My name is Sherry and I carry a mace — the medieval spiked ball on a stick made for liquefying skulls, not the sissy spritzer you pick up at Walgreens — as long as a golf club. I am 5’6″ with legs like an Olympic sprinter’s, breasts like Pamela Anderson and abs tight enough to bounce bowling balls off of. Men bow before me, women envy me, villains fear me.
It’s easy being perfect; I, a 27-year-old man living near Chicago, designed me this way. Creating me — Sherry — was the first step toward becoming a citizen of Paragon City.
If you’ve never heard of Paragon, it’s because it doesn’t technically exist. It’s a city of bits and bytes on a computer’s hard drive, and the only way there is through the Internet. Designers at Cryptic Studios in California clicked and tapped Paragon into existence to create City of Heroes, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) that came out in April.
MMORPGs allow people with a Web connection and a computer to guide self-designed, cartoon-like characters through a virtual environment shared with hundreds of other people around the United States. Some MMORPGs have a medieval theme; others are set far in the future. City of Heroes is, well, a city full of heroes defending its citizens against swarms of bad guys.
In it, you — along with all of the other fans of fantasy who dreamed of leaping tall buildings in a single bound — are not just watching some super hero fly, you are flying. You’re guiding your hero between skyscrapers with a mouse and keyboard. Or, in my case, you’re guiding a 14-year-old boy’s fantasy girl with super strength and steel-tough skin around a city in her flesh-colored underwear.
“Fantasy taps into something deeper, something higher, something better and richer,” says Dr. Betti Schleyer, a clinical psychologist in New York who plays MMORPGs. “I think it’s a very deep need in us. If we couldn’t imagine things as being different than they are, we’d never make any progress.”
Sherry, despite her ridiculously sexualized appearance, is all about progress — the progress of my real-world checkbook. I designed her to the specs outlined in a conversation with Stephanie Hoerner, a 26-year-old Chicago resident who plays a four-foot tall fighter in the game called Speeding Flame.
“The reason that men play women is that other men will give female characters stuff,” Hoerner says. “If you’ve got your boobs hanging out, and big pigtails hanging down, apparently you get a lot of free stuff.”
Sherry is the perfect stuff hunter armed with, as prescribed, boobs hanging out. Her prey: objects in the game called inspirations, enhancements and influence. Inspirations are like a shot of steroids without the side effects. They temporarily — three or four minutes at most — boost your character’s powers so you can more easily kill bad guys. Enhancements permanently boost your powers so, once again, you can more easily kill bad guys. Think of them like a steroid IV. Influence is the game’s version of money. You get it for killing bad guys, and once you have it, you can buy more enhancements and inspirations. So you can kill more bad guys.
Through the magic of Ebay, influence has value in American dollars. City of Heroes players are fetching about $1 for every 33,000 in influence they manage to sell to the impatient players looking for a shortcut to virtual riches. But collecting a stash of influence to sell can take hundreds of hours of playing — unless you use characters like Sherry who are supposedly showered with gifts from male players. Hoerner refers to them as Amazonian bimbos.
“The more a character looks like a whore, the younger the boy playing her usually is,” Hoerner says. “I wouldn’t ever create a character that looked like that and no self-respecting woman would.”
I stand Sherry in Freedom Plaza, one of several town squares of Paragon City where heroes congregate to chat by sending typed messages that appear above your character’s head like the dialogue bubbles in a comic.
Most of the heroes wear what you expect: tights, leather straps, helmets, masks and armor that looks like a tank was wrapped around a human body. They have names like Van Hellscream, Burst Fire, Inferno Ex, The Texas Scrapper and Mutated Hellboy.
If you click on the heroes, you can read a description of them supplied by the controlling player. Mr. Inadequate, in pink and turquoise tights, is perpetually disappointed by his self-perceived less than super performance. He has been kneeling for hours, his arms hanging despondently at his sides, his chin dropped to his chest. A dialogue bubble above his head reads, “I’ll never be good enough!”
Sherry, in her flesh-colored underwear, attracts a steady stream of evaluative gazes. One female character who looks like an office worker in her Friday casuals tells me to find Jesus and put on some clothes, preferably a sweatshirt and pair of pants from Old Navy. She goes on to tell me I’m a ho.
“Okay,” I type back.
I think this confuses her because it takes her a few minutes to respond with, “Talk to the elbow, because the hand’s on vacation.”
I ask my critic where a hand goes on vacation.
“Nunya,” she writes. “Nunya business.”
End of conversation. My influence count is 310 — barely a penny on Ebay. I’m beginning to doubt Hoerner’s theory. The alternative — actually performing the missions supplied by the game — seems more tempting. I’m currently tasked to recover a stash of stolen jewelry for the influential van Horn family of Paragon City. Then again, watching other heroes react to Sherry is fascinating in and of itself. Is this what it’s like to be a woman?
“You get guys that follow you around and hit on you in the game,” Hoerner says. “It’s literally, ‘Hey baby, what’s up?'”
Or, in the case of Captain Soul, the line goes, “Yo baby, what up?,” according to his creator, 33-year old Scott Varney. “I always try to hit on the chicks,” he says.
Varney sits at his roommate’s desk stuck in the massive attic of a Chicago apartment. He stares at the computer screen, taking out villains with Captain Soul.
Soul has a white afro, white moustache, white boots, white gloves, white leotards and a big white number one on his chest. The only thing that isn’t white on Soul is his black skin and the black tiger stripes marking his oversized gloves and boots.
“I just wanted to make it funky,” Varney says about the costume, adding that he found the character’s inspiration in 1970s blacksploitation films like Avenging Disco Godfather.
Varney sometimes goes silent mid-sentence as he dispatches one of many villains — some in red demonic masks that look like spilled lasagna — with the audacity to shoot at Captain Soul.
“I keep running into these guys with machine guns,” Varney says. “Those are the guys that do a lot of damage to you.”
Soul’s solution is a long, slow punch that vaguely looks like a pitcher throwing a fastball. Officially, it’s called a cobra strike. The thunder kick works too, according to Varney. There are other powers as well, but Soul can’t use them yet. They have to be earned by defeating a certain number of villains. Kill enough, and Soul becomes stronger, earning the right to a new power until he eventually gets all 18.
“The game’s more fun if you’re stronger,” says Dave Schneider, known as Red Daemon in Paragon City, and as one of two of Varney’s roommates in Chicago. “I suppose in real life it’s the same thing. You get a better job, you get more money. You can go on vacation. You can eat. You can buy a car to get to your nice job.”
Schneider, standing behind us, stares at Varney’s play from through a pair of glasses almost as intently as Varney watches the screen. He paces and I wonder if he wants to jump in, or if he’s just trying to walk off the headache bothering him earlier.
Varney switches to playing Captain Kickback, a guy in a green costume who shoots blue-white energy from his hands. One attack looks like an unfurling rug of light that cruises along the ground toward its target, in this case another pack of tattooed thugs. When it hits them, they scatter like swatted flies.
“I like this wave thing,” Varney says.
“It’s pretty cool,” Schneider says.
“It’s the cosmic bitch slap,” Varney notes.
Though the cosmic bitch slap entertains magnificently, it pales in comparison to flying. Sherry, alas, remains too inexperienced a hero to up-up-and-away it. But another character of mine named Ulok — a charcoal-skinned, eight-foot tall, 600-pound, muscled-bound, demonic cross of an obsidian bull with Arnold Schwarzenegger — is a 747 from hell.
When Ulok takes off, he has the form of an Olympic diver gone horizontal. The sky parts before the wedge of his perfectly square chin, he looks down with glowing red eyes on skyscrapers, not up, and he moves with such speed that silver-gray worms of crystallized air drag behind him like the fading contrails of a jet.
Ulok has earned nine powers thus far. It took hours to get them all, easily more than 70. Flying took at least 40. But an hour of game time feels like two minutes. When you’re flying, time flies, and the temporal distortion has a name: peak experience, according to Nora McCauley of Jump Associates, a product design consultation firm in California. McCauley has personally observed and studied MMORPG players in action.
“You get caught up in the moment. You lose track of time. You lose track of your normal personal inhibitions. People typically in the past had them (peak experiences) with religion,” she says. “These games create those experiences for people in ways that are sometimes easier and more successful.”
These moments of worry-free bliss can work like a fire escape from the stresses of life, despite the criticism that some video games encourage aggressive behavior.
“To go home and not live in this world for awhile is a great blessing,” Dr. Schleyer says while Hoerner, in response to a hypothetical question, suggests Hitler may have decided against invading Poland if he had a chance to get out his aggression in City of Heroes.
Varney’s observations on the therapeutic benefits of blasting super villains were a bit more direct: “Reality sucks. It gives people a chance to detach.”
But it’s not just detaching. It’s detaching from one world and reattaching to another, one lacking the inconvenient details of life. Superhero pimples? Forget it. Going to the bathroom? Nay. And death? Laughable — a mere speed bump on the highway to the super hero hall of fame.
“It’s a world where pain is just a word, death is temporary and you can heal people with a click of a button,” Dr. Schleyer says. “It really is that inner fantasy world that many writers have talked about over the years, but it’s real. It’s not just a game because real people are playing it.”
Real people with sometimes unfortunately realistic conversations that cover all the valleys, mountaintops and dull deserts of humanity’s chatter: profanity, transcendence, pornography, mundanity, philosophy, humor, blathering, gossip, “all of it,” Dr. Schleyer says. “I’ve discussed girlfriends with buddies in Colorado while we blasted our way through zombies knee-deep in bubbling green sewage.”
Hoerner got closer to other actors in her improv group and Dr. Schleyer started falling for her second husband on an MMORPG after observing how he played.
“You get a measure of people’s behavior that you don’t get in e-mail or in a chat room,” she says. Or even in reality — part of her husband’s charm was his chivalry. If a dragon attacked, he would throw himself between it and Schleyer.
“You don’t see that on a date,” she says.
Nor do you see some of the other odd behaviors easily performed in City of Heroes with a click of the mouse. Players can, for example, flex like a Muscle Beach prima donna going for the gold. They can also slump to their knees in defeat or pound their chests like Tarzan. Not good enough? Ninety-eight other poses and body movements offer ways to say what players feel without opening their super mouths.
Sherry, for instance, dances to express herself.
Dancing is the best way — right behind wearing flesh-colored underwear — to attract the attention of other players and hopefully the influence they carry. Sherry’s combination of the two reels in stares by the dozens. But you can’t dance just anywhere. I pick a spot inside city hall, a vast gray building that heroes regularly visit to pick up missions. It’s private and public at the same time — an audience will show up, and they’ll feel comfortable chatting with you.
With the stage set, I click on boombox from a long list of things I can tell Sherry to do. She then whips out a silver-gray, portable stereo booming out techno music and sets it on the ground. The show begins: Sherry’s hips bat back and forth; her arms swing like she’s jogging; body parts shake; it’s two pasties and a g-string short of NC-17; the stares pile up.
Within seconds I hook a hero in blue and red tights.
After circling around Sherry, he holds up a placard — yet another one of the 98 poses — with the number 10 written on it. Given that a one is the lowest he could display, it’s a compliment. He follows up with a barrage of flattering phrases about Sherry’s looks. I’m starting to feel odd. Are men — am I — really like this or is it just men online? Then he asks me to marry him.
Naturally I type, “Okay.”
I’m thinking reverse dowry. Surely my husband can cough up some influence. But no. Seconds after making the biggest decision of our superheroes’ lives, the red and blue tights wonder runs off. All I get is a, “Bye wife.”
It’s heartbreaking — I still only have 310 influence — but then this other guy in black tights walks up. I click on boombox again. Sherry’s hips start jerking. He stares for a minute, thinking, pondering. Then he holds up a placard.
It too has a 10 on it.