December 7, 2004
CHICAGO - Not so long ago, in a galaxy not so far away, Chip Collier was on a mission. "I really gotta stop bleeding and dying," the 24-year old said as he slouched in front of his computer in his ninth-floor Chicago apartment. "I'm really horrible about not paying attention to my battle fatigue."
Though hung over from a night of partying after midterms exams, Collier was not talking about himself. He was referring to the character he plays in the online game Star Wars Galaxies - and his quest to find a doctor to heal him.
In "RL" (otherwise known as real life), Collier is a graduate student studying electronic visualization at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His goal is to, one day, write and design video games.
But in the virtual world, he is Gestalt, a lumbering, mostly peace-loving "wookiee," akin to the Star Wars character Chewbacca. Gestalt has two homes - one of them a beach house on the planet Corellia, the other a smallish mansion that's the equivalent of a space geek's bachelor pad. Gestalt is also a member of the Knights of Ash, a "guild" of about 80 Star Wars Galaxies players from points all over the globe.
The game is one of the increasingly popular and sophisticated "massively multiplayer online role-playing games" - with emphasis on the "multi," since tens of thousands of people can play at once. These games range from the widely known EverQuest to the newly released World of Warcraft, and let players create characters and socialize with people they've often never met in person. Other games, such as Halo 2 and Counter Strike, allow smaller groups of players to meet online to fight computer-generated enemies or each other.
The games are one of the many ways the Internet has changed how a generation of young people socializes and views entertainment. Today, avid players willingly pay monthly online game fees as readily as they pay their light bills - and anxiously wait in line for new video games the way their parents used to queue up for concert tickets.
"People older than us watch TV and movies. For us, a game is just another narrative," Collier says with a shrug as he pushes a shock of hair out of his eyes.
For him, games are an outlet from the grind of everyday life - from classes with mind-warping topics such as the "Taxonomy of Parallel Graphics Architecture" to the complex software code he's writing to help create a Mars land rover game with other classmates.
Collier tried his first computer game at age 7 and, by age 13, was playing the now classic game Doom online with friends. It was his first real taste of the so-called information superhighway he'd read about in the 1984 William Gibson book "Neuromancer."
"All we've ever wanted is cyberspace," Collier says, noting that today's online games are allowing him to immerse himself in that world in ways he'd once only dreamed about.