Taking lessons from the rise and fall of divinity in online games.
By Jason Anthony Illustration by Jonathon Rosen
From the moment he arrived, Egor lived for mayhem. The time was 1982, and the place was the first online game world, called MUD (short for Multi-User Dungeon). Before Egor there had been duels, pranks, and the occasional fire-breathing dragon, all amiably playing out in the MUD world, hosted on the servers of the University of Essex. A rough kind of social contract had held.
Egor was the screen name of a player who set out to test the limits. He learned the shortcuts allowed by the code. He wrote scripts that let his character level up quickly. He discovered a way to fake other players’ logins. With a borrowed screen name, he would go on sprees of destruction, and watch with amusement as the real player logged on later to face a raging mob. He “ganked” new players—killed them before they knew which end of the sword to hold.
Thirty years down the road, an online multiplayer scene would grow geometrically from those few hundred players logging into the Essex server. About 618 million people now participate in online worlds; on a given day, the most popular might boast 2 million people playing at the same time. The industry built around these so-called massively multiplayer online games (or MMOs) brings in $14.9 billion in annual revenues, greater than the gross domestic product of Iceland.
Yet that whole massive industry was shaped, in some way, by how the game handled the problem of Egor. At the golden dawn of online space, he brought a snake into Eden. He forced his little world of techno-misfits to answer its first big questions, questions familiar to students of any society and its basic rules: Who’s in charge, and by what authority? And how does a community test and affirm its social boundaries?
Neighbors can create the ineffable threads of a good society, a point made in the book The Great Good Place, by sociologist Roy Oldenburg. He argues that for this to happen, a culture needs a place for people to meet informally. He calls this a “third place.” It isn’t one of practical functions, like a courthouse or an office building. Instead, it encourages the alchemy that happens in unstructured “hanging out.” In the past, that’s happened in the agora of ancient Greece, or in the cafés of Enlightenment-era France. Chat is common in a third place; so are games.
The earliest online communities ticked many boxes of a third place. Until MUD, however, none of them had really been a place. Richard Bartle, who designed MUD with Roy Trubshaw in 1980 at the University of Essex, sees this as a signature contribution of his game. MUD was the first game world that could host dozens of players at the same time. A database housed a chain of “rooms” that allowed players to wander from one to the other. If they happened to enter the same “room,” they could do things that people did in real life: chat, fight, even kiss…