This is a true story of the primitive birth of online MMOs.
It is also a cautionary example of the iron grip female players hold over their male counterparts, and the financial highs (and ethical lows) one can achieve by impersonating such girl gamers.
This is also a confession.
Let me begin. It’s 1998. The internet is much different to how it is now. 56k is slow. Sloooow. Star Trek: The Motion Picture slow. It’s also all we have. And, depending on your ISP, you’d have to reconnect every 2 hours. This would take about 3 minutes of listening to your modem (which actually sat on the desk OUTSIDE of your computer!) as it made weird alien binary sex noises.
At the tender age of 15 I would sneak into my Dad’s workroom at night and spend upwards of 20 minutes downloading individual 8-bit colour images of Gillian Anderson from FHM’s fledgling website. It was tedious but free. And private.
I’d spent a lot of time in chat-rooms, some game related. You didn’t have avatars or pictures though. Oh no. You just had handles. Mine was Nick_One. Clever wasn’t it? But the awesome thing I discovered was that by simply changing your handle you could also change identity. I would often say I was 21, a police officer, living in Leeds, and had a terrier called Neil. No one could prove any different. Webcams were years away. Digital cameras – only the rich had these. The internet was new, and people were naive.
Oh so naive.
Okay I was a geek, so I’d also been to a few Dungeons and Dragons freeform roleplay rooms. But instead of playing as Gruk the gruff-but-loving barbarian, I’d play as Todd McFlarlane’s Spawn. I’d just sit in the corner of the Drunken Unicorn’s barroom, making my cloak twitch. It got boring, so I went looking elsewhere.
After some searching I found a link to what was then called Gemstone 3. GS3 was one of the first ever online roleplaying games. It was a classic MUD that had begun sometime in 1987. It was and is a text-based game, similar to Zork or Adventure, where you’d read a room description, have various exits (such as north, south, up, down etc), which would take you to other “rooms”. Characters and objects would show up as “You also see John and a white guitar”.
Gemstone 3's original Website
It was based in the high-fantasy setting of Elanthia: Elves interacted with dwarves. Dark elves would curse at Halflings, etc. You know the sort.
You could run around attacking monsters, going on quests, finding items, occasionally running into Games-Master controlled merchants who could turn your “reinforced shield” into a “super special shield of awesome”.
Now I’d played similar text games before at school. But what made this game fascinating was that all the other characters were people. We were all locked into this little world of swords, magic, fantasy and intrigue. I fell in love.
So I played avidly for about 3 months before my pay-by-the-minute phone bill caused my Dad to indefinitely cancel the interwebs. Much sadness ensued.
Two years later I’m at University. The internet has gotten slightly better. I’m now the envy of my friends with my lovely 512 speed connection. Gemstone was still around and I had my own credit card (and more importantly, free internet), so I signed up once more.
My old character Malus Ironfang was long since dead (or gone demonic as the players would say). This called for someone new, someone super powerful, someone who’d shake Elanthia to its very core. Someone...female?
Now at 15 I may have been sexually immature but I still recognised the power women held over me and other men. It was even evident in Gemstone. Here I’d be, waiting at the locksmith when Lady Twinkletoes would enter, sashay straight to the front of the line, get her boxes opened, have her star sapphire tip refused, and be told, with a smile, to come again. Would Malus Ironfang get such treatment? Would he fuck.
A female character it would be. Purely to see what kind of different reception I’d receive, I told myself.
And oh, what a difference it made.
Within 20 minutes I’d been welcomed by a male mentor, taken out to hunt giant rats, given a new sword, and even taken on a tour of the starter town by some kindly lord who gave me 2000 silver (no lean amount for a level 1 sorceress, I tell you) after I giggled at one of his inane jokes.
A possible reaction, had he realized the truth
It didn’t stop there. Everyone was keen to help me. I’d get swift rescues were I to get killed. I’d get positive remarks about my sexy sense of inventory fashion. Even the other female players (or were they?) would react well to me. I guess they were tired of other men hitting on them incessantly, and were relieved to just be able to relax around other female players.
But the game was about roleplaying. Something I was very heavily invested in. So obviously as I progressed in the game, the more I began to roleplay. It became easier to pretend that not only was I a woman, but a complex, three-dimensional character within the game world itself. I was more than meets the eye.
Then it began to unravel.
In the two years since I’d last played, the internet had not only sped up, but become much more advanced. Something called AIM was everywhere, and every player used it. So I had to too. I created a fairly innocuous screen name, used a generic non-facial avatar and just got on with things.
It was also at this point when a character took a particular shine to me. This guy was always around when I was. He was 10 levels higher, so he’d make hunting much easier. But he’d make liberal use of the physical verbs. Hug, poke, tickle, rub. Too liberal.
We’d chat on AIM. I’d never lie. He just never asked, you know, if I was a guy.
Reading between the lines, it's kind of obvious I was a guy
I continued the coy act for just over a year before out of game circumstances forced him to quit. He’d return years later. He’s still oblivious to this day.
Anyway, I’d become much more involved with the in-game and out-of-game politics. I’d troll and flame on the forums. I’d go on epic quests. I’d spend hours roleplaying. It’s an American-focused game, so the majority of Games Masters and players would be online around 2:00 AM GMT. I became a night owl.
I also became sort of infamous in the game. Mainly this was for being British, as well as being one of these vocal freaks who endlessly scream “BUFF MY NERFED CLASS FUCKERS” on the forums. World of Warcraft players who bother to read the boards will recognise this as angry teenage moron-type behaviour, and I was no exception in Gemstone.
After several years of play I’d developed a number of close friends in and out of the game. None of them knew who I really was. None, I supposed, suspected either. But it was becoming harder to fake. Digital cameras and webcams had become cheap and common. I just avoided the subject of my personal life. Typical explanations like “busy with uni-work” were commonplace whenever I was asked.
It wasn’t long before I realized that despite the initial bonuses of playing and maintaining a female persona, it was pretty much just like being a guy when it came down to it. Sure I’d still get positive reactions from strangers and such, the odd larger tip and so fourth, but it didn’t really make a difference to the game overall. In fact I kind of missed being a faceless guy. I’m a solitary player by nature, and I’d always be getting invitations to go and do something with someone. It was tiresome.
The drain of fighting losing battles with the staff over class nerfage, coupled with the fact that I was lying to people who had become legitimate friends and the continuous hassle of pretending all the time, forced me to an ultimatum:
I had to kill myself.
Or alternativey I could just leave the game.
So I left . I suicided the character, closed the account and went about my life for a few years. But the lure of CrackStone (4 at it had then become) is strong. I reactivated my account and started anew, this time as a male rogue – something much more akin to the real me.
And here I still am. I’ve mellowed as a gamer. I don’t even read the forums any more. I don’t get involved in crazy storylines or quests. I take extended breaks from the game, typically playing for about six months then leaving for a few years.
A few of my old friends from my sorceress days still play it. I’ve made a good few more as the rogue. All are oblivious to whom I used to be, however. At least, until today that is.
I suppose the point to get across is that YES women, regardless of their intent, regardless if they are female characters or female players, represent sex in video games. Or at least they represent the implication of sex. It could be a line of text on a screen or the elongated sex-limbs of Bayonetta; to men they’re all fields to plough.
A blinkered view perhaps. But the faceless nature of the internet can more easily support perverts and less socially aware individuals. So while we usually reign in our sexual desires in reality, it is far easier to let them unfold online. There are no ramifications. No consequences.
Some (as noted above) can use this to their advantage, and this is often real women themselves. I had a guild leader in WoW who would ask the sole female player to sweet talk grumpy or aggressive players. It was highly effective. In Gemstone you can see female characters try to use their feminine whiles on other less experienced men, JUST LIKE you see confident, good-looking women take advantage of gormless guys in the real world. The only difference is that online, both men and women have a screen to hide behind.
See, Night Elves do serve other purposes...
But it’s much harder to fake it these days, thanks to the likes of MSN, Skype or what have you. It’s only a matter of time before even the most naive of targets will demands a picture or voice clip.
Thankfully the rise of actual female gamers is increasing to meet this demand. And while many will be fat, slobbering emo-children, this quota will probably be no more or less than the fat, slobbering emo-man children that currently stalk the internets.