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An avatar seeking meaning in the wilderness.

Approaching middle age, Larry Jenkins had begun again to play his favorite massively multiplayer online game from his adolescenceWilds of Wonderignorant that the result would turn into the leading psychotherapy craze of the mid-21st century, and that he would become its prime entrepreneur.

He thought he could brood better in an emotionally evocative electronic environment, recalling that one set of quests had previously sent him deep into Gagtooth jungle to find a character named Kurtz who represented psychotic rebellion. Before Wilds of Wonder, Kurtz had been the mysterious psychotic in Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness about colonial Africa and again in Francis Ford Coppola's movie Apocalypse Now about the Vietnam War. Jenkins feared he was sliding into his own darkness, hoping Kurtz would provide guidance. However, Wilds of Wonder had killed off its own Kurtz years before, and all Jenkins could find was a desiccated corpse that refused to answer his questions.

Descending into personal gloom, Jenkins wandered northwest through the game's vast digital landscape, vaguely planning to visit the shining metropolis of his youth, Blizzardsleet City. He first entered Sherwood Forest, recalling his early quests there decades before. Then, suddenly, he saw a familiar faceLogger, one of the quarrelsome hyena-like gnolls, who always looked to him like a humanoid pigwhom he had repeatedly killed years before, though now it seemed more friendly than fierce. "Welcome home, Jenkins," said Logger, "I'm so glad you've resubscribed. Most players these days are adults not unlike yourself, and I'm sure you'll have a great time." Logger had taken responsibility for recommending non-player character questgivers players should visit within Wilds of Wonder and gave Jenkins the names of three, each offering a different route to sanity.

Jenkins first visited Sickman Fraud, founder of sicko-analysis, in the Mage District of Blizzardsleet. Fraud's specialty was psychodrama, so he assigned Jenkins several missions that involved disguises. Following debriefing sessions on Fraud's couch, Jenkins felt no better, so Fraud invoked his most powerful spell, the bipolar switch. Jenkins went instantly from depressed to manic, drew his longsword, and skewered the mage analyst before even the first word of a defensive spell had passed his virtual lips. When the spell faded, Jenkins was swept by a new emotionguilt. He knew Fraud would rez back to simulated life in a minute or two, but murdering this therapist, even briefly, would be rather shameful.

Seeking remission for his sin, Jenkins begged guidance from a priest in the Cathedral of Blizzardsleet who explained that a cure would require spiritual transmutation. Jenkinswould have to deliver samples of earth, air, fire, and water from four sacred sites, the first being the catacomb beneath the Cathedral. Jenkins thus battled the Un-dead there for the better part of an hour before he could grab the earth sample and run back upstairs.

The priest donned his alchemist robes and ground the earth into sacred water to make a toxic mud he spread over Jenkins's face. It stung and stank, given that MMOs had added haptics and aromatics since he played them in his youth. As Jenkins rinsed himself off in a nearby fountain, he contemplated assassinating the priest as well but decided the effort would be wasted.

Feeling that psychology and religion had failed him, and that he himself could have done a better job at both, Jenkins was ready for the most aggressive of humanity's three routes to salvationpolitical radicalism. He now trudged southward, toward a gold mine occupied by the Defiant Party, headed by Firebrand Vanquish. He performed missions for many minor questgivers in the area, seeking to gain a reputation positive enough with the Party to meet their leader without having to kill all its other members first. All claimed Vanquish was long dead, however, and Jenkins was thus on a fool's errand.

Jenkins now encountered the beautiful Victoria Vanquish, Firebrand's daughter, who explained her father had been the leader of the workers hired to rebuild the Cathedral years ago, following a data-deletion incident, but the priests had failed to pay the workers their agreed salaries, sparking rebellion. Over the years, millions of players had been sent on a mission by the perfidious priests to kill Firebrand, just as they were sent by Blizzardsleet's secular government to kill Kurtz, and, eventually, following millions of repetitions, their deaths became permanent. Victoria now assigned Jenkins to lead an assault force northward against Blizzardsleet City to extract back pay or vengeance from the priests.

Jenkins was tired, dozing as he marched with the Defiant. When he awoke he realized his avatar had run into a tree in Sherwood Forest and was still marching in place. There, a short distance away stood Logger. "Well," said the humanoid pig, "I see you are still alive, and that's the point, isn't it? Yes, you are still miserable, but you've experienced intense emotion, completed adventures, and interacted with other people, admittedly artificial ones in your case, because you have not yet tried group team mission therapy with other players. What more could you want?"


"Well," said the humanoid pig, "I see you are still alive, and that's the point, isn't it?"


Experiments fail only if nothing is learned. Misery is wonderful if it motivates effective action. After cancelling his Wilds of Wonder subscription, Jenkins became chief information officer of a vast real-world organization offering industrial-scale psychotherapy. Its main componentMultiplex Mental Orthoticsran customers through specially designed role-playing missions not in virtual reality but in the physical world, guided by mobile devices that transformed Earth into a game. The quest arcs were assembled from a collection of components to match the syndromes of individual customers, following principles of psychology, spirituality, and political action. Their guild master was an artificial intelligence questgiver Jenkins had built, named Kurtz. The mysterious logo for multiplex mental orthotics was a humanoid pig standing proudly on its hind legs in a dense forest.

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Author

William Sims Bainbridge (wsbainbridge@hotmail.com) is a sociologist and computer programmer who published two academic books based on role-playing research inside real-world radical religious communes before publishing seven books based on sending research avatars into massively multiplayer online role-playing virtual worlds. Most relevant to this story are Satan's Power (University of California Press), The Endtime Family (State University of New York Press), The Warcraft Civilization (MIT Press), and eGods (Oxford University Press).

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Figures

UF1Figure. An avatar seeking meaning in the wilderness.

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