Caught in the Web

Zion met Koani at The Rusty Bucket. Sometimes they would play darts, sometimes they'd sit together drinking a cup of klah. They lived 1,500 miles apart, but they were together every day, for hours. They fell in love. They lived once upon a time, last year, on the Internet.

"Koani" was Jessica, a college student in Virginia. Her parents split up, and she'd been living on her own since the age of 13. "Zion" was Zach Loafman, a 16-year-old computer whiz kid, a top-notch student at prestigious St. Mark's School of Texas in Dallas. But last spring, his grades had plunged, he was neglecting his friends, and he had alienated his family, all for the sake of his obsession with the Internet. On the advice of his parents and psychiatrist, he admitted himself to Green Oaks psychiatric hospital for depression. Zach says he was addicted to the Net.

Parents carefully monitor the amount of time their teenagers spend playing Nintendo, watching TV, or talking on the phone. They limit the number of soft drinks and sweets their kids consume, they check for signs of alcohol and marijuana use. But when their kid heads for the computer, that's supposed to be a good thing--it's educational, a career skill. Schools sell themselves with how great their computer classes are; little kids begin learning computer skills in kindergarten. So it's a surprise to hear words like "addiction" linked with the computer, a learning and communication tool.

Computer addiction is not a new idea. Early hackers worked in obsessive eight-, 10-,12-hour stretches, programming computers; they compared the feeling they got from controlling the computer to a junkie's rush. But the Internet is greater than the sum of the computers that link it together. It's the hackers' wildest dream come true--millions of computers joined in cyberspace, a whole new kind of society, formed at a time when traditional forms of society--the neighborhood, the family--are breaking down, coming apart. We invented the technology and now the technology is reinventing us, inventing a community based on wired communication. There are those who believe that the cyber-revolution is inevitable, that in a few years, everyone will have an e-mail address--that we will all live in virtual reality as much as the physical world.

But there are those who believe that the virtual world will subsume the physical world, that the rush doesn't come from you controlling the computer, that the computer controls you. Controls us.

Zach got his first personal e-mail address five or six years ago, his current account about three years ago. His parents had been on the Internet since its beginning. Zach was busy on the Net all the time, getting tips on programming, figuring out how to format messages so they could go from his local bulletin board to the Internet. The software is available for free on the Net, if you can retrieve it and figure out how to reconfigure it. It's a complicated project, even for an experienced programmer like Zach's mother--who works at Texas Instruments--one that she was proud her son was able to complete successfully by himself.

He traces his "problem" to the summer before last when he spent more than the usual amount of time on the Net to amuse himself during the blank, boring summer days. In June, he'd noticed a help-wanted notice on one of the local newsgroups--electronic salons on various subjects. A new MOO on Metronet needed local help with "building," or programming. To understand the Net is to understand acronyms wrapped in acronyms--MOO stands for MUD Object Oriented; MUD stands for Multiuser Dungeon, which stands for a role-playing game similar to Dungeons & Dragons.

Zach's passion was computers. He'd been programming since he was seven years old, and his mother had been on the Internet since its beginning. Zach re-sponded to the notice and joined the game, coming on first as a guest before asking for his own character, which he gave his own middle name, Merlynn. "It was only pseudo-themed," says Zach. "Really, it was socializing and building, sort of a futuristic theme park." More than games, MUDs have been described as the closest thing to interactive novels.

One day he heard some other characters in the game referring to "HT," and found that the acronym stood for "Harper's Tale." Zach checked it out and found another MUD role-playing game, this one based on Anne McCaffrey's series of fantasy books, The Dragons of Pern, which he'd never read. Again, Zach came on as a guest, but he didn't bother to assume a character because he was leaving to spend several weeks in Boy Scout camp--in the real world. He read McCaffrey's books while he was gone.

When he returned and started playing the game regularly, he named his character Zion, "for no real reason," he says. "I'm not religious or anything." Zion was a smith--a young smith, because it's usual to start playing these games as an apprentice, so your character can age. But Zach really was younger than most of the other players. As Zion, Zach spent most of his time "posing" and conversing on the Net. A lot of the game was "posed"--the characters playing dice, drinking "klah," hanging out. There was an actual dartboard in the MOO, "so we'd go down to the Rusty Bucket and play darts." Zion made a lot of friends on "Harper's Tale," including Vicla and Io, the character names of two college girls playing the game. That's where he and Koani, a herder girl, first met.

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Mary Brown Malouf