With the gaming industry now a bigger money-
spinner than the original dream factory: Hollywood, Leon Fleming takes a look at the reality of fantasy.
In galaxies far away; on worlds undiscovered; in futures yet to be imagined; there are realms to explore, lands to be conquered, and quests to be won. I think most people will know someone who has at some point thought about getting involved in fantasy role-playing games; whether it be the physical kind in the grounds of some castle somewhere with rubber swords, or huddled around a board with plastic figurines and a hand of character cards, or in more recent years, on consoles and computers where you can fight magical beasts and complete mythical tasks from the comfort of your dark and musty-smelling bedroom.
I remember back when I was a teenager, I was one of those non-sporty types who for a little while flirted furtively on the edges of the fantasy gaming world. I have come to a point in my life where I am able now to admit that I had some friends who were into it, spending their Saturday afternoons in Games Workshop discussing the pros and cons of Dungeons and Dragons and Warhammer4000.
For those who are unaware of such places, Games Workshop is a huge chain of shops in the UK that sell the fantasy board games and all that goes with them; the books, the models of castles and medieval-style battle paraphernalia, as well as the little figures of Elves and Orcs, Goblins and Wizards. Often at the centre of the shop would be a table set up like some battlefield from Lord of the Rings, and surrounding it would be a number of geeky-looking teenage boys like myself, and a few even geekier-looking adults, all playing Warhammer or one of the other popular fantasy role-playing games; in a very serious manner, arguing over whose Mage had the greatest power, and whether an Orc could kill an Elf if he was riding a Battle Beast. Fortunately for my development into an adult, the complicated nature of these games and the seriousness to which other gamers pursued them saved me from being absorbed completely into these wars fought by the pimpled and bespectacled for energy points and magic points, and every other kind of point imaginable.
But should I feel the need I can now immerse myself into fantasy gaming at a pace which is my own, because these worlds and quests have their own computer and console versions, and what’s more, they are interactive, they are online, and the other characters in the game are other real people sat at the their computers all over the world. So I can spend the evening as an axe-wielding dwarf, killing the goblins who are drooling over some scantily clad elf, who perhaps is really a socially inept, slightly overweight thirty-eight year old lady in Tokyo.
One of the most fun parts of computerised fantasy gaming is that you get to redesign yourself as a character in the game; a creature that will represent you, fight as you and talk as you. Do I create an avatar that accurately represents my physical form and personality attributes: a character that is of less than average height, carrying a few more pounds than is attractive or proportional, whose slightly receding mousy brown hair is heavily flecked with grey, and who has all the sporting prowess of a less than mediocre tiddly-wink player?
No. Basically, no, that is nothing like what I go for. Instead I build myself as a six-foot-eight, muscle-bound, blond haired, chisel jawed, Scandinavian warrior-god. The anonymity that the internet can provide is often one of the most wonderful things about it.
There are cases, many in fact, of young men, mainly young men anyway, who claim to be addicted to this kind of online fantasy gaming. And it is true that there are some who are so absorbed that they do not sleep at night, do not go out during the day, do not go to school, do not work, and avoid interaction with other actual physical human beings in the real world. Is this an addiction? Or is it really an obsession?
In preparation for this piece I have spent some time playing one of the most popular online fantasy games; and have I become addicted? Have I been compelled to close off the outside world from me so that I can immerse myself completely in the fictional land where my warrior-self can rise through the levels of magic and experience?
No. I am not addicted, and to be quite honest, there have been times when I have been so unaffected by the thrill of gaining points for this and that or chatting with the characters within the game, that I have walked my character into the nearest body of water and allowed him to drown. So I don’t think it will matter how much more of my short human life I allow to pass me by while I sit pensive in the dark in front of my computer monitor; I think it is safe to assume that I will at no point become a victim of online fantasy role-play gaming addiction.
As well designed and developed as these games are, I would much rather read a book, watch a film, sleep, talk to someone, anyone. Anyone at all.
This I think says something not only about me, but about those that do become embroiled in this kind of gaming to the point that they may be considered an addict. Perhaps it is not the game that is the problem, this thing that holds what are mostly teenage boys and young men away from reality. Perhaps there is something wrong with our real world that these people feel is unable to embrace them or take seriously their fears. The problem is not necessarily theirs, but maybe it is ours.