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Our son Eric and daughter Emma found a profound landscape for exploration, adventure, and development, beyond the realm of school and "formal" education, on the Internet. Now in the 21st Century, our kids are exploring a "World Wide Web", as virtual as the experience of the "Wild West" has been to the wannabe cowboys of the 20th Century, and perhaps as profound.

In the 19th and 20th Century Americans were inspired by the mythology, if not the reality, of the old west. For those few people who actually blazed the trails and "settled" the wilderness (often at the expense or even destruction of the native population), their lives were surely difficult and their world dangerous, but there stories were compelling and inspired American culture. For the rest, who never set foot west of the Mississippi, or lived after the west was "tamed", the "wild wild west" was still a fertile "virtual" world for additional storytelling about things that might have happened if in fact they never did. Even as a kid growing up in the 1960s, I can remember the TV schedule laced with western movies and TV shows, featuring now familiar fables populated by iconic characters played by John Wayne, Lorne Green and others.

Anyway... I don’t want to fly off too far on that tangent...

My recollection is that our son Eric got into his first on-line role-playing game around the turn of the century (funny to say it that way, now 100 years forward of its meaning when I was a kid). But I think it was a year later (2001) when both our kids got into a game called "Dark Ages". Eric was 15 and Emma 12. This game (developed actually in Korea), like others of its ilk, was advertised as "massively multi-player". Just pay, or in the case of our kids have their parents pay (as part of their allowance), the monthly fee ($5 to $10 a month depending on the game) and join a virtual world shared by people – youth and adults – around the world.

"Dark Ages" was a fantasy role-playing game, loosely in the realm of "Dungeons and Dragons", where players created a character (often several) that was either a warrior, priest, rogue, wizard or monk. Each character was represented by an "avatar" (a wonderfully metaphorical concept in itself for a later discussion) that the player designed – with choices of physical build, hair, clothing, head gear, etc. – to represent their character "in game" (as Eric and Emma referred to the virtual on-screen world). You used your mouse or computer keys to move your character about the landscape and communicated with other human-controlled avatars by typing in your words that would appear above your little avatar as a text bubble. The agreed protocol "in game" was to "speak" in a sort of faux language syntax of the middle ages.

The most basic concrete goal of the game was to "level up" your character(s). This was done mostly by fighting and killing dangerous critters (like Giant Mantises) or evil creatures (such as Bone Dragons) that were in fact "mobs" (some sort of acronym I think, but don’t know yet what it means) controlled by the computer application itself. Characters would band together in hunting parties (ideally balanced teams including various character types) and travel to the more dicey environs of the game world – magical forests or deep dungeons – to track down and share the point values for killing high value creatures. As your character went up in levels it could learn and acquire more abilities, including new advanced fighting skills for a warrior, new spells for a wizard, or new stealth techniques for a rogue.

For more abstract kids, like Eric & Emma, killing critters got boring fairly quickly, but was often the best way to gain enough points to reap the benefits of leveling up. What really engaged their imagination were all the other aspects of the virtual world, including...

* Virtual towns with streets lined with buildings, residences and more public venues like court houses, taverns, stores and temples

* Governance structures for those towns including players volunteering for roles as Burgess, judge and police captain, playing an actual role in managing the human players in the game world by setting policies, holding trials or enforcing laws

* Guilds with guild halls and regular in-game meetings

* Religions (though not the ones that are popular in our real world) with their own deities, rituals and places of worship

Participating in any of these institutions "in game" was another way to earn points to level up.

Eric developed his own "guild" of sorts. In a truly outside-the-box idea, he convinced the system operators (who built the virtual world and managed the game play) to build a theater in one of the towns. Then he wrote a play and recruited other people in the game to use their avatars to perform the play on this virtual stage. With plenty of advanced publicity there were other avatars in attendance as Eric the director and his cast performed their play, text bubbles and all.

Both Eric and Emma used the Dark Ages world to create intriguing characters that they did their best to inhabit in word (bubble) and deed. It was certainly an opportunity for them to "try on" personalities and traits, some of which I think they later adopted in their real-world personalities, their actual physical "avatars" as it were. Emma gravitated toward rogue type characters of great stealth, skill and high manners.

At least two important developments came out of our kids’ Dark Ages experience. First, their shared involvement in this virtual world finally ended the sibling rivalry between them (to the great relief of their parents.) Second, it whetted their appetites for even deeper involvement in another massively-multi-player fantasy role-playing game called "Neverwinter Nights".

In that game environment, Eric would collaborate with others to develop their own game world, "Caenyr" that they built (terrain, roads, structures, towns and all) and ran. Emma would inhabit that world as well and spend several years creating and developing a pirate character and sharing that character’s exploits with a group of other game players which developed into a circle of aspiring fantasy writers and led Emma to deciding she wanted to write fiction.

In the Caenyr world, both Emma and Eric really got into the character role-play and over-arching story aspects of the game. In fact, his main character, "Suomi", which he played and developed for years, never once did any "training" (which was the euphemism for going out and killing evil creatures to bet points and level up). The community, in its heyday, was large enough (around 100 active to semi-active members, maybe) to meet new people with diverse characters and opinions, but still small enough to have your actions matter and be able to take an active role in shaping the story of the world. Not only was there that aspect "in game", but there were forums (outside the in-game environment) where one could continue sharing and evolving their stories, most often along with others in interconnected story-arch threads. More on the adventures in Caenyr in another piece (see "A Pirate’s Tale") to come.

Originally posted to leftyparent on Mon Mar 23, 2009 at 06:36 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Interesting... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Interesting to see how younger children are adapting MMORPGS to their own needs.  

    I first started such games in the early 1990s in college.  They didn't have graphical interfaces then of course, but were known as MUDs (Multi-user Dungeons).  Depending on the game college students could write their own code to create new "sections" of the world, in certain MUDs this could involve massively themed quests that, if accepted, became a large part of the world.

    As social networking has grown, and as graphical interfaces have grown up with it, the online gaming world has split:  you have "gaming" worlds such as "Dark Age of Camelot", "Star Wars Online", and the biggest gorilla in the room, "World of Warcraft Online".  WoW has 11.5 million monthly subscribers, and as one would expect had thousands of fan groups and websites and all the rest that comes with 11.5 million people doing anything together.

    The other way to go is the "social" gaming route (which may in fact appeal to more abstract children and those uninterested in the 'hack and slash' of combat games).  Second Life is probably the most well known, followed by "The Sims Online".  Such games allows users to create their own objects and areas in-game.  In fact, Second Life thrives on user-created content, and has dedicated zones for different groups (imagine a group of "Society for Creative Anacronism" creating an SCA park ingame an populating it with knights and ladies). In your theater example above, you son could, with enough collaborators, create a theater for productions, create sets and costumes, and charge admission for productions, doing this all natively in-game, rather than being a special case for developers.

    You might want to investigate this for your kids; it may fit their appetites more, rather than driving them into the "kill things" route just for the gold necessary to do anything that Dark Ages requires.

    •  Considering the titan of the genre... (0+ / 0-)

      World of Warcraft is pretty much an ultra-static world that can only be added to or managed in any form by Blizzard. The entire thing is centered on doing "go kill X enemies" and "take object Y to NPC Z".

      (NPC="non-playable character"- in other words, the generic rabble that's got fixed locations that you get your quests and rewards from.)

      Dark Ages seems, from this description alone- I haven't played it- to be far more dynamic by comparison.

      The fact that it allows any other form of leveling- even if "killing stuff" is the main method- is a huge jump (and it's notoriously hard to balance out roleplaying with monsterslaying; game devs err on the monsterslaying side for good reasons!) The upside of slaying-based leveling is it encourages exploration to make it to new areas whereas roleplaying tends to stagnate- people gain "power" in the area they're familiar with and don't leave, for instance.

      •  static vs. dynamic content (0+ / 0-)

        I don't argue your assessment of WoW as static, but on the other hand it's the titan of the genre because (1) It does what it does better than anyone else and (2) it seems to be exactly what most people WANT.

        I think games like the Sims or Second Life are interesting because it isn't based on "leveling" at all.  You can play basically for free, but purchase ingame currency to do stuff: build parks, or rides, or a house.  You can then charge other people who wish to visit your content.  This seems perfect for the diarist's son.

        I am completely unfamiliar with "Dark Ages", and in fact initially thought the Diary was about "Dark Age Of Camelot", a MMORPG with the same static model as WoW.  Reading their webpage it implies that good roleplayers can affect events in-game, which is intriguing, but which also implies that most players are peons to a few nobles, a state of affairs which usually has the peons leaving for other venues where they can be nobles as well.

        •  Not entirely (0+ / 0-)

          You're forgetting about the "network effect"- people play WoW over other MMOs because their friends play WoW. It's the same as people choosing AIM over Jabber in this respect.

          WoW surpassed FFXI, the latest Everquest, Star Wars Galaxies, LotR Online, Tabula Rasa, etc; in large part due to having the large playerbase in the first place. (Age of Conan failed because Funcom was going to make it fail no matter what.)

          EVE Online survives because it allows the players to be outright bastards to other players, including running bank scams (oh man, the parallels an EVE player could draw to the real world!), calling mob hits, etc. Might actually be a good pick for the author's kids; so long as initial investment is strictly monitored so the kid can't fall for a scam that impacts his real-world finances, only the in-game money.

          •  chicken/egg (0+ / 0-)

            Does everyone play WoW because their friends do, or because of the content?  It's a chicken/egg thing.  I have pretty much played them all, and WoW has everyone's ass kicked for content.  

            After all, WoW was once the new kid on the block, the reason it didn't go the way of Star Wars Galaxies, EverQuest*, DAoC, Shadowbane, Anarchy Online, etc. is because it is BETTER.

            And a shout out to the FunCom bash. They were the first Sci-Fi MMORPG: "Anarchy Online".  But they couldn't help shooting themselves in the face over and over again with bad decisions.  Still a happy memory because I played it with friends, but we left soon enough once other ..NOT MORE INTERESTING.. more stable balanced games came along.

            *Remember when "Everquest" was called "EverCrack"?

            •  WoW was once new, yes (0+ / 0-)

              But it wasn't out of nowhere: Warcraft and Starcraft were hugely popular, and WoW in some sense pulled from their existing online playerbase.

              Toss in the fact that the others were kind of slow on updating and of course WoW picked up steam quickly.

              And yes, FunCom can go fuck themselves- they treat players like shit across the board; even outside of MMORPGs:

              I played on their TF2 server a bit (run by employees, though not the company itself), and they had admins violating their own rules and banning people who pointed it out.
              I documented my misadventures here:

    •  That sounds fantastic.. (0+ / 0-)

      ... I really love the theater idea. That's brilliant.

      I've avoided the games like WoW, because I have a very low boredom threshold for combat/killing things as a way to advance in a game.

      The internet is a marvelous social networking and creativity-enabling tool. How did we ever manage without it?  :-)  

  •  The theater idea was fabulous (0+ / 0-)

    Considering that most RPGs have bard or minstrel characters, I'm surprised that this wasn't thought of before.

    You want weapons? We're in a LIBRARY. Books - the best weapons in the world! Arm yourselves. - The (10th) Doctor, Doctor Who, "Tooth And Claw"

    by The YENTA Of The Opera on Mon Mar 23, 2009 at 08:52:15 AM PDT

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