When Dragons Escape

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

Finally she cracked the hoax: She found Bloodwrath alive and well in Cleveland, working as a waiter in a strip-mall restaurant.

When she talked to him, they decided that someone must have stolen his identity.

But when she mentioned exposing the thief, he sounded nervous.

Elonka Dunin
Jennifer Silverberg
Elonka Dunin

Still restless, unwilling to leave the thief at large, Dunin worked her way backward through the Internet. She thought that if she could follow the widow's e-mails home, she could identify the thief.

So she traced them back to their source:

Bloodwrath's computer.

He'd staged his own death.

Dunin had thought nothing could surprise her.

Even at 44, wearing a sleek black leather miniskirt, she still looks like the smartest kid in class -- tall and round-shouldered, borrowing her big sister's clothes. Her parents were professors at UCLA. She gave up on acquiring charisma years ago; instead, she studied astronomy, digital electronics, programming and artificial intelligence.

She once glanced at all the ones and zeroes on a hacker T-shirt -- rows of hundreds to spell out the name of the conference -- and found a typo.

Lately she's been teaching FBI agents about cryptography.

And remembering how seductive a virtual world can be.

In the mid-'80s, Dunin spent mind-numbing days as a legal secretary in Los Angeles. After work, she rode the bus home, her skin brushing against strangers whose faces she never noticed. She had her house key out three stops early. By the time she stuck it in the lock, her hands were shaking.

With the grind and screech of the modem, her nerves stilled. She felt herself falling softly through a cloud layer, descending into the world of the game.

She spent $15,000 that year on computer time.

She knows the power a game can have.

Looking for a player to interview about Bloodwrath, Dunin happens onto Idora, a trader traveling with a caravan.

White letters cut into the black velvet of the screen:

"Idora appears in a flash of light, looking slightly disoriented."

Dunin keys a curtsey.

"Idora blushes a bright-red color."

Idora has more Intelligence (38 points) than Agility (21); she has only six Favors, and her Encumbrance is Overburdened.

"I'm quite poor in real life," she explains. "My online life is far, far more interesting than my real life. I'm a stay-at-home mom."

She says she plays DragonRealms at least seven hours a day. Dunin sneaks into another computer window to check.

"Yep," she murmurs. "She's pretty realistic about her use."

Idora, meanwhile, "pats her pockets" and describes their contents: A silvery spidersilk moneybelt studded with black opals and stitched with platinum thread. A white spidersilk moneybelt encrusted with sapphires. Both worth four times what she "paid" for them.

Eric Latham, DragonRealms' producer, steps into Dunin's office in time to catch this last exchange.

"The black market for DragonRealms alone is about $50,000 per month," he murmurs, adding that he also tracks the exchange rate with DragonRealms currency, now running "a little stronger than the Canadian dollar."

Dunin arches an eyebrow and returns to Idora.

Who says she's been offered $1,000 for her character.

"I'd never sell her, though," she keys. "She is too much me, and I am too much her."

Next Dunin interviews Minti, a female character who married in game.

She's married in real life, too. To somebody else.

"DragonRealms has changed my life," she keys, "the way I feel about myself and how I treat others. Before I found the game I was just a broken-down person; I would go into new places and be shy and embarrassed. Now I can go in and say to myself, hey, I trained a character to be respected."

For Minti, the two worlds fused and strengthened her. What about Bloodwrath, whose boundaries dissolved into a lie?

She's still furious at him.

To take that precious confidence, that ability to maneuver in different worlds, and use it to exploit a tragedy --

"How dare he?"

Avid gamers toggle back and forth between the real and virtual worlds. Some commission their characters' portraits and hang them over the sofa. Others ignore their sofas and design themselves chaises in Elanthia, mystical kingdom of DragonRealms.

They can control the colors.

And they never have to dust.

Where else can can a brilliant introvert live inside her head and have that reality affirmed by a community of thousands? Where else can she flirt without stammering, have adventures without packing a toothbrush?

Years of therapy taught Dunin to keep her balance, live in her body. She designed her office on the computer and noticed that she felt happier every time she dragged the desk rectangle closer to the window rectangle. So she moved the real wood in that direction and lined the sunny window with bird feeders.

She's traveled to every continent, been everywhere from Antarctica to Angkor Wat.

But for others, the gameworld is sufficient.

They forget that their needs will follow them in.

"Bloodwrath had been playing for a few years, maybe 80 or 100 hours a month," Dunin says slowly. "I think he got into that state of 'They'd miss me if I were gone' and moved from there to 'What would happen to my character?'"

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