The first time Ben Clark met his online gaming friends in the real world, he was nervous. For months he'd been playing World of Warcraft with a group of other gamers, masquerading as a surly green "orc" to protect them from pick-pocketing rogues and spell-casting warlocks in the popular medieval fantasy role-playing game. Clark knew only a handful of the gamers from real life. The rest he met and got to know by chatting on the WOW instant-messaging system between bouts with enemy players.
"I think we all had the same apprehensions," says Clark, a Boston-based computer programmer who met the flesh-and-blood versions of virtual friends "Devries," "Kazuuru" and "Tirzah" during a business trip to Seattle last spring. "We're normal, but what about this [other] person?"
Having spent 12 hours each week of the last year playing with them, the 27-year-old now ranks his gaming friends "on par with all the college buddies I still see a lot," he says. "Sometimes even more so."
He's even dating one of them. Last month, Clark spent Thanksgiving with his girlfriend and two other players he met online.
Clark isn't the only gamer whose virtual life has crossed into reality. Strangers who've bumped into each other in make-believe realms often find themselves communicating in tangible real-world ways, coordinating playing times, instant messaging with each other and talking over free Internet voice programs.
It's this sense of community that's helped propel WOW in particular and massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) as a whole to new plateaus in the United States. Once a niche market for hard-core gamers, there are now as many as 2 million players in North America, up from just 10,000 when the first MMO came out in 1997.
MMORPGs are played simultaneously by thousands of players worldwide and feature vast, highly stylized worlds for gamers to explore in character. They play in "persistent environments," in which the online world continues regardless of whether they are logged on. Working as teams, or guilds, they accomplish various goals as they advance through the game, accumulating wealth, acquiring skills, exploring new territory and destroying whatever obstacles get in the way.
Chris Lye was minding his own business as a monarch in the popular medieval fantasy game Asheron's Call when one of his minions approached him in the virtual town square to say "hello."
"I didn't think much of it at the time," says Lye, a swordsman who'd worked his way up in the game.
That changed the next time Lye, 37, met up with her. She was trapped in the Dungeon of Shadow.
"Just as in real life, Sara has a terrible sense of direction, so she managed to get lost right at the bottom and she was asking for someone to lead her out. I said, 'Yep. I'll come down and help,'" says Lye, who started playing the game in 1999. "That's when we started talking for real, like real people."
In-game chat soon led to on-the-phone chat, then a cross-country flight to meet each other. Soon they were dating long-distance between Seattle and Philadelphia. It wasn't too long after Lye's dramatic, damsel-in-distress rescue that they were married.
"Online worlds are really the next century's social lubricant," says Jeff Anderson, president and chief executive of Turbine Games, which created Asheron's Call. "It removes barriers. It takes away embarrassments. If I meet you in the game, it's not like walking up to you in the bar, where I have to have a lot of guts. In a game, I just walk up to you and say, 'You want to go kill someone?' It's much easier to ask someone to kill a monster than it is to ask them on a date."
Chances are there will be a lot more dungeon hook-ups early next year. That's when Turbine will release the highly anticipated Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach. Based on the hugely popular role-playing game of the '80s, the MMO version has the usual assortment of humans, elves, sorcerers and wizards. What makes it unique is its privacy.
In a departure from the typical MMO setup, in which players roam public spaces online and often go on quests only to find other gamers have beat them to it, the online D&D offers privacy. Playing off the original game's core value of "a party adventuring together in a dungeon and feeling heroic," as Anderson says, the online game lets clans quest in private dungeons, out of view of other players.
"The overall intensity of [MMO players] is much different from the guy who's buying Grand Theft Auto or Madden," says Chris George, director of advertising solutions for IGN Entertainment, a firm that operates a network of video gaming sites. "They are very serious about the community and about the game.
"These people are really defining what the game is going to be," adds George. "It's almost like setting up a government in a new country with millions of people and saying, 'Where do you want to take this?'?"