The First Video Game Alts


When one thinks of ‘counterculturists,’ ‘video gamers’ don’t necessarily come to mind. Games are in a constant struggle for perception as the great cultural medium of the 21st century, but most game consumers see the battle as being between themselves and society. In fact, it’s a battle between themselves and their own nature.

Although we often call games ‘interactive entertainment,’ where the interactivity of games is billed as its defining quality – some kind of lean-forward, human-engagement element that gives it the potential to be significantly differentiated from [if not superior to] stuff like film and television – the video game consumer is generally a disappointingly passive creature. It loudly demands innovation and a constantly-raising quality bar, but castigates in the public [internet] forum anything that is in any way different from its expectations.

It wails loudly [online] about the uniqueness, importance and ‘passion’ of gaming, but gobbles piecemeal soulless, market-researched and focus-tested titles that act as endless soldiers in a battalion of ever-more ‘amped’ fucking explosions, ever-less indistinguishable skeleton-faced alien army men, and sprawling gray-brown creative voids.

The original video game developers, people who thought that Pong might be rad if you could play it on a screen in a bar, or people who thought that arcade games would be more rad if you could add something like a ‘story’ to them [a story about a yellow open-mouth man chasing ghosts, each of which had their own different name and personality] – these bros were counterculturists. In an attempt to cling needfully to the ‘alt’ status their forebears accidentally attained, most video gamers have grabbed onto some kind of fake niche, acting very nearly proud to be emotionally unplugged, disdainful of art and socially inept.

World of Warcraft is a multiplayer online roleplaying game where lots of these people [must note plenty of ‘normal’ people too, before angry people leave negative comments or go ‘cry in a forum’] run around and alternately kill things and ‘get’ things [like levels or armors or power rings or ‘mounts’ or whatever]. It is ‘multiplayer’ in that there are other people there, it is ‘online’ in that you see/speak to these other people via the internet, and it is ‘roleplaying’ in that you make an avatar that does not look like yourself.

It was fucking 1978. They had nobody to copy.

But games like World of Warcraft or Lord of the Rings Online or Wizard101 or Aion or EVE Online or whatever pretty much exist in sole thanks to a couple of British teenagers who were sick as fuck of the world they were living in and wanted to develop an alternate world where they could escape the inequities of the British class system. Seriously.

Richard Bartle and his friend Roy Trubshaw were 18 and 19, respectively, when they decided to create ‘Multi-User Dungeon,’ or MUD, for short. It was one of the most primordial and original ‘online worlds’ ever. It was an alternate realm imagined entirely in text-based communication. Bartle says they chose to put it in a ‘fantasy’ environment not because everyone else was mindlessly copying their fucking Dungeons and Dragons world [because it was 1978 and no one was really doing that] but because it was resonant across cultures, was not dependent on time or any explicit ethnic or gender-based social structure, and was romantic such as to pique the imagination.

They also wanted their world to rationally obey most evident laws of physics unless to have it do so would disrupt the player’s experience, something that pretty much every video game fails to do. In World of Warcraft you can swim in plate armor or wander into some dude’s castle totally unnoticed so long as you stay a millimeter to the right of the vision field of the guard dude standing two feet away from you.

It was fucking 1978. They had nobody to copy. Two dudes made one of the very first-ever multi-user worlds by hand. They didn’t want to sell things to ‘gamers’ [which pretty much only barely existed then] and they didn’t want to wank people’s desire to be a Lord High Elf or a Mr. Troll Man or whatever it is people are told they ought to want to embody today if they are ‘nerdy’ enough, ‘lol,’ whatever.

They did this because they wanted to go there and it would be fair and because they were furious with the world they were already living in. They designed gameplay mechanics not because they focus-tested them on males 12-25 but because the gameplay and interactions were a logical way for people to have fun no matter who they were, where they were from, how they looked and sounded ‘IRL’ and how much money they made. That goal isn’t ‘nerdy,’ it’s highly fucking relevant.

Richard Bartle and Roy Trubshaw are probably some of the first counterculturists of the computer age. Even though their tech was primitive, they actualized their vision. With the technology that exists today, it should be more, not less feasible to create digital universes that have meaning and aren’t just about the endless consumerism of press-this-get-that. When people say ‘games can be art,’ that’s what they mean.

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