I was 12 when we first got a desktop computer with internet access at home, and somehow I ended up playing one of the first online multiplayer games – a Multi-User Domain (MUD) called Rivers of MUD (ROM).
ROM was a text-based fantasy game that started in February of 1991. When I joined it in 1997 there was a very active, diverse community of players. Many were from the US & Canada, but there were regular players from Israel, Singapore, Finland & Sweden, as well as a large number of more casual players from all over the world.
In ROM, you leveled up by exploring the world, fighting monsters and gearing up – standard fantasy game fare – but what made it unique was that regular players who showed an interest could become immortals, and begin to contribute to the game itself by building areas, running events for players and enforcing the rules of the community.
I became an immortal a couple of years after starting to play, and began working on my first zone – a pseudo-Roman provincial market town, complete with amphitheatre and gladiators ready to pounce on anyone foolish enough to wander on to the arena floor.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that there were two people running the game – the largely-absent programmer Zump, in whose office sat the server where ROM was based, and Stardeo, the then adjunct professor of design at Rochester Technical College, who was responsible for quality control of newly-built areas. Fifteen-year-old me had “met” Stardeo only once, when he promoted me to being an immortal and assigned me my vnums (every room, NPC and object in the game had a unique vnum, and each area had a range of vnums assigned to it to avoid confusion). He took a look at my plan, said “250 should be about right, just make sure you use them” and disappeared.
In the middle of my GCSEs, I now had the task of building a Roman town in words, complete with moving, talking, interactive characters – using what was then a very sketchy understanding of ancient history. Every room description had to be between 100 & 300 words long, had to be unique, and had to adequately represent the bustling trading post I talked about so eloquently in my 500-word proposal, and had to be approved by this intimidating stranger.
Fortunately, some help was on hand. Fellow players who became close friends of mine – Kroz & Foxtail (or Rhonda & Elaine, if you’d rather) – helped me out, both by motivating me to build, and helping with the odd turn of phrase or stylistic issue that wouldn’t pass muster when Stardeo came to check it over (English English was not allowed!)
With their help, I not only completed my Roman town, but rebuilt (brick by brick, almost!) Camelot, complete with a spec_black_knight script applied to one character in particular, making him cry out “’Tis but a flesh wound!” as you landed the killing blow.
What’s remarkable about all this to me in hindsight is that these people were all significantly older than me & came from entirely different backgrounds (Elaine was then a UC Berkeley grad teaching English to kids older than I was, and Rhonda was a former teacher) but in the game none of that mattered.
I was playing with US Marines, Americans DJing their way around Europe, Israeli kids who eventually disappeared upon being called up for national service, but the usual divisions didn’t exist. We all just did what we did, and got along. We inevitably ended up developing our own lingo, generally involving a typo that quickly became adopted by everyone (strupid, samrt) or some convoluted substitution of bad language (it was a family-friendly MUD, after all). I can’t remember them all, but I fondly remember the word f*ck becoming tugboat, and the role of shit being played by the actor Brian Dennehy (he’s very versatile, you see).
Rhonda and I would spend days playing Scrabble, where bonus points were awarded for giving a definition of the made-up word we had just played:
Gothos played: INTY (7) = 7 You say 'it's a word, I promise' Kroz says 'inty?' Kroz says 'the opposite of an ounty?' You say 'it's the opposite of an ounty' You roll on the floor, laughing hysterically.
Gothos played: HIGROWIT (69) = 69 You say '"Where do you buy your ganja?"' You say '"Hi don't. Higrowit!"' Kroz falls to the ground and rolls around laughing hysterically. You giggle.
Zump decided to pull the plug on the server in 2006, 15 years after it first went live, and of course he did it on April 1st, because why wouldn’t you? A barely coherent, stream of consciousness log of the final few hours of ROM can be found here.
I was a part of it for 5 years before disappearing off to college myself, and I look back on my time spent there very fondly. In the years since, I’ve met four or five people from the game irl – most recently meeting Elaine in San Francisco where she now works as a product manager for Adobe.
When thinking about the things that had the greatest impact on me when growing up, I can’t help but think that being a part of a group of such amazing, funny people who had come from places that couldn’t have been further removed from my world view as a kid growing up in Yorkshire has to have contributed to the fact that I never really looked at my two big international moves as being particularly scary.
Playing ROM showed me that people are people, and while there may not be one truly universal language, being funny comes close.