- ['Chewing Pixels' is a regular GameSetWatch column written by British games journalist and producer, Simon Parkin. This time, he ventures into his MMO past to find out whether buyer's remorse exists, where virtual characters are concerned.]

“My total time played is 110 days, 23 hours and 11 minutes. See? No time at all compared to some!”

This is Lindsay Machin. For the last three years she has spent every day or so playing make believe in the magical kingdom of Vana'diel. It’s a lifestyle with which I’m familiar: battling monsters, earning gil, questing with friends and strangers into the early hours. After all, four years ago it was me who sold her the entry ticket.

Delve into the world of an MMO and you’re buying into more than just a video game. You’re taking on a new reality, one that makes almost as many demands of you to succeed as real life does. A year or so in to the first global console MMO, Final Fantasy XI and I needed out but, having imported a PlayStation 2, harddrive and copy of Final Fantasy XI from America at great expense, I also needed some recompense.

That’s where Lindsay came in. I sold her my MMO life via an Internet forum as a way out. Now, nearly four years later I’ve tracked her down to find out what happened when the experience left my hands and fell into hers.

I’m wary of MMOs; they steal time in a more relentless and vicious way than other videogames do. I‘ve see friends’ lives turned upside down by their unyielding intrusion. And the thought that I pushed something so potentially ruinous onto another human being has nagged at me for the last few years. I’ve some guilt to assuage.

“So, I guess my first question is…” I pause. "Actually, truth be told it’s probably my only question. Did I ruin your life?”

“Hehehe. You saved me a lot of money actually. Think of all the other games I would have bought if I wasn't playing FFXI every night. Actually, I did still buy a lot of other games, but I just didn't play any of them…” She seems sure. Too sure perhaps.

“Ok. Seriously, did I ruin your life? What's the stat for your character's logged time in weeks and days? Tell me you never lost a job or a boyfriend because of this game. Please.”

It’s a reasonable question. While we in the West are yet have any of those Korean news stories of withered boys dead at their screens after three straight days spent playing an MMO, Square-Enix still saw fit to put a warning at Final Fantasy XI’s start up screen. “Have fun in vana Diel,” the message reads each and every time you log into the game. “But don't forget your family, your friends, your school, or your work." Even the publisher’s aware that this is a videogame that can ruin lives.

“You did not ruin my life,” she answers, two parts smiling, one part annoyed now. “I have made real life friends who I love through playing FFXI. Some of us meet up every 6 months or so, but I’m in regular contact with three people who play, and through them have made even more real life friends, including some who I consider to be amongst my closest now.

“It's never affected my work or my love life,” she continues. “I was lucky enough to have a boyfriend who joined in a month or so after I bought it from you, but he quit 6 months back, around the time we broke up. As silly as it sounds, I find it a little hard still playing without him. I'll go to particular zones or take part in certain events he used to like, and I get a twinge he's not there. My total time played is 110 days, 23 hours and 11 minutes. See? No time at all compared to some!”

Still, it’s 110 days (or 2,663.18 hours) that I’m sort of responsible for taking from a girl’s life. Phileas Fog circumnavigated the globe in less time than that.

So why have you kept playing, I ask. Is it people or game mechanics? “Hmm, I would say both,” she replies. “But mainly the people. I formed a static party with some friends and we slowly crawled to 75, the cap, together. We had such varying work hours it was hard to get together but we stuck at it, and the day we all made level 75 was just brilliant. After all the deaths, to finally make it: I really think that helped me keep going."

While it’s the Grand Theft Autos of the world that attract the most mainstream consternation over our hobby, within the fold it’s the MMO that’s courts the highest controversy. Braid’s designer, Jonathan Blow famously described the design principles behind the MMO as being ’unethical’. I ask Lindsay whether she thinks the genre is constructive or destructive?

“I think they can be both. It really depends on the type of person you are. I think if you get sucked in so you do forget about work, and family and friends, chances are you have an addictive personality. What's to say you wouldn't be doing the same but with gambling, or chatting online, or cross-stitching?

"Having said that, the whole reason behind MMO's is grinding, grinding, grinding; be bigger, be better, be stronger! And that takes time - a lot of time. And I suppose it's far easier to get obsessed with leveling than with stitching. However, I've found it constructive: it's enabled me to play with and talk to people from all over the world. I love that escapism.”

Few players have time to maintain more than one virtual life. For this reason MMO developers work hard to keep the users they have, to constantly discourage what is perhaps an inevitable exodus. I ask what would it take to convince Lindsay to up and leave Vana’diel?

“I would never, never, play another MMO. As much as I've been saying to you that I don't play too much and the game's not ruined my life, I couldn't get into a game as deep as I have this one ever again. Having said that, when I’m booted, kicking and screaming from the servers, I would move onto FFXI-2 in a heartbeat… So many people I know keep saying 'Play WoW, play WoW!' and I just don't understand that. I have my MMO, I don't want anything else.”

And if and when the day arrives when it’s time to leave Square’s servers for the last time, what then? I wonder whether Lindsay would ever think about selling on, not just the system and game as I did to her, but also her very online identity, her character?

“I'd never sell my character. For a start, she'd be pretty much worthless as I've just spent so much time pottering about wasting time I only have one job at cap and no money. Also, she is mine, dammit! The thought of her being used by someone else actually distresses me. A good friend offered to keep her going when I had a wobble about quitting a few months back, but I didn't even want him to have her…"

"That sounds so silly but it’s how I feel. If I did ever sell an MMO character, I don't think I'd feel guilty about it: if someone’s at the place where they want to buy a character, they must have some inkling of what they are getting in to, and be OK with that. It’s fine for you to feel guilty though, Mr Parkin, because I had no idea what I was getting into at the time you sold me Vana'diel…”

Now the million gil question. If you could go back to when you first responded to my forum for sale advert, would you buy the machine again or, knowing what you know now, would you pass it by and not get involved?”

“I absolutely, positively would buy the package again. As silly as this sounds, the game's really made a difference to my life. I probably wouldn't be where I am now without it, and I wouldn't have some of the favourite people I have in my life now. If I hadn't met them, I think I still would do it again. FFXI has been one of my greatest gaming experiences.

"And, come to think of it, also one of the saddest and most poignant at times too. When one of my closest friends in the game quit for good, we met up in game and talked for a while, reminiscing about our experiences. Then he gave me a rose and logged out for the last time. I cried. I really did. Hah. How lame… I still have the rose he gave me. Did you ruin my life? No, in many ways you made it better.

“So, thank-you, I guess.”