I'm at dinner with Maya and she's talking about her job. She works at a company that makes medical billing software. Her job is really boring, but there's an interesting cast of characters at her office. Most people's co-workers are more interesting than their jobs.
"What about you?" she asks. "How's your work going?"
"Well, it's a slow time of year. Not a lot of games coming out. This Lord of the Rings Online thing is what I'm playing most."
"Yeah, you mentioned that earlier. You like it, huh?"
I'm talking about the game for about five minutes before I realize how absurd it is to explain an MMO to someone on the outside. I should have just said 'It's like World of Warcraft' and left it at that.
"I don't know," I conclude. "I don't know. It's just been a lot of fun. I can't really understand why I like it so much, but I do. I'm spending far more time playing than I need to for this review."
"Is it because you feel you don't have control over your own life, so it's easier to live in a world where you do have control? A world where things are easier to understand?"
"No, I don't think that's it," I say. "The game is just really well done. It's fun. It's immersive. It's almost like traveling, like seeing a new place. A virtual place, sure. But still a new place."
The same old places you could see in World of Warcraft. The swamps, the mountains, the dungeons, the cities where players with stupid names run right through other players with stupid names, the jokers over there waiting for this boss to respawn even though I got here first, so why don't they step the hell back and wait their turn?
"I can understand that," she says. "You should show it to me sometime."
My heart melts. How cool is that? A girl who asks me to show her my MMO. She's mainly just humoring me, but it's the thought that counts.
"You know, I have to say, it's really screwed up my sleep schedule. Tomorrow I have to get up early" - 11am is early for me - "for a conference call, but I've been staying up so late playing this thing all week. I know I'm going to be lying there tonight thinking about stuff instead of sleeping. I hate that."
"Remind me to give you an Ambien when you drop me off. It'll help you sleep."
I stop talking about Lord of the Rings MMOs for the rest of the evening. And to be fair, she brings up American Idol, so it's not like I cornered the market on inane topics of conversation.
"Thanks, Maya," I tell her, pulling up to her apartment.
"Come in real quick and I'll give you that Ambien."
She keeps the little plastic bottle in a kitchen cabinet, with Bands-Aids and cinnamon. Maya's apartment is small enough that such things overlap. She takes my hand and drops five little blue pills into it.
"Do I take all of them?"
"No, no, just one. The others are extras. I never use them. Wait."
She gets a baggie. We drop the Ambien in and roll it up. It seems very seedy. Illegal prescription drugs wrapped up in a cheap plastic baggie.
"Just take one right before you're ready to go to bed. If it doesn't feel like it's working, have a glass of wine."
"Isn't that dangerous?" I've done plenty of illicit things in my life, such as putting pennies on train tracks, chucking snowballs at cars, shoplifting a Stormtrooper Star Wars figure from Walgreen's, and even drinking a beer at the age of seventeen. But I've never experimented with prescription drugs.
"No, not at all. It'll just make it extra effective," she says, putting the baggie into my hand and closing my fingers around it. She holds my hand enough of an extra millisecond to make me wonder if I should try to kiss her goodnight. Which I don't.
"Where the fuck have you been?" Trevor asks when I log on. "The Great Barrows are kicking our ass."
"I'm just logging in to check out the Auction House real quick." I've already taken an Ambien and poured myself a glass of wine.
"Right, whatever. Hurry up and get to the Reflecting Pool so you can join us."
Just to be sure I don't stay up and play all night, I take a second Ambien while the Great Barrows are loading. Just to be sure.
To be continued...
Tom Chick has been writing about videogames for fifteen years. His work appears in Games for Windows Magazine, Yahoo, Gamespy, Sci-Fi, and Variety. He lives in Los Angeles. Shoot Club appears in this space every Thursday.