For most of the 20th century, life used to be rather simple for most people. There was school, college, work, retirement. Along with that you had hobbies like cars, bowling, or gardening. This was basically the same as a thousand years ago. Now, in the last 10 years of the 20th century, as well as in the first few years of the 21st, this has been changing rather dramatically. The reason is the rapid technical progress, both in the wide area network and computing power areas. This has led to an explosion in the availability and quality of online games, with the newest generation like Counter-Strike and World of Warcraft becoming a phenomenon no longer limited to any particular social class.
There are basically three main types of multiplayer online games.
In first-person shooter games, the basic principle is simple. Shoot or be shot, kill or be killed. Starting with the original Castle of Wolfenstein and Doom, these games have developed to a level of frightening realism mainly for men living out their ancient predatory and fighting instincts (according to some surveys, there are about 10 times as many male as female players in average FPS games). One of the recent milestones in this category, Doom 3 is a game which is psychologically scary even to adult men with the highly detailed and realistic monsters suddenly attacking from dark corners. However, once these games take to the online multiplayer stage, their focus shifts a little. The goal is no longer to scare the pants off the lone player in his dark room, but rather to provide a fun platform for competition between many players of different skill. The most popular online game in this category is still without doubt Counter-Strike - a game which has received much negative fame because of various school shootings done by Counter-Strike players, yet still remains a highly captivating pastime for millions worldwide. It is a fan modification of Half-Life, a Valve game, and a team game in its core: one team is the "terrorists", the other the "counter-terrorists", and the play is round-based: at the start of a round, each team member receives an identical (except for clothing) avatar, picks some weapons, and the the two teams clash in combat until either a bomb is placed or everyone of one team is dead (there are also variations like "capture the flag" etc).
There are numerous reasons for the massive popularity of Counter-Strike. The game rounds are short-term in nature and don't require much time. It is comparatively realistic - weapons existing in reality like the M-16 or AK-47 are used in the game, and even one shot may be enough to kill. Also, it is easily accessible - almost everyone can install and run a Counter-Strike server, and there are many thousands of them in the world online at any given time. Although the basic game does not lead to social interaction deeper than a quick chat, the grouping of people around some specific favorite servers and the wish to play better, which inevitably requires solid teamplay, has led to the phenomenon of so-called "clans", or dedicated player groups, which usually have their own server where they train. A competitive clan will usually have requirements for people wanting to join - a certain skill level, or some minimum playtime - and most serious clan players play at least several hours a day. Dedicated clans will also sometimes meet in real life to discuss strategies and generally have fun, which is not much different from most other groups of people with similar hobbies, like e.g. stamp collectors or RC model builders. Since many servers are regional, mostly there are same-country and often even same-neighborhood people on the same server, which of course makes meeting in real life easier as well.
The picture is roughly comparable in the other FPS multiplayer games like Quake 4 and Unreal Tournament, with the main difference between that the latter are less realistic and include sci-fi weapons like laser guns and such. They are also typically much faster, with frantic movement (means, being hard to target) being highly important to survival, which is a concept rather different to Counter-Strike where sometimes the top scorers just sit in one place with a sniper rifle. However, a thing common to all FPS, mouse control is highly essential. Skilled FPS players develop extremely good mouse control (conventional mice no longer being good enough for them led to the development of a whole new segment of gaming mice) and have reaction times below 0.1 seconds. The numerous stress peaks and drops, lack of time between rounds, and the frantic gameplay often leads to additional addictions, though - many of the hardcore FPS players are chain smokers, fast-food eaters, coffee addicts, or all of it combined. There are worldwide tournaments held for most of the established FPS, and the current champions are mostly from Europe or the US.
The picture is a bit different with strategy games. Usually they are less frantic and leave much more room for logical thinking (of course, the classic board games like chess or Go also have major online playing facilities nowadays, but they cannot really be called multiplayer games since there is little to none team aspect, it's just one-on-one most of the time). A typical example is Warcraft II which is the most recent in the Warcraft realtime strategy game series by Blizzard. It is played on the so-called Battlenet, a major online gaming hub by Blizzard, which also serves other strategy games like Starcraft. In Warcraft III it is possible to play both random opponents matched to you approximately by skill, either one on one or in teams of up to 4 on 4, or play others in pre-arranged teams. As in FPS games, there are also clans in Warcraft, which in this case are even explicitly supported by Battlenet. This and the very immediate visibility of someone's skill level (basically, his win/loss ratio) gives rise to much competition between dedicated players for the top ladder (ranking) spots. Unlike geographically uniform games like Counter-Strike with tens of thousands of servers, Warcraft has just a handful of large servers, each for a certain area of the world (e.g. Americas, Europe, Asia). Interestingly enough, most strategy games are dominated by Asian, especially South Korean, players, where online multiplayer games have been a very major part of the culture for years already. The professional South Korean Starcraft and Warcraft tournaments are major events with hundreds of thousands of live spectators, played on an extremely competitive level, and broadcasted on TV, and the top players have practically celebrity status and incomes in the six-figure range and higher.
Since the popular strategy games are usually also just round-based, there is not very much room for social interaction apart from an occasional chat. Strategy players are probably a bit older than FPS players on average, mostly between 16 and 35 in the Western societies.
Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games
MMORPGs are the final and by far the most complex group in our classification. They are something like little worlds within themselves, often resembling scaled-down copies of the real world, yet different as well. The two leading MMORPGs as of the time of writing are probably World of Warcraft (WoW) and Final Fantasy XI (FFXI) , each with millions of active players worldwide. The distinctive difference between MMORPGs and the other kinds of online multiplayer games is that RPGs are not round-based, and do not have a time limit or any specific goal to achieve. They are just there to be explored along (or sometimes against) other players. The key concept is that each player chooses a single virtual avatar which is at first rather weak (low-level) and starts in some safe basic area of his choice. The current MMORPGs all offer a rich palette of races and locations to start with. Usually, to be able to explore the world, the character must be made stronger, which is typically achieved by killing some kind of virtual monsters repeatedly, at low levels usually alone, later in a group. You can also do "quests" - tasks given to you by an in-game character - for various rewards and with various degrees of difficulty.
Current MMORPGs are very large and highly complex. Even fully exploring their worlds can take years, and trying out all the playstyles and options is almost impossible. There are lots of different strategies for doing quests and winning difficult battles, and organizational and managemental skills become essential in major conflicts where sometimes hundreds of people are involved at once. Those large-scale groups already resemble something like real-world armies, with a defined command structure and squads with some special tasks each. This is something entirely new - nothing of comparable scale and complexity has been there until just several years ago - and the scale is likely to become ever greater.
An impressive fact is the extreme internationality of MMORPGs. A little less obvious with WoW, since it is also Battlenet-based and uses the regional server concept, it is highly apparent with Final Fantasy XI, which does not distinguish any regions - each of its servers has people from the entire Earth. Most players come from Japan (where the game originates from), many from the US and Europe, but it is possible to meet people from too many countries to list here, almost every corner of the world being represented. An interesting side effect is that one comes in contact with numerous cultures and customs and many different languages. Some anecdotal stories from the authors' own experience include a maid coming in to clean an Egyptian player's room at the wrong time, relaxed Moroccan players sipping on a water pipe in an Internet cafe while playing, and a Canadian PhD student surveying the attitudes of gamers for her thesis work.
Another positive thing about MMORPGs is that they encourage making friends and teamplay very much. It may be possible to do a lot alone (although not in all RPGs), but a well-matched group can do much more. Therefore, social skills like making contacts and keeping them are substantial in MMORPGs. Since the player is hidden behind his avatar, the threshold to approach someone you don't know is a lot lower than in real life, which makes them a good playground for shy people. The authors know of several real-life relationships that initially started with the players liking each other in the game and then finding out they liked each other in real life as well. Of course, the chance for a mess-up is much higher here as well - after all in real life it's unlikely you date someone who looks cute for a while, only to find out he's a chain smoking guy in his 30s. However, still, interestingly enough, MMORPGs are relatively much more popular with women when compared to FPS or strategy games. That is probably because there's a lot of social interaction within them - you make friends who you see and adventure together a lot, and there's a lot of talking and personal information being exchanged - something almost entirely missing from most other multiplayer games.
The clan idea from FPS and strategy games is even much more emphasized in MMORPGs. Guilds in WoW and linkshells in FFXI are major social entities, with their members meeting each other daily for years. The real-life meetings of large guilds or linkshells are worldwide events, with people coming together from many different places. This is something almost unique to MMORPGs - there has never been so much reality in a virtual world before. Talking of that, one should mention another peculiar aspect of those games - the equipment hunting. As the avatars are the same (or similar) for everyone, the gear or equipment that a player has basically measures his social status, much like a car or money in real life. Players with very rare, "godly" gear, are admired and envied by many people with regular equipment. Since that is something most people like, and, as mentioned, the thresholds for doing things are so much lower than in real life, many nasty things have been done in order to obtain gear. Again, here the RPGs are almost like a mirror of real life, condensing down the more hidden similar issues there to a more compact and visible form. In a way, it is a pretty interesting experience and can teach one a lot about people. It just becomes clear much faster who is worth what. A related trait of these games is the emerging RMT (Real Money Trade) industry, which basically thrives on selling virtual game money and items for real money, and for some games has reached revenues comparable to the per capita gross national products of European countries. Here one can see the blurring of the distinction between work and playing - many people don't play for fun anymore. They earn money by "camping" (sitting at the same spot all day) special monsters and selling the dropped items. It turns out it is possible to earn sizable amounts with that - more than a regular hard job in some countries would pay.
To summarize, online multiplayer games are a very large and ever increasing phenomenon. Very addictive, and easily able to occupy a player for years, they are perhaps becoming the major modern escape-from-reality tool of the next generation.