Confessions of an Online RPG-er, Or Captured in the Amber of the Interwebz – Part 2

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Okay, so getting back to my very first RPG experience… In Part 1, I told you about how online text-based RPGs work, and that my first game ever was an ER RPG back in 2000. My memory of it was that I played enthusiastically for a while before eventually losing interest and inclination and exiting the game in early 2002. That was all I really remembered, apart from vague plotlines and my characters.

Until….Recently, I took two weeks off of work to get my shit in order. My husband and I were seriously considering  buying a house in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and selling my business. Basically – uprooting everything. I needed to give everything some serious thought and also try and get into some better writing habits for the new book I’m working on.

In looking through old writings, I found an ancient document with a few posts from the ER RPG – the very first game I played online. I honestly had not even THOUGHT of it for at least a decade. I remembered very little at first – not even what the game was named – but I remembered how it saved my sanity during a transitional period in my life by giving me something creative to obsess about. So I turned to my old stand-by for all things RPG – Yahoo Groups – and did a search for it. Two hours later, after shuffling through many, many dead groups, abandoned and now only posted on by purveyors of pornography – I FOUND IT. My heart was pounding, as I slowly began to remember the characters and other players whom I once knew by name and email address.

Lucky for me, it was unmoderated, so anyone could join and then read back posts. So I did…and did not come up for air for at least a week.

I selected October 2000 as a good place to start, locating the moment I joined and began playing. I found my first-ever post, which was stilted and decent enough, but not terribly interesting (just like most firsts). As I got the swing of things, though, the characters took over and I just let them drive, taking a back seat as first person narrator.

I didn’t know why at first, but I was ecstatic when I first starting reading through all these forgotten posts. It was sort of like going back in time as a fly on the wall at a really fun party you attended with your best pals twenty years ago. I couldn’t interact with any of these people anymore, but I could read the old posts.And read I did!

It wasn’t just looking back at my writing, either – it was looking back at the writing of an entire group of people who all got together when they could to write and play. Some of them lived as far away as the UK and Australia. Late 2000 was trapped in the amber of Yahoo Groups, and I devoured all the posts pertaining to my favorite characters and plotlines. I remembered now, reading through them – I remembered them all. Michelle (playing Kerry Weaver) and Vanessa (playing Carol Hathaway), the game moderators who always wrote their canon characters so perfectly that I could practically hear the actors and actresses portraying them speak their words; Shelley (playing Elizabeth Corday and Abby Lockhart), who really grew into her characters and gave them deeper backstories than we ever got to see on TV; Joni (Lucy Knight) and Barry (Peter Benton), who stayed perfectly in character but kept posts brief and didn’t really delve too deeply; and Cathy (John Carter), who was the game’s Mary Sue. Like most Mary Sues, she was a good writer but had only a tenuous grasp of the character aside from what she wanted him to be. She would be so hurt when our characters reacted IN CHARACTER to the insane things she had Carter do (he tried to kill himself multiple times and often ran from rooms in tears – clearly the most unstable doc in the ER and not fit for such a high-pressure job). But she did keep the game intensely active – I’ll at least give her that.

I, like many others, played two characters who were polar opposites in personality: Dr. Robert Romano, the talented asshole Chief of Surgery *and* Chief of Staff and Dr. Mark Greene, the quintessential nice guy ER attending doc. My not-so-secret favorite of the two was Romano, because (a) his thoughts and words were often hilarious and (b) I used him to vent my frustrations with real life idiots. What I could not say out loud, Romano had no problem saying. Just an example of Romano’s personality: on the show, he once remarked, “I’m beginning to think that ‘ER’ stands for ‘Everyone’s Retarded’.” Beyond that, though, I could also dig a bit deeper to see: was he really an asshole through and through, or was that just the persona he projected to get what he wanted/needed? (Spoiler Alert: A little bit of both. Kind of like Yours Truly.) And Mark Greene? He was fun to write, but in a totally different way. He’d shoot hoops with Doug Ross, he’d get in snowball fights at Christmastime during a slow moment outside the ER. He and Lizzie once got into a hilarious food fight in their kitchen when a whipped cream cannister misfired. And he was the guy all the characters went to with their problems. When Abby had problems with an abusive ex-husband, Mark looked out for her and listened to her. When Lizzie had to have emergency heart surgery, he was right there by her side. He was the angel to Romano’s devil. The devil is still more fun, though.

Characters aside, I’d forgotten a lot of the minutiae of early RPGs, such as our OOC (out-of-character) comments about things that were happening in real life at the time. If you wanted to make a comment as yourself and not the character, you’d put “OOC:” in the header or in brackets to avoid confusion. And as time went on, our OOCs divulged more and more. Many players were college students, and tended to post things like “OOC: Midterms next week, so I’ll be scarce” or “OOC: Going on Spring Break in Mexico”. And then there was me, who posted about my cat spilling water on my modem and that I would soon be selling her to gypsys. And in the days before emoticons, we used <g> instead of a smiley face.  So many <g>s! I think I might bring that one back.

We even had all the characters who worked in the ER take part in a Secret Santa, which is something no other game I’ve played in has done (mainly because the settings don’t really lend themselves to it). The RPG moderators set up a separate email account that you could email to enter your character in the Secret Santa, and they would  assign who your character was “buying” for. Naturally, Romano had zero interest in participating in such frivolity (he had way bigger fish to fry), but you can bet Mark Greene was up for it. You would write an anonymous scene in which your character’s present is delivered to the its recipient, outlining what the gift was. That scene would then post from the Secret Santa email address to keep it anonymous, but appear on the game. So gifts appeared for characters without giving away who the gifter was. Then, at the ER Christmas party (which started on December 23 for the players and went on for several days), each character guessed who had given them their gift.  I was in total suspense; I couldn’t tell from reading the posts which one I had written! Kerry Weaver, however, correctly guessed that Mark Greene was responsible for her gift (a black t-shirt with stark white lettering reading RESIDENTS BEWARE and a Relaxing Sounds of the Ocean CD). “Only an attending physician would be so bold!” she laughed in-scene. Meanwhile, Peter Benton had been Mark’s Secret Santa, gifting him a limited edition Chicago Bulls basketball (I guess surgeons make more money than attendings). So there was a comraderie among the players and their characters that carried over in these playful threads.

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“Secret what? Kerry, I don’t have time for that crap!”

I began furiously cutting and pasting all these old posts into a Word document, knowing that one day, even the forgotten corpse of this game would vanish into the ether, along with everything else on Yahoo Groups and television. I’d found my old words, written with a confidence I’d lost long ago, and I didn’t want to lose them again. I’m too embarassed to confess how many hours of my vacation was spent doing this when I should have been working on my book. You know, the story that I haven’t written yet?

But like all good times, these too must come to an end. I first started feeling the tug of melancholy when I kept feeling the urge to respond to posts written 17 years ago. It would be pointless – there was nobody from the old group left to read them. They were all old email addresses, and for all we knew, even our on-screen names could have been made up. I wanted to reach through time and the internet and somehow reach them, if only to say, thanks for playing! How are you? Remember this? It was fun!

And then…the inevitable. My posts started to trail off somewhere in late July, 2001. It took me a while to figure out what was going on, but looking back on the dates, I remembered that was around the time I was sort-of dating someone who was not as into being a couple as I was. Plus, I was having problems with a friend who was starting to spiral downwards with drug abuse. I’d resurface in the game every now and then for a quick but unfocused post, followed by an OOC comment of “Sorry so short – things are nuts right now!” It got much worse in August, when my roommate turned out to be a crackhead. I felt very unsafe in my own home and at a loss for how to get her out. I moved my cats out of the home and started couch-surfing at friends’ homes. Plus, the sort-of boyfriend was playing hot-and-cold with me. All of which makes for very distracted writing habits.

As I read the clues, I remembered everything that was happening in a visceral way that I hadn’t experienced in many years. I remembered the fear, the near-desperation for normalcy and love and acceptance. But on the game, there were no longer any posts. Romano would only make an appearance when tagged by another character, and he was far from his usual snappy self. I’d given Mark Greene away to another player since I didn’t want to leave Lizzie’s player stuck in the mud.

I could feel my stomach begin to knot up as Romano faded into the background, knowing what was coming in real life as we moved through late August and into early September 2001. I was filled with a weird sense of dread, as if I was watching the events of my life play out on a screen, unable to reach out and change any of it. I wanted my characters to come back and show me more, and ignore the terrors of real life. I wanted to read more of the fun instead of remembering the angst.

I spotted a very promising post I wrote on September 10, 2001. I had just returned to my home after my roommate got thrown in jail and I finally felt like it was safe. I worked on getting a stay-away order that I could serve her with while she was still in jail, and could sleep without worry, although not entirely without nightmares. Giddy with the prospect of a carefree future, I’d felt inspired and wrote a fun post.

Now-Me knew what the next day was, but I kept on reading, despite the deep-seated dread inside. The first few posts on September 11. 2001 were normal, as I guessed they’d gone up closer to midnight. Then, an OOC from Joni, our Lucy: “I just want to say I hope you’re all safe and that your families and loved ones are okay. Be safe!”

We all chimed in with OOC comments. Our overseas players let us know they were thinking of us in the States. Jaime, a player in New Jersey who worked in Fire-Rescue, wrote that he was headed out the next day to aid in rescue efforts at Ground Zero. We all wished him luck and thanked him and commiserated with him about the loss of his fellow firefighters. Reading back on it all now, I found myself tearing up. Was Jaime okay? Did he end up getting that lung disease that many of the 9/11 rescuers developed? Then Cathy/Carter posted the lyrics to “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” and I really did cry.

It’s hard to explain what exactly I was crying for. It wasn’t nostalgia, really. It was more like a visitation from the ghost of days gone by, complete with all accompanying trauma and emotional fallout. The stories in the game I was reading weren’t making me sad, but  in reading the dates on the page, the OOC comments and tracking my lack of participation, I was retracing the steps I took during difficult days.  I remembered everything: the neighbor bringing a paper American flag to put in my window. Work saying stay home. Worrying about my non-boyfriend whose plane had been grounded. Serving the stay-away order to my roommate in jail. Driving home from the jail in my disintegrating old VW Bug, the driver’s seat propped up only by a giant salad bowl I had bracing the back of it.Watching the tiny TV in my bedroom because I’d brought the living room TV to my non-boyfriend’s house so my crackhead roommate wouldn’t sell it. I remember fear. I remember uncertainty. I remember watching televised shots of endless walls plastered with pictures of the missing and the dead on that tiny TV screen. I remember heartache. I remember every. Little. Bit of it.

But until I remembered it and felt it again, I wouldn’t be able to move on and read the rest. I needed to know that things went on, even though I knew they did. I did read on, finding what I’d expected: not much else from my characters.  Other things in real life took precedence, and this would not be the last time a game would serve as marker in time for me. The Ghost of Games Gone By often takes me by the hand and reminds me of what has passed, if only to make me appreciate the present that much more.

After having processed all of this, I tried to listen to whatever it was Now-Me wanted to tell Then-Me so desperately: Wait! I wanted to tell her. Come back! Keep writing! It’s way better than worrying about bullshit. Keep writing! Show me more!

Then-Me looks back over her shoulder at Now-Me. “No,” she says.  “YOU keep writing.” And she’s right. It’s my turn now.

And it hit me: I have it all, right here and now. Do I really want to uproot it all with a move and put myself in massive debt for the rest of my life? Why would I want to change what I have? I have a husband I love with all my heart, who loves me and has my back no matter what. We live in a rent-controlled apartment in a beautiful city, and I have a thriving business. In fact, it’s doing so well and our rent is so cheap that I could probably take Fridays off from now on. So why not grab onto that? Enjoy what I have. Write. It’s my turn now.

So, thanks Then-Me. You had a message for me, and you delivered it. Godspeed.

Ah, well. I’ll always have my inner Dr. Romano, who still tries really hard to override me when I don’t say the snarky comments I want to say. Sometimes, he gets the better of me and blurts out something I shouldn’t, like the former client I called a douchebag or the time I flipped off the guy at the deli for saying something stupid. Most of the time, I let Dr. Greene do the talking, but Romano? He’s making all kinds of wise-cracks in the background. And when I’m not strong enough, he stands up and speaks for me.

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