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Would You Get Mad If I Killed You?

Justin’s favorite food is Italian. His least favorite food is fish. His favorite color is gray. His least favorite color is red. On Thursday, July 12, Justin picked up a knife and held it to the throat of Krista, a 28-year-old divorced mother and waitress from Opelousas, La., whose favorite food is crawfish (her least favorite is spam). "Would you get mad if I killed you?" said Justin, 26, a bartender from Bayonne, N.J. Fortunately, Justin did not kill Krista, but he was promptly evicted from the Big Brother House (cbs.com/primetime/bigbrother2) for violating "one of the most serious house rules" (no attacks with knives).

The ability to witness this event, and others like it, on-demand (through a subscription to the RealNetworks Gold Pass) has presumably been a major factor in the success of Big Brother 2’s streaming component. By the beginning of August, more than 25,000 subscribers were watching the live feeds, which Real Broadcast Network delivered from the BB2 House 24-hours a day. CBS markets the show as "reality" — although I am probably not alone in sensing a hint of surrealism in the prospect of Justin threatening to murder Krista under the online surveillance of 25,000 people. Streaming distribution gives his actions a shocking intimacy, with the curious double-effect of making Justin much closer, but at the same time, a great deal stranger. He is simultaneously more real, and more unreal.

I have a theory that one effect of the Internet is to make reality a much more slippery thing. Cleverly, Electronic Arts (www.ea.com) has created a game that exploits this fact — Majestic. Last month I started playing Majestic (like BB2, also a subscription service, although the first episode is free), which blends streaming video, phone calls, instant messaging and various Web sites in an immersive conspiracy scenario.

After signing up, I began watching the tutorials, which pop at the bottom of the screen in Real format, in which Brian Cale, Mike Griffin and Cal Sullivan — designers from fictional production company Anim-x — explain the game’s functionality. Now and then, the speakers make upward gestures with their heads, acknowledging the Web page in which they’re embedded and game features relevant to the points they’re discussing. It’s a small detail, but it struck me as a playful and original integration of streaming video: With little more than a glance, the multiplicity of the medium is acknowledged; the idea that whatever you’re looking at, there is always something else going on, somewhere out there.

Suddenly, however, my streaming tutorial crashed. An error screen appeared: "Unix Error 146. Click here to view the domain registrant’s Web site." Now, having watched David Fincher’s The Game a couple of times, and as a longtime fan of is-it-real-or-is-it-not creations, EA was going to have to try harder than that if it really wanted to mess with my head. But even though I knew something was up, it was fun to see the twists and turns the game had in store. A few minutes later, I received a "press release" informing me that Anim-X’s site was down and that there were reports of a fire in the area. The next day my Majestic application had a streaming video clip waiting for me by the time I got into work. It purported to be a news clip from the Portland Chronicle, reporting a propane tank explosion in the Portland suburb of Beaverton that destroyed the offices of computer game company Anim-X, and killed Brian Cale. All fiction, of course.

But an hour later, I went to bbc.co.uk and my mind really started playing tricks on me. I was reading about the Code Red virus. "The worm is an ugly thing," said United States Army Major Barry Venable about the virus, which infected over a quarter of a million computers in a single outbreak on July 19, and appeared to be causing serious disruption to the Internet. But two weeks after the outbreak it emerged that much of the disruption was actually caused by a train tunnel fire: On July 18, just as the Code Red virus was beginning to burrow its ugly way into vulnerable Web servers, a CSX train derailed in the Howard Street tunnel in Baltimore, causing a fire which severed the cables of seven major Internet service providers. The Pentagon, an accidental fire, and a terrifying worm that was threatening to wreak global mayhem: Hang on a second, was this really a BBC story, or was I still in Majestic? The Web-surfing coincidences made the game experience seem eerily personal. Like the live feed of Justin’s knife-threat, Majestic feels shockingly intimate.

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