I’ve been staring at this screenshot from the original Everquest for what feels like hours. The graphics are dated, of course, since the game has been out for a decade, but that’s not what has me so transfixed. This screenshot is like looking through a wormhole into my past and seeing a younger, less hairy me slumped in his dingy computer chair and trying to retrieve his corpse before sunup.
It was a time when I was still single and jobless. Aside from phoning it in on some computer classes, I didn’t have a whole lot going on in my life. I was 18 years old, living in the big city in a house full of crazy people, and my only real concerns were leveling-up my Wizard and whether I was going to eat Subway or McDonald's for lunch. It was an existence devoid of any lasting meaning or direction.
It sucked, but it was awesome.
If I wasn’t playing Everquest, I was reading about playing Everquest and connecting with the community at large. I knew everything a man could know about the game in an age where most of the information was gleaned from the official forums and the Everquest Vault website—there was a Vault page for nearly every major MMORPG at the time. I didn't know what lead designer Brad McQuaid had for lunch every day, but I was so naive back then I didn’t even realize I wanted to know that yet. Thanks Twitter!
Deeply immersing myself was the only luxury a young and dumb kid like me could afford. I found a great deal of satisfaction in becoming an expert Everquest player and scholar, because there was nothing else I’d rather have been doing, given my lack of funds and access to the first DSL service in the city. My entire life up until then had revolved around school, and that was always more about getting by than becoming an expert at anything. I spent those days playing games alone, and listening to girls I wanted to date complain about their boyfriends on the phone.
Once I got online and out of my home town, I found my relationships in games were less fraught with drama and personal baggage, too. We were just a bunch of people playing together with a common goal of discovery and having a good time—it was like camp without worrying about getting a date for dance night. Finding out some dude in your Rainbow Six clan was old enough to be your dad was like sneaking out to the woods to smoke with a group of the cool, teenaged counselor. The old guys always spoke jealously about my relative freedom to play as much as I wanted and not having to worry about raising kids or even finding a real job anytime soon.
Being told I had it so good made it so for a year of my life, but eventually Subway lost its appeal and I realized the pot of gold at the end of the gaming-every-spare-moment rainbow was just the high regard of the rainbow makers and a few peers who shared my perspective on the importance of proper room-clearing techniques in Rainbow Six. I also started dating the woman who would eventually be my wife. In other words, I found more to live for than new spells and corpse runs.
Starting a website during my seven years of self-employment was a way to carry forward the feeling of being a master while acknowledging that the days of being an expert in any one game were over. Everquest taught me that playing one thing to the exclusion of most everything else didn’t really pay the dividends I was looking for, aside from the friendships I’d made. With a little more money in my pocket, I discovered that I'm an experience-hound when given the choice, forever snuffling through the underbrush, trying to scare up the next new thing to surprise and delight me.
But even that’s changing now. I’m dangerously close to turning 30 and losing my “make fun of old people” card. I own part of the business I started working for nearly three years ago, and my days are just packed with responsibilities and Things I Should Be Thinking About™ every day. The thought of visiting a McDonalds on a daily basis, let alone once a year, turns my once-invincible bowels to jelly. Where I used to dig into every game and scrape every bit of flavor out of it like a dog with his head in an ice cream bucket, now I mine them for the good bits with a surgical spoon. Once all the chocolate pieces are thoroughly rooted out, I toss it aside and look for the next one. It’s the most efficient way to experience the medium and all it has to offer without letting it take over more of my busy life than I can afford to give.
So why do I feel like I’ve lost something in my mad rush for adult legitimacy? Staring at that Everquest image didn’t bring to mind playing the game so much as it reminded me of the friends I made and the experiences we shared together. Mining a game for the good bits and then tossing it aside ignores perhaps the most compelling reasons to play anything—the chance to be skilled and get to know people. For all that I run a successful website filled with thousands of awesome game playing adults, I rarely linger on a game long enough to really reconnect with anyone who I don’t touch base with every day on an IM program during work or at the occasional gathering.
Maybe that’s just what it means to be a grownup: convincing yourself that all the relationships and pleasures you’ve sacrificed are the chaff in an otherwise rich harvest. As I look back on the last ten years, I think that, for the sake of playing, I’ve sometimes let the small variations in gameplay take precedence over the gamers who play them. Maybe it’s time I remember who my friends are.