Thomas Edison said it best, "Change happens with ball-flattening speed."
by David Wong
If you don't know what an "MMORPG" is, don't worry. It's a geek term, like "e-mail" used to be a geek term. For now, let's just say it's the most instantly gripping, involving and demanding entertainment technology ever invented. The addiction rate appears to be about twice that of crack. There are 10 million MMORPG users in the world and their population is doubling every two years.
Hold your hand about 3 feet above your monitor. That's where the graph will be in 2010. It's an infection, it's a tsunami, it's a volcanic eruption. All at the same time, waiting, like a nest of plague-infested rats next to a ticking hydrogen bomb in an underwater volcano. Or, something. What I'm trying to say is, it's the next big thing.
Some of what you're about to read will sound like science fiction. You'll be tempted to dismiss me along with those who for decades have been predicting sentient robot maids and hotels on the moon. But for every delayed technology there is another sudden and completely unexpected advance that jumps us from the shadows. For instance, none of the illustrations used in the article below were done with human hands. Each was rendered automatically by a remarkable piece of software called Nedroid, which can scan any piece of text, "read" it for comprehension and, incredibly, render artwork to match the context.
Did you even know that was possible before now? Truly, this morning's science fiction is this afternoon's science not-fiction.
So where will MMORPGs will take us?
In your lifetime ...*
1. Everyone will look like a Greek god or goddess.
If you don't understand the gravitational pull of an MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game), I'm going to enlighten you with just a dozen words: You get to pick what you look like and what your talents are.
That's the real beauty of it. The first thing you do in the MMORPG World of Warcraft is design your own body and decide what your strengths will be. You pick your race. What could be more seductive than that, the ability to turn in all of the cards you were dealt at birth and draw new ones from a face-up deck? If you have friends who've gotten sucked into the WoW black hole and you don't understand why they never talk to you any more, this is it. I remember being a chubby teenager with bad skin and astigmatism and pants that didn't fit quite right. What would I have given to be reborn as a strapping warrior with rippling pecs and armor of hammered silver?
Rendered in .026 seconds, Nedroid Artsoft V 1.6
On that kid's screen now is a dozen noble warriors of exotic races, brandishing elaborate weapons and charging a gigantic demon across a fire-scarred mountaintop. The dwarf next to him is controlled by an accountant planted at his own computer in Cleveland, two babies sleeping in the next room and his pregnant wife on the sofa. The robed priest in the back casting healing spells is actually a 250-pound ex-gangster, playing from the computer lab of a maximum security prison in Pennsylvania. The elf on his left, sprinting and drawing his mighty magical bow, is the digital body of a wheelchair-bound, 12-year-old girl in Miami.
It's not just for fantasy geeks, of course. Even The Sims lets you pick a version of yourself with low body fat and cool hair. And, this idea is what's going to push the expansion of MMORPG technology in the way that porn pushed the expansion of the Internet, the desperate-but-untapped desire to interact with others without the bothersome interference of genetic flaws and poor diet and exercise habits.
But, it's not just the physical image that changes. In that world, I am a dragon slayer. There, my reputation and history are just as awe-inspiring as my look. Even now, much of the satisfaction for WoW gamers is in the very real sense of accomplishment they get, a person glowing with a burst of golden light when they gain a level in experience and strength. How can the real world compete with that? Wouldn't those long Calculus lectures have been easier to sit through if, every time you learned something important, gold light shot out from your body?
In the future, long after World of Warcraft has gone the way of ARPANET, everyone will have a virtual-world twin. An upgraded, digital representative of yourself which I'll henceforth refer to as Awesome You. And you'll see a time in your life when more people know Awesome You than know the real you.
Some people live like that already.
2. All will play in the same virtual world.
Gamers rejoiced back in April when it was announced that Blizzard, Square/Enix and Sony were merging their virtual worlds so that online characters from one game could stride seamlessly into another. It made perfect business sense and I was the first to say I wasn't at all surprised by the news. I had been predicting it for months. The fact that it turned out to be an April Fool's joke and entirely false only proves my point. Ahem.
As this kind of community gaming becomes the nation's pastime, convenience will demand that some day each person's online identity be able to move from one realm to the next, from the suburbs of the next Sims Online game to WoW's Spiderskull Mountain. And with that convergence of virtual worlds we'll have the first real, primitive incarnation of something not unlike the matrix, or what old science fiction authors called the metaverse. A simulated, virtual world.
You won't have to be into fantasy to participate. You can spend your gaming time in a virtual suburb and build a virtual family and enjoy growing a virtual garden, while your best friend goes off to fight the Orcs of Thunderclaw Valley. Your cousin can go re-fight World War II every day. It will still be mainly a game at this stage of its evolution, but as the experience is tailored to every single taste (all under one virtual roof) more and more people will participate. And once everybody's there, why not do all of your chatting and text messaging there? Half of the WoW experience seems to be just a beautifully-rendered and animated chat interface anyway.
The first steps will likely come with the next game consoles, expanding the pool of gamers beyond those with pimped-out gaming PCs. The PlayStation 3 will have at least one huge MMORPG on it (Final Fantasy VII). The Xbox 360 should have World of Warcraft. And then if you get the console users hooked, and if the the console makers succeed in their plan to get a box in every single house in the civilized world, and then if they expand the interface so you can use your cell phone to check in on your game ... You get the idea.
3. Someone will go to jail for stealing a Bonebiter.
You may have heard about a guy who recently was convicted of murdering a man during a dispute over a rare, valuable sword. That sword that was not made of metal or anything solid, but rather of 1s and 0s inside a computer hundreds of miles away. It was a sword he had won in the MMORPG Legend of Mir 3.
Insane, right? I mean, let's say our friend John has his Bonebiter (one of countless powerful weapons in WoW) and a man steals it somehow. Should the thief be convicted of a crime and punished in the real world? Did you snort with laughter at that question? Why?
Rendered in 4.16 seconds, Nedroid Artsoft V 1.6
The victim worked many hours to "earn" the object. The victim used it daily and depended on it. He derived happiness and satisfaction from it. So why shouldn't depriving him of it be punishable by law? If you say, "but it's just something he used in a game," I'll say that golf is also just a game. Want to see what happens to me when I steal a new set of golf clubs?
If you say, "but the Bonebiter doesn't even exist," I'll say it exists in exactly the same way that the songs and software I download off Bittorrent exist. And yet, stealing them is a crime. The only difference is that when I steal a song, nobody else is deprived of the song. When that guy stole John's Bonebiter, he was left unarmed and forced to go find a replacement. That theft actually hurts more, not less.
So when will we start to see laws prohibiting the theft and misuse of game-world objects? As soon as members of the gaming generation become lawmakers, that's when.
4. You'll meet someone who plays an MMORPG for a living.
Let's take this a little bit further. You earn gold in World of Warcraft, gold with which you can buy these in-game objects. If this game gold is truly valuable to my life, if it lets me get more value out of the pasttime I already pay real-world money for, what's to stop me from paying real money for game money? Nothing. Go to Ebay and do a search for World of Warcraft Gold and let your jaw drop open.
Here, we have game currency being traded for real currency, and at a better exchange rate than the Iraqi Dinar.
If we go further, still, we can imagine a person winning rare weapons and selling them on auction sites or directly to other players they meet. We can imagine somebody working full time to gather in-game gold by slaying gold-shitting squirrels (or whatever you do to get gold in the game) and then exchanging it for real dollars to pay the real rent with. Sure, it may be decades before you see this kind of ...
Oh, wait. There are people doing that right now.
And, if you're chuckling and shaking your head at the glazed-eyed geeks who can't tell the difference between game money and real money, let me ask you something: When Square bought Enix for $727 million two years ago, do you think they actually stacked crate after crate of cash on a flatbed truck and then drove the $727 million over to their offices?
No. That money only existed as numbers in a computer. In fact, not even 10 percent of the money in the American economy exists as physical, printed currency. All of the rest exists on servers and hard drives and in the imaginations of the people. It has value for the exact same reason WoW gold has value, because people think it has value.
I'm guessing that if you started this article thinking it was a joke, this is the point when you sobered up and realized that, as author H.G. Wells predicted, "the future will accost us with boob-slapping ferocity."
5. They'll take the "G" out of "MMORPG."
We'll stop thinking of the online world as a game right around the time you find yourself strolling through Witchblade Village, or some such fictional online town, and see a Target store open there. You'll enter it just like you do the in-game stores, and you'll be able to view the merchandise in real time 3D, pick up objects and turn them over in your virtual hands, and buy them the same as if you did it on Amazon.com.
So now our fledgling metaverse isn't just a place to slay computer-generated dragons and Nazis. Now, it's where you go to shop, to chat, to have cybersex with actual nudity and everything.
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Just think of how porn changes when the user also gets to go in with the toned body of an underwear model. It'll make our current online porn look like just the tip of the assberg.
The joy of experiencing life as Awesome You, as the stronger, handsomer avatar of yourself, will take all of those activities to another plane of cool. The casinos will be there, the movies will play there, concerts will be performed there. The metaverse will stop being a playhouse and will start becoming the interface through which we interact with reality. And every step you take will be as Awesome You. Cool, beautiful, confident.
Nothing invented yet has had such universal appeal.
6. You will find yourself momentarily forgetting whether you're in the real or virtual world.
Fans were astonished when a leaked video depicted a Nintendo virtual reality headset intended for its upcoming system, complete with high-resolution 3D screens and surround-sound earpieces. That it turned out to be a hoax put forth by a lonely, psychotic fan should not detract from the amazement. Today's hoax is always tomorrow's reality (except for that fake picture of the guy holding a huge cat.)
What is not a hoax is this machine somebody invented that operates on the user's thoughts. Yeah, that's right. You think it, the machine does it. That machine exists right now, as you're reading this.
Total immersion, the kind that could really fool you, won't happen tomorrow. But as time goes on it is absolutely inevitable that the graphics will become life quality, that visual displays light years beyond monitors or cumbersome headsets will hit the market. The keyboard and mouse will be long gone, everything done by thought and voice. It is the logical end of everything game developers and console makers are trying to do today and they will not stop until they have it.
And that, my friends, will be a watershed moment in human history. The point where we can trick the senses into thinking a piece of software is real, thinking a real supermodel is in our bed or a dragon is in our front yard or our dead mother has come back to give us advice, that's when everything changes. The metaverse will still be less important in many fundamental ways. Goods won't be produced there; food won't be grown there; babies won't be born there. But in the minds of a whole lot o' people, visits to the physical world will be just brief interruptions to the "real" world as they live it, the world where all of their friends and hobbies and ambitions are.
7. You'll meet a couple who have been married for years and have never seen each other's real-life faces.
If the metaverse interface is good enough, why not? You have a woman who, in real life, weighs 400 pounds and has a thick, neatly-trimmed beard. But she has a heart of gold. A thousand miles away you have a guy with three eyebrows and a hairlip. In reality, he lives in a trailer with his 14 cats. In the metaverse, he lives in a stone palace with 14 magical flying cats. They marry, the woman showing herself as a beautiful princess, the man a handsome prince. What do they lose by not meeting in the flesh (or "meating" as they will call it)?
If you're one of the thousands of people I just heard shout, "sex!" you're being naive. If you think the interface technology will go this far without developing a damned good and convincing sexual intercourse device, then you understand nothing about the world. Hell, if you Google it, you'll probably find one for sale already.
Can anyone prove that such a marriage would be less "real" than the ones we have now? Are not economic hardship and increasingly unattractive, flabby bodies the main (though often unspoken) reason couples spend more and more time badgering each other as the years wear on? Neither, in a perfect world, should be valid reasons to kill off the flower of romantic love. So doesn't the metaverse actually remove a layer of bullshit in that case? Doesn't the symbolic princess with her fair skin and spill of blonde hair more accurately represent the kindness of the aforementioned woman than the bloated body life really gave her? So, why not use it instead?
Rendered in 43.1 seconds, Nedroid Artsoft V 1.6
Once again, if this seems ridiculous and alien, remember how many societies had (hell, still have) arranged marriages, often where the groom didn't see the bride's face until their wedding night. Wasn't the change from that to the modern method of getting matched up with girls by Internet dating sites just as strange?
Aristotle said it best: "Society is a house, change is a tornado full of woodpeckers."
8. There will be a branch of government to rule the virtual world.
If we're going to make theft illegal in the metaverse (and hackers will always devise ways to steal, or at least vandalize, digital goods), someone has to make and enforce those laws. Obviously no team of IT guys or game moderators will get to decide how the everyday lives of billions are lived, arbitrarily giving and taking goods and abilities as they see fit. Would not a common punishment in the virtual world be to shave a foot off a person's height and add 150 pounds to their weight?
But, this raises an avalanche of questions. First, do you limit the amount of "gold" available in the game? You'd have to, once real-world goods can be purchased by metaverse gold (or whatever is used for currency in the virtual world). The exchange rate with real currency and the inflation rate of the virtual currency both become key as corporations depend on both for their profit.
If you don't understand the complication here, remember that in the metaverse if you want a 36-room mansion with a giant guitar-shaped pool, you can have it for free. No construction crew needs to be paid to build it, no materials have to be bought, no piece of real property had to be bought or paid for. It's just bits and bytes. So do you even have "gold" in the metaverse at all? How would it have any value if goods can be created from thin air, for free? What if I'm an interior decorator in the metaverse, going around and using my creativity to dress up their virtual homes for pay? How do they pay me for my effort and time? How do I, in turn, pay for porn?
If you say, fine, we'll just have to go back to using real money to pay for things, remember that real money means nothing to me because I don't spend any time in the real world. What am I going to do, buy a real metal-and-rubber car? For what? Where do I drive? It'd be like Monopoly money to me.
But wait, there's more. What about those who live in different countries in the real world--and under different laws--but who inhabit the same household in the metaverse? Which laws apply? Are metaverse laws universal? How could you get everyone from different cultures to agree to the same set of metaverse laws?
Would prostitution be legal? Especially if there is no real body-on-body contact with the real hooker? If not, what if the prostitute isn't even controlled by a real woman but is just a bot program meant to simulate one?
What about the customers who want to simulate sex with a bot who looks like a 6-year-old? Legal? Illegal? No real child is being harmed.
And just how do you punish a rape committed by one virtual character on another, if the real person's body is left untouched?
9. There will be a whole class of wealthy people without a dime to their name.
The trailer park guy I mentioned before--the one with a virtual world palace--brings us to yet a new plane of strangeness to consider. In the metaverse, unlike real life, everyone can be wealthy. It doesn't matter if you have actually invented anything or held a job of great responsibility or even came from a family of great wealth. Metaverse wealth has nothing to do with life achievement because there is no reason every man can't be a king there. As I said, it doesn't cost the metaverse servers any more effort or resources to render you a sprawling estate than it does to give you a one-bedroom efficiency apartment in the basement.
You get to live a king's lifestyle, without a king's responsibilities.
This is another reason the real world won't be able to keep up with the virtual world once it takes hold. Imagine an unskilled kid, doing a minimum-wage job like data entry from home. The job pays poverty-level money in the real world, but pays a fortune in virtual gold. For the guy, his smelly one-bedroom apartment is nothing but a storage area for food. It needs only three rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom, and then a little room with a comfy chair he uses to jack into the metaverse. The real apartment becomes only an unpleasant little commute on the way to his "real" life. Hell, you could even sleep in the metaverse, the interface tricking you into thinking you're lounging on a king-size bed with sheets of silk.
This works out wonderfully for society, as you now have entire classes of the population who live in what used to be considered abject poverty, and are thrilled with it. You can give them everything they want and need with 200 square feet of apartment and enough electricity to run the metaverse interface. Their food can be chewy protein bars that the interface will convince them is a five-course meal.
Most jobs will be online and can be done from within the metaverse (most manufacturing and farming and manual labor will be done with robots at this point, or, as I predict, genetically-engineered land dolphins). If you work the complaint counter at a government office, the office will exist only in the metaverse and thus neither the worker nor the complainer need leave their homes. And get this: If the complainer explodes in rage and tries to attack the guy behind the counter, no one is harmed. You can't really hurt anyone from within the metaverse.
10. The rise of the metaverse will go almost completely unopposed.
You won't have to trick people into jacking themselves into this one. It legitimately makes their lives better. Everything we've done a as a civilization from the caves until now has been about making a better world. Well, the metaverse will just be a shortcut, won't it? We'll have our Utopia of unlimited wealth and friction-free homogeny.
Population growth will be kept easily under control, since most sexual partners will live separately and won't be having meat sex at all (A guy can't get a girl pregnant from 100 miles away unless he's, you know, me.). To have an actual baby will take so much effort and planning that only those who really want one will get one. That would have to be a change for the better, right?
The people are ripe for it. You've heard stories about how ticket sales are plummeting at movie theaters, in favor of home DVD viewing. Why? Why do so many people want to work from home now? Because we're sick of having to sit with other people. We want that extra layer of control that meat interaction will never give us. We want a world without the unpredictability of real, unrestrained humanity.
This could not have been attempted say, 100 years ago, even if the technology had been around. Back then people believed in all sorts of unchangeable gods and spirits and philosophies that live beyond what a person can see and smell and taste in front of them. But the Age of Reason did away with all of that, taught everyone to believe in nothing but the real, physical world. And if the stream of sense data we call "the real, physical world" can be altered to display a superior world, then it's impossible to say with any conviction that anything has really been lost in the transition. The modern "I believe it when I see it" religion will be satisfied by simply giving them something new to see.
It was only a matter of time. Humans got fed up with this world, and so we invented a new one. I suspect some theologian will come forward in the future to suggest that, in fact, our world was created in the same way. The gods got sick of their boring spiritual realm and made a more exciting, physical one to replace it.
You shouldn't be disturbed by this. Jules Verne was wrong when he said, "the future is a jockstrap made of bees." Anything manufactured by machine is destined to be better and more free of defect than anything created with human hands. Why not extend this idea to reality itself? It's the end of evolution, and I welcome it.
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There is nothing to fear, and it will happen in your lifetime. Unless you're already old or have a terminal disease.
NOTE: This article was first published on Pointless Waste of Time in late 2005. Approximately 18 months later Sony unveiled PS3 Home, a virtual world with every PS3 console connected, where you live as a highly-detailed and completely customizable avatar.
David Wong is currently an Associate Editor for Cracked.com. He also wrote The Next 25 Years of Video Games.