But that view may be altogether too narrow. Far better, it seems, to move the griefers and cheats into virtual space where their harassment carries little real world cost. Far better, too, to offer an environment where one can flirt with such troublemaking without getting inextricably caught up in it.

Catharsis and escapism aren't the only values to online play, though. Increasingly, there is an economic justification to time spent online. I remember a Far Side cartoon from years ago in which parents watch their son play Nintendo and dream up a wanted ad offering $60,000 a year for anyone who can rescue Princess Toadstool. Today, much to those same parents' chagrin, that dream has become a reality, as gamers sell everything from virtual magic swords and horses to spaceships and mansions for real-world money.

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It is hard to view that as anything other than funny money - a market supported only by obsessed, over-rich gamers - but luxury goods always cater to consumers whose judgment seems distorted to others. In most cases, we are buying the idea of the thing rather than the thing itself, the experience rather than the product. How "real" is the satisfaction of owning a real work of art rather than a perfect reproduction, of attending a live symphony rather than listening to a CD, of wearing a shirt with a logo rather than one without? Is there a sustainable distinction between buying a new golf club and buying a magic sword?

Perhaps the new frontiersmen, like trailblazers heading off to the unimaginable world beyond the borders of civilization, are merely eking out a living those left behind cannot wholly fathom.

The Frontier in Blizzard's Pocket
On one level, it is impossible to get past the fact that one world is real and the other is virtual. But frontiers are ideas as much as they are real places. Perhaps more than their virtual nature, what distinguishes these new frontiers from their physical counterparts is that they are not free. They are commercial creations existing at the whim of corporate overlords.

On a trivial level, Jesse James couldn't be nerfed for being overpowered, nor could George Washington have his account banned for defying Britain's terms of use. But on a more fundamental level, real frontiers enabled a person to take ownership of his life, while the virtual ones give that ownership to a third party. As long as that is the case - and it seems likely to stay that way until reality catches up with science fiction and the government builds a giant, computerized world - there is no real autonomy in virtual worlds. And at the press of a button, the new existence one carves for himself becomes of no account.

So maybe the best analogy isn't to settlers heading west, but to explorers from Spain, the fortune hunters who sojourned in the New World and returned home, perhaps having remade themselves and perhaps simply worn themselves out from too many adventures. If so, it's probably for the best that it doesn't take a transatlantic voyage to reach Azeroth.

Marty O'Hale has written stories for a number of computer and videogames, primarily roleplaying and strategy games. He has also published a number of works of fiction. Currently, Marty's career is in the law.

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