Quick, think of a phrase for the acronym SMSPART. You have 30 seconds.
Not so easy, is it?
It's all in a day's combat for the thousands of Web surfers who play Acrophobia. The game is a mainstay of Berkeley System's free online gaming site, Berzerk (www.berzerk.com), and it has also created a subculture of addicted Web players.
New players start on the road to ruin by downloading a 2-megabyte program from the Acrophobia Web site that works inside Web browsers. Thus armed, they're asked to create an online identity and choose a "room" in which to play the game.
Different rooms attract different kinds of players. Some are reserved for youngsters and families and prohibit the use of adult language. Others allow you to be as nasty as you want.
In a room, players can chat with fellow contestants while they wait for a new round of play to begin. For Acrophobia's creator, Anthony Shubert, who invented the game for Internet Relay Chat while attending the University of Southern California in 1994, the chat box at the bottom of the game screen is the most important part of the Acrophobia experience.
"The people who play are the reason people play," Shubert said, calling Acrophobia "an excuse for people to talk to other people."
When a round begins, the winner of the last round chooses a topic, and the game presents players with an acronym. Players who wish to participate in the round must enter a matching phrase within the 30-second limit. When the time is up, the game lists the entries, and the players vote for their favorite.
The Web site tabulates the votes and awards points to the winner.
As the rounds progress, the game becomes more difficult. Higher rounds present longer acronyms with more difficult letters.
Every five rounds, the game restarts, and players' scores and the difficulty level are reset. Every two rounds, the game breaks to display an advertisement for the sponsors, which allows Berkeley Systems to distribute and maintain the game without charging players.
Despite the game's simplicity, it has a large following and has generated 70 private Acrophobia Web sites, which are listed on the official home page.
Most sites, like the Acrophobia Addicts Anonymous Association, are dedicated to the game itself. They announce dates and times for tournaments and post horror stories about Acrophobia addiction.
Other sites represent Acrophobia social groups, or clans, that have formed as a result of players interacting. These clans have names ranging from cutesy (The Acrobats) to the ominous (Clan of the Disavowed).
Shubert is happy and amazed with his accomplishment. "I am insanely proud of this game," he said. "We have thousands of users, way past what I expected. If you had told me a year ago that (Acrophobia) would be this successful, I would have laughed at you."
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