On the morning World of Warcraft was launched, Lars waited in the rain outside his local games shop. There wasn’t a queue but he had arrived an hour before opening anyway. As he felt the sacrificial chill of the weather, he vowed to become a committed resident of Azeroth.

He raced home and abandoned arcade gaming for good, creating his own cardboard box Alamogordo landfill, to be buried at the back of a cupboard and deep under the bed.

It was a short step to the hyper fantasy world of the deep web, browser-based, massively multi-player online role-playing game named after the great crash of eighty-three.

Atari Shock was a pop culture phenomenon.

The lifestyle blogs called it “a twisted top trumps for Generation Z − a place for enemies” which showed how little they really understood about what the players were getting up to online.

It was a war zone in a virtual world, pure nonsense to the untrained eye, but pure poetry to the hundred thousand players who were permanently logged in and fighting to survive.

Set in an arena where points prevailed, the aim was to stay alive and stay in the game.

Every move was life-threatening.

Every decision had impact.

To play, you needed a credit card, a connection, and a complete disregard for face-to-face social interaction.

Once an avatar is created, the player uses their power-up tokens to launch nukes, exchange dirty drugs, seduce inexperienced players into traps and sneak up on friends to send them back to the beginning of the game.

The geeks, the misfits, and the over-complicated were instigating gang warfare in a simulated reality overrun by bruised egos, high stakes gambling, and a whole lot of pissing on virtual territory.

The game operated in real-time so endurance was essential.

Gamers that went without a break always had the advantage.

It took commitment and stamina.

The console kids were having their heads bitten off and shoved up their asses before they could trade a single nuke.

The bingo queens were lambs to the slaughter and barely progressed beyond level one.

Playing under the influence led to mistakes.

Energy drinks tasted like chalky water after around thirty-six hours of continuous play.

Since its creation, office worker, energy drink slurper, married man who should really know better, Lars Nilsson, had appeared consistently at the top of the league.

It came naturally to multi-task tactics while chatting with his forum followers. He would speak as though to an old friend, while simultaneously setting elaborate traps.

“You’re not taking those co-ordinates, SkullMonkey. They are reserved for the professionals.” 

He performed a hotkey operation as calmly as an air traffic controller, and the weaker player was vapourised to permadeath.

A nauseous excitement swelled in his stomach, and the real world faded into insignificance every time he got lost in the game. Lars played ruthlessly to maintain overlord status in his virtual world.

Amassing an infinite number of power-up tokens was essential to long term survival.

This was possible either by excessive gameplay, or by players teaming up to form a gang known as a super clan, and travelling together around game space like a constantly feeding whale shark.

When a super clan showed any kind of weakness, there was a high chance that it was a multi; a single player with multiple accounts, a peacock splaying its feathers in an attempt to appear bigger than it was.

Lars knew all the tricks.

“This game takes commitment. You have to feed it like one of those virtual pets, otherwise it’ll die.” 

He stole a glance at the fish tank. Mr Chips was swimming sideways.

He vapourised a small clan of low-ranking players in an aggressive attack manoeuvre.

Followers spilled emoticons and absurd comments in his forum feed. The chat room lit up like a stream of consciousness brain tap.

He was logged in for up to eighteen hours a day.

He played hard and fast to earn his secret status.

His method was to keep playing until he heard the dawn chorus, and then snooze between regular cigarette breaks at work.

His wife hoped it was a phase. She didn’t know the half of it.

“No, GreySkull, a plus twenty nuke attack is pointless. Try harder, dumb ass.” The player was sent to the bottom of the leader board in a swift hotkey attack combo.

He heard the familiar sound of the bedroom door slamming. This was Claire’s warning shot. Lars thought about the neighbours, then wondered how long it would be until the door fell off its hinges.

The small room at the top of the stairs was his gaming cockpit. It was lined with Ikea shelves crammed with old files, books that he’d never read, photo albums documenting the life and unfulfilling times of the Nilsson’s; manuals, old stationery, used coffee mugs, boxes of papers, a couple of old printers, rotting banana skins, five monitors − only two that worked − plates of unrecognisable half-eaten somethings, the sacred E.T. Atari 2600 game cartridge that no one was allowed to touch, Mr Chip’s tank and plenty of old skool wires and cables that no longer had a use but he was reluctant to throw away.

This was his mess and everything had a place, even the rubbish.

There was a tiny window but it was easily forgotten and too high to see through without climbing on a chair.

The clutter made the space seem much smaller than it was but also gave it a sense of purpose. It wasn’t possible to do anything else in this room apart from sit still and stare at the monitors. It was the perfect place to host operations.

“Are you coming to bed?” Claire was standing in the doorway wearing the no sex tonight, oversized dressing gown.

He pulled off his headset. “Sorry, honey, I didn’t see you.”

“Is that Minecraft?” she sniffed. The bathrobe hung off her in a way that wasn’t as flattering as she had intended.

“Yes. It’s Minecraft,” he replied, barely looking up from the screen.

“Mr Chips is dead again,” she said, and closed the door without saying goodnight.

This was a regular occurrence. She just wanted a hug.

Lars leaned over and brushed his fingers through Mr Chip’s water.

The goldfish sprang into life and hurtled around the tank like it had just taken a hit from a defibrillator.

Moments after she’d left the room he’d forgotten that Claire was even there. He was lost in the livestream, and GreySkull was back.

“Ah, you buffed up, GreySkull. Got yourself a cheeky cash stash have we? Don’t just shoot stuff. That tactic will get you nowhere. Heal and run. Dodge and build. Get some trap bait going. Hunter sets a baited cage, greedy monkey gets trapped. That’s all the advice I’m giving you today.”

Forum followers spilled emoticons of bananas and monkey faces.

Atari Shock avatars came with free but limited inventory. Most new players bought a more powerful profile for a chance of lasting longer. Players could also collect and hide power-up tokens in-game, at the risk of them being discovered and raided.

It was the ability to give your avatar a unique identifier, however, which made you truly stand out from the crowd. Choosing your profile name was crucial. It was a shield and a spear, as well as a symbol.

More than just a nickname, it was part of the gameplay strategy. It could protect and provoke.

Casual players would typically choose an aggressive or violent name to try and intimidate their opponents; BoneCrusher. DeathWatch. Fuck-u-up.

They would also use anonymity as a tactic and change their avatar name frequently for protection.

When on a winning streak, the mightiest of reputations would cut a path clean through game space. You got noticed and everyone wanted a piece of you.

Virtual fame was just a few clicks away.

The perfect choice of an avatar name was a statement of intent, a show of force, a colourful flag on the blood-spattered battlefield. Infamy would spread on the bounty hunter forums and blogs, causing opponents to use avoidance tactics instead of risking head-on confrontation.

Lars knew that to maintain the presence of a consistently powerful avatar name − was to become immortal.

The player-feed flickered. He barely blinked as he expertly assigned instructions, grasping power-up tokens wherever he could. He was determined to maintain the status that he commanded. He didn’t feel tired. He didn’t feel anything.

The klaxon sounded imminent attack.

‘Player-feed: GreySkull launches +100 nuke attack.’

“GreySkull, you fucking noob,” he laughed, instinctively taking evasive action.

This was a typical transaction, fast and frenetic, the jostling of points, the push and shove of power, over in seconds.

It was barely a challenge for a gamer of his skill, but just at the critical moment, his controls stopped responding.

He tried to activate a teleport. The hotkeys were frozen.

‘Player-feed: The Immortal critical hit −100 life force.’

“Dammit,” he muttered, as he was thrust helplessly into a war zone of explosions; flashing nukes and multiple chat room windows opening and closing with bribes, trades, violent death threats and cybersex, occurring simultaneously in a melting pot of pure fantasy.

Lars watched in amazement as his game space filled with players, more than he had ever imagined possible; two hundred, five hundred, a thousand, five thousand, and they all began sniping away at the most powerful player on the server.

There was a crash of bins from the alley outside. A shrill and piercing animal shriek echoed through the tiny window. “You!”

His co-ordinate counter was increasing with more players by the second. The community had ganged up on him, forming a super clan that blocked all exits, and somehow, someone had worked out how to render him helpless.

“You!” The creature howled for attention as the moon glowed through a fog of light pollution. 

READ NEXT CHAPTER