Online Worlds Provide Places to Escape
Connie Davis is 43 years old, has myasthenia gravis (MG) and lives in Kirkwood, N.Y. Evan Fries, who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), is 24 and hails from Charlotte, N.C. And Samuel Kahn is 25; he has Emery-Dreifuss muscular dystrophy (EDMD) and resides in San Diego, Calif.
With thousands of miles between them, it’s likely the three never will cross paths in real life. However, given the fact that all three play multiplayer online games, it’s possible they’ll someday meet up in some other world that exists fully formed in their imaginations and, more importantly and perhaps even more interestingly, on the Internet.
Each plays for different reasons, but one sentiment resonates for all three: The online worlds to which they travel provide something of an escape from the real world. These worlds are places they can go and leave their baggage — whatever it may be — behind.
For those unfamiliar with it, gaming (and the jargon that goes along with it) may seem intimidating, but a few minutes’ study can bring anyone up to speed.
Davis began playing multiplayer online games in 2001 when her sister and brother-in-law introduced her to the MMORPG Dark Age of Camelot (DAoC). Fries and Kahn began playing at ages 14 and 11, respectively. All are avid gamers.
Fries interned at the MDA district office in Charlotte last summer and is interning with the regional office, also in Charlotte, this year. He’s interested in eventually working for a computer or game company to develop assistive technology for players with disabilities.
Kahn follows the game industry closely. He graduated from film school at the University of Southern California in 2005, and currently does freelance videography work with a partner. He also does Web site design and graphic design on the side, and has been working on several independent game projects, but is considering returning to school to pursue a career in game design.
Davis, who now plays the immensely popular MMORPG World of Warcraft (WoW), says she plays mostly with the same people on a regular basis, and that she’s made a lot of lasting friendships through games with people she’s later met in real life.
“For me it’s a way of meeting people from all over the world who have the same interests as me in games,” she says. “It’s also a way for me to get away from my problems. If I’m angry at my body for getting sick, I can log on and go kill monsters.”
Fries, who also has played WoW, says although he doesn’t play the game anymore, he still keeps in touch with his guild mates, “a fun group of guys from all over the world.”
“I don’t have a very active social life,” Fries says. “Gaming allows me to interact socially without the stereotypical feelings a wheelchair invokes. My guild mates knew, but that’s only because I told them.”
Fries admits he played Warcraft for over a year before he achieved the level of trust necessary to share, but that when he told people, “they were more curious than judgmental, which is good.”
Fries adds that online games “provide a place to escape the everyday grind and enter a new world.”
He says, “Being able to get your competitive juices flowing is nice, especially for the disabled who normally can’t participate in competitive sports or other competition.
“Online games also let your true personality shine through no matter what you look like or what you can and cannot do physically, because you are who you choose to be not what you are born with.”
As with Davis and Fries, Kahn can attest to the fact that real-life friendships develop out of online gaming communities. He met one of his closest friends through WoW, and although he urges people always to be cautious, he says the possibilities for friendship are definitely there.
Kahn lists a number of other things that gaming offers him.
“Playing games with friends or against friends can be a great bonding experience,” he begins, noting that he has a great many memories of playing games with friends and family.
“Some games remind me of specific experiences or periods of my life; some bring back memories, both fond and bitter. Playing games can also be a release for me in a way that sports are a release for many people. Games are also a way to connect.”
Kahn explains that games can be “immersive” in ways that surpass what can be experienced even with movies, and says the emotional impact can be “staggering,” as a result of the time one invests in one’s avatar (the character controlled in a game).
Another consideration is the sense of achievement games can offer.
“For example, in World of Warcraft, there are areas of the game that can take 40 people playing together to complete,” Kahn explains. “The feeling of successfully completing one of these raid areas of WoW for the first time is amazing. This is another one of those bonding experiences.”
Kahn notes that through their avatars, players can express themselves any way they like, “and play with or against others based only on your skills and understanding of the game.”
He says that what’s important is how players treat others and handle themselves in the game, and that even if he chooses to reveal he’s disabled, people rarely treat him any differently than they did before.
“People care far more about whether you treat others with respect, if you’re witty, or how well you play. Disabled or not, you won’t be wellliked if you behave like an ass.”
Kahn sums up the overall attraction to the activity with a nod to the “escape” gaming offers.
“While disabled people may appreciate this sort of escape on a slightly different level than others, I think it’s mostly the same for everyone,” he says. “Everyone could benefit from escaping their own reality for a little while.”
“It’s not difficult to get started with online gaming these days,” Kahn says. “All you need is a reliable Internet connection (most games require broadband now) and either a computer that meets the spec requirements for the game you want to play, or an Internet-enabled game console.” (All current generation game consoles are Internet-enabled.)
Some games require players to pay a monthly fee; others are free to play online once you purchase the game, and there are many free-to-download and free-to-play MMOGs such as 9Dragons (MMORPG), Dungeon Runners (MMORPG), Gunz: The Duel (MMOFPS), Maple Story (MMORPG), Second Life (MMOSG), Soldier Front (MMOFPS), and many more. Play is free, but payment options exist for those who wish to purchase in-game items or currency, or increase access to content.
With regard to disability, Kahn says, if you can use a keyboard and a mouse, or a game controller, you can play video games, either online or offline. “For a game like WoW, many tasks involve playing for hours at a time, and if you don’t have the physical endurance for it that can be a problem, but the game isn’t limited to things like that.”
Some options that help make games more accessible include real-time voice communication, macros (programmed commands that effect a series of simulated mouse- or key-strokes), and a new wireless game controller designed by Ben Heckendorn for the PC, PS2 and PS3 that is operable with one hand. (To order the $129 Access Controller, go to http://edimensional.com and click on “Game Controllers.”)
“Games that require quick movement or reaction time may be hard,” Fries advises. “MMORPG games are typically slower-paced than, say, a shooter game. Many games require typing to communicate, which can be hard [but] many new games rely on voice communication, which eases this problem.”
“Go slow at first,” Davis says. “Find people that are willing to help, and don’t worry about being new to the game because at one time everyone’s new and they had to learn somewhere.”
Davis plays WoW every chance she gets, and says she’s played 10 to 15 hours at a stretch, “with breaks for drinks and such.”
She recommends players “know your body’s limits,” and balance play time accordingly as “the games are very addictive.”
Fries plays every day, and says if he finds a game he likes he can go eight to 10 hours, although two to four is average.
“I can get tired after long hours, and tight,” he says. “If I get tight, I just take a break.”
Like Fries, Kahn also plays games in some form every day — both current games and older classics on consoles like the handheld Nintendo DS or on his computer. He doesn’t play on consoles every day, but when he does it’s typically a two- to three-hour stretch, though he has played eight- to 12-hour stretches of WoW before, which is one of the reasons he quit the game.
Kahn says his only warning for someone wanting to get into gaming would be about MMOGs like WoW, due to their “addictive” nature.
“The notion of ‘escape from reality’ can be a double-edged sword,” Kahn explains. “If you spend enough time in a game like WoW, and get involved in a guild, for example, you can create a certain amount of responsibility for yourself, and other players will expect you to play at certain times for certain durations. Playing the game can begin to feel like a second job. Since the people that participate there with you are real, to a certain degree this escape from reality instead becomes a second reality.”
Kahn knows of people who have dropped out of school as the result of a game addiction, and advises players to “manage your game time responsibly and don’t let it take you away from your normal activities.
“Ruined marriages, lost friendships — the potential is there if you let it get out of control. The cases are few and far between, but the potential is there [so] keep your priorities straight.”
Physical therapist Monica Winters at Children’s Clinics for Rehabilitative Services in Tucson, Ariz., cautions there are potential health risks and problems associated with gaming for people with certain muscle problems.
Problems — which differ with the sort of “reach” involved in holding a game controller or operating a keyboard — include muscle tightness, pain or stiffness caused by overuse, and muscle breakdown. All are potentially serious, as they can result in the inability to play at all, and worse, can affect mobility.
“The real problem is that it can get hard for [game players] to use the joystick on their wheelchair,” Winters says, “and then they’re losing independence.”
Winters says that, for example, for people who are ambulatory and able to do a lot with their hands, the risk of overworking those muscles might not be very high. People with certain metabolic diseases have their own inflexible limits — when their energy runs out, players stop. In those with limited movement and limited strength, however, the risk increases.
People with DMD, for example, have a higher risk of experiencing muscle tightness; for them, playing for hours on end may result in overuse of the muscles and the possibility of breakdown in the small muscles of the hand. Winters recommends taking breaks and stretching, and, when appropriate, using splints at night, to help avoid the problems too much game time can pose. In general, she advises, avoid the harm that comes with overexertion, and in gaming — as in any other endeavor — find a balance.