As I traveled through the vast corridors of the Internet gaming community, sampling some of the most popular role playing games (RPGs) released this past summer, I happened upon a boy fighting off a squad of demonic-looking beasts. He fought ruthlessly, killed with great precision. And despite his youth, there seemed a sense of age and wisdom about him. As it turned out, this was no ordinary boy. This was an online vampire. A bit of gentle prodding, and the vampire's mask came off to reveal a 14-year-old kid from an industrial town in Southern Wales. A kid who admits to sacrificing pieces of his soul to declare a private war on humanity. On the Net, in the darkness of any given Sunday night hour, this vampire roams the dim streets of an electronically reproduced New York City unleashing black-market napalm upon an unsuspecting populace. He kills without thought. Without remorse. And very often, just at the edge of twilight, in order to sustain what he calls his "life force," this youngster sucks the blood out of the necks of drunken vagabonds. Of this vampiric slayer, I know this: In online chat rooms, he goes by the name "JLBlade," and if his mother knew he were up at 1am on a school night playing Vampire: The Masquerade Redemption (Activision, $44.99, PC), he would probably be sent to his coffin without supper.
It was meeting JLBlade that made me truly comprehend how far we have come from that Cold War-era of Atari and Donkey Kong. I can only imagine what this young virtual vampire looks like in real life. Long, black trenchcoat? Gothic make-up? Of course, this is the limitation and celebration of the Internet -- complete and utter anonymity. Gamers love it. Government bodies fear it. But it's the driving force behind an ever-expanding, multibillion-dollar electronic entertainment industry. One of only a handful of well-received role playing games released this summer, Vampire continues to possess its players with what our young adventurer JLBlade describes as "lush graphics in an amazing fantasy world." Vampire follows a holy-crusader-turned-Nosferatu in old Europe and contemporary America as adventurers try to figure out the purpose of all this traveling. Unfortunately, for many, that purpose never presents itself, which is why 18-year-old Californian "ColdCut" plays just for the action. "There's really mostly not much story in this one. It's all hack and slash mostly." Even so, both ColdCut and JLBlade admit to putting in more than 25 hours a week draining veins in this imaginary universe, each seeking to put a temporary moratorium on life. "The more real they make the game world, the easier it is to escape. Vampire does that. That's why I mostly play," confesses ColdCut.
This farscape connectivity continues to beg those well-trodden questions: What are these Internet gamers trying to escape from, and why are some people more prone to seek escape? For 23-year-old graphic artist Ahid P. of North Carolina, gaming doesn't need to be so complicated. For him, it's just an extension of the human fantasy world. "Who didn't want to be Keanu Reeves in The Matrix? Every guy wants to be a super hero, whether they admit it or not. I'm not a violent person, but I love shooting off rounds of 10mm bullets in the game. I play Deus Ex because I like that feeling of being a secret agent. More than me. I know it's not real, but what's real anyway?" Of course, this blurring line between reality and fantasy still has the country worried sick more than a year after the discovery that the Columbine killers played gore-intensive computer games. President Clinton even ordered a study on the impact of games and violent movies, the results of which were not surprising: Entertainment executives admit they deliberately target a younger audience for films and games that teens are legally restricted from.
Released in late June and developed by the Austin branch of Dallas-based Ion Storm, the nontraditional RPG Deus Ex (Eidos Interactive, $44.99/PC, $49.99/Mac) comes tagged with a "Mature (17+)" rating, and yet, despite this stigma -- or perhaps because of it -- the title spent the summer in the top 10 U.S. retail sales charts. Following the exploits of an updated Lee Majors-type bionic government agent named J.C. Denton, Deus Ex focuses on uncovering the mother of all conspiracy theories, thwarting the spread of a lethal virus know as "Gray Death," and looking good in some fly-ass shades as you trot from New York to Paris and Hong Kong. Yet despite its short learning curve and high-detailed graphics, Deus Ex took a number of lumps from critics who lambasted it for its rather simplistic, Casio-keyboard-style-generated soundtrack and more than uneven voice talent. But Deus Ex continues to win audience share the same way the summer's only truly undisputed runaway blockbuster gaming hit Diablo II (Blizzard, $49.99, PC/Mac) does -- through a simple user interface. Along with Vampire and Deus Ex, Diablo II brandishes the "Mature (17+)" rating -- yet with current sales of more than two million copies, the sequel to the 1997 Game of the Year continues to pummel the competition on the racks at Best Buy. "Diablo II's addictive play mechanics feed on low-level human emotions," writes "Madagast," a pale-white, level 36 D2 Necromancer who hails from New York City. Of course, as any D2 player will testify, it wasn't initially easy to even play the game when it first hit the shelves this summer. Considerable overload on Blizzard Entertainment's servers prompted complaints from young gamers desperate for adventure and animated bloodshed. Always the loyal fan, Madagast comes to the defense of Blizzard like any devout worshipper would: "There was no way they could have anticipated the number of users wanting to log on in the first weeks. What you have to understand is that this is the largest online, multiuser client-server-based system ever -- it's amazing to me that it works at all." And yet, work it does. So well, in fact, that Blizzard announced on Sept. 1 the release of the Diablo II Expansion Set sometime in the first half of 2001. And so with every addition to the already mountainous stack of mature-rated titles, the debate continues: Does the Internet and its gaming industry simply act as a form of release, or is it something else entirely? Something that may be slowly, subtly eroding away the very humanity and identity that online gamers don't even realize they are in search of?
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