Peter Zschunke/Associated Press
Imagine a modern video game player, probably a guy sitting on a couch. He presses buttons on a controller. He is engaged with a TV screen but otherwise detached from the world. His entertainment may be interactive, but he appears the very opposite of an activist. He is hypnotized by the screen.
It may be a common image, but it is not the impression Peter Ludlow, a philosophy professor at the University of Toronto, got in 2003 when he heard what some players of the game EverQuest had just done. EverQuest was one of the first widely successful massively multiplayer online (MMO) computer games, which allow players from around the world to log on to their computers, take the role of a fantasy character–a swordsman or mystic, for example–and experience adventures together. Dozens, even hundreds, could join together via the Internet to control characters that appeared on the same networked stage. What Ludlow discovered in 2003 was that a group of EverQuest players had simultaneously logged on and banded together to slay a dragon monster called Kerafyrm–a creature that the game’s developers had programmed to be unconquerable. It was the players’ second such attempt. The first time they tried to kill the beast, developers working for the game’s corporate parent, Sony Online Entertainment, alarmed at the players’ abilities to circumvent the rules, reset the game and blocked them from achieving their goal. The players became furious, posting on message boards that “a level of trust [was] destroyed.” The developers backed off, and a few days later the gamers took the monster down.
Playing video games, Ludlow and others have reasoned, is about more than that guy on the couch. It’s about pushing boundaries–trying to find the fractures in the worlds created by game developers by driving off the racetrack, figuring out the pattern in Pac-Man so that you never lose a life, killing the unkillable monster. Playing games, in other words, can instill revolutionary zeal–a fight against the machine. And the act of playing a massively multiplayer online game? That can inspire the zeal not just to knock down a machine but to create a better one.
All video games are products, and they may well be art. Online worlds like EverQuest, populated by thousands of players who spend dozens of hours a week adventuring in them, socializing in them, buying and selling things in them–sometimes with real money–are more than games. They are societies that are literally products, societies whose government is… who? The developers who shut off the game when the dragon is about to be killed? The corporation that sells the computer program that makes the whole thing run on your computer? The programmers who create the rules and possibilities for play? Or the people who hang out in the world five hours a night and who, by their actions, establish the norms? MMOs may be just another theme park, in which the people who pass through the turnstiles have little say or control over how high and fast the rides go. Or they may represent a wholly new frontier.