Just call me Wolverine

Lauren Booth found a new role for herself when she discovered the world of online gaming
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The Independent Culture
It was 2.30am and I was walking alone down a cold, damp alley. I was relieved when a little man approached and asked if I knew where I was going. When I asked for directions, though, things turned nasty.

"New girl round here, eh?" he dribbled menacingly. "Don't waste my time!" With that he spat at me and pushed me over before running away into the pitch dark. This was my first contact with the sometimes violent but always fascinating world of online gaming.

So how did I become a victim of Internet assault? I was lured by advertising, of course. One afternoon, as I sought distraction from my usual bulk buy of celeb mags and political rags, those racks of shiny, blood-red computer magazines with the cover-mounted CDs called my name and promised quick- fix adventures. Back at home, I innocently logged on and was automatically connected to the savagery and joy of the role-play and shoot-'em-up games I had installed on my PC.

So shocking and real was that first online assault - barely eight minutes later - that it left me shaking and upset even after I had turned off my PC and sat sipping black coffee in the kitchen. So furious was I that a stranger had treated me so harshly that I knew I must go back and prove myself no weakling or pushover in the gaming world.

This is how the new spate of computer-generated addictions begins. With humiliation. Making an error or being a "newbie" in an online game is as potentially devastating an experience as starting a new school dressed in the wrong uniform or laddering your tights before an interview. There are personal insecurities you have to overcome in virtual zones and the spooky cybersilence from playmates that greets each tactical error serves to make you more determined to succeed in your new life (perhaps where you failed miserably in your real one). You quickly begin to crave the fix of mutual gaming respect.

After my first online assault, I turned to commando games like Quake II to boost my self-confidence. For weeks, I stormed through sewers with a machine gun and pocketful of grenades, "fragging" every man in sight as a superbabe and techno-warrior called "Wolverine". This phase I now think of as my online teenage years. What an overenthusiastic upstart with no "life" experience I was then. I even chose a female character because, deep down, I believed the male players would feel bad shooting me and perhaps even give me a helping hand. How sweet I was then, and how wrong.

Internet role-play offers the clearest route to witnessing society's current fashions and values firsthand. Clearly, Web equality means that men and women may all begin as equal players, with the same amount of weapons, but women are still easier to hurt and intimidate, and there are as many men as ever out there who really enjoy hurting women. Still, better online than at home.

I remember with a shiver the first time a man shot me in the back so many times that I exploded into a thousand pulped, pet food-sized pieces. I leapt up from my PC swearing and shocked. "In the back, you creep! How could you?" Then I vowed his ultimate annihilation.

Better than Life was a game played by the characters in Red Dwarf that involved plugging all of the body's vital systems into a computer and living out your most magnificent dreams via a modem attached to the brain. The problem Lister, Cat et al slowly discovered was that, while their minds were convinced that they were in Barbados sipping cocktails with Kate Moss, their bodies were totally neglected and beginning to die. So as I slumped gorging on a genetically mutated burger and slurping an additive-laden milkshake that episode was brought to mind. The irony didn't have any impact at the time, though. Wolverine never gains an ounce and is a fit as a marine.

However, my online adventuring may be drawing to a contented close. I fear I'm already approaching gaming middle age. Recently, I discovered a new game called Ultima Online. Here you enter Britannia and attempt to build a life for yourself in the villages and towns of ye olde fashioned worlde.

Suddenly I feel the urge to settle down and start tending cabbages as a hobby. I am considering opening a small school on the east side of town and have even met quite a nice blacksmith who has a two-bedroom cottage of his own. It has taken Kevin, his alter ego, 10 months and 20 hours a week online to achieve a successful career. What a guy!

Weddings are common in Britannia and I feel content just wandering the streets of my newfound homeland and gossiping with neighbours. You see, on the Net even retirement and alternative family life are catered for. And I won't ever have to change a nappy.