Endings and Beginnings

In the grand scheme of things, there’s no such thing as a “new year.” Nor are there “weeks” or “months” really. I know these are just convenient constructs for the human mind to wrap around something complex and inexorable like “time.”

Yet even knowing this, I can’t help but get a little nostalgic this time of year. The idea of one thing ending and another thing beginning brings to mind, well, this one thing ending and this other thing beginning, but in a nostalgic way.

I speak, as I so often do, of Star Wars.

After 8 1/2 years, December 15th was the last day of the well-conceived, poorly-run MMO Star Wars: Galaxies. It ended as the new Star Wars MMO, The Old Republic, began its long-awaited roll out to the world.

This brings to mind many questions regarding the impact digital universes have on our real lives. I played SWG for about 2 years. I remember a few of my character’s names, but not all. I fondly remember many escapades, and exploring beloved Star Wars worlds and cities. But as I searched for screenshots taken during all that time played, I slowly, sadly realized I had deleted them long ago. Those characters I built, mere digital creations, now exist only in my analog memory. I can imagine how heartbreaking it would be for those who had played since 2003. Not just the characters they’d created, but the houses built and businesses established, now all gone.

Is that sadness and loss any less real because the characters were virtual? Not to me. People get upset when sports teams win or lose, and they don’t play for that team, don’t know any of the players, often don’t even live in the cities they represent. Are sports players on a TV screen that much more “real” than avatars created and honed through hundreds of hours of gameplay? In this capacity, I’d argue no.

The brilliance of MMO’s, though, is actually the social aspect. The virtual worlds are populated by real people. Like in life, some of them are twits, some of them are twats, but most often they’re decent people trying for a stretch to escape reality. Instead of talking to friend on the phone, talk to them in-game while you’re doing something. You meet new people all the time while playing, and occasionally they can become new friends.

Then what? Many times these friends remain in the virtual world. Other times, they download into reality. After Hurricane Katrina a friend’s guild (an in-game player association) got together to send food and supplies to their members displaced by the storm. Many of the people in the guild had never met in real life, yet banded together to help their guildmates. This virtual world/real world crossover isn’t rare. I can speak of this first hand.

Years after losing touch with a friend from college, we ran into each other by chance. After finding out we both played Galaxies, we started catching up in-game. This lead to catching up in real life and now he’s one of my best friends. Without Galaxies, we probably wouldn’t even know each other, remaining “that guy I knew in college.” By the time we stopped playing Galaxies, (him dragging me kicking and screaming into 4 years of Warcraft), it didn’t even occur to us that the game had been the vehicle of our reconnection.

Now, all these years later, we have a new Star Wars MMO. Lives change, free time dissipates. Sure it’d be great if we all had the free time we did in college and right after, to hang out and do whatever or nothing as we saw fit. That’s not how life goes, sadly. So instead, when we can, we meet up in a virtual world for an hour or two, chat a bit, and kill some aliens, before getting sucked back into the real world by work or life or angry spouses.

He and I play, and we’ve brought several of our real-world friends — with their own busy lives — to play TOR with us. Maybe schedules and spouses permit some nights out like the old days, but in the interim, we have a few hours here and there shooting at womp rats and annoying Jedi. Not a replacement for the real world, but a welcome addition to it.

So as much as I’d gladly play 48 hours straight of TOR this weekend, I’ve instead invited those same friends and spouses over for my traditional Morrison New Year’s Eve party, which involves zero Star Wars and lots of drinking.

OK, maybe a little Star Wars.

For some touching end-of-universe videos, Rock Paper Shotgun has an excellent compilation. There’s also a nifty SWG Memory Book available as a HUGE pdf on the Galaxies website. It’s worth downloading for anyone who played.