This story starts, as so many great ones do, with a classified ad: "I will take bullets for you," it read.
And he did.
Contact made, cash transfer confirmed, Londoner Toby Smith met me on a bluff overlooking the border between Iran and Turkmenistan on an early December afternoon armed with an M416 assault rifle. One minute and 15 seconds later he was dead. He died the second time three minutes and 37 seconds after our meeting. His third death didn't come for another five minutes or so.
While the deaths, the many deaths, weren't real, the money I paid Smith to protect me was. The 15-year-old high school student is one of several gamers who have begun to hire out their services as virtual bodyguards, digital guns-for-hire in popular military first-person shooter video games.
Earlier this month I tracked down and hired two of these in-game bodyguards, both teens who excel at Battlefield 3 and advertise their services online, charging other gamers 5 quid, or about $US8, for half an hour of in-game protection.
The services the two provided went far beyond just protecting me as I tried to kill other online players. They offered tips, revived and healed me when I was injured and brought me to their favourite in-game sniping spots, like hunting guides.
Smith, a well-spoken high schooler from Southampton in southern England, said he came up with the idea of offering his services as a gun for hire after struggling to survive in matches of Call of Duty and Battlefield when he first started playing online.
"I used to think 'I wish one of my friends would go round the game with me and give me a hand,'" he said. "And that's all it is really! It's been the trend for games at the moment to encourage personal gain versus good teamwork, so my service allows customers to feel like they are part of a well-oiled machine, not a walking bullet magnet."
Soon after, Smith discovered U.K. community site Fivesquids.co.uk, a place where "people share their unique skills, knowledge and expertise for £5," and placed his first ad.
Under the heading "I will take bullets for you for half an hour for £5," Smith summarized how his service works:
"I will be by your side the entire time and will fight for you, keeping enemies away from you, protecting you when you snipe, even SACRIFICING MY LIFE to save yours," he wrote.
"Essentially," Smith tells me, "I become the client's buddy in the game. I won't go for kills of my own, only when necessary to stop the client's ‘life' being cut short."
And Smith was good to his word. Earlier this month I hired the teen to escort me through 30 minutes of Battlefield 3 online matches on the Xbox 360. We met up online and appeared together on the battlefield.
Smith took plenty of bullets for me, becoming a sort of human shield during the many times I wasn't observant enough to notice an enemy drawing a bead on me. He was even more useful as an in-game guide. He was a sort of Battlefield 3 golf pro, suggesting weapons, equipment and play styles to me over headphones as we played.
As our online session wrapped up I told Smith I was interesting in trying my hand at being a sniper.
"Follow me," he said, guiding me expertly through the map, cutting his way through an in-game fence, and finally bringing me to a perch overlooking a small cluster of buildings and cross streets. From his hidden vantage point I could see the tiny movements of enemies crossing the field, hunkering down in cover and engaged in firefights.
The sniping spot was a sort of hunting blind for Battlefield 3. I never would have found that place on my own. It gave me the opportunity to pick off distant enemies. When the ones I missed noticed my shots, Smith took them out for me before they could return fire.
"What my clients seem to find re-assuring is that there's always going to be someone there who's got your back, and will revive you if you go down," Smith said. "The client can order me around too. Say they want to storm a building to see if there are any enemies in there, they'll send me in first, and I'll soak up the bullets for them and relay their positions to them posthumously."
Smith isn't the only one hiring out as an in-game bodyguard.
Later that same day I teamed up with Roman Vysotsky, an 18-year-old high school student in Hannover, Germany.
Like Smith, Vysotsky charges £5 to protect players in military shooters. My 30 minutes with Vysotsky was played in the computer version of Battlefield 3.
Where Smith was a bit like an instructor, Vysotsky was purely a bodyguard, sticking close to my side as I worked my way toward enemy positions. He provided covering fire, or, when things got tough, he would take a bullet.
After our session Vysotsky told me that guarding me had been a challenge. He's used to protecting typically stationary snipers. I spent most of my time running around the map, getting shot at and getting Vysotsky killed.
Even in virtual death Vysotsky was useful, typing to me in private text messages where the person was located who had just killed him.
"Behind you." or "In the door." or "To your right." Were typical messages. Many saved my life and in-game kill-to-death ratio.
Vysotsky, said he decided to start hiring out his services about a month ago after hearing about someone else offering the service. He's had three customers since, he said. Smith said he hasn't had many customers either, but that he expects that will change soon.
"I think a lot of people have been hesitant for one reason or another, perhaps because they can't quite see how it would work," he told me.
While hiring an in-game bodyguard may seem a little unfair to others who play without assistance, neither Smith nor Vysotsky think it's cheating.
"If I thought it was cheating I wouldn't be doing it," Smith said. "Cheating would imply that someone's playing the game in a way that it shouldn't normally be played. I'm just looking out for another player."
Both Battlefield 3 publisher Electronic Arts, and Call of Duty publisher Activision declined to comment for this article or say whether using hired bodyguards would be considered cheating under their terms of service.
But as the popularity of video games continue to grow, it is inevitable that people are going to continue to look for ways to invest more than time to improve at their hobby. From purchasing pre-leveled characters in World of Warcraft, to buying virtual land in Second Life, to Call of Duty's official coaching videos; paying to play well is slowly becoming as common as hiring a sports trainer or personal coach. And now you can do that too.
Well Played is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.
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