I’d never really played computer games except the obligatory runs through Myst and Riven. In mid-1999, I founded Antarctica, and for a while we shipped, along with our 2-D data mapping software, a 3-D version that was a lot like a video game. I figured I’d better check out video game culture, and it became a hobby for just over two years; this is a look back. It’s just barely possible that someone reading this may have known me under some variation of the name “Bengal” (of the Basin).
I’ll outline this one here so that people can skip around. First, my personal history as a gamer. Second, some general remarks on what’s good and bad about gaming, and why it can get so addictive. Then, closer looks at Diablo and Dark Age of Camelot, where I spent my gaming career; both divided into an introduction and some remarks for people who’ve been there. Then a visit to the Amazon Basin, and finally let’s take up the important question: is this a worthwhile pursuit?
My Name is Tim, and I’m a Gamer—Or Not · Sometime in late 2000 I started casting around to figure out what the best in video-games might be. A few geeks I respected seemed to be pretty hot on Diablo, so I picked that up. I played it for a year, then gave my two good characters away to my little nephew as a Christmas present—in the spirit of giving something you’ve made yourself.
I took up Dark Age of Camelot in early 2002, and played it until January 2003 or so, and suddenly stopped playing games, didn’t plan it, got bored, took a couple nights off and never went back. At the end of the day I’m really not a gamer. Because we don’t get TV and I don’t sleep a lot, I have a couple more hours a day than other people, on average, but a couple hours a day is not enough to be a serious gamer. Basically, if you want to achieve excellence, you have to be willing to put many hours per day in, and more on weekends, and let game events take precedence over work and family.
At my most heavily engaged I was playing an hour or two most nights and maybe a couple more on weekends. That’s not nearly enough to do the thing properly.
All my characters had names that contained or were a variation on Bengal, and often contained another variation on Rune. This is inspired by our cat, pictured once before here, who is a purebred of the Bengal persuasion, is named Rune, and who is an undersized but lightning-fast engine of destruction if you happen to be a mammal or bird that isn’t substantially larger than her.
The Gaming Life · Reasonable people might wonder why anyone would invest any time at all sitting in front of a computer interacting with software for fun. Here’s why: These games set some pretty sharply-barbed hooks into several predictably-sensitive areas of the human psyche.
Companionship · The games I played are played with other people. You get to know them. You come to like some and dislike others. And some you come to respect and admire. If you’re very lucky, some might come to respect and admire you. And since the interaction is all text-on-screen, the system rewards those who are sharp and witty and trenchant. Sharp, witty, and trenchant is good, even in a virtual world.
Achievement · More or less all these games have in common that you play as a named character, who has a “level” (expressed by number) and a fairly complex assemblage of skills and accessories. The longer you play, the higher your level, the better your accessories, and the more accomplished your skills. Talent matters, intelligence matters, but time spent in-game matters more. For those of us who are driven by challenge, this is seductive indeed: “If I just stay up another half-hour, I’ll nail down Level 34.”
Fun · Of course, there is the element of raw fun. Prevailing (just barely) over a crazed monster three times your size, or group of cruel and ruthless foes, to the accompaniment of colourful explosions and ambient rumbles, is fun.
But this comes after people and achievement in the list, because that’s where it belongs.
Diablo · Diablo has kind of primitive graphics, and there are only eight people in any one game, but it moves very fast; its long-lived popularity is well-earned.
Its special allure is all the stuff; more than many other games, it’s having the right weapon and equipment that makes the difference. To the extent that there’s a bustling secondary economy in Diablo stuff over on Ebay, with the best items worth some serious coin. You can, and people often do, and I did, build a whole character around some particularly juicy item you happen to get.
For Diablians · I only ever played Amazons seriously. Bengalrune and Bengaljava both made it into the eighties, the first on the strength of an excellent custom bow, right up there with the named beauties, picked up (unusually) from Anya as a quest reward, the second on the strength of a “Titan’s Revenge.”
I took a Trap Assassin to level thirty-something, but the prospect of slogging my way through Act III again was more than I could bear. Who knows, that character still may be there.
The big problems with Diablo are well-known: a lot of the players are flaming assholes, and player-vs.-player play is a mess, and the server gets hacked way too often. I think the problem is with the business model. Playing Diablo online is free, which strikes me as nuts; how can you expect them to take good care of the servers if they’re giving the service away?
Anyhow, the best thing about Diablo is that I discovered The Amazon Basin. And to this day I miss going out on a Cow Run with a gaggle of really competent high-level Zons. Hysterically funny, really fast-moving, and you can die in a heartbeat if you screw up.
Dark Age of Camelot · DAOC is a wonderful piece of work. It is a “Massively-Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game” (MMORPG), the best-known example of which is Everquest, frequently called “Evercrack” due to its notorious addictiveness. I’ve never been to Everquest, but people who’ve played both say Camelot is a whole lot better.
DAOC has a post-Arthurian Northern European setting. It has the familiar dimensions of gaining experience, winning riches and better equipment, progressing in levels by fighting monsters, and so on. It is an immersive 3-D experience, and you need a fairly hefty computer to handle it. My old P500 couldn’t come close, and we needed another box anyhow, so I bought an Athlon 1800+ with some red-hot video card, which was pretty well da bomb at the time, and it runs DAOC like a champ.
DAOC costs a few bucks a month to play.
What sets DAOC apart is its player-vs-player setup. The players on each server are divided into three realms: Albion, Hibernia, and Midgard, with fairly transparent English, Irish, and Norse roots respectively. When you’re in one realm you can’t talk with players from another, and you can’t go to their realms. Also, you can’t attack players from your own realm. So in your own realm, you’re safe except from the monsters. But each realm has a “frontier,” equipped with fortresses, two of which are special and contain your realm’s sacred Relics. You can visit the other realms’ frontiers, fight their members there, attack and take their fortresses (for which there are rewards) and even go after their relics (for which there are big rewards).
The reason this is so great is that you get to revel harmlessly in nasty murderous tribal violence, an instinct that is buried, and not too deeply, in pretty well every member of the species, especially those with a Y chromosome. I play in Midgard, and when in the frontier, I genially loathe the filthy Hibs and Albs; sneer at ’em, slaughter ’em, and then go talk trash at ’em in one of the online forums. Y’ask me, the Hibs are a bunch of overcharged spellcasters who are mincemeat when any competent Midgardian gets in among ’em with an axe. And as for the Albs, can you spell D-U-M-B? (See how it goes?)
It’s not all just childish violence. DAOC contains many environments of astonishing loveliness, immense scale, and remarkable visual wit. It seems cheap for a few bucks a month.
For Defenders of the Realms · I’ve never once logged into a Alb character. I built a baby Eldritch once, but all my time has been in Midgard on the Pellinor server. I abandoned a Thane, “Hrothbengal,” at 29, and took Becthgal, a cave/mend Shaman, all the way to Level 50. I’ve also got Bengalore, a baby Skald, who has always been more fun to play than Becthgal, but I just never had the time to work on both of them seriously.
Bengalore’s now level 33, which is only an evening or two away from being a real force in Caledonia, so next time I’m a little less busy I may go and do that; running a Skald around that battleground can be some damn serious fun.
Warsinger · DAOC has already made an appearance here on ongoing, check it out.
Highlights · Highlights of my DAOC career? I got to go out on Spinach’s immortal Operation PAIN, a crushingly-successful relic raid, then we mooned the Alb relic and gave it back. But even better was the time we held the Midgard strength relic against an almost-successful Alb raid; it was awfully close but the tide turned and they died in hundreds on the slopes of the keep.
I could talk about Legion raids and great gank squads and so on, but you know what? Some of the best times were just hanging out in the game cracking jokes with the folks. Which brings me to...
The Amazon Basin · This is A Community of Friends Playing Games. It maintains guilds in Diablo, DAOC, and a bunch of other games. Its roots were some folk who all played Amazons (Diablo’s best character class by a long shot) and were basically decent people and were repelled by a lot of the bad behavior that goes on in online gaming. The Basin’s rules are really simple: no racism, no cheating, no childishness, and no obscenity (well, unless it’s really funny).
There’s also no cult-of-personality bullshit. The Basiners are by and large just a super-decent bunch of funny people, including a few kids and a few grandparents. Frankly I don’t miss playing DAOC that much, but I miss hanging out with Terrik and Zeede and Zeek (SoChic) and Nvts and Zed and, well, you know who you are.
If you’re playing an online game, see if the Basin has a guild, and if they do, it’s probably better than the one you’re in.
At The Airport · One time a couple of years back I was strolling out of the frequent-flyer lounge, and saw the familiar Basin screen on another guy’s laptop. So I introduced myself “Hi, I’m Bengal.” “Hi, I’m Channimal.” But it was weird, we didn’t have that much to say; how do two middle-aged guys dressed for travel in the frequent-flyer lounge talk seriously about slaying monsters?
Is It Worthwhile? · So, did I just waste two years of my life? I don’t think so. First off, I had some fun. Second, it’s about the world’s most cost-effective entertainment, if you divide the dollars by the hours. Third, I met some cool people.
I don’t think anyone could afford to game seriously and have much of a job or a family life, but if you’re not going to have much of a job or family life, gaming probably beats watching TV or going to the mall. At least you’re spending the time with other people.
There is the potential to get addicted, but if you’re going to get addicted to something, there are lots more expensive and more damaging things to get addicted to. I suspect that I’m like a lot of people in eventually getting bored, and (I have to admit) irritated by other players who aren’t any smarter or more talented shooting past me in the game, because they’re serious gamers. So when I sat down to write this, I fired up DAOC for the first time in months and spent a few hours on. It was mildly fun, and seeing some of the Basiners was nice. But we’re busy at work now, and ongoing is fun too. And I’m just not a serious gamer.