February 10, 2003

Games as Political Spaces

NICK WADHAMS
Canadian Press
Friday, February 07, 2003

NEW YORK (AP) - Gone are the days when playing video games online meant
simply playing a hand of poker or battling your buddies to the death in a
giant arena you couldn't control.

Many games are now all about role-playing, and some players aren't
participating to escape terrestrial life. They're getting on virtual
soapboxes and organizing all manner of protests in cyberspace. Gamers have
protested the impending war in Iraq, started newspapers, gathered
charitable donations - done myriad things they already do, or wish they could do, in the real world.

The line between online gaming and the real world "is a lot thinner than
people give it credit for," said Raph Koster, creative director of the Austin, Texas, office of Sony Entertainment.

At the new online community There.com, gamers can clothe their in-game
marionettes and socialize with others. Already, some players angry with
the U.S. policy on Iraq have organized a peace rally and clad their characters
with the peace symbol.

Not earth-shattering, to be sure, but exemplary of how thousands of people
are using online games to either project their real voices or speak up as they might not in real life.

Players of EverQuest, the most popular online game in the United States
with about 85,000 playing at any time, held in-game candlelight vigils after
the Sept. 11 attacks and even created memorials within the game's universe.

Such games have become "online petri dishes" to show how far people will
go in wedding their real and virtual lives, said Amy Jo Kim, an online-games
designer involved with There.com.

People have been attacked in real life for killing other contestants
playing Lineage, the world's most popular online game with four million active
subscribers. And hundreds of players have gathered within the game to
protest software glitches.

The latest game to hit the market is the Sims Online, from Electronic
Arts. Players have control over a character and act out real-life fantasies.
They've built in-game restaurants, created several radio stations and even
a newspaper.

And they are not shy about complaining.

Freelance writer Tony Walsh didn't like a deal Electronic Arts made to insert a McDonald's kiosk into the game, so he organized a protest.

Other gamers have no trouble co-opting games entirely.

To protest the possibility of war, Anne-Marie Schleiner designed a hack
for Counterstrike, a popular first-person shooter. With "Velvet-Strike,"
players could display virtual posters with such messages as "Hostage of an Online Fantasy" and "You are your most dangerous enemy."

It led to some confusion among gamers who didn't want reality creeping
into their fantasy world, Schleiner said.

"It was interesting, disturbing and entertaining to get so much negative
feedback from all different directions - some pure old-fashioned
misogyny," she said.

Issues of how far gamers can push have yet to be fully tested. Like
movies, games are often based on brands, and designers aren't necessarily willing to have their brands co-opted.

Likely to push those limits is the forthcoming Star Wars Galaxies, which will put players inside the George Lucas popular universe. That creates a problem, because the Star Wars world is one of the most cherished
creations in the history of fantasy fiction.

"Somebody saying something in the game and being witnessed by somebody
else can reflect not just on the game but on Lucasfilm and George Lucas," said
Koster, a lead designer for Galaxies, which is due in April. "If someone
started walking around in the San Diego Zoo screaming profanity or handing
out Nazi leaflets, the park would remove them from the premises. We need
to be able to do that also."

Should free-speech values extend to the online world? Will there be a
future lawsuit from someone who claims they were unlawfully barred for maligning George Lucas?

Walsh, for one, believes gamers should have the very same freedoms in cyberspace that they have in the physical world.

"Why shouldn't people protest?" he said. "Why shouldn't freedom of speech be
as alive in the Sims Online as it is the real world?"

Posted by jane at February 10, 2003 06:56 AM

Comments

Is it interesting or a bit depressing to see Raph "Rights of Players" Koster taking such a company line in this piece?

Posted by: jane at February 10, 2003 07:01 AM

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