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Reality RPG

By Annalee Newitz

He was wearing one of those black-leather trench coats that fan out behind you like a cape when you walk. His boots were black leather too, decorated with metal plates; and he had thick silver rings studded with arcane symbols on each of his fingers. We were on the bus going downtown, and he was shouting into his cell phone.

"Dude, don't go out to Ocean Beach tonight--there are tons of werewolves out there," he loudly advised whomever he'd called on the tiny Nokia. He paused for a second, fiddling with a loop of chain on his studded belt. "No, dude, seriously I have like a vorpal sword and a devourer, and I'm still not going out there without total backup. And also don't go to North Beach tonight either. The Giovanni vampire gang is out there, and it's harsh. Same in Chinatown. There's this group of Chinese vampires--they have this fuckin' red symbol they wear--and they're totally on the alert."

By this time, even the drunk at the back of the bus had stopped muttering about Negroes and Jews and was just staring at the guy with the vorpal sword and cell phone. And then, with a swoosh of black leather, he jumped off the bus and prowled into the South of Market night.

I found myself thinking, weirdly rationally, that he must have been some kind of vampire, or maybe a warlock. Never once did it occur to me that he might be insane or talking to dead air. Although I knew in the back of my mind that he was probably playing a live-action role-playing game, I didn't think about the game itself. I went right past that and straight to the fantasy in order to figure out what had just happened next to me on the bus. That's why I asked myself: vampire or warlock? Instead of schizophrenic or gamer?

Half the time I feel like I'm being dunked into a role-playing game (RPG) even when I'm clearly in the middle of an everyday moment. When video games like The Sims create mesmerizing entertainment out of the boring parts of just being alive--shopping, walking the dog, moving your sofa across the room--that's when the difference between everyday life and RPGs begins to erode for me. And this creates weird conflicts. I mean, why do I like to go to the mall in The Sims, even though going to the mall in real life gives me post-traumatic stress flashbacks to my suburban adolescence?

At least I'm still fairly clear on the distinction between what's cool to do in real life, vs. what you can do in The Sims. For example: it's only in The Sims that you can have babies, starve them to death and make money selling their tombstones. In real life, you have to buy tombstones, so this isn't a good way to raise cash.

Yet another kind of reality RPG is Tribe.net, an uncensored online community that resembles Friendster in every way except for the fact that there is no autocratic dictator named Jonathan Abrams running the thing and deleting the accounts of people who freak him out. At Tribe.net, you log in and create an identity for yourself, complete with as much or as little real information as you like. You can be an entirely fictional creation, complete with fake photos, or you can document your every little personality quirk, from a love of data mining to a predilection for farting quietly in movie theaters. The game of Tribe, such as it is, is to accumulate as many friends and tribal affiliations as you can. The more often you log in and post messages to tribe discussion boards, the more friends you'll get and the more satisfied you'll be. It's like creating a group of Sims characters. "You" watch "yourself" moving around in a social space and "you" interact with a bunch of other "people" in "rooms."

Who are all these people on Tribe anyway? As if I were some wide-eyed social critic from the late 1980s, I feel myself discovering once again that people are different online than they are in person. Shy people are eloquent. Sexy people are boring. I have two busy friends whose presence I often miss in real life whom I now get to see nearly everyday on Tribe.

"Wow, Jason and Liz are so cool!" I find myself thinking as I read their Tribe posts. "I wish they existed in real life!" And then I realize that they do exist; I saw them last year at a party and they are indeed as funny and smart as their "selves" on Tribe. Am I confused or am I just happy to see them? Am I going to the store or is this just a game? I'll have to decide.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who needs to go post something on Tribe now.

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From the October 23-29, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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