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The Surreal World

What happens when living an online fantasy life becomes an obsession? Strange things.

By Hayes Reed

THE STORIES HAD BEGUN TO SURFACE about a year ago. Our buddy had lost it. At 24, he had seemingly given up. No job. SUV on its last leg. No girlfriend. Filthy apartment. Ugliness.

My friends and I would see him from time to time. He'd show up for a poker game or drop by during Christmas. He looked bad, unwashed. His clothes, indistinguishable from those he wore in high school, looked worn and hung loosely from his lanky frame. When asked what he was up to, his response was often a pathetic, "I'm done ... It's all over for me."

Legend had it that our friend had traded his citizenship in everyday reality for total immersion in a virtual world, a video game known as Ultima Online. I needed to see for myself what his life had become. This turned out to be easier said than done, however--three months' worth of emails and phone calls went unreturned.

Finally, one evening I came home to find a flashing red light on my answering machine. The message contained only one word, a word spoken with the irritated tone of a man who had given up running away.

"Bastard," he said, and then hung up the receiver. It was Tyson Smith. I had tracked him down.


Ultimate Place: Game offers a sense of community many don't find in the real world.

Bloody Ethics: As companies try to create the perfect online world, they've come up against a problem--the dark side of human nature.


Virtually Obsessed

TYSON MET ME at the door but said little. Inside his dark and foul apartment, I was met by the distinct pungency of cat urine. The place was a mess. Boxes, magazines and clothes covered the unfurnished living-room floor. A table, on top of which sat two glowing monitors, filled the dining area. Fighting allergic reaction, I found a seat (stained) and watched through tearing eyes as house cats of varying dimension and color ran through the place. A yellow tabby bellowed loudly from the small concrete patio outside.

"Shut up!" Tyson screamed in response. He then explained, "The little one's in heat. These cats are driving me crazy."

After quitting a fairly lucrative job as an MCI customer service rep more than a year ago, Tyson has spent his savings and now lives on unemployment. Since he left his job, the only constant in his life has been a video game known as Ultima Online. It was 9pm on a Friday, and Tyson had already been logged on for the better part of the day.

He looked emaciated and sickly. Gray circles surrounded his eyes. For a guy his age, he simply did not look right. I asked him whether he was eating. He motioned to the processed cheese and tortilla chips scattered around his PC but admitted he hadn't eaten that day.

"I don't eat, dude," he said. "I'm what you call a 'weekly poo-er.'"

"I hate to be the one to tell you this," I told him, "but your life sucks."

"No," he quipped in response, "your life sucks. With your diamond rings and your cell phones ... your forks and knives. You think you're so cool." We both laughed, but the situation was unmistakably bad. Tyson was living a junkie's lifestyle and jonesing for a high delivered by a video game.

Artwork courtesy of Origin Systems

The Game

ONLY THREE YEARS after its release, Ultima has proven to be one of the most successful online role-playing games ever released. Selling off the shelf for about $30, Ultima then requires gamers to pay a monthly fee of $9.95 to log on and play a real-time part in a landscape reminiscent of Dungeons and Dragons. In Ultima, thousands of people can log on and interact at once. A chat room and adventure game rolled into one, the game can be entertainingly addictive.

According to Origin Systems Inc., the game's creator, Ultima currently attracts more than 150,000 players across three continents. Players log into a virtual world known as Britannia, a color-rich, two-dimensional landscape filled with knights, sorcerers, oceans and cities. The island of Britannia is also a "persistent world," meaning that if your virtual horse runs away today, it'll be gone tomorrow, too. Castles can be built, battles can be fought and virtual lives can be lost, all with permanent ramifications.

Once you have chosen a virtual character to represent you on this lively continent, your next task is to get a job, and quick. Britannia is a land humming with commerce, awash with virtual swordsmen, tailors, fishermen, animal tamers and murderous thieves. People come to the game to participate in a unique economy and social structure--players form guilds, wage war and, in some unfortunate cases, actually spend hours fishing.

The goal of the game, if it can be described as such, is to gain power and respect, and ultimately to wield influence over your fellow players. How one goes about gaining that power is up to the individual player. Anything from fashioning virtual armor to baking virtual pies can earn you Britannian gold and have an impact on this increasingly complex marketplace.

The real weight of this new economy is being measured on websites such as eBay. After a quick search, you can find everything from Britannian gold pieces to castle deeds for sale, with prices often topping the $1,000 mark. Entire accounts may also be transferred, allowing a new player to step into a character that has already been built up over a series of months or even years. According to Origin, the price tag for certain coveted accounts can approach $3,000.

The New York Times Magazine took notice of this growing market last summer when it commented on the fact that the Britannian gold-to-dollar exchange rate had surpassed that of the Italian lira. Even Rick Hall, an Ultima Online producer, is surprised by the game's emerging economy. "Games like Ultima Online are crossing the boundary," said Hall. "We've discovered that UO's economy reacts in many ways like a real economy. Believe it or not, we have to be careful that changes to the game don't devalue Britannian gold. It's simply amazing."

It is a game in which thousands of people from around the world are working, playing, hunting, fishing and making friends. It is also a game that requires colossal dedication from its players. As Tyson put it, "It's really all about status."

And status on Ultima Online don't come easy.

Enter the Iron Monkey

THIS IS TYSON'S WORLD. In it, he is Iron Monkey, the grand master of a well-known guild, a master armor smith, owner of a nice three-story castle, several houses, a few boats and a number of highly valued horses. Tyson estimates that his Iron Monkey account is worth well over $1,500. I asked him how long it took to build the character.

"Well," he said, "I've been building Iron Monkey for about seven months."

How many hours a week, I wondered aloud. Thirty hours?

"Way more."

Forty hours a week?

"More like 70. You've got to realize that this game is for retired guys, high school rejects, the unemployed ..."

When Iron Monkey rides into town on the back of Onyx (a rare black horse also known as a "nightmare"), you can immediately discern the level of respect afforded a powerful player. Other players surround him, attracted by his nightmare and unique blue armor.

"It's the way I dress," Tyson says. "I always draw a lot of attention."

But it's more than that. A character riding a nightmare into town is equivalent to someone parking a Lamborghini in front of Starbucks. It means that this is someone with power, wealth and clout. The other characters just quietly stand next to him, apparently waiting for him to speak.

Soon, a player calling himself Thorn approaches and asks Iron Monkey whether he has horses for sale. Iron Monkey then leads him to a public stable where he keeps a multitude of tamed animals. He dismounts and brings out a gray steed.

"Do you want this one?" Iron Monkey asks, the words floating above the tiny character's head.

"How much?" asks Thorn.

"Just take it."

Thorn climbs onto his new horse.

"cool thnx man."

"np =)"

"That's how you make a name for yourself here," Tyson tells me.

Rick Hall, the Ultima Online producer, might agree. "We've worked very hard at the social engineering in the game," he says. "Many, many features are specifically provided as a means of promoting friendships, interactions and community spirit. And, of course, once people have established friendships and communities, that's a strong reason to stay."

Unfortunately, not all Ultima players value the altruistic possibilities presented by the game. Player killers, or PKs, have posed a problem for Origin Systems since Ultima's debut. From the onset of the game, cities have served as safe zones, places where non-player (game-driven) characters serve as guards and come to the defense of crime victims. Anyone venturing outside a city, however, is on his own. Lose your life in Britannia, and you've also lost whatever your character was carrying, which can be a lot.

Murder for profit became so rampant when the game was first released that Origin programmers, or game masters, eventually made certain changes. In an attempt to inspire vigilante justice, murderous characters now appear red and may be killed by anyone, even within city safe-zones. While some feel that murder should be made impossible altogether, most players, in addition to the game's creators, feel that the ever-present possibility of being slaughtered makes Ultima "dynamic and exciting."

Even game-hardened veterans such as Iron Monkey steer clear of PKs. Aside from the fact they often belong to PK guilds, which as a gang can attack even the most powerful of characters, it is often just not worth the risk.

"Those guys all have cable modems or DSL lines," said Tyson, "I could have a bad connection and just get lagged out."

A bad Internet connection can cause a character to become helplessly frozen. Such occurrences can spell disaster, and this is something Tyson knows all too well.

Grail, the Silver Steed

TYSON RECOUNTED the story of Grail with heavy regret. "It was, without question," Tyson said, "the worst thing that happened to me in 1999." In a strange series of errors, it seems, an Origin game master accidentally released a number of creatures into Britannia that were never supposed to be introduced. Developed for Ultima's research and development test center server only, the silver steed was, by all accounts, a magnificent creature.

As soon as Tyson saw the horse as it wandered through a desolate area, he knew he had hit pay dirt. Iron Monkey quickly claimed the silver steed, using his long-practiced taming skills. He named the horse Grail. While all nightmares are capable of breathing fire and casting spells, this horse was unequaled in its power. By the time Tyson had figured out what he had captured, he also had heard about the mix-up and knew the game masters at Origin would be hunting for the misplaced steeds, deleting them from all servers.

"I knew I couldn't put Grail in a stable or in my castle," Tyson said. "The GMs were doing sweeps every night. So I logged off the game while I was sitting on the horse; that way the horse disappeared with Iron Monkey." The plan worked. For a gloriously short period, Iron Monkey seemed to be the sole owner of a silver steed.

"The thing was easily worth six or seven hundred dollars," Tyson reported.

"I would go into a town, and people would surround me, asking me if they could take screen captures of their characters standing next to me and Grail. That's how rare that horse was."

Sadly, however, the duo was not meant to be. While out looking to tame desert ostards (read: lizard/ostrich hybrids), Iron Monkey and Grail were coaxed into engaging in battle with an ophidian (read: snake person).

"I was basically showing off for these two other players," Tyson recalled, "being a real tough guy. And that's when I lagged out. My screen just went blank. My only hope at that point was that the guys I was with would cast a healing spell and resurrect me, but I guess they were just too taken aback by the whole ordeal."

By the time Tyson was able to log back on, Grail was dead, and Iron Monkey's corpse was being ransacked by his fellow citizens.

Iron Monkey was eventually resurrected. Grail, however, was gone. And so it goes in Britannia.

Killer Player: 'It's really all about status' is a mantra that some have taken to extremes in this online adventure that requires an insane amount of dedication from its devotees.

Logging On

I HIT THE Ultima website and was met with the disturbing news that my registration code had either expired or was already in use. After sending a couple of unanswered emails to my contacts at Origin, my next option became disturbingly clear. I had no choice but to return to Tyson's Den of Cat Ass and Murdered Time.

He answered his perpetually unlocked door with a mop of unwashed hair and baggy pajama bottoms. It was 4pm. He had been in Britannia all day. "I'm getting evicted," he said as he sat back down at Iron Monkey's controls. "My roommate's check bounced, and today's the last day of our three-day notice."

I consoled him for a bit and then relayed my own situation. Tyson went about setting me up with an auxiliary character he had named Phife; then he showed me some of the basic controls. Before leaving with his roommate to borrow rent money from a third party, Tyson took everything of value out of Phife's possession. Books of magical spells, armor, gold, silverware and various other pieces of junk were carefully clicked and dragged off Phife's body.

It went without saying that, in my novice hands, the character would be brutally killed and stripped of all belongings. Tyson did, however, leave me with a sword and some tips on how to engage in combat.

"After they kill you," he instructed, "you're going to become a ghost. You won't be able to talk, and everything will appear gray, so go back to town, and someone will resurrect you."

Then, suddenly, I was on my own.

Britannia is a big place. According to Origin, it would take a football field of monitors to display the entire continent. Even so, the place seems kind of crowded. Run in any direction for a couple of seconds, and you can't help but meet up with other players. But unlike a typical chat room, people don't really want to be bothered. Converse with a group at random, and you'll be treated as if you're interrupting, and most likely, you are.

These people are busy. They're chopping wood, killing goats, whatever. My attempts to start conversations were met with: "What do you want?" "What are you doing out here?" and "Why don't you know that?"

I quickly began to feel like a new kid in school. I felt awkward. I didn't know where to stand. I didn't know where to go. Occasionally, puddles of blood caught my eye. I decided to head for the library.

Most of the public buildings I entered had shelves of books. Double-click and the books opened up and could be scrolled through. At random, I picked up a book titled On the Diversity of Our Land by Lord Blackthorn. It turned out to be some sort of treatise on interspecies tolerance. An excerpt:

"Can we not regard ratmen, lizardmen and orcs as fellow intelligent beings with whom we share a planet? Why must we slay them on sight rather than attempt to engage them in dialog?"

Ugh. I dropped the book and headed outside. Behind a castle I noticed a group of players fighting a posse of ratmen. I drew my sword as quickly as I could and began stabbing one of the ratmen in the back. It was fun.

"I got it," said a character in a blue cape, chastising me for engaging one of his targets.

I then stood aside and watched as the computer-controlled ratmen were slaughtered, and the gold planted on them victoriously plundered. I felt a strange kinship with the dead ratmen, their bloody mouths agape. I, too, felt unwanted. Somehow, there seemed a quiet dignity in their virtual death.

I was alone and wanted to die. It would not prove difficult.

Death soon arrived in the form of a giant, two-headed troll. I happened to catch his wandering eyes as I strolled through a neat neighborhood of houses just outside of town. Sword in hand, I fought back, but proved meek resistance. Phife was subjected to a deadly rain of club blows and collapsed within seconds. The troll got my sword.

I did my best to guide Phife's ghost back into town, but Tyson's computer mouse suddenly would not cooperate. I took the thing apart and made the mistake of sticking my finger inside the most disgusting mouse the world has ever known. Hair. Grease. Food. Slime. Enough, I thought, as I washed my hands in the kitchen sink. I popped the mouse back together and headed for the door. I left the game defeated, but also with the realization that the game is really about player interaction, something that can't develop overnight.


THE POWER of the game is in its community. Like any other place where people live, work, play and own property, its inhabitants have a vested interest in maintaining and building that community. The more you play, the less reason you ever have to leave. This fact is, to some degree, programmed into the game.

Tyson, for example, has a list of Ultima chores he must perform each week in order to maintain his account. If Iron Monkey fails to visit each of his properties and holdings, they will decay. A $1,000 castle without a dedicated owner will eventually crumble. It is actually an extremely clever human trap.

Ultima players, however, see things a bit differently.

On one Ultima-related website, a player calling himself "Delusion" had this to say about the game:

"... My community is centered around playing UO, but it's a lot more than that. It's people. People I love, people I hate, people with stories to tell ... and people I would miss greatly were they to disengage from our community. My community exists regardless of what servers are down or who's currently playing. My community plays a game called UO, [but] I'd prefer you not think of it as 'just a game.'"

From Tyson's point of view, the emotional highs and lows provided by the game are hardly different from real life.

"It's like when you finally find a nightmare, or finding a place where you can build a house after months of saving gold and searching," he said. "It's just the best feeling in the world."

Photo illustration by Hayes Reed

Artwork courtesy of Origin Systems


SHORTLY BEFORE this story was completed, Tyson emailed me at work. His message read as follows: "well its official the second worst day in my life has arrived my nightmare is dead I'm too pissed to type out the story but ill tell ya late how it happened man I'm an idiot."

Several days later, I managed to get Tyson on the phone.

"It was a thief," Tyson recounted. "His name was Care Bear. He took something from me. I'm not sure what he took, but suddenly his character appeared gray to me, meaning that I was free to kill him. I wasn't going to stand there and just get punked."

Tyson ordered his nightmare to attack. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a trap. Care Bear was fast, probably a player with a DSL connection, and he led the horse outside of the city. There, a large group, perhaps a thief guild, lay in wait; they attacked Onyx and Iron Monkey. After Iron Monkey was killed, Tyson realized he was in real trouble.

"I jammed home," Tyson said. " I resurrected myself and went back. It took about 20 minutes for them to kill Onyx. I asked Care Bear why he did it, and he just laughed, telling me how stupid I was to risk a creature worth, like, 4 million gold."

"Well," I said, "maybe now's the time to quit. Onyx being killed could be a blessing in disguise. This could be your opportunity to walk away. Sell your account; get your car fixed. Get a new hobby, for Christ's sake."

"I know," he said. "It's just that I don't want to feel like I've wasted my time. I've got so much shit ... and I've got friends there ..."

"Seriously, man," I said, "either way, you've wasted your time. They've got you trapped."

"Yeah, they do," Tyson finally admitted. "That's what really pisses me off. The designers are geniuses."

[ San Jose | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

From the June 1-7, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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