of your free time goes to playing.
“I can help you level up,” you say.
“Thanks,” he says. “Hey, I know what we can do. Let’s make new characters, start all over again, together?”
You do consider it. “I can’t,” you finally say. You want to reach maximum level as fast as possible, then you’ll acquire more skills and stronger weapons and armor.
“I understand,” he says. You talk a little more and run in the landscape together.
published 17 October 2012