It's been weeks since I've seen my older brother. In fact, I haven't seen him since he started playing Lineage II, a multi-player online role-playing game.
It has over a million and a half subscribers worldwide despite being your typical Dungeons-and-Dragons-style hack-and-slash fantasy. You make a character like an Elf or an Ork, join up with like-minded others and then set out on an adventure.
When I show up at his place, I catch him heading out the door.
"I gotta go. Rob's waiting for me downstairs!"
Rob is an old friend and part of the Lineage group. What are they up to?
"We're goin' to O'Grady's. Get some beers with the other players who live around here."
I can't believe it. I've always thought gaming was antisocial, at least in terms of human-to-human contact. Whenever I'm on a bender, I hide out for weeks ridding the world of Nazis or Demons. That shit takes time.
But that was before the age of massive gaming. I worry that these guys are turning into mole people, unable to communicate without emoticons or text-based slang, yet here they are going out for a round at the tavern with their fellow players. Maybe I'm wrong. Can gaming be a force for social good?
In the back of Rob's Chrysler, things get more complicated. Lineage II encourages players to group into clans, allowing them to bash bigger beasties, hold land and share resources. Jay, formerly a Coca-Cola-addicted call centre worker, started their clan, called the Guardians, which has grown to over 30 players. I wonder why he isn't with us. Rob's a former auto service rep waiting to start classes at chef school in the fall, and for the time being is free to do whatever he likes,
"So Rob, how often do you play Lineage?"
"Usually or recently?"
"Two hours a day. Right now?"
"Okay, right now."
My brother cuts in, "But he's working on something!"
The truth comes out. This isn't a friendly couple of rounds; they're planning a hostile takeover. Jay, after getting them hooked on the game, has stopped logging in regularly. Now the rest of the clan is being held back.
Jay, meanwhile, is off playing Doom 3 and Duke Nukem, willing to be the Lineage clan leader only at his leisure. This isn't enough for Rob.
"So let me get this straight. You're playing 10 hours a day to do what?"
"I have to get my character up to 40th level. Then I'm going to break off and form my own clan and bring everyone with me. That's why I called this meeting."
A meeting? Good god. It's like a full-time job, complete with after-work bitch sessions and backstabbing. And the knives are out.
"Why don't you just start your own clan now?"
"You don't understand! That would destroy the group! And we'd lose our castle!"
Jay loves the power of being the leader but doesn't want the actual responsibility. Rob comes from a different background. When he was in high school he used to hang around with Scarborough's Latino gangs. As he describes it, his experiences with these "less than savoury groups" give him an edge when it comes to thriving online.
These are the same dudes I played games like D&D with while growing up in Scarborough. Now they're still playing games, only on a board that stretches across the entire world.
And yet while their clan comes from Norway or Connecticut, somehow the squabbles are still pure schoolyard.
What will their plot do to their real-life friendships? How have Rob's loyalties grown so strong toward people he mostly hasn't met?
Rob's found the sense of brotherhood that comes from being in a gang in Lineage. This is what's motivating him to mount a coup. The higher your level in the game, the larger the band you can form.
Jay's character, Zhen, is the highest, but when he stops playing the entire clan is unable to advance any further.
In Rob's mind, he has to play so that no one will be left behind. Is it worth it for him to spend that much of his day plugged in? And if so, doesn't that flip the axis on what's real and what's virtual? No wonder he cares so much. I'm not even sure if I'm awake 10 hours a day, so who am I to tell him what's real and what isn't?
The more I listen to their scheming, the less fun it sounds. Actual gameplay has become subsumed by politics, and politics is a nasty business. I don't want to be around while they dice up Jay's body, so I hop out of the car at the nearest subway stop and take off.
A few weeks later, the coup has taken place. There are casualties, friendships dissolved and betrayals on all sides. Finally, a chat forum goes online for a group calling itself the Guardian Knights. Posted in the forum is this notice:
"Due to conflicts with leadership, we decided to reform, as the Guardians we knew no longer existed. Though I wish the Guardians all the best, we are not in any way affiliated or associated with them, nor will we ever be. We are our own people and we are pleased to meet you."