[Metroactive CyberScape]

[ CyberScape | San Jose | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

[whitespace] Ultimate Place

Game offers a sense of community many don't find in the real world

By Melissa Hunt

ONE HOT GRAY DAY Tony Yin hovers thoughtfully over his iced coffee as if it may be his last. Tony has a secret. He likes to slay monsters. You'd never know it from his small frame and soft-spoken, mild-mannered demeanor. But he's admitted it, right here in a coffee shop full of people who may or may not be listening to his declaration. "I kill monsters, that's what I do!" The word is out.

It occurs to me that others sipping their lattes and suddenly eavesdropping in the middle of this conversation may think Tony is a madman. But, truth be told, he's a dotcom worker at Solectron in Milpitas, with three kids and an understanding wife.

Tony is 44 years old, a self-proclaimed "young one at heart." He makes his home in Fremont, where each night he slumps down into a comfy chair in his book-lined den, switches on his computer and enters the fantastic playground of Ultima Online (UO). He deems himself an avid player. Those dead monsters he was referring to are actually the work of his character Blackstone, his "alter-ego," whom Tony created himself.

Blackstone is a wayward loner who performs random acts of kindness all over Britannia, the name bestowed upon Ultima's virtual landmass. "I give out gold, magic weapons, armor ... you know, that kind of stuff," he explains matter-of-factly. And upon slaying that occasional monster, he'll grab the riches from its corpse and boogie to the bank.

A chat room and interactive adventure game that has taken root in Silicon Valley and worldwide, UO is now played on a global scale in 125 countries. According to Texas-based Origin Systems Inc., a subsidiary of Redwood City's Electronic Arts, 185,000 registered users now tap into UO Renaissance (UOR), an updated version of the game, just released in April. As a professional adult with a well-established career and family, even other hobbies, Tony has found Britannia isn't just a place for kids and/or addicts. Lots of busy folks from the older set are jumping on this chance to escape the hectic, often mundane world that so consumes them.

He plays two, three hours a day, maybe more on weekends, and Tony swears the only thing that's gotten displaced since he started playing last Christmas is his TV time. The real-live chat room that Ultima offers, he says, has become a meeting place of sorts. He estimates that about 20 percent of the people he chats with are over 30.

There's the 60-year-old grandma. She's got her own story. She just goes around "PKing," Tony explains incredulously in his Ultima-speak. That means player-killing. But she only knocks off thieves. Grandma's got dignity, something a lot of the younger players don't possess, says Tony, shaking his head. They often murder anyone in sight, just for the loot. "I just get so frustrated with these foul-mouthed punks with no respect!" he exclaims.

David Swofford, director of communications for Origin Systems, says it's impossible to determine the actual percentage of adult UOR players since everyone plays under a guise. "However," he says, "we do get all sorts of professionals--doctors, lawyers, sheriffs, you name it." Even famous people from time to time. David takes pride in announcing that Todd Pratt, a catcher for the New York Mets, frequently must be peeled away from his Ultima persona to go hit the ball field.

What makes it so hard to leave Britannia behind at the end of the day? According to David, more than half of UOR subscribers tune in every single day. He suggests that it's more than a form of escapism--it's a community thing. The game's interactive aspect allows two players, under the guise of the characters they've created, to grab a pint of ale at a local tavern, for instance--despite the fact that the real-live humans beyond the computer screens may be half a world apart. Friendships form, often founding a true sense of community, David explains.

For Tony, UOR is just a weird hobby. His colleagues go out to bars after work or go home and watch TV. He's really not into that, he says. So he battles demons and thieves. "It's all just harmless entertainment," he points out, shrugging his shoulders. "That's the important thing to remember."

[ San Jose | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

From the June 1-7, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.