He’s absolutely right about the modern approach to MMORPG gaming on PC. Compared to the original experience, what we enjoy today is adulterated, fractured, incomplete.

Bhagpuss (2019), There Is No Mystery Left (Inventory Full)

This was said in response to Pete’s post on the topic of finding a happy balance between computer and console gaming. How he is able to achieve a better degree of immersion on console by power of the fact that there isn’t the same ready access to a second monitor, filled with social media ticking by, ready at a moment’s notice to be flicked through.

I know what Pete is talking about, as I’m exactly the same. My second monitor will have some mix of Discord, Twitter and general browsing pages up. Sometimes even a TV show. I find these ‘distractions’ to be a welcome part of the PC gaming experience, though. So I don’t find this breaking of immersion as problematic.

But it did start my mind down another track entirely.

Changes to Social Interaction in MMOs in the Absence of Social Media

I’ve talked about changes in social interaction before, but then I was tackling a perceived shift in my priorities and loss of even openness to forming relationships in MMOs or games fullstop. I attributed this in part to the shifting nature of the games themselves, without much of a look at the external factors.

And to clarify, in this context perhaps actually I less mean ‘Social Media’ as it is understood today and more mean a lack of any ubiquitous communication platform upon which you could aggregate your social contacts.

The effect of this being, as Bhagpuss also said, “…turn-of-the-century MMORPGs were the social media of their day.”

Certainly in my experience, this meant that the relationships you formed — even the close ones — remained exclusively in the confines of the MMO itself, for me this being Asheron’s Call. There didn’t seem to be any real extension of communication to email, or any of the Instant Messenger clients which were starting to pop up in that era.

I looked it up to confirm when writing my comment on Bhagpuss’ post, ICQ came out in November ’96 — so even if not by ’98 when I started into the beta of Asheron’s Call, then certainly by the release late ’99 or shortly after I would have been using it.

So WHY Did I Not Save Those Connections?

I struggle with this question, looking back on things with hindsight. There were friends made, relationships established, that at the time meant a great deal to me. I would now give a great deal to have a do-over in which I didn’t let those contacts slide.

But I don’t recall ever making the effort to ensure the communication could exist standalone from Asheron’s Call itself.

One theory I have is, as I alluded to above, a lack of a ubiquitous platform on which to actually achieve this. I was using ICQ, but this was not common place. Instant Messenger had not taken off as a mainstream concept yet. Then when it later did, there was AIM, ICQ, MSN and any number of others.

Another is that I was simply young and foolish. I was 16 in ’99 when Asheron’s Call entered Retail. I very likely didn’t even give any thought to the possibility of a need to secure channels of communication outside of the game. Asheron’s Call was forever. For me. For you. For everyone.

But some people did drift from the game. People could pass first to days without being /seen, to weeks, to months. There was no Facebook, so those remaining could only speculate on what might have occurred. Sometimes I was the one who would take days, weeks or even months away.

Especially after the transition from Beta to Retail where I had two groups of my friends split and make different decisions on server to play on. My core group decided on Darktide (the PvP server) whereas quite a number of my other friends were going to stay on a PvE server.

I had good intentions of splitting my playtime, but ultimately Darktide won out and my visitation on Morningthaw became more and more sporadic, with less and less of my friend’s list around each time.

Some of those losses are actively painful, and I wonder whether that might also have been at least a tiny contributing factor to my stance on social interaction in MMOs today?

In any case — I am curious, for anyone else who might’ve played back during the EQ / AC / UO era of MMOs, was this your experience too? Or did you make more of an effort to secure communication channels separate from the games? Or was this simply not a concern?


Gamer, reader, writer, husband and father of two boys. Former WoW and Gaming blogger, making a return to the fold to share my love of all things looty.


bhagpuss · April 4, 2019 at 1:57 am

Mention of ICQ/IM brings up something I don’t refer to as often as I might, namely the different impact of various methods of communication online, both then and now. I have a few almost innate reactions to ways of talking in games, some of which have changed very little in twenty years, others which have changed completely.

For the first few weeks that I played EQ I would not, under any circumstances, use the /ooc channel. Although I wasn’t roleplaying with other people – I didn’t know any other people – I had an automatic and unquestioning belief that my character wasn’t me and should not talk in my voice. I objected quite strongly to the very existence of a channel for speaking out of character; nothing should ever be said in game that broke the fourth wall.

Well, that lasted about a month, if that. It was just too impractical. I needed to ask questions about how the game part of the game worked. Still, for years afterwards, all through my heavy socializing years, I was reticent to discuss anything relating to the real world. Game mechanics were fine but sports or elections weren’t. I also actively avoided finding out anyone’s real name, even their first name. I always referred to everyone by their character name or nickname.

Mrs Bhagpuss, however, talked to people as though they were, well, people. And since, after a few months on different servers at the start, we ended up playing the same MMOs, joining the same guilds and chat channels and grouping regularly with the same people, I ended up knowing a lot about who everyone was anyway.

Another thing I never liked and still don’t are “tells” or “whispers”. They have always creeped me out a little. I particularly dislike the way they’re often used as a private channel between individuals who are simultaneously talking in a wider context in a more open channel. I always think it’s literally like sitting around a pub table with a bunch of people and seeing someone lean across and whisper in someone’s ear. Incredibly rude.

I used to think of ICQ/IM as something like that. I worked in offices where people would use it to communicate and I thought that was both weird and rude, too. I used to get up and walk to someone’s desk and speak to them if I wanted to talk.

Some of this is me being peculiar, I am well aware of that. Some of it, though, is technology advancing faster than we are comfortable with, or can keep up with. These days I talk a lot in MMOs but almost entirely in public channels. I like to have everything out in the open. It means I have even more tenuous “relationships” with people who only know me, if at all, as a vague presence in chat, the way you vaguely recognize someone who lives in your area if you happen to see them on the street.

Whether this itself is another phase that will pass I can’t say. It’s possible that if one of the retro-MMOs, Pantheon or CU for example, takes off and I play that a lot, I’ll end up back in the kind of game-based casual friendships I had in the early/mid noughties. If that happens, will I then behave differently in terms of forming more lasting relationships with those people beyond the game? I kind of doubt it but who knows?

At least, with discussions like this, I might be thinking about it, which would be a step forward.

    Naithin · April 4, 2019 at 8:59 am

    I must say, I do love exploring some of these differences.

    MMOs were not my introduction to online gaming — for me it was Quake 1 (via the QuakeWorld client, and more specifically the Team Fortress game mode) that kicked it all off in a big way for me. These were even *more* localised experiences, with internet at the time being largely driven by dial-up for your general home-user.

    So the people online were limited to the pool of gamers in country, or for us maybe across the ditch to Aussie, although that ping was not great. Playing with people in the States though? Hah! UK- Not a chaaance.

    The ONLY way to chat in these games was team or server in general. And of course there wasn’t that same sense of ‘character’ to even worry about, so it was all OOC which set the stage for being completely fine with it in the later jump to MMOs.

    On tells / whispers, I feel like the environmental context matters. In a pub or other physical social environment, if you’re in a group and then start leaning off for a side convo — it doesn’t matter what the content of that discussion is, it simply is a rude thing to do.

    In a digital realm I feel it is more the content of the discussion rather than the act that determines whether or not it is rude. No-one is being made to feel excluded by the existence of the whisper conversation.

Jeromai · April 4, 2019 at 2:55 am

I have text logs and screenshots from those days of transition between a MUD around Everquest’s time to City of Heroes. They are rarely revisited – once in a decade of browsing and searching in the futile hope of verifying a faint memory. Does that count as a saved connection?

Social relationships themselves are trickier. Like Bhagpuss, I steer mostly clear of mixing my real life with my game life. I enjoy immersion and even if they didn’t have a name for doxing in those days, my search-fu suggested it was still something to be cautious about.

As such, most of my connections were and are strictly in-game utilitarian – I benefit you, you benefit me, we might have a good time spending a few hours making small talk or having weighty analysis or philosophical discussions in the process of getting game stuff done.

Granted, the connections did go a lot deeper in the old days, given the amount of time invested.

I would have loved to maintain contact and build a reliable group/team of friends-compatriots to game hop with. But something I realized quickly when the equivalent of our raid team on the MUD hemorraged people with the advent of Everquest, and then World of Warcraft… very few people have the exact same cross-game interest at the exact same time. Our team lead left for Everquest and tried to get people to go with her, one or two followed, the rest weren’t ready to quit or buy a new game.

The same pattern has followed me through the years. I’ll meet some nice competent folks in one game, say A Tale in the a Desert or Guild Wars 2 or wherever, but the relationship is only good in the context of that particular game. We might exchange Steam particulars, but then never talk again because the subsequent games we play are completely different. So why bother attempting to maintain a connection at that point?

    Naithin · April 4, 2019 at 10:21 am

    While not what I meant when discussing it for myself, I think saving logs and screenshots can count. It’s certainly more than I have of those days. I was never the best at taking screenshots or otherwise capturing things ‘for posterity’. It just didn’t register as a concern to me at the time.

    Now though, there are some people I remember from those days by our conversation and the emotive content of the discussion, but not the ingame handle/character name they went by.

    I think that the time invested, as you mention, was certainly a large part of the reason for deeper connections then as compared to now. But I also wonder if the sense of mystery and wonder that existed at the time, as Bhagpuss alludes to, had a big impact too.

    I’ve become a heck of a lot more cynical, even jaded, about MMO’s these days. But then it was a whole new magical world. Every aspect from the scope of the world (when held up against the ‘levels’ I was used to) through to the people themselves was just… something else entirely.

Isey · April 5, 2019 at 2:48 am

Heh, I still have the message boards from my old EQ guild running! Yes, they are mostly dead, but theres 4 or 5 that pop in now and again to say hi, check in. We tried a reunion but it didnt materialize.

The bonds made over shared stress, failures and wins in EQ will never be replaced by current EZ mode gaming. There is no risk / reward the same way. It truly made personal (and professional!) dependencies.

    Naithin · April 5, 2019 at 9:27 am

    Message boards for AC guilds didn’t really seem to be all that common a thing unfortunately, but I suppose also with how the guild ‘structure’ worked (it was essentially a pyramid scheme of XP!) it was more common for large chunks to break off and rejoin elsewhere.

    Less common I suppose on Darktide where the ties between people meant a lot more, but still not exactly uncommon I suppose.

    AC was also a game that way more strongly supported soloing. Probably moreso than almost any other MMO to many degrees. It was way more typical to build a standalone, independent character. Because those ALSO still played well with others, but could be enjoyed alone almost as well when necessary.

    For me, the stable guild that persisted throughout the years kicked in near the tail end of my major involvement with AC and into the beginning of Shadowbane’s launch. This is the one that has since been revived via Discord (Although the boards do still exist, they’re there mostly just for reference and archival purposes now.)

Dan · June 18, 2019 at 1:44 am

I was big into the Worms games when I was younger, particularly Worms 2 and Armageddon. I was semi involved in the community and made the kind of connections you’re referring to, all of which are long gone now.

When I was perusing on Twitter as I often have done for the last 10 years, I stumbled across a software developer called Jon Skeet, a name I recognised from the Worms community. I straight up asked him over Twitter if he was “The Jon Skeet” of Worms fame, and to my surprise he was. It was and still is very surreal to see his name in my Twitter timeline!

    Naithin · June 18, 2019 at 12:01 pm

    So glad you managed to reconnect with at least one of these lost contacts!

    Also; I remember worms fondly as well! I was never part of the community, but thinking about it I’m not even 100% sure I had Internet access back when I was playing worms!

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