Want to play? The Internet beckons
The Internet is changing the way we play games. Not so much single-player games, although Java and Macromedia's "Shockwave" browser plug-in are making it easier to find a steady supply of new games to play on the Web.
But in the area of multiplayer games, the Internet is having a revolutionary impact bringing about the kinds of cultural changes sociologists will be studying for decades to come.
No longer must you be on the same computer or even in the same building to challenge someone to a little head-to-head action. As in business and media, the Internet is making physical geography irrelevant.
Now, you can play against someone in India or, in some games, against 7, 15 or more opponents from across the entire globe, all joined together in an digital arena.
With the growing market penetration of high-speed (56k, ISDN, cable) modems, multiplayer games can be more sophisticated that ever before even including the ability to use your Internet connection and a headset to speak to one another.
It's to the point that most of the top-selling games of the past few months have all included Internet and network multiplayer options.
And the multiplayer phenomenon isn't confined to one type of game. You can play first-person shooters like "Quake II," "Unreal" or the new hit, "Half-Life," where you look through your character's eyes. Fly air combat missions in "Red Baron 3D," "Jane's WWII Fighters" or "Falcon 4.0." Or real-time strategy games such as "Age of Empires," "Total Annihilation" or "StarCraft," where you must build cities and create armies before fighting. Or even old favorites like board games such as "The Game of Life" and "Clue."
Most of the new games with multiplayer features allow anyone to host their own game, using their PC or Mac as a server. You can either register with one of the master servers and wait for people to come to you, or keep it private and only tell your friends about it.
Most interestingly, some games can ONLY be played in a multiplayer environment, games such as the new "Tribes" from Dynamix, or "FireTeam" from Multitude, neither of which offers any single-player action at all.
Of course, to give things some perspective, let's not forget that what is widely considered to be the first-ever computer game was multiplayer. Written by some MIT students in the mid-1960s on a Digital PDP minicomputer, "Space War" allowed two users with handmade joysticks to pilot their space ships around the sun while shooting at each other.
And the earliest videogame systems, Atari's Pong and Mattell's Odyssey, both featured head-to-head games of tennis and hockey, right there on your TV screen. And before the explosion of the Internet in the early 1990s, people could already use their modems to play some games such as "Falcon 3.0" for the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga head-to-head over the phone lines. CompuServe also hosted a virtual World War II dogfight that owners of DOS-based PCs could play some years back.
So the concept of online multiplayer games itself isn't new it's the growing sophistication of the games and the online communities being created around them that is changing the way we use our computers for recreation.
Not only are millions of people using the Internet to play their favorite games against other human opponents, but they're creating Web sites devoted to the games sites where they post the latest news and rumors, along with hints, help files and add-on levels; host live chat areas and message boards; and list links to active servers for online games.
Take "Quake II," for instance. Game aficianados have designed not only new levels, but entirely new multiplayer games Rocket Arena and Loki's Minions Capture the Flag. People have formed their own teams, who hook up over the 'Net to take on any comers. Sites such as Quake2.com offer a virtual home away from home for players.
This creation of game-based subcultures is certainly not limited to Quake II. Most of the above games have inspired similar sites that nurture their own slang, etiquette and shared values. The best comparison might be to the strategy and role-playing games of the 1970s and '80s, games like Dungeons and Dragons or the war simulation games from Avalon Hill.
These games are serving as catalysts, around which entire online communities are forming communities that wouldn't exist without the Internet.
The implications of the large-scale formation of online communities, unbound by geography or time, are of course still unfolding as the Internet continues to take shape. As metioned above, figuring all that out will keep sociologists and historians busy for a long time.
But for now, it's enough to simply immerse onself in the excitement of a new form of entertainment, one that the participants themselves are helping to shape.
© Copyright Jim Trageser
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