Friday, August 13, 2010

My life as an avatar, part 1: Kesmai

My trolls

My stuffed dolls
Since childhood, I always dreamed of being other than myself, being a better, stronger being, in a more beautiful, nobler world. As a child, this usually involved pretending to be a wild horse (yes, girls love horses) or enacting made-up dramas and comedies with stuffed dolls, trolls, or even Corgi and Matchbox cars. Any obect that spoke its personality to me could be a player in an impromptu, creative, dramatic experience.
My Corgi cars

I stumbled into a job at Kesmai in 1993, one of the earliest developers of multiplayer online games, where I discovered the joys and pitfalls of alternate realities. I became a devoted player of Legends of Kesmai, a thief named SoSneaky.
Source for this LOK screenshot: Shadow Bay Sentinel
Legends grew out of Island of Kesmai, an earlier MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game), for which Compuserve customers --this was before the World Wide Web-- paid an expensive hourly rate for the privilege. It was an enhanced MUD (multi-user dungeon) that used an ASCII character generated map to enhance the mainly text-based interface. Remember that early computer monitors were monotone and did not display graphics (with the Atari and Commodore 64 as notable exceptions.

There were many things to love about the Legends of Kesmai gameplay and cultural milieu. In an open-ended quest and advancement-oriented persistent world, the player is an adventurer whose experience is tailored to his own preferences. There is a continuously developing, creative cultural richness, a special magic to shared online worlds that single-player games cannot hope to approximate. The people I met, from around the world, were amazing, heroic, and entertaining. Sharing jokes, misfortunes, terrors, and triumphs is a wonderful experience. Cooperative, player-vs-environment gameplay was enjoyable, despite the lack of shared experience points, and the players themselves created standards for social conduct. Guilds (player societies) were important social structures. Player-vs.-player gameplay --killing people (well, their avatars)-- was just too aggressive for me. Like most women (and many men), we prefer to be on a team and destroy monsters together, yay!

As an RPG avatar, I had capabilities, power, and social value that I could not approach in life. That sounds pathetic. But my inner condition is one of constant tension between rejecting the world, and feeling incompetent to live a life in the world. I kick over the slop-filled bucket and then cry because nothing is left. I search for good clean water to fill my bucket, find only polluted water, and in the end, I give up hope.

Or did I just not yet find the right MMORPG?

To come: My life as an avatar, part 2: Everquest

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