When I was 14 my school loaned me a brand new, state-of-the-art laptop that possessed the ability to dial into the internet. It was a monster of a machine with all of 4 gigabytes of hard drive space, a detachable 3.5 inch floppy drive, and JAWS 3.2, and I loved it. For those of you who remember those early versions of JAWS, you’ll remember that the internet was a trying place to navigate full of inaccessible links and hard to read content. Still, the text games worked perfectly, and I suddenly had a new hobby.
It started out with Telearena, a simple text-based BBS game with little to offer players beyond stock fights and repeated descriptions. Take any standard Merc mud, divide the fun quotient by 10, stomp on the result, set it on fire, then put the fire out with bleach, and you might come close to the enjoyment one could gain from playing it. Of course, it was the first game of its kind I ever played, and I was hopelessly entranced.
It wasn’t long, though, before I discovered the true potential for text-based gaming that actual Multi-user Domains (muds) could bring to the table—muds like Dreams, Discworld, and The Inquisition. There were others: Aardwolf, God Wars 2, BatMud, Achaea, 3 kingdoms, MUME—Multi Users in Middle Earth, and at least a score more. I even started spending money to play muds, shelling out both monthly fees and promotional charges to muds like Modus Operandi, Dragon Realms, and Lusternia. And because I know some of you mud enthusiasts out there are wondering, I did have a run at all of the Squidsoft games: Star Conquest, Galaxy Web, and Fortharlin. I even spent far too much time on Miriani—and no, I won’t link to that horrible twink of a game.
But beyond the hundreds—possibly thousands—of dollars I spent mudding, the more detrimental cost came in the form of the literally thousands of hours I spent glued to my computer desperately trying to reach that next level, finish that elusive quest, or farm excessive amounts of gold and loot. I pretended to be sick from school and work so I could put in extra time on gaming. I stayed up playing until 3 or 4 in the morning, then honestly wondered why I could not stay awake in classes the next day. Instead of socializing with my peers—the people I worked and went to school with—I made virtual friends online. On New Year’s Eve, 2000, I rang in the new year with a handful of friends on a custom-built mud they had designed for just that purpose. Nobody invited me to post-high-school graduation parties; after the ceremony I went straight home and sat sadly in my basement, wishing I had made some real friends. But by that point I was well and truly hooked, and my addiction—for that’s what it was—persisted all the way through college. It followed me into my post-college work; it followed me to Hawaii, to Texas, and—finally—to Minnesota.
I can only guess why mudding had such a profound draw on me, but any reason I give sounds more like a hollow excuse in retrospect. I suppose what it really comes down to is that I wanted to escape into a place where I could be powerful beyond what I could ever hope to accomplish in real life. In the real world I was a pudgy, socially awkward blind teen-ager who struggled with image and self-confidence, but online I was a swashbuckling warrior, a daring rogue, or a powerful mage, and no one ever needed to know that I was blind or a little heavy around the gut. Instead of facing my fears about blindness and getting involved in school and the community, I patrolled the streets of Lithmore as a reeve and defended the realm from murderers and thieves. People do this all the time with video games, and I can understand why. After a long, difficult day it’s sometimes fun to get lost in mindless entertainment. For some people it’s an episode of Jersey Shore; for others it’s a few games of Major League Baseball 2K11 on Xbox. But with muds, the game never ends. There is always that next goal waiting just around the corner for a dedicated player to come and attain it.
I played my last text-based multi-user game on December 20, 2010, and I have no idea why. I had tried to quit before; I made it as far as a month during the Summer of 2009, and every day was a challenge. I would be reading a book or playing my guitar, and I would suddenly be overcome with an overwhelming desire to play something—anything—so long as it was a mud. In the end I rationalized my return to text-based gaming as a step toward moderation—a rationalization that lasted all of a week. It wasn’t long before I was back at it again, spending 12 to 16 hours in a single weekend in front of the computer. But this past Christmas vacation, a time I eagerly anticipated for the comparatively huge span it would afford me to mud, something weird happened. Before I knew it January 2 was upon me. I hadn’t mudded in 13 days, and I wasn’t bothered by it in the slightest. In fact, I was surprised, looking back on those two weeks, that so much time had passed.
It hasn’t been as easy over the past few months as it was during those first two weeks. To tell the truth, the whole reason I’m writing this post today is because I’m fighting the persistent urge to log back onto Discworld or check the latest progress on God Wars. Even as I write, I am filled with nostalgia for those worlds of fantasy and imagination I no longer visit. But I know I can’t go back there. Just as in the past, it would start simply enough—an hour here or there—but before long I know I would spiral back down into my old habits.
When I look at the above paragraph, I can’t help but think it comes across as a bit dramatic. I haven’t ever struggled with chemical addictions—drugs, alcohol, cigarettes—and I haven’t had to face down habits such as gambling that could destroy everything around me. Instead, I traded half my life—14 years—for gold and experience that amounted to nothing more than stats on a server, and I won’t ever get those 14 years back. I never hurt my body, but I did hurt myself, squandering my potential and talent on computer-generated orcs and meaningless collections of numbers rather than using it to better myself and the world around me.
So why program games now? Why spend my free time creating virtual fantasies? I suppose it’s for that escape, that temporary journey to a place where each of us can forget about the world for a time and just dream. At the same time, though, I do it for the process. I love the thinking, the imagining, and the problem-solving that it takes to create something. I love knowing that I have the power to shape the world with the strength of my mind, and I love being the architect of my own imagination. I love that instead of following, I’m leading—even if I’m only leading myself.
So I’ll keep struggling against my old habits. I’ll keep fighting the urges to slip back into the placid waters of inactivity. I’ll keep pushing against half a life’s worth of lost opportunities even though I know it won’t be easy. I’ve invested too much time and energy into this change, and I like the person I’ve since become. If spending time with this new me requires me to give up my lazy past, then I will happily pay that price.