When Dragons Escape

Hunting a virtual trickster unveils the persistent hold of Simutronics' game world

Elonka Dunin glances into the conference room of the Simutronics Corporation as she passes by, nodding to five glazed young men huddled over a new game's glitches. She pauses again outside the gray computer room, cold as a meat locker, with enough information pulsing through its tangle of colored wires to run a small country.

The power in that small room never fails to thrill her.

But today, the frisson slides halfway down her spine and stops, caught on a hook of memory.

Elonka Dunin
Jennifer Silverberg
Elonka Dunin

Back in her office, she keys a string of commands, her fingers moving so fast that they look as if they're not moving at all. Characters stream onto the monitor. The screen flashes, its white light glowing brighter -- almost -- than the sun.

One eyelid flickers; she's absorbed the data. She types another line and hits enter -- hard, with the authority of a headmaster's slap.

The screen obeys.

"We're in," she says quietly, and begins to scan the game.

One of Simutronics' most popular multiplayer Internet games, DragonRealms is a high-tech medieval fantasy peopled with thieves, clerics, warrior mages and traders.

Today, Dunin's looking for anyone who knew one of the most powerful warriors of all: a longtime player named Bloodwrath.

He rocked their community by using September 11 to stage his own virtual death.

She caught him.

In a game of cowboys and Indians, playing dead only adds to the fun. But in a virtual world created by the consensus of thousands of players' imaginations, deceit snaps the strings that suspend disbelief.

And a darker reality falls.

As general manager of Simutronics, Dunin spends her days in an airy corner office in the corporation's unlikely headquarters, a low-rise office building in St. Charles that belies its Inc. magazine designation as one of the nation's 500 fastest-growing private companies. Dunin spends her time managing Simutronics' vast online community of customers, delving deep into industry politics, researching shifts in technology.

But to find the truth about Bloodwrath, she had to re-enter the gameworld she discovered years ago as a player.

Luckily, it hadn't changed much.

Simutronics creates "persistent worlds" -- complex game environments that host thousands of players at any given moment. These worlds evolve as the material world does, incorporating every game move. If a player lowers a drawbridge, it stays down until somebody raises it. Players discover traps and rewards, forge alliances and make enemies as they watch their interactions reshape the universe.

Over time, the gameworld accumulates its own reality. Yet the drawbridge -- and the drooling swamp trolls, and the thieves who snag velvet gem pouches -- exist only in the mind's eye. With the exception of one 3-D combat game, Simutronics games are pure text, using strings of words to set the scenes, describe the characters and record every action.

Their power comes straight from the imagination.

Players call their real-world identities their "other-world selves" and strenuously avoid going out of character by hinting at their real lives.

Today, Dunin intends to break the OOC rule. She wants to ask players how Bloodwrath's deceit affected them.

Because it still haunts her.

On September 11, Simutronics staffers sat in front of the TV watching footage that looked more virtual than their 3-D combat game. Some wondered whether they should temporarily shut down, out of respect. Dunin thought their players needed the continuity of the gameworld, the reassurance of their online relationships.

So she found ways to connect the two worlds.

She set up an online crisis-information center with directions for donating blood or money and ways to report a member of the game community safe or missing. Soon the list of names scrolled twelve pages long.

At the top: Bloodwrath, in Ohio.

Dunin had received an e-mail from someone claiming to be Bloodwrath's wife, saying he'd been lost in the World Trade Center and requesting prayers for their young sons.

The community responded.

A real-world sailor in the U.S. Navy vowed that if he were sent overseas, he'd write Bloodwrath's name "on the first bomb loaded into one of our jets." A cleric with the power to raise others from the dead -- in game -- wrote:

"What I wouldn't do to have that ability now, to be able to return him to you."

In her next e-mail, Bloodwrath's widow said he was dead and asked to play his character in his memory.

It was all very moving -- but Dunin, puzzle-solver and cryptographer, couldn't sleep. Something wasn't right. She tossed, punched a hot pillow. Bloodwrath was a powerful high-level warrior -- what if someone was trying to gain control of his character?

She suspected a ruse, and she hated herself for it.

She was used to grief players -- SNERTS, "stupid nonsensical egotistical ranting twits" whose idea of fun was to disrupt the game. The community knew how to apply its own pressure, socialize the SNERTS.

But this was something new.

She started checking casualty lists. She e-mailed the widow and asked about a death certificate. A hysterical reply came back; the widow hadn't even thought about that.

"Either it's suspicious," thought Dunin, "or I've just traumatized a grieving widow one more time."

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