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Science fiction will not wholly lie to you. While there is not yet credible, immersive virtual reality, some people devote much too much of their lives in alternate reality games on the internet. A few people have actually died in real life rather than risking the temporary death of their game avatars, forgoing food and sleep for more than 100 hours before nature took its inevitable course. As far as you know, insanity should take hold after 72 and maybe that starts to explain it.

These games are called Role Playing Games and are distant relatives of that crappy Colleco-Vision Dungeons & Dragons game you will have in a few years. Imagine the graphics are a thousand times better and millions of people continents apart are all playing their own interrelated games. Many players can get together to defeat the hard monsters. Or, depending on the server, each other. Have you got that image in your head? These games are even better.

They have spawned a rich and varied vocabulary that drives you absolutely crazy, from the noun "n00b" to signify someone blatantly and obnoxiously inexperienced, to the verb "killsteal" for when another player interferes with a fight and steals the experience points, to "tweek" for a low level character who has high level equipment owing to the intercession of a high level character. Like with any developing subculture, the lingo evolves much more quickly than can be reasonably recorded by anthropologists. You think most of the players would have no idea why anyone would query this and would hurl homophobic epithets at anyone suggesting they might be queried.

There is an economy in these games, people amassing vast caches of gold and items that only exist on a server somewhere. So desperate are some for these virtual spoils that they will part with quite a lot of actual money to buy an in game sword. These games are now affecting the real world economy. There are third world sweatshops where workers do nothing more than kill monsters over and over again so they can collect the gold and sell it on the internet. This is a better method of getting money than having your workers make crappy knockoffs of consumer products. The US government has caught on and, rather than decrying this racket, has decide they want a cut in the form of tax revenue for fictional sales. You wonder if they are willing to accept payment in dwarven chain mail or scrolls of enchantment.

There is a vast gender disparity among the players; the majority are male. This is not to say that this real life inequality is represented in the game. Many men play as women and you suppose some women play as men. Your limited sample does not reveal this, but it seems possible. Both genders of character are evenly matched in their abilities. Female characters, however, have one unofficial, arguable benefit: their armor looks like metal lingerie. Therefore, men will pay in-game money to female characters to watch them dance. Men can dance too but no one will pay them.

There is even a culture and traditions within these games. People do not merely hack and slash their way to more experience and gold, but genuinely get into the mindset of these characters. When you asked your friend why she was a member of the Horde (as opposed to the Alliance, which consists of humans, elves, and dwarves) on World of Warcraft, she explained that she was only with the Horde because the Alliance wanted all undead characters exterminated. She, as an Undead, felt no real affinity for the Horde. The Undead feel that being undead was the only right way to be and looked forward to the day when everyone would be undead. As her character believes, so does she echo. When last you spoke with her, she had been celebrating the holiday when first the undead were freed. Questions of by whom, how, and why seem pedantic.

While not currently present in this version of WoW, there are MMORPGs (Massively-Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) that involve sex. Not merely sexuality or sexual situations, but fairly graphic sex acts performed by your avatar upon others and completely under your mutual control. Scoring in these games, it is plain, has little to do with points and one quickly accruing experience is more regarded as a slut. Money can exchange virtual hands in these games, which makes you - an objective observer - wonder if cyber hookers as condemned by the Vatican. There are websites that allow for partners to remotely control sex toys, but you are fairly sure this if not affiliated with any MMORPG. Yet. This is a topic for another time.

As should become clear, people become addicted to these games. You are not being colorful, this is actual addiction replete with withdrawal symptoms when a subject is deprived of the game. You have two friends who have steadily disappeared since the male of the couple introduced the female to the game. A few nights ago, she finally asked you for help in getting back into the real world. She has beat actual drug addiction, but how can the world compete with an experience that only asks for her time and twenty bucks a month, one that does not ravage her body or leave traces in her urine?

There is another game called Second Life, which seems to assume too much in its title. There is no fighting or sex, as far as you know. It is not set in some ancient fantasy world, but a very contemporary world with real world physics. Players amass money by working virtual jobs so they can afford to by virtual furniture for the virtual homes they can build to impress their virtual friends. Recently, someone designed an addictive video game inside Second Life called "Tringo." Players complained that no one socialized any more just huddled around virtual computer terminals playing some game. The irony was lost on them, but not on Crave Entertainment, a video game company in the real world, who bought the rights to sell a version of the game to people in the real world.

This is not the only or most frightening commingling of the real world and Second Life. Reuters, the real world source for a great deal of news feeds, has installed a bureau chief inside the game. He acts exactly as he might were he stationed in Cleveland, hiring reporters and sending in news. In this case, however, his news is not actually useful, though it is reported along side actual genocides and political misdeeds.

You wisely refuse to play any of these games, self aware enough to realize your own aptitude for addiction. You can either be a writer and sleep seven hours a night or you can level up a half elf mage, but not both.

Xen is sending the text of these essays back in time to his prepubescent self using advanced technology and fairy dust. That you can manage to read them as well is only a glitch in the servers.
Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings.

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