20 Apr 2006
Thoughts on Lives (part 1 — history)
I wanted to jot down some quick notes as I play Second Life about the nature of online relationships. As I started to write, I felt like I needed to include a little back story. Writing this intro paragraph, I realize that already what follows is too long for a single blog post, and I’m not even out of the back story yet. That said, I’m not going to break it up further. It was an interesting write, whether it makes for an interesting read will doubtless depend on whether you share my fascination for virtual worlds.
I’ve been “playing” a lot1 of a “game”2called Second Life recently. This has caused me to revisit some of my thoughts about virtual communities and virtual spaces. I am a long-time gamer,3 and my first multiplayer gaming came in the form of MUD4s. I started playing MUDs in college working my way fairly high up the character ladder until finally helping administer, or “G(h)od,”5 a mud that we ran on one of the machines in the computer science lab. The MUD we ran was of the ‘LP‘ variety, named for it’s creator Lars Pensjö. In this world, Ghods and Wizards could “emote” while mortals were stuck with a fair sized, but still ultimately limited number of ‘feelings’.
To expand on this, a Ghod (named, for example ‘Thymeless’) could type
> emote inhales deeply and concentrates. and the world (or at least those in the same room) would see the text “Thymeless inhales deeply and concentrates.” A mortal (named, for example ‘Ender’) could only type
laugh and the world would see something like “Ender lets out a belly laugh.” Reserving this capability for those who’s responsibility it was to shape the world was, I think, largely responsible for it continuing to be a game. Without a broad social palette, the way to have fun in the game was to follow the ‘rules’ — in other words go hunt things, get better weapons, get stronger, hunt bigger things, repeat.
Then came TinyMuds6. TinyMuds, allowed for much more direct user-created content. As you might imagine, TinySex quickly followed. Name for me an interactive media that could be used for eroticism, and hasn’t been. Safe, behind a mask of anonymity, all forms of social interaction occurred bounded primarily by how well and quickly you could type. And this is where it begins to get interesting to me. We still bring our very real emotional involvement (and baggage) to these otherwise virtual encounters.
There was one couple on our MUD who spent a great deal of time online there, much of it together. Their characters got “married” (One of us even went so far as to code them “wedding rings” that they could wear that would notify them when the other came online or went offline. Unlike most Mudders, they actually knew each other in RL, and their online love blossomed there as well. They got married (for real), and what better way to celebrate their new union than a pilgrimage to meet g(h)od(s)? That’s right. Their honeymoon was to come stay in a hotel near our college campus, and meet the people that had shaped the world they spent so much time in. They did other newlywed things as well — come to think of it, we didn’t see that much of them, actually. But we did throw a party for them; A RL party. Other mudders drove across as many as four states to come to a party celebrating the union of this couple, and getting to meet the people they played with. As I was an RA, I had the biggest dorm room, we held it at my place. In retrospect, I wish I had been neither underage, nor a teetotaler. Perhaps enough alcohol (or pot) would have lowered the inhibitions and social insulation of a bunch of geeky kids who only knew how to relate to one another in a very specific context. Alas, that was not the case, and while some reasonable conversation was had, it was probably the worst party I’ve been to in my lifetime. Things did not warm back up until the awkwardness was so high that we decided to sneak these people into the CS lab, log them on via our own accounts, and let them back into the warm, comfortable embrace of their text-based universe. This particular tale, does not end well. The couple broke up little more than a year later, though we’d already moved on to other games. Still, it was this fascination with virtual worlds, and the promise of them being in 3D that led me to do graduate work in Virtual Reality. VR programs were housed in Computer Science departments. And while I am a computer-geeky sort of guy, what really drives my interest in these environments are what I take to be sociological or psychological aspects rather than the technical aspects of stereoscopic displays or level-of-detail rendering. I stopped with a Master’s degree.
After graduate school, I went to work for a company (Kesmai) that made a MUD-like game except instead of a multi-player world being populated by text descriptions of the form, “You stand next to a copse of trees in a verdant forest.” The text symbols were iconic. Pipes (|) were walls, tildes (~) were water, and so forth. You issued the same sort of commands (move west), but you stayed in the center of the action, and the world shifted around you. This game was called Island of Kesmai (IoK), and during the early part of my tenure there was reworked to have a graphical front-end and called Legends of Kesmai (LoK). Once again, the game mechanics were sufficient to make it playable, but the enjoyment, for me at least, came from the social interaction. You got to team up with people who would help you manage things that you couldn’t do alone. Even just getting to understand the rules of the world and how to play often required the guidance of someone already familiar with the world. I again knew of a couple that had met in this world, and married (though AFAIK, only married “offline”). While I’ve not kept up with them recently, I believe them to still be married.
While there have been plenty of “Massively Multiplayer Online7since, they have primarily tried to succeed by evolutionary improvement — better graphics, lower barrier to entry, more compelling story telling, etc. The Sims Online (TSO) was being developed by Maxis/EA about the time I was laid off from EA. Certainly, everyone had high hopes for that as The Sims (along with its various expansion packs) regularly accounted for 3-or so of the top 10 grossing games. TSO broke from the mold of “missions” or “quests” that drove the structure of so many preceding MMOs, but never really took off the way we had hoped or expected. In hindsight, I think it’s fairly easy to see why. And, I think SL rectifies many (though maybe not all) of those mistakes.
Next time: More detail about “What is SL?” and finally some of the pondering on the nature of virtual relationships.
- Well, a lot relative to having a relatively freshly minted baby at home, though my wife might contend that it’s a lot in an absolute sense instead of a relative oneReturn to body↩
- “Playing” and “Game” are in (air)quotes because it’s not really an accurate description, but is the closest handle I think you might immediately recognize.Return to body↩
- “gamer” can mean so much these days. I mean it in the computer game sense (though I also play board/card and console games), and yet not in the hardcore sense (I don’t have the latest hardware) — just that I am one of those people that can find myself easily, and repeatedly absorbed in that sort of story to the point where I lose track of timeReturn to body↩
- MUD used to stand for Multi-User Dungeon — being named and modeled after an earlier version of a game for the VAX called “Dungeon”. As MUDs morphed to become things other than Sword-and-Sorcery role playing games, the acronym changed, and the D came to stand for Domain, simply meaning place or space. This evolved into other acronyms like “MOO” for MUD – Object Oriented, and so forth.Return to body↩
- In “standard” MUDs, those that can control the world, make rooms and objects, etc. are called Gods. When I was a God, the standard of the time was to call yourself a Ghod (still pronounced the same), I guess in an attempt to mitigate the heresy of calling yourself a god. My most recent foray back into MUDs has only found Gods without the ‘h’.Return to body↩
- Actually, at least according to Wikipedia (and I have no reason to doubt it) LPMud was inspired by the original TinyMud, so when I say “then came” I am simply referring to the order in which I experienced those worlds.Return to body↩
- Roleplaying) Games)”
The parens are included because at the time, such an entity would have been called an MMORPG, but has more recently been shortened to MMOG as more “massively” multiplayer games were something other than sword-and-sorcery, and still more recently even the G has been dropped, and you’ll usually just here “MMO” now.Return to body↩