Loyola University media professor David Myers palmed his computer mouse and zeroed in on his prey.
A roleplayer in an online game, he aimed the pointer at his opponent, the virtual comic book villain "Syphris." Myers, 55, flicked the buttons on his mouse and magically transported his opponent to the front of a cartoon robot execution squad. In an instant, the squad pulverized the player.
Syphris fired an instant message at Myers moments later.
"If you kill me one more time I will come and kill you for real and I am not kidding."
The chilling text shook Myers two years ago. It served as a telling detail for his ongoing study of social customs in Internet gaming communities.
At the time of his clash with Syphris, Myers was just three months into an in-depth behavioral study of the "City of Heroes/Villains"" online community. Already, someone had threatened to unearth his real identity and take his life.
As part of his experiment, Myers decided to play the game by the designers' rules -- disregarding any customs set by the players. His character soon became very unpopular.
At first, players tried to beat him in the game to make him quit. Myers was too skilled to be run off, however.
They then made him an outcast, a World Wide Web pariah that the creator of Syphris -- along with hundreds of other faceless gamers -- detested.
The Slidell resident plans to soon publish a book drawn from his experiences with the game. The study's results dismayed Myers, who in 1984 became one of the first university-level professors to study video games. He believes it proved that, even in a 21st century digital fantasyland, an ugly side of real-world human nature pervades, a side that oppresses strangers whose behavior strays from that of the mainstream.
In the online realms of "City of Heroes" and "City of Villains," 150,000 or so players from around the world try to defeat computer-controlled comic-book characters, in order to boost their skill ratings and popularity.
Eventually, according to the game's design, the players -- who can choose to play as either heroes or villains -- gain access into an area where they should battle each other. The battles are designed to distinguish the most skilled players.
Myers, who bought "City of Heroes" when it hit store shelves in 2004, quickly learned that players ignored the area's stated purpose. Heroes chatted peacefully with villains in the combat zone. Instead of fighting each other, members of the two factions sparred with computer-controlled enemies..
Myers sensed a research opening. He created "Twixt," a scrappy, high-leaping hero decked out in different-colored spandex suits and rocket boots. He took his character to the virtual war zone and set out to simply battle villains.
Twixt proved difficult to beat. From a distance, he could transport villains anywhere he wished. He always took them to a cartoon robot firing line that instantly defeated whomever he zoomed before it.
During the first few sessions, other players gently informed Twixt that his method of play was unwelcome. But Twixt kept on vanquishing villains.
Mobs of villains then ambushed Twixt, hoping to defeat him so often that he would quit. Meanwhile, Twixt's fellow heroes watched without joining the fray.
One by one, Twixt coolly picked his opponents off. As play sessions passed, popular villains and heroes stepped up their attempts to change him.
"I know (how Twixt plays) is considered 'legal' but this person is getting really out of hand," a user at the game's public message board soon posted. "This guy has got to go."
But no one could stay alive long enough to defeat Twixt or drive him to quit.
Players turned to verbal abuse, hoping an offended Myers would log off and cancel his subscription.
When Twixt celebrated his victories, lobbing messages like "Yay, heroes. Go good team. Vills lose again," in the game's chat box, users like Hunter-Killed responded, "U are a major sh--bird."
Another player added, "I hope your mother gets cancer." Yet another wrote, "EVERYONE HATES YOU."
Myers was stunned by the reaction, since he obeyed the game's rules.
Contrary to some stereotypes, people that play online computer games like "City of Heroes" aren't adolescent misfits. They tend to be what most would consider mainstream adults.
Research shows the average gamer is 24 years old. Three out of 10 are women. Most are college students or work in information technology departments. Only 2 percent are unemployed.
One study even indicated that developing skill in a "highly distributed, global, hypercompetitive" online gaming community can translate into a successful run as a business CEO.
But Myers stirred a different kind of response.
Jon Martin, a longtime "City of Heroes" gamer who befriended Twixt off and on, explained, "They didn't like him or how he played, so they figured if there was enough of them, they could stop him and his evil."
Twixt eventually asked his fellow heroes why they never came to his aid. A hero named "Cryo Burn" answered with another question:
"Who would disrespect them(selves) and their family enough to do that?"
"It started to not be fun," said Myers, a video game aficionado. "I became the most hated, most reviled player."
Game community leaders only intensified their efforts as Twixt became more entrenched. They turned to out-of-game venues such as message boards to punish him.
When Myers took a break from the virtual world and went on vacation for a couple of weeks with his wife and daughters, players noticed his absence. One player started a discussion thread that claimed Myers had been banned from the game because he had called a fellow player a "n----r."
Another posting claimed Twixt was a convicted pedophile.
Then members of those boards, in another threatening tactic, launched campaigns to discover and publish Myers' real identity and address.
Myers reported the abuse to officials at NCSoft, the game's publisher and moderating entity. They acted appropriately, he felt. Players delivering extreme messages tended to do so just once, and Myers assumed it was because the company punished them. Company officials didn't respond to a request for comment.
"But the abuse was so widespread they couldn't completely stop it," Myers said. The company, he noted, had no right to police out-of-game forums.
Though he worried that someone would show up at his Loyola office or home in Slidell and harass him or his family, no player ever succeeded in discovering Twixt was Myers.
Myers revealed his identity and his character's purpose in "Play and Punishment: The Sad and Curious Case of Twixt," an academic paper on his experiment. He published it in 2008 and presented the paper at a video-game conference in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Gamer Martin said that while many gamers treated Myers like a pariah, he doubted anyone wanted to hurt him in real life. And he insisted that Internet games like "City of Heroes" actually do "encourage originality," allowing participants to design original costumes and script complex missions.
But Myers likened his journey as Twixt to a "bad high school experience," especially the verbal abuse and rumor-mongering.
The professor was disturbed that game rules encouraging competition and varied tactics hardly mattered to gaming community members who wanted to preserve a deeply-rooted culture.
He said his experience demonstrated that modern-day social groups making use of modern-day technology can revert to "medieval and crude" methods in trying to manipulate and control others.
"If you aren't a member of the tribe, you get whacked with a stick," he said. "I look at social groups with dismay."
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In: News, Arts and Entertainment, Other
Tags: online, game, professor, death threats
Location: Slidell, Louisiana, United States (load item map)
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