Shape of things to come
I was first alerted to the world of MMORPG by an article on Everquest ( one of the more prominent MMORPGs) that appeared in, of all places, the Statesman ... that was nearly five years ago and since then, the more I have read about this idea, the more it seems to me that this concept will play a very significant role in societies of the future.
But before that, what is an MMORPG ?
The acronym stands for Massively Multuser Online Role Playing Game .. but let us see what it means. In a standard computer game, a player assumes a role, say a combatant, or a race car driver and fights or competes against characters that are created by the computer program. Exquisite three dimensional graphics and intelligent computer programs have come together to create a very realistic environment ... and this is a cause of addiction to many dedicated gamers.
In an massively multiuser online game, the player competes, not against a computer program, but against other other users on the internet all of whom are connected to a central server. Conceptually, this is like a chat room, where multiple users connect to a chat server and 'interact'. In a chat room, the interaction is confined to exchaning messages through a fairly basic user interface. In an MMORPG game, two things happen .. first the interaction is complex, ranging from competitive to collaborative behaviour and the user interface is the usual vivid 3D game interface. In effect this means that instead of exchanging a hello or a curse with a fellow chatter in the chat room, one can get a character to smile-at or punch-the-nose-of another character controlled by another player who may be physically sitting far away ... and the two characters will 'interact' in a user-interface ( "screen") that could resemble a street, a room, a field or any other real or fantasy environment.
Why are MMORPGs important ?
MMORPGs represent an important milestone in the evolution a networked society, comparable in impact to eMail and the WorldWideWeb. As player interactions grow beyond combat and conflict to encompass complexities like trade, commerce and persistent personal relationships that reflect the "real" world equivalences like friendship, partnerships and even marriage we would see the emergence of parallel virtual worlds that would become increasingly indistinguishable from reality.
In fact this is already happening. Trade and commerce has become so important in these worlds that many virtual worlds have started with their own currency and this virtual currency can very often be converted into real world dollars .. much as Foreign Exchange traders today convert national currencies. This is functionally equivalent to a closed economy, like that of China and India of the past, opening its doors and allowing currency convertibility with the open market economy of the US dollar.
However for this to happen, the "virtual" economy should be big and vibrant enough ... there must be enough useful things, or services, to buy and sell and the total turnover of these goods must be adequate to justify a serious exchange, not a toy like Monopoly.
But there are two major differences ...
First .. in the real world, each individual has a single identity as declared in his passport, voter-card, bank account or whatever. He or she has a name, parentage, address, qualifications and more importantly, certain characteristics. In the virtual world, an individual can create one OR MORE identities for himself. He can change his gender, his physical appearance, competency, his background, his likes and dislikes and his behaviour in general.
Secondly ... The degree of realism, the amount of feasibility is an objective fact in the real world but is very subjective and variable in the virtual world. In reality I cannot fly across the sky and propose my love to girl in the street but that is not so in the virtual world.
However as the games mature and evolve the second difference can be narrowed to a large extent. For example, the extremely realistic 3D imagery that is evident in some of these games has to a large extent obliterated the gap in physical realism. When you are interacting with a character it is very difficult to distinguish between an image of a "real" individual beamed, say, through a video-conferancing channel and a "virtual" individual that is controlled by a player. What this means is that when talking to a young girl who appears in your screen you can never be sure that "behind" the young girl whose image you see, there is a bearded man who is operating the software. And once you have become accustomed to accept a bearded man masquerading as a young girl, it is just one more step to accept a bearded man masquerading as a horned extra-terrestrial from a Star Trek movie ! Nothing is impossible any more.
So is the case with social rules and regulations. Crime or inappropriate behaviour in the real world is punished with certain actions ... say denial of freedom ( you are thrown out of a house or put in jail ) and the same could, and does apply to the virtual world. You may not be allowed to play anymore .. unless you log-in as someone different.
Net-net many, if not most, of the behavioural patterns that exist in the real world can be replicated in the virtual world ... and as we move forward, the difference between the real world and the virtual world will become narrower and narrower.
Will they disappear totally ? That is what we will need to explore further ... from technical as well as philosophical perspectives.
the most popular games at the moment include World of Warcraft and Asheron's Call but you can get more information from this and similar websites ... http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=6582
If you want to try out an MMORPG for FREE you can try PlaneShift. Perhaps not the best, but it is free and actually works, unlike many others, and will give you an idea of ..
visit http://www.planeshift.it/main_01.html to download the software ..
remember it is a270 MB download, so you need access to a corporte LAN, BUT the game does not run through a firewall, so you have to play from home.
I have installed and run the software and can certify that it works