Playing the Game


Tom’s Cupertino, California, apartment is dark, decorated in the spartan manner of someone who doesn’t spend much time at home and doesn’t look away from the computer screen when he is there. It is quiet, except for the broken rhythm of exploration — click, pause, click, pause, pause — and the whir of tiny computer fans.

He leans toward his monitor in the classic, slightly rocking posture of an autistic child while he browses advertisements on EBay, searching for the right persona. His last avatar was a disaster: weak, easily defeated by even the tiniest goblins, unpopular with the virtual ladies. He plays the Game to escape his life, not model it in cyberspace.

Passing up a dwarf called Carlos, he finally settles on Gorthon, a hugely muscled warrior whose pictures show the influence of Frank Frazetta, Boris Vallejo and Ralph Bakshi. This, he decides, is his true self, the one hidden beneath the version of him that the world sees.

Feeding his credit card number to the system, he feels a mute joy. This is the beginning of a new life in which he will be able to accomplish things and make a difference, get ahead and amass a fortune, a life in which he can do things that will make him proud.


Seated at his desk in a Madras warehouse, Padmaj receives the payment from Tom’s card. He walks from his office to the factory floor, where there are hundreds of young boys diligently playing the Game. The littlest one, Mustafa, raises his hand and asks, “please, sir, may I use the restroom now?”

“You know you do not take a break for another hour. Our customers demand only the best avatars. Get back to play!”

Mustafa crosses his legs and returns to killing monsters and gathering treasure.

Padmaj turns to another boy, “Varun, we need three more Gorthons by the end of the day. Will you have them ready?”

“Yes, sir.”

This entry is part of my journal, published March 23, 2005, in New York.