The Polygon Menagerie

Game States

You find yourself in a room with a computer. There are advertisements on the screen and in one of them, the largest, you see her—a big, busty elf rigged out in leather like “Xena: Warrior Princess.” Solemn as Moses, she proffers a pair of stone tablets with the inscription: “Thrive in Xabulia: Free Trial.”

It is here, you will later decide, that you made a mistake.

But you are, at present, otherwise engaged. Epiphany has thrown up its hands, rolled its eyes in disgust, and passed you by. You are scrolling through the available races—blue people, purple people, lightning people, fungus people—and comparing their race bonuses. The dwarves are always loyal. The bad guys are often dark-skinned. It might even be that that the tall, blonde “high elves” receive a few points’ intelligence bonus, but that is neither here nor there. You have just begun to exist.

Like characters in Stoppard or Beckett, you arrive on scene bewildered and bereft of past. You are badly dressed. You are badly informed. You are not yet a prisoner of the game—its monthly payments, its agonizing downtimes, its expansion-pack schemes—but there are numbers in your name already, portending ill. No matter—you set out.

You begin in a kind of town square where people are standing around, armed to the teeth. Some of them are like you—broadsword-wielding infants of cyberspace, struggling for control of their fresh and tender limbs. There is hustle, there is bustle, the screen brims with the lexical effluvia of vendors hawking “cRyStAl sw00rds,” and “minotaur $hields.” You realize eventually that nobody is speaking to you, that nobody has the slightest interest in you at all, that you have nothing to offer anyone. You are an unknown entity, some archetype or other’s barely-customized clone. The money you have is barely enough. But for what?

You figure you have two choices. The first is to play the game for months, applying yourself to an endless variety of tedious jobs involving superficially different quest-robots that say such thrilling things as, “Friend, I need your assistance.” The second is to purchase “virtual currency,” or whole virtual people from the resident cottage industry of forum-skulking avatar pimps. But that’s not for you. You embrace what is called, with suspect fondness, “the grind.”

You set about killing everything that moves. Bevies of modeled monstrosities collapse, becoming corpse-wallets ready for your pilfering pointer finger. It’s fantastic. You kill everything so fast you have to wait for the world to excrete more. And you take a break. You go to microwave something, or to massage the ligaments of your denaturing eyes. You might even turn off the game. But a tentacle is growing between you and the screen—a physical feeling, the sort of awareness a suckling baby must have of its mother’s teat. You begin to perceive an obstacle between you and the game, and you feel it, like someone has stepped on your tail. And you keep coming back, for months.

Eventually, almost asymptotically, you arrive. Tier by tier through the polygon menagerie, you make your brutal ascent. You become that glowing guy, admired by all, attuned to the gameworld and its rhythmic bowel movements of monsters and loot. It’s nice, for a while. But ultimately you leave, maybe out of boredom, maybe to become a forum-skulking character vendor yourself. Or maybe the empty suits crawl out from under the curtain and stuff the universe back into its briefcase. In other words, maybe the game leaves you. If you’re lucky, you’re only fourteen.

Was it worth it? Should you go back? The temptation arises from time to time. But with discipline you remember that Xabulia has very little to recommend it. You remember how it drains you, how it warps your systems of reward. You remember the cheaters, the enticing advertisements, the repetitive obligatory tasks. You remember the monthly payments to the owners of the world, the Malthusian struggle for skills and baubles and loot. And you say to yourself: forget Xabulia. There’s quite enough of all that on Earth.

Columnist Julian C. Lucas can be reached at julianlucas@college.harvard.edu.

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