The Mysterious Online Men

It’s the dawn of a new year, the crossing of a threshold into increasingly-complex interconnected states of being that we like to call the Internet. And to christen the new year, I suppose I’ll write a little piece on that very subject, because I haven’t done that in a while. Actually I’ve had those bits and pieces of unrefined material floating about and just now am bothering to refine them. So here goes.

A couple weeks back I read a well-written article by writer and poet Margaret Atwood on the then-recent links between NSA snooping and MMOs like Second Life and World of Warcraft.…ef=opinion

Though Atwood’s style may come off as self-important at times, she nonetheless makes a sound – and chilling – conclusion. Her point is relevant to patterns cropping up in the media more and more frequently: the merging of physical and virtual consciousnesses to create a new, synthetic identity over which we (or we would like to) have complete control. It’s a classic cyberpunk theme coming to fruition, and that’s no doubt recognized by plenty of writers, theorists, scholars, and paranoids alike. Her Poe analogy was also apt. I don’t know, I just really liked it.

I chuckled a little about how she keeps using NPCs as hypothetical guises for NSA spies. Nothing wrong with that, especially since it sounds lessĀ  than trying to spoof the name of a theoretical player, and as a writer who specializes in this field she knows that. 80% of her readers probably don’t even know what an NPC is, anyway.

Two questions arose within me while reading this article and I haven’t seen these addressed in much detail anywhere, if at all:

  1. If anything, did the NSA spies actually recover information regarding threatening activities or malicious groups? If their haul came up dry, they’re not looking hard enough (obviously). There’s plenty, perhaps even more, shady activity going on in older games since they’re largely forgotten by the majority of mainstream video game players. They’re homes to the most dedicated players, those who have likely been there since the beginning. Because comparatively less people are going to bumble around in their virtual homes, Doom servers and the like make for useful arenas for promoting someone’s music pirating service, or something worse. I actually saw exactly that just a few months ago; a friend of mine from GGPO was playing on a Doom server and the owner of this organization was advertising his cause (as well as playing any song you requested on demand into the mic). Now that’s not to justify the actions of the NSA, nor to restrict shady activity to those darker, dustier corners of the web. And who knows, maybe there are plenty of spies snooping around those places too. But sometimes, answers aren’t in plain sight after all.
  2. I want to know how many spies played elves. No, really. I’m curious about whether spies were able to choose their avatars, or if they were assigned specific avatars. Then I want to know if they were specifically assigned certain classes and races to achieve certain ends. Were many unassuming Humans and Dwarves/Orcs and Forsaken? Did many use female elves to wheedle information out of players (a ploy worthy of detective fiction)? “Sanders, you’re playing a Gnome. And don’t give me any of that whining, this is your job, and if you want to make a living I’d suggest shutting up and playing your Gnome.” I mostly just find this interesting from a standpoint of how people choose to represent themselves in virtual fantasy spaces, and government agents should be no exception.

After a quick search, it seems that the NSA’s efforts were unfruitful. Which lends credence to my first point.
Also, Orcs haven’t been loathesome since Warcraft 2! That’s the main reason why I like Warcraft Orcs. They’re not barbaric when compared to the “nobler” races, they just have a different worldview. But that’s a topic for another conversation.