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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?