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Life in 2D

Hugely popular phenomenon online is the myriad webcomics all over the Internet. Many of these are exceedingly popular - titles such as Piled High and Deep (phdcomics.com) with its college humour, Penny Arcade (pennyarcade.com) with its popular culture and gaming themes, and xkcd.com cater to tastes that are quite the product of the idle mind on the Internet. These sites generate incredible volumes of traffic, and for good reason - they're very, very good reads.
Of course, there are webcomics of every genre around the internet, and many of these have mass followings - including the ones about the adventures of ninjas (DrMcNinja.com), etc, plenty of which are updated daily. The sheer volume of material available is yet another way to waste a good chunk of your day, every day.
Shakespeare's 'All the world's a stage' has never rung truer than in the 21st century, with people juggling many different roles, wearing different masks everyday. When it gets too much, we start craving for a quick escape into a reality that's less real. And when we do, there's a whole world of 2D waiting right at our fingertips.

After a hard day's work, step into the Lifestyle office, and you're bound to find the team still glued to the PC's, staring more intently at the screens than they would be had there been any 'real' work at hand.

On one corner, Sazzad Bhai is telling yours truly about that vineyard that needs to be planted with Riesling grapes. Having reached the game goal weeks ago, he's the resident expert on Winemaker Extraordinaire. Next to us, one may see Farina, all pet peeves about misspelt press releases shoved to the background as she rushes to fold the Gyoza in Cooking Academy. Not to be outdone, our computer-savvy editor (NOT) is happily giving her pet Vodka a bath on Pet Society. That's right....when real life gets a little too real for us, we take refuge in the virtual reality of flashgames.

While this may make the LS team sound like the geeks from the TV show The IT Crowd, escapism is not a new phenomenon, and neither is it exclusive to this zany bunch. It is our desire to forget the harsh realities of life, even if only for a bit, that has for years boosted the television, movie and popular literature sectors.

However, even with the most captivating of tv series, the user experience is still that of a passive onlooker. This brings us to the next wave of escapism - games, and in general, any form of interactive entertainment. Now the individual is not just limited to sitting back and watching Macgyver solve problems - he can actually play a part in something, even something as trivial as guiding a snake through a maze or deciding where to place bricks to build a proper structure.

Very convenient, if you think about it. For at least a few seconds you forget your parents telling you off, that major deadline, or even this article you really need to finish. This week, we take a look at some of those little two-dimensional retreats that have, over the years, given us a break from the trials and tribulations of the daily grind.

Of cells, blocks, and slithering reptiles
When the first computers crawled into the living rooms of Bangladesh, games like Tetris and DX-ball took the families by storm. Mothers (those that weren't naturally suspicious of the 'Devil's Box' anyway) sat before the computer antagonising angry teens, beating scores after scores. And when the cellphones hit the market, specially the bulky early low-end Nokia models, Snake ruled supreme. And then the flow never stopped.

Games after games appeared along with new cellphones. But in the general populace, simple games like Stack Attack, Snake and Tetris still hold their high thrones. Why? Well, imagine you are sitting outside an interview room. You are really nervous. You've taken all the prep you can possibly take. But how to calm yourself? How else but to play an engrossing game that demands utter concentration?

Or how about when you are waiting for your date and you need to kill time? Or you are picking up your child from school? True, 3D games have taken over the PC gamer world, but when on the move, nothing beats these cell phone games. And nowadays, even rickshawallas can be seen taking a break, playing Snake.

Let's get quizzical
Around the same time that the switch from dial-up to broadband Internet began in the homes, Emode tests suddenly became all the rage. Starting from the Ultimate Personality Test, that was a fun take on those psychologist's Enneagrams, to comprehensive quizzes on relationships, perception, IQ and more, these online tests were a fun route to self-discovery.

The success of these personality tests also led to the mushrooming of chain e-mails with everything from astrology to acronyms claiming to hold the key to unearthing your secret self. When Emode switched over to Tickle.com, the tests also increased in scope, many of them requiring the test-taker to envision a hypothetical situation, thus paving way for RPG games.

Tickle has sadly shut down the site; die-hard quiz junkies, however have a multitude of sites to try and share. Blogthings, Quizilla, to name a few, are some of the more popular quiz sites. Just as popular as the online quizzes are the name generators that tell you what you would have been called had you been a [fill in blank with creature/entity of your choice].

Flash, dash, and toss the shoes
When the Internet arrived with its vast ocean of information, virus and porn, there were some bored people looking for simple games to play over the Net. Enter the flash games. These simple animation games give office workers momentary relief and office managers no end of pain.

The average time lost during a nine-to-five work period is two hours spent on the Net. Much of this goes throwing shoes at George Bush, running for the Olympic gold medal, or hitting sixes stick-cricket at stickcricket.com.

If nothing else, you can take out your frustration regarding your real-life arch-nemesis by shooting people up in tactical assassin. The number and variety of these games are never ending, and the ease with which such games can be made means that they've literally popped up within seconds of global events setting up a chance for one. Hence, you get to throw shoes at Bush within hours of the actual event; for many a year you've been able to try to trap Saddam Hussein, and the Sarah Palin spoofs never end.

Flashgames might be frowned upon by hardcore gamers of the Playstation/Xbox leagues, but they have their own loyal following. This is because of factors like simple, attractive graphics, stimulating game-play, and also the fact that you don't need much by way of hardware and gear to play them.

Services like MSN Games, or Bigfishgames bring ultra-popular titles like Bejeweled, Jewel Quest or Hexic (flash puzzle games) within your reach wherever you are, requiring you to log in at most. These games are simple, addictive, and don't need systems that cost an arm and a leg to run on, thus allowing anyone to pick them up wherever they are - in fact, the flash game or casual gaming genre's proved to be one of the most successful ones of the last five years or so.

There's something for everyone too; word, trivia and puzzle games for the real 'brainiacs', time-management games for the enterprising mind, strategy games for the analytical mind, hidden-object games for the curious and the keen of eye. There are even combos that borrow elements from each genre and pack them into one compelling storyline.

Online Text RPGs
Think Facebook with alter egos, and you have what essentially amounts to an online RPG (role-playing game). Players navigate in a virtual world, interacting with each other or the system via text, making purchases via virtual currency specific to the game that you'd have to earn or have been bequeathed upon you by other players. The social element in such RPGs is as strong, if not stronger, than actual networking sites because the group of people you interact with are people you will be engaging in regular questing/trade/etc. with, thus having a lot of fun with friends. Addictive? You bet.

While MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) games like World of Warcraft have heavy graphics/connection-speed requirements, text-based RPG's are much simpler, where all the 'action' takes place through scripts, and while you don't get a visual of your activities, your role in the scheme of things reads like a chapter in a story.

Some of the better known samples include Monstersgame, which is phenomenally successful - and we can personally testify to the loss of many a valued associate to the lure of the game. Players' characters' level up with quests completed, and they can form bands, groups, covens, or whatever collective form is applicable to the theme. More often than not, currency rewards are to be had too - thus allowing players to grow both in terms of attributes and in terms of significance in the community.

...finally, Facebook
Weave all these different elements together, and you have Facebook. One has to wonder if Mark Zuckerberg knew that his little Ivy-league project would soon become a way of life for millions of people around the world. In addition to networking, which was the initial focus of the site, there's no dearth of activities one can engage in on the site. Form a protest group? Check. Play a round of Poker? Check. Take care of your Pet? Check. Never miss a birthday. Send someone a gift, flower, or drink, without spending a dime. Turn into an Undead of your choice and go biting/slaying everyone in sight. Want to see how well you know XYZ? Try one of those annoying personalised quizzes. Thanks to Facebook, there's nothing you can do in real life that you cannot do virtually on the site. In fact, you can even be whoever you want to be on this site. As one person recently put it, 'Facebook is the world's largest MMORPG."

By Sabrina F Ahmad
Special thanks to Syed Iftekhar Amin, Kazim Ibe Sadique, and M Hammad Ali.


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