Have you ever loved a narrative so much that it took over your life? That's what happened to me with Dragonriders of Pern - especially when it became an online world.
When I was young, I set stories in my favorite fictional worlds, and wrote fanfic based on my favorite games, books and TV series. At sixteen, a friend introduced me to multi-user shared hallucinations (MUSHes), online text-based games with a narrative driven by roleplaying. Here was the intersection of gaming and fanfiction: with only words as a background, the action was player-generated and often rooted in writing skill. And you got to live out fantastical lives of your making.
Text-based games were some of the first to take root on early computers, owing to the relative simplicity of coding and sharing. Textual adventures like Zork, Rogue, and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy used fixed-width text display on simple backdrops to in order to render description and maps, while action advanced via keyboard input.
With internet connectivity, MUDs (multi-user dungeon/domain) were born, and more fantastical, interactive roleplaying came to the fore. You could still quest, but you could also be joined in questing by other people sitting at similar terminals. Online text-based games sprang up to cater to players of every inclination.
MUSHes and their hack-slash MUD and MUCK cousins are still around, of course, and some are thriving. But they've seen an exodus of players to the massively multiplayer games like World of Warcraft and EvE Online, virtual environments like Second Life, and the now innumerable options for roleplaying on the internet. In the time when we labored with dial-up and modems, though, a text screen was a great way to reach another world. Even via Telnet, the trusty network protocol tool, in the school library.
My own particular poison was PernMUSH, set up with the trappings of Anne McCaffrey's popular Dragonriders series but with restrictions because McCaffrey disproved of meddling with her copyrights. And yes, I'd argue that Pern qualifies as science fiction, though it relies heavily on dragons — the inhabitants reached Pern in a spaceship, and that technology plays an important role throughout. The Pernese developed telepathic dragons in a hierarchy of colors; dragons bonded with their chosen riders to fight the scourge of Thread, an airborne ropy spore inclined to eat through things.
In the game, you could be anyone you wanted. You had only to create a character: develop a description, think about their history and personality, and write their interaction as you would a story but in real time.
The most popular occupation was dragonrider — as might be expected — but you could also be a healer or a steward or a craftsperson. To become a dragonrider involved a long administrative process of applications, peer review, and demonstrating roleplaying skill. By the end of my time on MUSHes I was helping to write dragons — complicated bits of code and detailed personality description that would enable the rider to leap around in-game on a special object. Some new player would be thrilled to receive a new dragon, as I had once been.
In many ways, being on MUSHes was like an intensive writing class, always observing other people's styles and learning to respond quickly but descriptively. Roleplaying took the form of "poses," written description constantly advanced by the players, as well as special pre-arranged plots and events to get everyone involved.
It is hard to overstate the emotional intensity that could be generated between players and within the disparate communities. These were people who passed months, even years together, roleplaying sagas but also talking OOC, or out of character, in private messages and on public channels. It was no surprise that close friendships and allegiances formed, and no few IRL ("in real life") weddings. The sense of belonging to "your" area of the game was pervasive, a precursor to the guilds that would soon come built-in on graphical games.
When you are playing every day as the same character, it can become difficult to disentangle the character's activities and actions from your own. After all, you're creating this fictional life, in real time, and it's a short leap to emotional investment.
Avatars can often be a reflection of the things we wish we could do or resemble, and it's irresistible to find yourself in a place that highly values writing and gaming ability. Some were obsessed with it, and many of us spent a majority of our free hours there — even in the age of dial-up, internet addictions seemed to be at hand. These days, we're more used to people passing their time online.
While it provided a wonderful creative outlet, PernMUSH was also lesson in politics. It has never ceased to amaze me how fast people are to create drama in forums designed for entertainment, but the internet has reproduced that tendency in perfect infinite microcosms. Whether it's Democrats versus Republicans, XBOXes versus PS3s, or J.J. Abrams diehards versus Trek purists, we all love to take sides and nitpick and gossip and sometimes mutiny.
In live-action communities, it's no different, and in many ways more intense. With some people elevated to levels of leadership over others, resentments and second-guessing are inevitable. The games that I was on would all eventually suffer from scandals and player shortfalls and burnout and dropout. The close relationships we formed could result in cliques and infighting. We're all very human, even in fantastical worlds generated by machines.
But today I'm still left with overwhelmingly fond memories and gratitude for the game, which was there when I needed it, and taught me many things and introduced interesting people from around the world. For a sixteen year-old with a 36kbps modem and a family phone line, it provided an escape from everything ordinary. Because of it I also learned the early web and text-based coding and made the requisite youthful Geocities websites. It was another internet era, but sometimes I miss the narrow focus of it in our current crowded, noisy environs.
Lots of us have likely passed through our share of online communities. Ever find yourself still thinking about one or two in particular, wishing that you could travel back for just a little while?