What is Reality?

Computer Life column for May 1, 1999

Richard Gordon

This week's Newsweek contains a story about people who spending up to $2,000 to purchase accounts in an on-line role-playing game called Ultima.

One of the books I'm currently reading is Julian Dibbell's My Tiny Life, an account of the time he spent consumed by LambdaMOO, an on-line role-playing "community" (much too intricate and non-competitive to be called a game).

I can remember back to the misspent days of my Internet youth (I admit I was in my thirties at the time--but on-line multi-user games were new back then!) when I would spend hours playing an on-line submarine game a friend had written as a graduate student. A few years later, it was on-line Diplomacy, a game much like Risk but without the dice, and virtual soccer.

On-line gaming--in which people come together to either indulge in role-playing, creating imaginary worlds and characters like the denizens of LambdaMOO and other MUDs have done, or competing directly against each other in virtual games of some kind or another--continues to increase over the Internet.

There is something addictive about the concept that the knight in that tower by the lake could be someone at a computer in Norway or North Wilmington. And people's on-line personae can be very different from who they are at home with the husband and kids.

Ultimately, the appeal seems to be making the connection with other people in a way that is hard to do in a crowded AOL chat room.

Just as many people find cocktail parties boring and prefer to go to parties structured around an activity--swapping recipes or playing music, bridge, poker, croquet, horseshoes, or softball--many people prefer these communities in which people interact in a structured or competitive way to the chat rooms in which new people pop in and out typing the same greetings and questions over and over again.

These on-line communities are a lot of fun and can be intellectually invigorating. Usually, when Real Life and Virtual Life intersect, good things can happen.

On Valentine's Day, 1997, I reported on a couple who met and fell in love while playing bridge on-line. I still hear from or have visits from the lads with whom I used to compete in electronic soccer.

As with any human activity, however, there can also be a darker side to both the on-line interactions and those times when the real and the virtual meet.

Dibbell's book begins with a horrible episode at LambdaMOO in which one character assaults another--even though both characters are figments of their creators' imaginations, existing only as digital impulses. And, as we learn more about the students who perpetrated the most recent high school shooting, we may learn that those boys indulged themselves in a lethally dark fantasy world, indulging those fantasies, in part, on the 'Net.

The Internet did not cause the killings. However, just as on-line role-playing can be a creative outlet, I fear the Colorado shootings are also a reminder that the 'Net can also give disturbed people an area in which to grow more disturbed.

Tip of the week

Free Web Pages

Have you wanted to put up a Web page but been afraid it was difficult or expensive?

Several companies host individual people's small web sites (2M - 20M worth of files) for free. Usually, the catch is that people accessing your Web page also see an advertisement for the company hosting the web page, and one or more of that company's sponsors.

Tripod (www.tripod.com), one of the earliest companies to provide this service, is still one of the most flexible. You can use some of their Web page creation tools, edit the HTML codes yourself, or even upload files from your PC to their Web server. Tripod offers up to 11M of space for free and allows you to purchase more disk space if you need it.

So, put your Scout pack or garage band on the Web. It's free.

Copyright © 1999, The News Journal Company

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Richard Gordon helps support faculty, staff and student computing at the University of Delaware. E-mail questions, comments or suggestions to richard@inet.net, or write him at The News Journal, Box 15505, Wilmington, DE 19850. Although each note cannot be answered individually, reader comments and questions will often be incorporated in future columns.