Guest Commentary

A glitch in the matrix? No, it's just a kid playing an online role-playing game

Jan. 1, 2006.

Woke up this morning at 8 o'clock. Late for me. Stumbled into the kitchen seeking caffeine, only to be halted by a glitch in the matrix. Said glitch was in the exact position it had been in eight hours earlier when I'd been forced by noisy revelers to crawl from bed for a shot of single malt. The glitch was there five hours before that, too, but back then, I thought it was normal.

Lo and behold, in the end, this was no glitch. It was a 14-year-old boy remarkably like my own, only totally bereft of sleep.

"Have you been sitting at the computer all night?" At that moment, perhaps due to my presence, but more likely due to some insuppressible bodily need, Mikey was on his feet. Whatever it was, it was ultimately not enough to distract him. Something happened on the screen to sit him back down.

"What?" said Mikey, my son's friend who was staying with us. "Oh no! Damnit."

Welcome to Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, or MMORPGs. MMORPGs are computer games, and for a low monthly fee, players download software that runs a graphical representation called an avatar, which interacts with a virtual, ever-changing and continuous world. The game Mikey was playing, "World of Warcraft," is so addictive it is referred to by middle school and high school students alike as "World of Warcrack."

My older son was into it last summer. I'd awaken every morning to multiple PCs manned by sleep-deprived teenagers strung out on hi-test caffeinated drinks, espresso and M&Ms, with the odd body having shut down, flopped atop a guest bed or a piece of office furniture. They looked like cadavers cast ashore after a shipwreck. Fortunately, the older boys cycled out of it, probably because they wanted to chase girls.

Just when you think corporate America can't possibly come up with any more ways to hijack your kids' brains, you wind up with egg on your face. Because MMORPGs aren't like regular video games, which ultimately get tiresome; MMORPGs connect the player with other people with whom they form alliances. So, if at any given time, you aren't playing, you're bailing on your virtual team, sacrificing virtual love, virtual friendship and, of course, tons of virtual accomplishments. Whether it's acquiring some magical tool, power, territory or any other beneficial change to the virtual environment, the more you do it, the better it gets, all without ever leaving the comfort of your computer chair.

Of course, most people can't play the game all the time. Their parents make them do annoying things like go to school or take out the garbage. But if a player takes an extended period of time off--24 hours, a week, month--he jeopardizes not only his goals, but the goals of all his virtual friends. Over time, if he doesn't ask for leave--and no, I'm not making this up, as there is a mechanism for requesting a hiatus should an emergency like dengue fever arise--he loses his rank, powers, strengths and advantages.

My son's already discussed this dilemma with his dad. They're scheduled to go to Greece and Italy over spring break, and he wanted to know if there will be computers available so that he can keep his hand in the game and thereby not get demoted to buck private. He's been told, emphatically, no.

As a parent, you're constantly having to duck and weave electronic shit. Nintendos, Game Boys and all the rest of them are a pain in the ass, but MMORPGs do something the others don't, which is some scary shit: They promote a hive mentality. Nothing these kids are doing actually matters. Yet at lightning speed, the imperative becomes the good of the team, whatever its goal. This might come in handy someday should they decide to join the Army, Pepsico or any other mindless band of activity-obsessed drones, but probably not for anybody who values his soul.

Update on Mikey: It's 2:30 p.m., and he's finally gotten up to go to the bathroom. I've never seen a kid play the game quite this long before, and I think perhaps he's overcompensating. Maybe his parents lowered the boom on him earlier in the week; he might have a lot of catching up to do. He really should eat something, though; his eyes are beginning to wobble, and I'm not sure he knows where he is.