Just after we graduated from high school, my friend Chris took me to see some young men I’d played the online game Everquest with but had never met in person. He pointed them out from across the food court and I had just half a moment to size them up before they came running over. Chris introduced me: “Guys, this is Moriex – I told you she was a girl!”
There was a pause, and then one of them asked, “Oh my God…are you the elf?” There aren’t a lot of people who would eagerly answer that question in the affirmative, but I did. Moriex was my Everquest alter-ego, a cute female half-elf who accompanied these guys on their adventures through the imaginary world of the game. Everquest is an RPG, or “role-playing game” for the uninitiated, a game where you create a character to represent you, and engage in first-person interaction with a fantasy world and other players. There are many enjoyable RPGs, but Everquest is notoriously addicting for people of all ages because it combines elements of fighting outlandish monsters, exploring beautiful worlds, questing for treasures and solving problems that you’d never face in your everyday life.
I know what you’re probably thinking…”Nerd Alert! Dungeons and Dragons closing in, Master Frodo! Must drop article immediately!”
For some reason, even though the “No Irish Need Apply” signs came down ages ago and gay couples can now walk down the street holding hands, computer gamers are not extended the same open-mindedness as every other group. Now, I admit that I’m a gamer, but I am actually also a real person in the real world with a real life outside of gaming, and as such I ask you to put your prejudice on hold and hear me out.
Before you dismiss RPGs as immature escapism, think carefully about the last time you went to the movies. Like computer gamers, you’re taking a break from real-life responsibilities to dive into a different time and place. Gamers like me take it a step further though, instead of just running away from responsibilities, we run towarda place where we have a whole new set of friends, an identity, and long-term goals. And unlike passive forms of entertainment such as movies and television, gaming actually requires active, imaginative participation.
Even with the presence of orcs and fairies, the world of Everquest is more realistic than you might think. First of all, there is no “pause” button. You can’t stop time – the world goes on even when your computer is turned off, so your friends might disappear into other lands without you if you stop playing. You have to control the most mundane functions of your character – you buy food and drinks, and if you don’t watch what you eat, your character can become weak, drunk, or sick.
When Moriex got badly injured in a fight, my only options were to bandage her and wait out her painstaking recovery, or make friends with a healer. That’s how I met Chris’s crew: I was a good archer and owned some rare items, so they healed me and invited me to join them. We were a solid group, complementing each other’s strengths and covering up any weaknesses. Many clans form that way online, but often, members will live hundreds of miles apart and never get a chance to meet up in real life. I considered myself lucky to meet my group in person.
It can sometimes be awkward to find oneself surrounded by friends-of-a-friend of the opposite sex, but as a conversation started up I realized that, after so many online adventures together, we weren’t really strangers at all. I recognized our wizard by his habit of tacking “my man” onto the end of all his sentences (“that burger looks good, my man”), and I suspected that the kid who forked fries off my plate when I wasn’t looking was the warrior who tried to loot everybody else’s kills without permission.
One thing that puzzled me, though, was that they held doors open for me and offered to pay for my meal. Chivalry from them felt odd because in the game where I fought and died along with everybody else, I was always treated just like one of the guys. When I asked about it, they said that since most Everquest players are male, they believed I was male until they met me in person.
That hurt. They would trust Moriex when she told them which path was safe and which was infested with monsters, but they wouldn’t believe her assertion that her real-life identity was a girl?
Of course it’s not unheard of for gamers to pretend to be somebody of the opposite sex when they play. Gaming is a free-for-all for your imagination, a total immersion in a fantasy world with anonymity and no pre-judging. You can be whoever you want and you have options you’d never get in real life (who among us hasn’t ever fantasized about being a Wizard or a Warrior?) You don’t have to worry about being rejected for shallow reasons like your appearance or dress – skill and loyalty to your companions are the only standards to judge by. And I thought I had proved myself to these guys very thoroughly, so why, when I had told them I was female, had they not believed? I was annoyed.
“Hey, I believed you,” said one young man, whom I’d already identified as the incompetent dwarf who needed rescuing every time we played. I decided to forgive him on the spot for his lack of melee skillz, and by the end of the day I’d forgiven the others for doubting me. I couldn’t stay mad at them – they were my friends. The adrenaline rush you get in combat, the warm fuzzies you get from your new online buddies, and the pride you feel when your character finally learns to make bone arrows all contribute to making role-playing games a truly satisfying experience. My online friends and I had been through a lot together, and I could easily let this one mistake go. Because here, in this world where my ears are not pointy and I don’t dress like an Amazon princess ready to do battle, we’re all only human. Even us gamers.