At my Secondary School, for a few months at least, our teenage politics was defined by who was kissing whom, who had insulted whom, and who was sending spaceships to defend or attack whom. My friends and I were all playing Planetarion, a browser-based massively multiplayer game of long-term space domination. Each player was given control of a planet and would strive to gain the most points by mining their asteroids, building ships and capturing enemy planets.
What allowed the game to consume us was the glacial pace it moved at. The world would update once every 'tick', where a tick was a single hour. When you did anything, you would be given an ETA: it will take this number of ticks for your ships to be constructed, it will take this number ticks for your ships to reach their target.
The delayed response between performing an action and seeing its conseqeunces meant there was room in between for nail-biting obsession. More importantly, it meant we could log on to the game in the school library, make a few discrete moves and log off again before any disapproving teacher could catch us.
Unfortunately, my friends and I were all young teenagers. It wasn't like we needed an excuse for bickering or Machiavellian backstabbing, and Planetarion simply provided a platform for our worst compulsions. Plus, disclaimer: I was kind of an asshole.
While I'd long forgotten the specifics of my old Planetarion games, a quick check of my hard drive revealed an MSN chatlog from the time.
It seems my friends and I had just been sent a general message from the Minister of War (of, I guess, our coalition/group, and a stranger to me and my school friends), saying that defences should always be provided to attacked comrades. However, after committing 500 ships to defending one friend, and sending a 1500 ship counter-attack against his enemy, two other friends needed defending. They were angry I wasn't sending ships to help them, too. I've obscured the names that could be in any way identifiable, except for my own:
im defending [Friend] with 500 ships and attacking the guy thats attacking him with 1500 in the hope he'll racall. this is what i was asked to do, wgaGraham says:
what more could i do??Officially Well Known Again! says:
currently there is no orders in the galGraham says:
[Friend] asked me on icq to attack the guy and see if he recalls, and asked me to defend. so thats what im doingOfficially Well Known Again! says:
[Friend] says "Jump under the bus Smitz!"
Bye Smitz ure dead now!
That's some real nice typing skills you've got there, "Smitz". And I've no idea whether 'wga' is slang or a typo.
im not defending [Friend #2] or you because im worried about being attacked my selfGraham says:
my points went from 300 thousand to 1.1 millionGraham says:
i have the most roids in the galaxy and am second in pointsOfficially Well Known Again! says:
smitz thats is mince
I had forgotten that "mince" used to mean bad! Conversely, I remember that the concern for my planet at the time was genuine, but trying to explain my tactics by bragging about how great I was probably wasn't a great idea.
When bragging didn't work, I tried name-calling, branding those complaining as "little shites." The use of plural prompted requests for who the other shites were, but I refused to name names. There aren't timestamps in the log, but I can only imagine this went on for hours. Until!
[Friend #2] has been added to the conversation.[Friend #2] says:
why the fuck are u saying we're all shite smitz?
My log ends here, but these choice extracts are meant to illustrate the type of conversations we'd have, where my friends and I would re-enact scenes of palace intrigue over badly spelt MSN chats.
(And I was completely an asshole. Sorry, school friends!)
When I stopped playing Planetarion, I forgot it almost entirely until I played Neptune's Pride as an adult. It's a similar multiplayer game about space domination, but unlike Planetarion's three-month-long rounds featuring hundreds or thousands of players, the Neptune's Pride match I played had only eight.
I was friends with almost all of the players, and by the time the match reached its halfway point, I had betrayed four of them. Similar to my Planetarion experience, our actions and plans within the game were discussed at length via IM conversations, alongside many messages sent through the in-game mail system, each forming inevitably broken alliances.
But when we'd later talk about the match online or in person, we'd do so unemotionally. Equally, when we each came to write about the match on Rock Paper Shotgun, PC Gamer or on our personal blogs, we wrote with the understanding that it was a game and we were role-playing, or simply playing, and that our actions weren't personal.
Except for the ending, about which I still feel guilty. (I am still an asshole. Sorry, Kieron!)
This position of emotional remove wasn't the case when I was a teenager, and it isn't how a lot of people experience gaming. The experiences I had in Planetarion would spill over into school the next day, and there would be further arguments, accusations, name-calling and eventual fuming silence. We'd fall out with one another regularly. The game wasn't just play. It mattered to us in a real and powerful way.
I'm glad that I've matured, that my priorities are different, and that my friendships can no longer be sent spinning by the movements of virtual spaceships. But I also sort of miss that intensity, of a time when my relationships were so strongly embedded in videogames, and when we all cared far too much.
Planetarion is still running today, but I haven't played it in fifteen years. This article originally appeared on my personal blog in 2010. It's no longer available there and was only read by eighty people, so in the grand old RPS tradition, I've revised it slightly and posted it here.