The Holman family gets together practically every weeknight and most weekends these days, even though Jean is in Dupont Circle, her father and sister Susan are in Pennsylvania, and her uncle and cousin are in Texas.
Together, they're also in Tyria, the virtual world of a fantasy computer game called Guild Wars, where they form the "Jelo" team, fighting the undead and other groups of players as a family unit. Along the way, they also might plan vacations or share family gossip.
Although computer games have often been thought of as a pastime for the antisocial, communal online worlds such as the one in Guild Wars are the hottest things in games these days. The most popular title in this genre, World of Warcraft, has more than 5 million subscribers -- all text-chatting with their fellow players or using microphones and headsets to collaborate on the latest monster-killing mission.
Game companies don't track how many families play online games together, but they say the trend helps drive their popularity. Some families play games to maintain contact from far-flung towns; some parents play online games with their kids in the next room as a way of bonding with them. Game designer Jack Emmert, at Guild Wars publisher NCsoft Corp., played his own game, City of Heroes, to stay in touch when his brother was serving in the Army and based in Korea.
If games are sometimes used to preserve familial bonds, they also can create those bonds. The game designers at Mythic Entertainment Inc. in Fairfax were recently invited to a wedding taking place this fall; the bride and groom met inside the online world of Mythic's flagship title, Dark Age of Camelot.
Academics are just starting to dig in to the effects of computer and video games on players, and there isn't much consensus. Professor James Paul Gee, in the department of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin and the author of books examining the educational aspects of video games, argues that games are more a social pastime than an antisocial one.
"The prediction that this was going to be an isolating technology turned out to be so thoroughly wrong," said Gee, who sees the worlds forming in these games as a new type of public space. Gee started studying video games five years ago and ended up with a World of Warcraft habit of his own -- he plays on a team with other professors and academics.
The Holman family formed its game squad after Christmas. On a recent rainy Saturday, Jean Holman is parked on her sofa with her dog, Scooter, and a bloody mary. On her laptop computer, team Jelo is fighting to clear out members of the Undead Army, which has taken over the Temple of Tolerance. There is a constant stream of conversation among the Holmans as they play, carried via a separate voice-chat program they installed on their computers.
Everybody on the team has a job. Jean, 34, who goes by the name Heather Greer in Guild Wars, is Jelo's "healer" -- a magical medic who patches up her teammates as they incur battle wounds from Grasping Ghouls and Skeleton Mesmers. A box on the right of the screen tells her which of her teammates' game characters are healthy and which are about to get killed; by clicking a few buttons on her keyboard and mouse, she's able to help keep her team alive by casting spells, though sometimes the magic runs low and they die.
As the mission progresses, sister Susan, 30, and Jean argue about who should get to set off certain events in the game or interact with some of the in-game characters. When the monsters are all safely dispatched, an hour or so later, Jean's dad takes his character down to a nearby beach for a swim. Jean's and Susan's characters run off and talk about the fashion choices they have made for their online personas.
"We fight; we get lost," is how Jean summarizes a typical session, which can run three or four hours. "In fact, it's identical to some of the summer vacations we've taken together." She plays the game so much, she's gotten behind on favorite TV show, "Smallville," which she records on her TiVo. When Tom DeLay announced he would resign from Congress, the family heard the news from Mike, Jean's uncle, while they were online, playing the game.
In some ways, the Holmans replicate their real-world relationships in the game. It was Jean's dad, Pat, who got hooked on the game first, so his character, Rex Rexter, has the most money and experience points in this world. When Susan or Jean wants virtual money for a new virtual outfit, they turn to him. He's also the one who tries to dictate the family's strategy.
But there are other ways of playing these games, and some fans say they use them as a means of switching around or breaking down the roles they have in the real world.
Psychologist Roger Fouts, a professor at Central Washington University, plays World of Warcraft in an online team with his son, daughter and son-in-law. For Fouts, World of Warcraft was one way of getting to know his son-in-law, and he said the game reveals personality traits he might not have noticed otherwise. For example, his son-in-law is skilled at getting fellow players organized for a mission and for making new players feel welcome to the team.
"I was very impressed," Fouts said.
Florida to Afghanistan
While they play, the family members can catch up on comings and goings. Recently, Fouts's son signed on to the game and let his dad know he was in the District for a conference, staying -- and playing World of Warcraft -- at the Mayflower Hotel.
For a family separated by the military, such games can be an intimate way of "being together" that goes beyond phone calls or e-mail. Rhonda Carswell lives in Florida, and her husband, Randy, is an Army National Guard medic stationed in Afghanistan, but they meet routinely in Paragon City of the superhero-themed game City of Heroes.
"It sounds silly to our non-gamer friends, but when I see his hero or villain, I feel like I am looking at him. . . . His choices of appearance and powers personify him perfectly," Rhonda said in an e-mail. The couple run missions together, and at the end of the day, they put their characters in yoga position in a "safe" part of the game's world and just talk.
Sometimes they run out of things to say; he can't talk about his duties, and she doesn't always have interesting news from home. But they always have the game and their favorite corners of the online world.
"Florida and Afghanistan may be half a world apart," she said, "but we can be together in Paragon City."