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Editorial - 'Massively Multiplayer Murder'

by Agustin on June 5, 2005 @ 12:37 a.m. PDT

Recently, there have been increasingly disturbing reports of violent crimes in relation to online gaming. A shooting at a Counter-Strike tournament, killing over an online sword incident, and gaming addiction leading to child neglect or heart failure are getting all too common these days. Today, we take a closer look at the phenomenon...

As the broadband penetration rate increases, the rise of internet crime does so congruently. Computers are often left online 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Their owners wonder how so many unauthorized malicious programs – viruses, worms, the works – ended up on their computers. (How hard could it be, when so many PCs are basically networked right into the cesspool that is the internet for so much time each week?) Hobbyist programmers with a bone to pick now have no trouble at all unleashing their passive-aggressive code upon the world. Disease spreads quick on the internet. Thankfully, these problems stay in the binary universe. Flesh and blood is left out of the picture.

All too often, internet crime makes a jagged transition into real-world crime. The result is usually shocking. Not lately. Gone is the shock over the 1990s "chat-room rape" stories, with young girls meeting up with twenty-something "hot guys" in real-life, who end up being grotesque, lonely forty-somethings with latent psychotic tendencies. While these crimes have slowed thanks to the advent of scanners, digital cameras, and webcams, the recent apathy towards these occurrences is appalling.

Still, that subject was never considered something to laugh over by the water cooler. Another type of internet crime that often ends up affecting real people in real life is widely looked upon as something to have a giggle for: Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) game communities and the real-world criminal activities spawned by these types of games. The acts include: infant death due to EverQuest-addicted parents, a Chinese man murdered over selling a rare weapon (for the equivalent of 400 USD!) owned by an online friend, and so many assorted beatings and murders in South Korea that a special computer-related crime police task force – separate from the team that focuses on actual computer crimes, like hacking – has been developed in response to the rise of these bizarre acts. (Note that South Korea has the highest broadband penetration rate in the world. More access seems to be congruent with more crime.) As MMOs become more popular, their stigma becomes overwhelmingly negative, yet the problems they cause are still rarely taken seriously; boogeymen like Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas are much easier targets for the media to tackle.

For decades, gaming has been seen by the masses as a solitary entertainment medium. This is reinforced by the forced gasps of the faux-sociologists who make their living on the 24-hour news channels, frantically pointing at 12-year-old footage from id Software’s infamous Doom and cry, "Columbine!" at the top of their lungs. But from the start, electronic gaming has always been a social medium. See: Pong, the very first mass-produced arcade game, which actually required two players for any real fun. This continued a few decades later with the early '90s release of Street Fighter 2, a game that spawned a massive worldwide community which still exists to this day. But that style of community has dwindled. The internet, and especially broadband, has made long car trips and plane rides for giant gaming get-togethers a thing of the past for all but the most dedicated. Neo-gamers are inclined to take advantage of modernized options, and MMOs are the perfect platform for mass communication and gameplay. Hundreds of thousands of players log onto these games every single day – sometimes that many on the same game, at the same time, as evidenced by the recent success of World of Warcraft.

But with online communication, especially when voice chat is omitted, comes anonymity. And with anonymity, irresponsibility often goes right along with it. No distinct sociological study has been completed that thoroughly analyzes personality patterns of MMO players, but observer feedback often notes that online personalities tend to be very one-sided. Players tend to express themselves as either friend or foe, megalomaniac or friendly minimalist, violator or caretaker. There is rarely anything in between. Players frustrated with their powerlessness in their real lives find great escape in these games, where dedication is all that is needed to become respected.

And a great deal of dedication is needed, indeed. MMOs are built specifically to keep players online for as long as possible. Keep in mind that these games are actually a sub-genre of a previously established video game standby, the RPG, which are already noted for their universally long length. MMOs are made to be an even greater time sink, forcing players to play not for a number of hours, but for months, even years, of arduous tasks during regular gameplay. Meager addicts play for two to three hours a day; problem cases have admitted to ending up online for upwards of 48 hours straight.

Anonymity and unhealthy dedication. This is the formula for crimes that blur the line between what is real and what is false. Any player surely has stories of in-game moments that brought them tangible anger. They’ve all had weapons stolen, character files corrupted, had players sell them items for far more than what they are really worth. They feel irritation, but most of them let it pass; it is just digital immaterial, after all. But for some players whose lives have become far too intertwined with their gaming, digital property is just as material as the air they breathe. And for an even smaller minority, said material is more important than the crying baby in the next room. For vulnerable players, these games are quite literally as important to them as a heroin addict's quest for his next fix – and the withdrawal can be comparably violent.

Clearly there is a disturbing problem developing here. Can one imagine what would happen if a country as big as the United States had a broadband penetration rate has high as South Korea – in eight out of 12 households –- with a proportional MMO player number? If the crimes related to these games also rose proportionally, we would have a massive problem on our hands. Yet nobody seems to recognize this, especially those who have never seen or played an MMO before. People need to realize that Grand Theft Auto’s gore and nasty words can corrupt, but the social force behind a movement is much more powerful, albeit much more daunting to take on, since random urban killings aren’t present for the media to shock viewers with. Without recognition, the problem will get worse. Support groups for spouses of EverQuest addicts have already been set up, but they are loosely organized, and reside only on the internet, which is exactly the form of communication these addicts need to get away from.

Of course, once the world is shocked by the truth about these games, media pundits would tackle the issue without any tact at all, which would only alienate MMO addicts from the mainstream. We should not cast these people away; we need to learn about what is happening, and approach it lightly. In the hands of mass media, a light approach is near-impossible.

An easier option might be to lobby developers to make the games less addictive and time-consuming. This might actually be better for both players and publishers. Many EverQuest and Ultima Online players have long left those communities because of the havoc wrought upon their lives by the games. These are subscribers who might potentially still be involved with these games, and paying for monthly subscription fees, had the game design not become so appalling after a few months or years of play. Players may not like the changes, however, as some MMO fans really do prefer to play for all hours of the day, and they want that choice to be theirs, not the developer’s. Thankfully, some headway has been made in this area, as World of Warcraft, which is the fastest growing online game ever to release, and currently has many more users than the once-dominant EverQuest does, rewards players with "rest points." Real progress for characters cannot be acheived without obtaining rest points, which can only be gotten through getting offline and giving the game a rest. So players are actually doing something good for their characters by going about their lives and keeping things healthy for themselves! Hardcore players were originally appalled by this, but the anger towards the feature has died down considerably. Perhaps they have realized that the feature is in place to refresh them, and keep them willing to play the game? A happy gamer is a consistent gamer, after all.

Still, while the problem can be alleviated astronomically, it will never be completely "fixed." Crime will always exist, and as internet access rises, no measures can prevent crimes connected with digital property or neglect, relating to MMOs. What we need to do is stop the growth of these crimes; we need to "put a lid on it." We need to stop brushing attention away from this growing problem so we can be shocked by "that new shooting game" yet again. The South Korean computer-related crime unit is a step in the right direction; it brings recognition to the problem. That, more than anything, is what is needed throughout the world.

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