Our son Eric and daughter Emma found a profound landscape for exploration, adventure, and development, beyond the realm of school and "formal" education, on the Internet. Now in the 21st Century, our kids are exploring a "World Wide Web", as virtual as the experience of the "Wild West" has been to the wannabe cowboys of the 20th Century, and perhaps as profound.
In the 19th and 20th Century Americans were inspired by the mythology, if not the reality, of the old west. For those few people who actually blazed the trails and "settled" the wilderness (often at the expense or even destruction of the native population), their lives were surely difficult and their world dangerous, but there stories were compelling and inspired American culture. For the rest, who never set foot west of the Mississippi, or lived after the west was "tamed", the "wild wild west" was still a fertile "virtual" world for additional storytelling about things that might have happened if in fact they never did. Even as a kid growing up in the 1960s, I can remember the TV schedule laced with western movies and TV shows, featuring now familiar fables populated by iconic characters played by John Wayne, Lorne Green and others.
Anyway... I don’t want to fly off too far on that tangent...
My recollection is that our son Eric got into his first on-line role-playing game around the turn of the century (funny to say it that way, now 100 years forward of its meaning when I was a kid). But I think it was a year later (2001) when both our kids got into a game called "Dark Ages". Eric was 15 and Emma 12. This game (developed actually in Korea), like others of its ilk, was advertised as "massively multi-player". Just pay, or in the case of our kids have their parents pay (as part of their allowance), the monthly fee ($5 to $10 a month depending on the game) and join a virtual world shared by people – youth and adults – around the world.
"Dark Ages" was a fantasy role-playing game, loosely in the realm of "Dungeons and Dragons", where players created a character (often several) that was either a warrior, priest, rogue, wizard or monk. Each character was represented by an "avatar" (a wonderfully metaphorical concept in itself for a later discussion) that the player designed – with choices of physical build, hair, clothing, head gear, etc. – to represent their character "in game" (as Eric and Emma referred to the virtual on-screen world). You used your mouse or computer keys to move your character about the landscape and communicated with other human-controlled avatars by typing in your words that would appear above your little avatar as a text bubble. The agreed protocol "in game" was to "speak" in a sort of faux language syntax of the middle ages.
The most basic concrete goal of the game was to "level up" your character(s). This was done mostly by fighting and killing dangerous critters (like Giant Mantises) or evil creatures (such as Bone Dragons) that were in fact "mobs" (some sort of acronym I think, but don’t know yet what it means) controlled by the computer application itself. Characters would band together in hunting parties (ideally balanced teams including various character types) and travel to the more dicey environs of the game world – magical forests or deep dungeons – to track down and share the point values for killing high value creatures. As your character went up in levels it could learn and acquire more abilities, including new advanced fighting skills for a warrior, new spells for a wizard, or new stealth techniques for a rogue.
For more abstract kids, like Eric & Emma, killing critters got boring fairly quickly, but was often the best way to gain enough points to reap the benefits of leveling up. What really engaged their imagination were all the other aspects of the virtual world, including...* Virtual towns with streets lined with buildings, residences and more public venues like court houses, taverns, stores and temples * Governance structures for those towns including players volunteering for roles as Burgess, judge and police captain, playing an actual role in managing the human players in the game world by setting policies, holding trials or enforcing laws * Guilds with guild halls and regular in-game meetings * Religions (though not the ones that are popular in our real world) with their own deities, rituals and places of worship
Participating in any of these institutions "in game" was another way to earn points to level up.
Eric developed his own "guild" of sorts. In a truly outside-the-box idea, he convinced the system operators (who built the virtual world and managed the game play) to build a theater in one of the towns. Then he wrote a play and recruited other people in the game to use their avatars to perform the play on this virtual stage. With plenty of advanced publicity there were other avatars in attendance as Eric the director and his cast performed their play, text bubbles and all.
Both Eric and Emma used the Dark Ages world to create intriguing characters that they did their best to inhabit in word (bubble) and deed. It was certainly an opportunity for them to "try on" personalities and traits, some of which I think they later adopted in their real-world personalities, their actual physical "avatars" as it were. Emma gravitated toward rogue type characters of great stealth, skill and high manners.
At least two important developments came out of our kids’ Dark Ages experience. First, their shared involvement in this virtual world finally ended the sibling rivalry between them (to the great relief of their parents.) Second, it whetted their appetites for even deeper involvement in another massively-multi-player fantasy role-playing game called "Neverwinter Nights".
In that game environment, Eric would collaborate with others to develop their own game world, "Caenyr" that they built (terrain, roads, structures, towns and all) and ran. Emma would inhabit that world as well and spend several years creating and developing a pirate character and sharing that character’s exploits with a group of other game players which developed into a circle of aspiring fantasy writers and led Emma to deciding she wanted to write fiction.
In the Caenyr world, both Emma and Eric really got into the character role-play and over-arching story aspects of the game. In fact, his main character, "Suomi", which he played and developed for years, never once did any "training" (which was the euphemism for going out and killing evil creatures to bet points and level up). The community, in its heyday, was large enough (around 100 active to semi-active members, maybe) to meet new people with diverse characters and opinions, but still small enough to have your actions matter and be able to take an active role in shaping the story of the world. Not only was there that aspect "in game", but there were forums (outside the in-game environment) where one could continue sharing and evolving their stories, most often along with others in interconnected story-arch threads. More on the adventures in Caenyr in another piece (see "A Pirate’s Tale") to come.