30.4.14

The Dark Side

Not an hour after James, Jared and I said our goodbyes, I was back in Galaxies. Alongside acceptance at the University of Hawaiʻi and a job as a fish restaurant busboy, things got manageable with the folks. Business also picked up on Talus. Getting serious about home furnishings, I’d eventually notice that the most coveted luxury décor, i.e. 'a broken lightsaber', would occasionally be offered on market for a couple hundred credits (common resale, 10,000-100,000 credits). Some “artifacts” could be picked up infinitely – no agonizing over resource quality, or dealing with shady Krayt Dragon hunting parties. Niche ahoy! Artifact Dealer. It wasn't long before I had prime merchant real estate in Coro-Compton, and the loot one needs to become a Jedi.

“Unlocking the Jedi Slot” a.k.a. “The Jedi Grind” a.k.a. “Kill Yourself, Sony” was, and perhaps remains, the most soul-grating time sink in the history of the MMO. George Lucas told Sony Online that they, “Could not include Jedi.” Their response was to make the process so utterly onerous, so completely secret, that they hoped to never see a Jedi. And yet, what better to a whole world of imaginative geeks than uncovering the esoteric mysteries of The Force? Once I’d gotten around to it, the esoteric mysteries were thoroughly uncovered, dissected, and loathed.

The sacred path to Jedi involved mastering four to seven of the game’s 33 professions (mastering Architect and Medic had taken me months – though that’d been without the geyser of cash brought on by “artifacts”). Sadly, the professions each character needed were secret, and random. Jedi Holocrons – softly glowing blue boxes – revealed all but the last profession, where they offered the text, 

“The Holocron is quiet. The ancients’ knowledge of the Force will no longer assist you on your journey. You must continue seeking on your own.”

I slowly surrendered hard-won Architect and Marksman skills, learning Bio-engineer, then Commando, and then Galaxies’s answer to Kung-Fu: Teras-Kasi Artist. With the intensity building, I ventured out in search of my own hard-won Holocrons. Find them I did: boxes that glowed a violent red. Sith Holocrons. It was on opening one of these the Holocron imparted no further knowledge.

In Gig Harbor, the general manager at my restaurant job seemed unable to grasp that years of gaming did not certify me to balance fourteen full glasses of icewater on one hand, while using the other to squeeze the green plastic cups between bulging socialites. Slapstick ensues. Consistently failing such dexterity checks made me unpopular, the sleep-deprived and caffeine-addled punishment for under-performing members of the wait staff. Then, well after a hasty firing was in order, the appropriate looks of derision and malice stopped. Tips increased. Everyone at the restaurant became… friendly. Warily, I accepted an invitation out drinking with the chefs and the bar staff. I was – much to my amazement – not stabbed. So preoccupied was I with Galaxies, that it literally took weeks before I’d realize what naïve faux-paus had changed my fortunes so drastically. The only important detail seemed that the rest of life was getting to be pretty fun too. The white and sheltered University of Washington graduate was getting a crash course in heavy drug and alcohol abuse, petty crime, and party-crashing, all under the tutelage of accomplished masters.

Back in Galaxies, grinding through random professions had gotten to be too much, especially after Master Doctor. Instead I ventured deep into the prosaic birthplace of The Force. A place I’d superstitiously avoided since my earliest days. Home to the rancors, and littered with caves and camps of the deadliest Force-infused humanoids: the Night Sisters. Armored in illegally sliced 90% composite, stocked with the luxuriously expensive healing gear of the Master Doctor, and temporarily empowered, or “buffed” by my own doctorly prowess. During the day I’d hunt and fetch rare “artifacts,” for my décor business, growing a war chest in the tens, occasionally hundreds of millions of credits. At night I’d venture out on high-stakes exploration, alone, on the dark and miserable surface of Dathomir.

Except on the nights with high bonfires, hundreds of people dancing in Douglas fir-encircled fields of dark, rainy and miserable Middle of Nowhere, WA. Black-out drinking, I was that solitary male asshole up on the makeshift plywood stage, dancing with the half-naked women. On one such night, between shots of Goldschläger at a trailer park, I played Halo for the first time. These guys and gals – who might not ever admit to playing games – were godly at Halo. It set a tone. That peculiar evening now comes to mind any time I’m getting murdered on any Xbox shooter game.

In Galaxies the Jedi Grind was no longer a priority. Killing whole families of rancors was long passé.  A Twi’lek exotic dancer working a backwater moon was all too happy to toss that and go on an intergalactic shopping spree. We went and earned some “badges,” which also set a tone. Since then, in-game achievements (whether they’re called badges, ranks, whatever) always seem the last resort of the drowning victim, the gamer who clutches greedy nails into anything that’ll keep him breathing digital air just a little longer. I followed Phobius to The Empire. Changed my face. Turned to the Dark Side.

My first and only experience with Madden Football was after a long night of binge drinking, bong-hitting, and fiddling with oversized firearms. The Sous-Chef was betting a half grand against the Head Bartender, and after further gratuitous bong hits they upped the ante to double-or-nothing. Suddenly I understood my invitations to restaurant escapades. It was that bulging plastic freezer bag – heavy with a fragrant green substance – five or six hundred bucks worth. Overhearing the Head Bartender mention Something Like That, I figured he’d make sure it got back to its rightful owner.

You live and you learn.

My new Imperial guild was teaming up with expert bounty hunters to hunt one of the server’s most notorious Jedi Guardians, a powerful warrior on the cusp of becoming a Master. The buildup took hours, with buffing and intelligence on his movements coming in slow.

And then – out of the blue – it was time to pounce.

The Jedi Guardian was protected by maybe a dozen Rebels, all lounging in a remote desert cantina. Within twenty seconds everyone had been killed, save three on our side and the Guardian. After fifteen minutes of fighting through the streets of this desert town, then giving chase up the side of a mountain, Phobius was killed. At the mountain’s peak, another fifteen minutes later, the Imperial bounty hunter fell – leaving me and the Jedi. We fought another twenty minutes, learning each other’s weaknesses and styles, but I – with my evil face and evil demeanor – would be the winner. The Jedi couldn't permanently wound a fish with so many overpriced healing tricks – and his health gradually dropped. He had impressive abilities to regenerate and press attack – but I’d learned them (firsthand, which “real gamers” don't cotton to these days) – I countered them all. The sun was rising. He panicked, tried to run. I knocked him down, started laying in.

He was mine.

And then, about ten of the individually-weak cantina Rebels attacked from behind. Slowed me, kicked me to the ground, and delivered the killing blow.

The volume was at eleven, but I couldn’t hear the music.

--

Escape

Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien supposed that literal magic pulled us into stories. He also supposed that detractors of fantasy were clearly confused, on some points. In his roughly 70-year-old lecture On Faerie Stories, Tolkien makes a distinction between the Escape of the Prisoner and the Flight of the Deserter.

He laments an Oxford clerk who welcomed the “real life” invited by roaring of factories and mass-production. For one, Tolkien supposed the term “real life” a bit odd. “The notion that motor-cars are more “alive” than, say, centaurs or dragons is curious; that they are more “real” than, say, horses is pathetically absurd. How real, how startlingly alive is a factory chimney compared with an elm-tree: poor obsolete thing, insubstantial dream of the escapist!”

To say nothing of the gasses, machine-guns, and other variegated weapons of mass-production.

As much as escape is chided by the champions of industry, there are a few kinds of escape worth our consideration. In the first, we appreciate older times, “…when men were as a rule delighted with the work of their hands,” as opposed to the present, where it’s more common to, “…feel disgust with man-made things.” He has no problem, at all, if we want to fly from, “the noise, stench, ruthlessness, and extravagance of the internal-combustion engine.”

But also the, “hunger, thirst, poverty, pain, sorrow, injustice...”

Or more ancient limitations, which sit at the heart of fantasy. “…the desire to visit, free as a fish, the deep sea; or the longing for the noiseless, gracious, economical flight of a bird…” Tolkien calls such desires the root of our love of such escapes. Wishing to connect to life, to people and their stories, to understand the living things in the forests and oceans: these aren’t lesser desires. We want to converse with every other living thing – but will probably laugh at the guy claiming to speak “bird.” Fantasy is the answer. Tolkien calls that desire to conference with all things “as ancient as the Fall.” All these escapes have deeper, older meanings that we can lose touch with, especially where culture is reduced to repetitive jingles and complex branding initiatives.

“Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.”

Fantasy allows us one more escape, “the oldest and deepest desire, the Great Escape: the Escape from Death.” Which he supposes the hallmark of the genuine escapist, or “fugitive spirit.” In this we can come closest to giving a reader, or viewer, or player, a taste of something utterly powerful, beyond even a story: eucatastrophe. That beautiful feeling when all is truly lost, and yet our heroes find the “turn” in despite. Where we pull through, and survive. Escaping like that moves us. We bring it into the other parts of our lives, and persevere, despite the cold marches of “real life.”

--


It Could Happen to the Bishop

I love vulgarity. Reading some of the shit twenty-two-year-old Neils saw fit to scribble in a leather-bound travel journal? Still gripped by his bloodlust of gaming and angst? It's a disheartening counterpoint. I won't venture too deep into direct quotes – the scrotal and anal irregularities one encounters on a fourteen hour flight, the wistful depictions of urinating into a 1.5 liter bottle during a nonstop five hour bus ride. Even the kind words of the elderly Irish gentlemen sitting next to you, on a nonstop five hour bus ride,

“Don’t worry, lad. We have this saying: It could happen to The Bishop.”

Pretty sure the Bishop knows not to drink 1.5 liters of water, on a nonstop five hour bus ride.

Point is, not long after I get a continent away from Galaxies? My brain appears to, I don't know, reset itself.

A week after the bus incident, I meet the kind of classy, gorgeous lady I’d only ever have a chance with because of an extravagant accent. Scribbling turns to poetry (the not-terrible kind – a trick I haven't figured out since). We spend a night walking the deserted Wellington waterfront. We're laughing one second, and the next our faces are too close. Things slow down, and the last few months cease to matter. I’d gone my entire life without that specific gravity. And Wellington emptied of people – but full of trees, life-sized Cave Trolls, and a wyvern-riding Witch King – was beautiful. She and I each had someone across a body of water, but I kissed her on the cheek.

Yeah, sorry. That’s all that happened. I’m a good little nerd, okay?

Still!

This was life at age twenty-two: effulgent, unstoppable; Galaxies holding it hostage. I'd stay in this nerdy city. Find work, and romance, figure things out, and never again touch a videogame.

Or, I could get accepted into grad school, fly home, and leap back into the mire. I did that second thing. Three days after touching back down at SeaTac, the magic of Wellington already evaporating, I’d write:

April 3, 2004 – It seems fitting to write while a pack is on my back, and I’m standing in the sun. 
Some East-siders are coming over this week – for the first time. I’m HIGHLY curious to see how this turns out, if at all. 
There’s nothing I can say to keep you from falling into laze, malaise, and apathy. I know you want that one sentence – the one that is immediately and lastingly motivational – meaningfully inspiring. It just doesn’t exist. What exists is the now, and if you’re so far gone that you can’t even try to enjoy the present – or at least appreciate the humor of its travesty… 
Then you’re in luck. That means it’s time to go traveling.

Those East-siders were Magni and Azrael. The following week, the then-high school seniors made the four-hour drive over Snoqualmie Pass, the mountains separating brown Eastern Washington barrens from grey Seattle drizzle.

Meeting online friends in person is always unique, and almost never what you’d expect. I couldn’t have asked for better than Jared and James. Jared – “Sasquatch” in friendly conversation and “Magni Jormund” in Galaxies – sports a commanding presence and messy mutton chops. James – often “Gnome” for his stature – always seems to regard his surroundings with darting, intelligent eyes. Over a weekend we explored Seattle, drunkenly wandered Gig Harbor at 3AM, and engaged in light criminal trespass. We got a picture of James and Jared with, “Neils and his dad,” which featured the most intensely pedophilic-looking 45-year-old fisherman we could find wandering the harbor, along with his 70-something father. Think a redheaded Zach Galifianakis and an age-progressed John Malkovich, linking arms with two bright-eyed high schoolers.

Jared would later show this photograph to his mother.

She said, “Oh he looks nice.”

--

Back to chapter introduction

Next: Escape >>

15.4.14

Between Two Deserts

I don't always write narrative poetry. When I do, I write speculative narrative poetry.

--

My malady came from an old hotel
Where time ain't much of consequence
Heard 'bout it riding trains to Baghdad
Drinking coffee to ease my mind

Not every traveler finds it
These Turks said with some disinterest
So I asked 'em what to look for
Got told I could mind my business

Old Colt Army had I
Put to the Turk's eye
Found it in his heart
To loosen that tongue

Tells me about this half-blown town
Nestled 'tween desert and ocean
And every night the dying sun
Points through the square where time's tides run

Aims at a hotel, tall and orange
Flanked by palms and tents and fountains
"But wait for sundown," whined the Turk
"It is only found in the last light of day."

In the square, my back to the sea
I sit a spell and wait, and wait
Watching shadows paint a withered finger
Scratching at the hotel's old side-door

I brush off the dust, walk toward that door
Its hinges shriek like locomotive brakes
Find myself followin' my own
Dusty boots into the darkness

Before eyes have time to adjust
An Englishman says, "Good evening
"But it troubles me to ask, sir,
"Your name. Have you reservations?"

"Not as such," I say. "As for names,
"Let's just say I'll tempt the fates.
"Once claimed bounty on wanted men
"Faked my death, now here I am."

Was then my eyes could see the man
Pale blue ghost, with a tall head wrap
Eyed me awhile, smiled, and said,
"Checkout by noon, my American friend."

With that he vanished, like the heat
Inside was cool and candle-lit
Found my room, looked to the courtyard
Saw the only other guest I'd see

Oriental lady
Says with a perfect New York lilt
"Kissing you takes me
To a better time."

Next day, that strange woman was gone
But she left a letter I still keep
Got out of bed, threw my clothes on
Dropped off my key and didn't look back


11.4.14

Freedom

The very best comparison I have, for that moment of logging into a big game for the first time, is stepping off the plane in a foreign country. You’ve got a backpack full of things you may need. You’ve got your experiences till now, as a human being. Maybe a little cash in pocket.

Everything else is new.

I tend to fuck up those first few hours.

In a bus that was rapidly leaving downtown Auckland, I distinctly remember walking up to the bus driver and asking him, “We pass that hostel yet?”

Him saying, “Oh yeeh mate, sorry! We passed it fifteen minutes ago, but I keen drop you off here.”

And he did, he dropped me off at one of the biggest, most beautiful graveyards I’d ever seen. Old stone markers and tombs in tall grass, the waterfront off in the background, gentle breeze. My first time traveling alone, outside the country, and I’m in a graveyard where my anus was bleeding. It was the “synthetic fiber undergarment” a friend had been kind enough to get me, for long days of hiking. I never did tell them how or why those sandpaper undies made it to a Kiwi trash bin.

Nor did it help that, being an American traveler in 2004, fresh after George W. Bush’s somewhat unpopular invasion of Iraq, most walking directions I got were comically incorrect. With my enormous backpack and chafed undercarriage, I discovered the hostel after approximately five hours.

Pretty stoked to be alive. And able to gingerly lay down.

Even after that, neither the pain in my ass nor the sniggering locals could come close to the simple joy of just wandering in a place that was new. Seriously, I understand that this it may seem strange, at first, that I regarded this rough introduction with boundless gratitude. Stumbling into a hole-in-the-wall with one of the most delicious baskets of fish and chips I’ve ever encountered. The light off the water, at the end of a pier. A group of regular folk playing rugby at a park. Trees producing what appeared to be oversized ferns, along with the subtle botanical and cultural differences around every corner. Dropped off in the graveyard, with a history of free-form exploring in games, I forget the pain and have an adventure.

A few days and a train ride later, I found myself in a city named Hamilton, where at 8AM two men were hanging out the window of the local pub, both blindingly drunk. With startling coordination, one latched onto my arm.

“Yer a backpacker! Yer ass better get back here once you drop that pack. I’m getting married today.”

My ass had not yet properly healed. I wanted to sleep. I stammered, decried his aggressive drunken insistence, then acquiesced like a good nerd. I could have just stayed in the hostel.

Stepping into the pub, I was immediately greeted with “not quite proper, but surely not the worst,” Guinness. It was cold, and good. The youngest at the table was a 13-year-old girl, the oldest a leathery-tanned 81-year-old who still surfed the Gold Coast of Australia. Or so he said.

“Ya see, we Kiwis love backpackers,” said the groom-to-be. “Because we’re all backpackers.”

“It’s true,” says his brother. “If everyone came back at the same time, the island ’d sink!”

And it’s to do with love, too,” says the groom, putting an arm around his fiancé. “You need to travel the world before you find the right woman for you. I been to Asia, France, Germany, Sweden, I been everywhere. But this lady here, she’s from Scotland!”

Then we talk about love, weddings, beer, and before I can promise to attend the ceremony I drunkenly vanish from the party, stagger across six lanes of traffic, and pass out in a Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The next day I meet back up with a German traveling buddy. We travel across an ocean to the South Island.

The stars there are brighter than anywhere I’ve seen. I go back across the ocean. On a hill overlooking Wellington, I watch part of a cricket game with the proper British version of a womanizing bro (“I always go for the ugly ones, you see. They’re quite a lot more energetic, and the lights are off anyway.”). At the hostel I get cornered by three Australian forensic scientists, and their 2-liter bottle of duty-free vodka.

That kind of exploratory chaos is a lot like the beginning of most games. Before grinds and weirdos and routines get their claws in us, we’re free to pursue every new thing. It’s a beautiful feeling, wherever you find it.

--


2.4.14

Falling In

The sun was up and shining outside the other bedroom window. While the world woke, I shut down my ailing jet-engine PC and snuggled in on an inflatable green mattress. Summer had always been that time best suited for cracking open new games. And wasn’t this recent college graduate all but owed a break before kowtowing to a life of soul-shredding careerism? Mom and dad wouldn’t mind.

And maybe they didn’t, on week two or three, or twelve. But by the point Galaxies really got going, I was already well-entangled in this other game called don’t get kicked out. Job applications, all to extravagant positions at games companies, all fueled by caffeine overdose, angst and procrastination, all politely refused or unanswered for months. Mom would give me time to figure this life thing out. Dad wanted a plan. Both, more than anything, wanted me to build a healthy and satisfying life; both set up smart boundaries, when they could corner me for conversation.

Easier said than done.

My bedroom’s side window was preferable to the front door as an entry and exit point, when exercise or escape became absolutely necessary. The house had a dozen kinds of nightingale floorboard.  The front door cried like a cat in heat. Socks had to be worn on hardwood floors, at all times. To my parents I was the ghost in the side room: unpredictable if disturbed, and rarely visible to the naked eye. The blind corners of my odd bedroom and large desk made for great comic stealth. In my own mind I was the plucky ninja, living undetected in the heart of the samurai fortress.

Meanwhile, the sheer depth of Galaxies, the volition and promise of that universe, hit me like meth. I started going twenty, twenty-two hours at a time if I could, fueled by five-shot espressos and whatever food I could snag when the kitchen sounded empty. I lost 40 pounds in two months.

Magni may have given me a rifle, but Medic held the most promise for tagging along with the cool kids. Magni Jormund used a huge, two-handed, nuclear-powered sledgehammer. His high school friend Azrael was a Master Ranger. Phobius played all hours at Azrael’s dad’s house, eventually moving in; the three of them had grown up with my very first in-game friend: Cameron.

Magni and Azrael, before long, would be the first two games friends I'd meet outside a game.

Waiting ten Earth minutes at a time to travel between Galaxies's planets, the four of us arrived in the misty green of Dathomir. Magni, Azrael, and Phobius had all spent an extra twenty or so minutes getting “buffed,” priming for battle by bartering with sidewalk doctors and watching exotic dancers (hey, they had to have some systems-based reason for sexy dances). I figured, why bother buffing myself? I'd only be healing.

Off in the distance, obscured in the digital mist, a couple of ancient bull rancors walked back and forth. If you’ve seen Return of the Jedi, this is the building-sized, leathery-skinned creature that Jabba the Hutt keeps under his chair, to terrify then masticate solicitors. Some of the Galaxies rancors are smaller, some are bigger. These were bigger. And, apparently, these would do. Rancors make nice, heavy, stack-of-phonebooks-dropping sounds as they lumber around. Their shrill calls are eerie, a roar you’d hear while lost in Jurassic Park. One walks up and starts to open Phobius like a lunchbox. I heal Phobius. I die instantly. Then, with the rancor looming over my broken body, I die permanently.

A few days later, apparently unfazed by my Dathomir performance, Phobius texts me in-game, sending co-ordinates.

“We’re at war!” He's repeating.

Thirty or forty rebels gathered to one side of the field. A yellow lightsaber glowed. I could see a vague outline of the Imperials, and a two-sided red saber. In the center of the battlefield, somebody dressed like Beat It Michael Jackson was dancing. Red leather jacket, black jeans, jheri curl. Heedless to the danger.

It was Magni.

Both sides traded energy bolts, and a mess of sword, axe, and hammer-wielding players met in the middle. The fighting went at least ten minutes, the riflemen and I crawling back farther and farther, until the Imperials overwhelmed our puny band. Before getting permanently killed again, I spy Magni. Still alive, still dancing in the middle of a battlefield. Surrounded by dozens of corpses. 

Back in Gig Harbor, the tension of perpetual stealth was taking its toll. My folks' ever more clever attempts to communicate impending eviction? Getting harder to avoid. The last two times dad knocked, there was barely enough time to leap onto the slowly leaking plastic air mattress to feign comatose sleep.

The girlfriend was tired of making 45-minute drives to pick my ass up on weekends. Oh yes, there was a girlfriend. A very thoughtful one. Well into SWG she hit me with a clever idea: apply for grad school. Her ulterior motives – being the high school valedictorian and a legitimate scholar – were my future stability and happiness. That was nice, but the gamer/con artist in me immediately saw two convenient nuances. First, students get to keep living with their parents! And dedicating myself earnestly to the scholar’s path would only add to the sizeable arsenal of reasons to contribute nothing around the house. I would instead spend every available second ardently preparing the highest possible quality of college application materials. Second, actually getting accepted? That’s two-to-five more years of classes in the afternoon, cocktails, then gaming all night. I think yes. Grad school. Quite the erudite decision.

I went to share this happy, happy news with my folks.

It didn’t do much for the perpetually-exhausted look in their eyes. Looking back, it didn’t do much for my calcified ambitions, or withering dignity. Some creature was looming, flat and banal. When its gaze got remotely close, I was long gone. Dived deep into SWG. At some point, the fifty-pound CRT monitor migrated to the hardwood floor, making me hunch awkwardly if I wanted to play. Intended as disincentive, the sharp throb in my back only furthered the miserable sentence that was reality. I’d started pilfering any beer, wine, or whiskey my folks hadn’t glued down – sometimes watering it after. Not knowing how else to get away from the unnatural gravitational pull of Galaxies, one early AM I spent the last of a nest-egg, about a grand my deceased grandparents had set aside for school, on a ticket across the Pacific Ocean.

One downside to getting a really good deal on airfare was not boarding the airplane sooner. Back Ba'aar, with healing losing its charm, I shifted gears to the crafting in Galaxies; it was like nothing before or since in online games. A miner in World of Warcraft can only ever get one kind of copper, can only smelt that with one tin, to make one bronze. All blacksmiths in WoW can use that one bronze to churn out identical bronze shoulderpads. No different in armor, strength and stamina bonuses, no matter whether the blacksmith is an illustrious grand master, or a journeyman. Galaxies had nine varieties of copper, with specific types required for the most coveted weapons, armor, or armoire. All these coppers, steels, low grade ores, had a selection of eleven attributes, like Conductivity, Overall Quality, Malleability, Flavor, each ranked from 1 to 1000.

We could geek the hell out, get real in-depth on material quality, surveying, and mining…  But...

Well, shit. Just a little. Imagine – hundreds of materials – some with six or seven attributes. Most changing in quality weekly. Some violently protected. Many stockpiled. The game had depth. Perpetually-identical bronze shoulderpads? Pfah, I say! Compare that to the armor all fighting players in SWG begged, borrowed and killed for: composite. Composite armor ran the gamut – from near-useless – to pieces that blocked 100% of all damage, from everything but lightsabers. Sony literally had to rewrite the goddamned game so players with 100% armor couldn't just roam through cities, heedlessly slaughtering anyone and anything not a Jedi. I wasn't keen on that kind of crafting. It took time – scouring shops for fragile dragon tissues – haggling with Night Sister hunting parties – dealing with smugglers.

A touch too much for the short attention span in me, though there was an easy crafting profession, with the goods I'd been wanting for awhile. It dawned on me when Magni re-arranged my furniture on the ceiling. My 'bearded jax' (a cat-sized alien with a devilish goatee) looked down as if to ask, “Why? Why must your furnishings be so plain? Also, why the fuck would you give Magni household permissions?” Two good points, bearded jax. Two good points. But since Magni is not easily outpranked, I'll start by working towards becoming a master architect.

This backpacking through New Zealand thing would be a minor delay only.

--



Embodiment

Before any of that, I had to make my face.

The first step was picking among the fictitious races in Star Wars: Zabrak, Twi’lek, Human, Rodian. Most had high health and endurance: perfect for hand-to-hand combat. Not weird enough. Then I spotted the aquatic gentleman. A race called “Mon Calamarian,” made famous by that fishy admiral at the end of Return of the Jedi. The one who gruffly shouts the obvious, as dozens of ships speed toward the Death Star, “It’s a trap!!” My Mon Calamari came standard with low health, not much endurance, but an enormous reservoir of a mechanically useless attribute called “mind.”

Perfect.

Never before had a game presented me with so many options for body modification. The color, size, and spacing of my enormous fisheyes. My height, the musculature on my scaly arms. The green splashes of color on my brown calamari-shaped forehead.

And here, some researchers will bemoan the boring familiarity of most virtual worlds.

Nick Yee, Jason Ellis, and Nic Ducheneaut, in their paper Tyranny of Embodiment, remind that, “…we oftentimes forget that we can do the impossible in virtual worlds.” They think it’s fascinating that we’re so cozy with the idea of familiar realities that we, “...create a legion of artifacts that revolve around our bodies.” Including, “…virtual chairs, virtual tables, and virtual people.” That when we can make anything, anything at all, we make what we know. Rather than embody ourselves as floating triangles of pure energy, we pick fleshy blobs with arms and legs.

Virtual worlds allow us to hijack certain elements of embodiment. The speech patterns of living people within the game might add words like, “please,” or “thank you,” without the speaker’s knowledge or consent. People running tall avatars, or more attractive avatars, not only barter more aggressively. They more often get what they want. The confidence built while so embodied carried over to their Earth embodiment.

Galaxies did a few neat things. For the first time, when you spoke, other players would move their heads to look at you. Such seemingly simple details of animation joined a hundred others, and brought out a depth of emotion I couldn’t have gotten from Baldur’s Gate, to say nothing of the bullet-based communication in Counter-Strike. I was Mon Calamarian, in a Brave New Galaxy.

--