Tom Armitage: So, I used to be on a MUD. It was called MUD2 and it was a direct port of Richard Bartle’s original Essex MUD. And it was on a service called Wireplay, which was not actually the real Internet, it was a dial-up gaming service provided by BT, the British phone company. You didn’t pay for it, it was just two and a half pence a minute on your phone bill. And I basically had a rationed amount of time on this, because I was like 14 and this was a 28.8k modem, and it chewed up the main phone line in the house. And yeah.
And I played the MUD because the MUD was free. And it was text-based. It’s a text adventure. It was a very game-like MUD. If you know LambdaMOO and you’ve read My Tiny Life, it was nothing like that It wasn’t cool, you couldn’t make anything. But it was a lovely game around hunting for treasure and helping other people do things, and doing it all within 110 minutes before the world magically reset itself.
And one day, I went on—and I played very differently to a lot of people. A lot of people were very good at playing the game. And especially they didn’t really care when the characters died because they’d just spin up a new one really fast. I was basically terrified of my character dying because I was really slow. I was amazingly slow at this game, and really cautious. And so I didn’t really like doing risky things.
And one day, and I think it was a Saturday afternoon, I went on after lunch, and there was a new person in the tea room. The aesthetic of this game is Tolkien meets Lewis Carroll. And the room you begin is a magical tea room, and every—it’s English. Everyone sits around in the tea room drinking tea, and when you walk out of the tea room you land somewhere in the middle of the world. And somebody was there and they were totally bewildered.
And I said, “Okay. Don’t worry. It’s really simple. Let’s get you through some of the basics. Just type ‘follow…’ ” my character name. I played a character called Cerberus. So, “Type ‘follow Cerberus’ and you’ll just go wherever I go and I’ll take you some places.”
And they went, “Okay.” And we hung out for about half an hour and I showed them how you pick up treasure and drop it in the swamp. And I showed them a few things to avoid. And I showed them the basic route down to one of the really low-level treasure-farming routes. And we chatted a bit. And got them over the first two or three-level hump. Levels were exponential.
And this would’ve basically meant that they would— And then at they end they went, “Hey that was really cool. I’m gonna come back.” Cuz this was the bit where if you don’t know what you’re doing in this game you’ll probably try and kill another player. They’ll destroy you. And you’ll…just never played the game again.
And I spent my weekly ration of playing the game basically on being nice to somebody. And they went, “Cool! See ya.” And they logged off and they dropped everything they were carrying, which I picked up and dumped in the swamp for treasure. And then, this line of text said something like, “You feel a benevolent force on top of you.” And I got 200 points out of nowhere. Points being experience.
And what had been happening is a wiz, one of the admins— (Wizards were player admins. So, when you basically finish the game you become an admin—you don’t become an archwiz—they’re system-level admins, but you gain the ability to manipulate reality.) —had been spying on me. You gain the ability to just watch what another player’s doing. And somebody had just been watching me for twenty minutes being nice. And at the end of it, they gave me an in-game reward.
And this kind of blew me away. Because I hadn’t realized—and you never know when someone’s spying on you. And I was just doing this for the hell of it. And all of a sudden it turned into a real in-game reward. And they were basically going, “Thank you for making another player not leave in the first ten minutes. And thanks for being nice.”
And there was this huge rush and this weird glow of somebody I didn’t know being nice to me because I’d been nice to somebody else. And I didn’t know how to explain it to anybody. And I couldn’t really explain to my parents why when I logged off that out of all the things I’ve done on the MUD, that was the most significant day I’d played. Where a behavior other than scoring points was being rewarded, and what it was being rewarded by was another human being. And I must’ve been about 14 or 15. That would’ve been 1997.
And I went on after— I didn’t play the MUD for much longer after that. I went on and played a lot of Quake competitively. And I fell into blogging really early in like 2001. And the thing I kind of miss is when it was small enough to know everybody. The thing about the MUD was actually the number of regular players I reckon was probably about fifty. And everybody knew everybody’s names. And everybody would wave when you saw somebody else was online. And when blogging began we didn’t have comments. But it didn’t really matter because we were all talking to one another. And we actually needed comments when people we didn’t know would talk to us. And whilst I think by and large it’s probably better that there are more people in a place than fewer, I really miss the time when you walked into the bar and everybody knew your name.