Beyond the lurid and sensational stories of mayhem and corruption in these games - and who can resist tales like the assassination of Lord British or the corrupted blood plague in World of Warcraft? - is the more prosaic experience of millions of players grinding out an existence as crafters and warriors, perhaps akin to the unsung ranchers and tradesmen of the West. And while our society pays a grudging measure of respect or at least curiosity to flamboyant assassins and exploiters in these games, the rank-and-file players generate at best bemused scorn. Why are people wasting their lives in these games?

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Room to Make a Big Mistake
Above all else, online gaming - online presence in general - is marked by pseudo-anonymity. Not anonymity, although that can be had in some measure as well. The key wonder of MMOGs is the chance to create a new identity and live it, leaving behind the burdens of one's past, like an emigrant bound to the New World or a settler drifting west. Just as the internet has assured that none of us can escape our history in the real world, it has offered an outlet in a virtual world where one can be anyone he wants and win a reputation from scratch.

It is likewise a place for experimentation, because as devastating as online opprobrium may seem, it's escapable by means of a new avatar or username, or - in the worst of cases - by moving on to a new game in a new world. Little wonder, then, that we see gamers acting out precisely those fantasies that bear unacceptable costs in the real world: Avatars are the masks that let players rob banks, as well as the getaway cars that let them escape the consequences of their actions. Where but in games can one be a jerk who plays with guns for a couple hours a day and not have it catch up to him?

Our real world is defined by safety restrictions (no more dodge ball at recess), structure, monitoring and endless digital paper trails. Like the oppressive atmosphere of early modern Europe or 19th century New England, it is a world that requires an outlet. As Mark Patience (speaking of virtual identities!) recently noted here in The Escapist, gaming is probably a safer one than a drug habit. Even when that outlet takes bizarre forms, like the drudgework of gold farming or juggling a career and housekeeping in The Sims, it is still a chance to freely choose one's life, without strings or chains.

Go Virtual, Young Man
For all the horror stories of game-related killings, neglect or death by exhaustion, most players aren't driven to madness or despair by their online playing. The strongest, most convincing criticism is that they are wasting their time, or more precisely, their lives, in a virtual world while letting the real one slip away. For that reason, there has been since the advent of home game systems a clamor to regulate or restrict games.

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