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Metro Pulse Game World

In the online universe of EverQuest, the line between reality and fantasy can blur. Just ask Margaret.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

NOVEMBER 15, 1999: 

Hail and Greetings Mayshark,
I was given your address from an employee at KGB. I had thought that you guys were going to be there tonight, but alas it was last night. Anyway, I would love to talk about EQ, and I have quite a tale to tell about it. It has merged over into my real life also, I have met several other people who play since starting. I have a 26th level Magician character named Faline Elem'Adepti on the Mithaniel Marr server. If you would like to talk, or email about it, please let me know. Email me here at:

I'm not sure it's them when they first walk in, Margaret and her mother. They might be anyone else here in the neighborhood blues bar, dropping by for a Friday happy hour beer and cigarette. After a few minutes, we figure out who each other are and sit down at a table together. Margaret's a slim, striking blonde woman in a black top with spaghetti straps and blue jeans, smoking deliberately and drinking a brown-glass bottle of Bass. Her mother's name is Cecelia and she's drinking Woodchuck Dark Cider, which she discovers she likes; she tells Margaret to write down the name so she can remember it.

We're here to talk about EverQuest. It's a computer game.

I've heard there are people who play EverQuest obsessively, who give up their real lives for the three-dimensional digital landscape of an invented planet named Norrath. Even in the dungeons-and-dice gamer subculture, EverQuest is viewed with some trepidation. "NeverRest," they call it. "I stay away from that stuff," one gamer tells me, the way a habitual dope-smoker might talk about heroin. (Another nickname is "EverSmack.")

Still, when I went to find EverQuest players, I didn't expect to find Margaret.

Or Faline. Here's what Margaret has to say about Faline: "She's a high elf, tall and thin, long blonde hair. She's got a really, really amazing green robe right now. it was actually a wedding present, but I got to keep it, it was from Onyx."

Onyx is...well, that's getting ahead of the story. Back to Faline: "She's supposed to be this uppity high elf, but she doesn't act that way at all. She hangs out with pickpockets and rogues."

Musicians are hauling instruments up the stairs at the blues club. It's a band from Memphis that jammed with the Rolling Stones a few months ago. Margaret keeps smoking. She gets another round of beers. She likes blues, she says. The conversation shifts back to EverQuest, which Margaret calls EQ.

OK here goes my tale. I want to start by saying that playing EQ is an experience unlike any other I have ever had. The extent to which the game has been merged with my real life is uncanny, and I never could have imagined it when I purchased EQ. I bought the game about two weeks after it came out. I first created a character on the Bristlebane server, but soon switched to Mithaniel Marr because some of my friends were playing there. The character I created there is a female high elven Magician by the name of Faline.

Let me tell you a little about how the game works. You start by creating your character, choosing from 12 races and 14 classes, then adding extra skill points, similar to D&D. You choose your Deity, and starting place if applicable (some have no choice) and you are then dropped into the world. It doesn't take very long to familiarize yourself with the controls, and then off you go. Now you are in Norrath, and you must survive. The first thing you are given to do is a quest to find your guild house, and turn in a letter, in order to get your starting tunic or robe. Once you have done that, well, you can do whatever you want.

...I just want to add one more thing. For some reason, society has the idea that everyone who role-plays is a "nerd" in the traditional sense. This is just NOT true! I am a 26-year-old attractive female, and pretty much everyone else I know or have met has been around my age, and very normal looking. I have met no skinny geeks with black, taped glasses, or anything of the sort.

"I was a very different person in high school than I am now," Margaret is saying. She was shy, she says, "scared of people." She hated sports, the whole athlete mindset, but she liked the idea of competition. So she had games.

The whole family played games, Cecelia adds, board games and card games and so forth. (If you're wondering, Cecelia is not an EverQuest player. She's mostly here tonight because like any good mother she's a little worried about her daughter meeting strange reporters in smoky bars.) Margaret, who grew up with computers, went digital with her gaming at a young age. She never played Dungeons & Dragons itself, but she loved the early text-only adventures that let you wander around fantasy worlds. "I did those constantly, I made extensive maps and everything," she says. When online bulletin board services started, she used to dial up to them, socializing with the first wave of virtual friends and playing games like Usurper. The first Internet game she remembers playing was Magic, the Gathering, the cyberspace complement to the still popular Magic card game.

EverQuest came on the market in March. Margaret had read about it and was excited to play. Cecillia speculates, somewhat to her daughter's annoyance, that Margaret was bored following her brother's recent move to the Southwest. In any event, the two women agree that when Margaret first logged on, it started something close to an obsession.

"I've actually kind of gotten out of the addict stage," Margaret says, nodding. "I was a pretty intense addict when it was first out." She notes that her Internet service provider automatically kicks her offline after 10 hours of continuous access. That happened more than once.

"I was kind of worried," Cecelia says. "So was my best girlfriend. It seemed like she was giving up her life to it."

But the reality, if that's the right word, is more complicated.

So of course you want to start building up your character, so that you may become stronger and more learned. (And make money to buy food and drink.) ...Some people get caught up in this levelling, and become "power gamers," trying their best to reach level 50 (currently the level cap). All they do is kill kill kill, camping in dungeons for items, etc. and never get into role-playing the game at all.

But not I. Being the social person that I am, I quickly became immersed in that aspect of the game. Grouping. You shout out looking for group members, or you just approach someone and talk to them. Soon you make friends, and start to find people that you really enjoy their company. Well, here is the first example of EQ merging into real life: sometimes your friends disappear, and it feels like the loss of a friend in your actual life. I can think of one particular person whom I still miss terribly. He was like my twin in the game, same race/class/ level, only male. We were together virtually every day (no pun intended). We explored together, battled together, researched our spells together. Then one day he was not online, and has never been since. Now there was a third who usually was with us, and he is still around, but it's weird, it's like he and I used to hang out because the other guy is gone. Now we are friends and do not mention him anymore, but it still sucked.

Eventually, we leave the bar and I accompany Margaret and Cecelia back to Margaret's apartment, a one-bedroom walk-up on the second floor of an apartment building, its tile floor decorated with oriental rugs. The interstate rumbles by just outside, muffled by a screen of trees. Margaret's computer is in the bedroom. There are some scarves on the desk, which she drapes over the low-watt lamp while she's playing so she can see the monitor better.

To play EverQuest, you have to first buy and install the software ($50 or so) and then pay a subscription fee, about $100 a year for unlimited play. Once you're in the game, you can create as many characters as you want, although you can only play one of them at a time. Among the things you can choose for each, besides race and profession, is gender. (Although it's generally assumed that the majority of players at any given time are male—as is true with all RPGs—a sizable percentage of the characters on the Norrath landscape is female.)

Margaret's three characters are all women. Her favorite is Faline. She boots up and logs on, navigating quickly through a couple of introductory pages bearing the arching EverQuest logo. Verant, the company that manufactures EQ, maintains 24 different servers, each of them essentially a separate version of the same world. You can only interact with other players who are on the same server. When Margaret signs into the Mithaniel Marr site, a tally screen informs her there are currently 1,275 players on it. It's about 8:15 p.m. on a Wednesday.

"I don't remember where I camped," Margaret says. "Oh, I think I do..."

The screen shows a tunnel or maybe a cave, a rocky floor stretching out into darkness. Fingers flying over her keyboard, Margaret shifts the point of view 360 degrees so she can see in all directions. She also types in a "Hello" that will be received by anyone in her guild who happens to be online. The responses come back: "Hello, milady." "Hello, Faline. And reporter?" ("I told them I was giving you a demo tonight," she says with a grin.)

Throughout the growing up of my character (who is now level 26) I had frequently grouped with several people. Now one of these I actually began to "date" in game. This was great also for my character development, as his character was a rogue, and I am a high elf. It was strange because I did not plan any of this, but by the time he and I began to date, I was already known for associating with rogues, as I had had many rogue friends. So it just fit in perfectly with her reputation. A very beautiful, haughty high elven maiden with the tendency for keeping the company of those of a more unsavory profession is very fun to role-play.

The thing is, that Onyx (the boyfriend) and I started emailing each other back and forth. I genuinely began to like this person a lot, so it was no question that I would be spending most of my online time with him. Eventually I was asked to join a guild, called Ilsik Haucil. There are many guilds in EQ, basically they are just groups of like minded people. Some are better then others, and I feel Ilsik to be one of the very best. Especially since they already had some of my best friends. Ilsik now has 35 members. When I first joined, and all the welcomes came across my screen, it was truly an emotional moment, I had not expected anything like that. Ilsik is great because we all take care of each other. EQ is set up for a party to be six people, but sometimes we have 18 of us all fighting together as one group. It's such a blast when that happens.

Anyway, this Onyx, he is one of the guild's officers, the Keeper of The Watch, he is. Eventually we decided to get married in game, and got engaged...

Margaret's bookshelf is stocked with fantasy titles. She's even written some fantasy herself; one night, after being killed three times in a row on EQ (resurrection is a routine but difficult part of the game), she exorcised her frustrations by writing a short story about Faline's misadventures. There's a link to it from her homepage, www.internations.net/us/cyber/faline. (A self-trained computer enthusiast, she works for a local Internet company and has an ISDN line running into her apartment.)

"I've never played a game quite like it," she says of EQ. "You're just in this world, you can look up at the sky, the clouds going by, down at the ground...You're free to do what you want to do."

What she wants to do right now is get through the Butcherblock Mountains so she can show me some of the game's more impressive scenery. Some of her guild members alert her that they're heading into a dungeon in about a half-hour. It's on another continent, which means getting to a port and then taking a 15- to 20-minute (real time) boat ride across the ocean. "You have to go through the Dark Elf Forest to get there," she says with a grimace, "which is instant death because the guards will kill you if they see you. Of course, I've got invisibility, so I should be okay."

The landscape unfolds in three-dimensional crests and valleys, with digital detail so precise you can see the texture of the bark on trees. Other characters wander by, some of them part of the game's permanent computerized cast but most of them representations of other human players who are traversing the same ground at the same time from living rooms, bedrooms, and offices all over the (real) world. Faline pauses to chat with one or two, but she doesn't want to miss her boat. She wants to meet up with her guild friends. Especially with Silvan.

Now let me switch gears a bit and tell you what has happened recently. For some reason I decided to move to San Diego. Don't ask why, I'm not sure, but I do plan to move there. A friend and I planned a week vacation to there, to check it out and see if we liked it enough to live there. Now in the meantime, I found out that several members of Ilsik Haucil actually live in San Diego, and Onyx lives in Los Angeles. Now I thought that was a great coincidence, and started talking to another guild member, Finan, about our trip. We also started talking frequently through email, and we made plans to meet, and have him show us around the city when we got there. Now once again you can see how this is merging with my real life. I actually met six Ilsik members on my trip.

The unforeseen thing that happened was my meeting Finan's roommate, Silvan. He is also a member of Ilsik, the first officer actually, and I had grouped with him several times in the game, although not as often as some. He and I hit it off in real life almost immediately. As a matter of fact, he is coming here to Knoxville to see me in a little less than two weeks. Now. While in Cali, we decided to go to LA and meet Onyx also, who agreed to show us around L.A.

Now when I came home, and things had been spelled out between Silvan and I, I had to tell Onyx of this. It's so strange. We called off the in-game wedding, because of real-life relationships. And some people in game actually got angry that the wedding was canceled because in the announcement that we sent out it was said that my heart was stolen by another.

After an hour or so, Margaret and Faline have shown me deserts and dungeons, forests and towns. Margaret also introduces me to her other characters, a warrior and a bard, both of them low-level "newbies." There are ways to transfer money and equipment from veteran characters to newer ones, but the practice—called "twinking"—is frowned upon. Margaret sheepishly admits to doing it once. But she's baffled that people are actually selling senior characters for real money on Internet auction sites like eBay. A 50th level character went for $500, she says, shaking her head.

She shows me the Oasis of Marr, a desert landscape with velvety maroon skies. It's where she comes to relax. She uses a jpeg of it as her computer desktop.

Margaret hasn't been playing as much the last few months, she says. She has too many other things going on. But she likes to have it there.

"I really get into escapism, I do," she says, "and EQ is really just a prime subject for escapism. But it's not like I'm trying to escape from life. It's just that I enjoy this other little universe, too."

Heh something else that you will find amusing. I have never liked my actual first name, and have always wanted a nickname but never had one. So since these people all know me as Faline, I plan to just continue going by Faline in real life also, when I move, I intend to keep the name :) Of course I cannot do that here, because everyone knows me as Margaret, but in Cali...

Bye for now,
Marg/Fal


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