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Always Online — Virtual World

Massively multiplayer virtual worlds are transforming the game industry, and changing how its players interact with each other and the real world around them.

AP National Writer

CHICAGO (AP) – Not so long ago, in a galaxy not so far away, Chip Collier was on a mission. “I really gotta stop bleeding and dying,” the 24-year old said as he slouched in front of his computer in his ninth-floor Chicago apartment. “I’m really horrible about not paying attention to my battle fatigue.”

Though hung over from a night of partying after midterms exams, Collier was not talking about himself. He was referring to the character he plays in the online game Star Wars Galaxies – and his quest to find a doctor to heal him.

In “RL” (otherwise known as real life), Collier is a graduate student studying electronic visualization at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His goal is to, one day, write and design video games.

But in the virtual world, he is Gestalt, a lumbering, mostly peace-loving “wookie,” akin to the Star Wars character Chewbacca. Gestalt has two homes – one of them a beach house on the planet Corellia, the other a smallish mansion that’s the equivalent of a space geek’s bachelor pad. Gestalt is also a member of the Knights of Ash, a “guild” of about 80 Star Wars Galaxies players from points all over the globe.

The game is one of the increasingly popular and sophisticated “massively multiplayer online role-playing games” – with emphasis on the “multi,” since tens of thousands of people can play at once. These games range from the widely known EverQuest to the newly released World of Warcraft, and let players create characters and socialize with people they’ve often never met in person. Other games, such as Halo 2 and Counter Strike, allow smaller groups of players to meet online to fight computer-generated enemies or each other.

The games are one of the many ways the Internet has changed how a generation of young people socializes and views entertainment. Today, avid players willingly pay monthly online game fees as readily as they pay their light bills – and anxiously wait in line for new video games the way their parents used to queue up for concert tickets.

“People older than us watch TV and movies. For us, a game is just another narrative,” Collier says with a shrug as he pushes a shock of hair out of his eyes.

For him, games are an outlet from the grind of everyday life – from classes with mind-warping topics such as the “Taxonomy of Parallel Graphics Architecture” to the complex software code he’s writing to help create a Mars land rover game with other classmates.

Collier tried his first computer game at age 7 and, by age 13, was playing the now classic game Doom online with friends. It was his first real taste of the so-called information superhighway he’d read about in the 1984 William Gibson book “Neuromancer.”

“All we’ve ever wanted is cyberspace,” Collier says, noting that today’s online games are allowing him to immerse himself in that world in ways he’d once only dreamed about.

“Get on the bike,” Collier tells his character as he starts another mission. “We’ve got work to do.”

On the computer screen, Gestalt has mounted a speeder-bike and is riding through hilly fields filled with colorful virtual wildflowers. He follows a “way point,” an arrow that shows him which way to go – a built-in global positioning system of sorts.

With fishing pole in tow, Gestalt is headed toward his beach house and, later, will take a transport to a mining outpost on the planet Dantooine to make some online cash – this time, by accepting a mission to kill some small animals.

“This is pretty much my online life – hop on a bike, go fishing, make some money, kill some stuff,” Collier says. “Just doing random stuff in a virtual world, that’s the point – that’s why we’re here.”

Players can be “wallflowers,” as Collier puts it, and make their characters lead solitary lives. But the game is set up to encourage people to interact, allowing their characters to “sell” or barter services and help each other through the game’s intricate features.

Games like this one also give players leeway to be creative – in the way their characters look, the way they decorate their houses and what they spend their time doing.  Other types of online games – for instance, shoot-em-up battles – pit human-driven characters vs. computer-driven characters.

One of Collier’s latest missions in Star Wars Galaxies has been to earn badges to master the Teras Kasai profession, one of many steps to becoming the fabled Jedi. But he’s most interested in becoming an online pilot, something recent upgrades in the game will allow him to do.

“So we can fly in ships – it’s frickin’ awesome!” he says, pausing and taking a breath. “I get really excited.”

Collier has never met most of his guild mates in person, but he knows two of them very well. They are his roommates, Adam Traum and Owen Nelson, both buddies he met in art school in Florida a few years back who are now his compadres in the real and virtual worlds.

In real life, the threesome lives in what Collier jokingly refers to as the “nerd tree house,” an apartment chock full of mismatching furniture, stacks of pizza boxes, ashtrays crammed with cigarette butts and empty bottles of beer and Diet Coke. The walls are mostly empty, save the Jesus action figure that’s tacked up near the kitchen – plus an Elvis cutout, a girlie calendar and a poster of martial arts star Jet Li.

Amid all of it, the focal point is the hardware: four TVs lined up in front of the couch – and 11 computers, with various computer parts scattered about. A cardboard box near the TVs holds just about every game console ever made – and a few duplicates, just in case.

“We’re huge gamers, in case you didn’t realize,” Collier says with a wry smile.

They’re also really into “Star Wars” – and have been known to play the original trilogy of movies in the background, with blinds drawn, while they sit at their respective computers and play the game together.

Traum’s perch is an old stuffed swivel arm chair in one corner of the living room. His character is a “mon calamari” – a blue, squid-like being – named Nonagon.

“I’m not a master of anything, except wearing shorts and boots,” he quips. Also 24, he’s an artist and student performer at Chicago’s famed Second City comedy club who – by day – works at an ice cream shop.

Nelson, on the other hand, is totally enmeshed in the social hierarchy of Star Wars Galaxies and plays it nearly every day.

“You can learn from any person you talk to – and being online is just an extension of that,” says Nelson, a 23-year-old computer animator who recently moved to Chicago from Florida. “There are no borders.”

In the game, he is a lanky, blond-eyed wookie named Hotpocket who’s earned Jedi rank and has a light saber at his disposal. He’s also the leader of the guild.

“Owen has fame,” says Collier, who – like his friends – has been playing the game since it launched in the summer of 2003. “We’re like the entourage.”

Having a friend like Nelson can, in fact, be a real asset in this game – kind of like knowing the leader of a virtual old boys network.

Nelson’s Hotpocket gives his friends’ characters old armor and online toys he doesn’t need anymore – and watches their backs when they’re at class or work, logging in with their character names to perform tasks necessary in the game (paying rent, for instance).

Rival clans – formed by other players – also can start fights and other problems.
“Not to make it sound like a gang,” Collier says, “but people help you, come to your aid.”
It can become a pretty time-consuming pastime, one that Collier concedes sometimes causes him to play “until I can’t keep my eyes open.”

“There are times you have to separate yourself – or you’d never get anything done,” Collier says, noting that when the latest version of the game Final Fantasy came out, he got to level 20 in a few days by playing for hours and hours on end. “Everyone else was on eight,” he says, laughing.

Now he’s heard that a Star Trek online game is in the works.

“Whew!” he says with a smirk. “Where will my time go?”

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