I’ve been using online computer systems since 1977 or so, starting with a very primitive teletype-and-paper-tape hookup to a school district computer in junior high school. Later I used university systems, bulletin boards, dialup Internet, and most of the online services.
For most of this time I didn’t use these networks socially. In the earlier years this just wasn’t technically practical. When I bought my first computer I was 25 years old, living in Los Angeles, and heavily involved in the music scene, so I didn’t feel the need for any additional social outlets.
However, I’ve always been a trivia nut. I did College Bowl at UCLA, and our team won and went to the statewide competition. When Trivial Pursuit came out I loved it and won a lot. I even liked the dumb trivia games in bars. So when I found the live interactive trivia games in AOL chat rooms I got hooked right away. There’d be maybe 10-15 people chatting and a game host and a scorekeeper, and you’d try to type in the correct answer before the host typed the “buzzer”, but just before! So that others couldn’t copy you. The hosts wrote their own trivia games. If you won you got some free time on the service.
If I wasn’t working or out for other reasons, I played Trivia every night, multiple games. And i got to know the people pretty well. Trivia fans suited me in a lot of ways. They were very intelligent, well-read, curious people. Most of them were obsessive in one way or other and had an intellectually competitive streak. And none of us were boring. What a collection of weirdos! Political cranks, perverts, social outcasts, sufferers from exotic diseases, people fighting tragic circumstances of all kinds, creative geniuses, geeks geeks geeks. And almost all of us were terribly unhappy with our lives in one way or another. The trivia club was our happy little snowglobe where we could enjoy some artificial life.
This was a new environment for me, and I had one leg in it and one outside. I wasn’t trapped in an impossible situation like many of these people, and I had an active social life in the World. But I was also horribly depressed, increasingly not functioning well, and spiraling down into a mess of my own making. I was half observer and half participant in the madness of online environments.
Around the same time I got into the online D&D game, Neverwinter Nights (not to be confused with the later game with this name). This was the first multiplayer online adventure game with graphics that I’d seen. You wandered around this typical fantasy environment with your friends attacking monsters, amassing treasure etc. There was also player-versus-player combat which ended up occupying most of your time. Like the trivia club, this was a social environment. People made friends and enemies, told lies about themselves, fell in love, and did all the stuff that’s commonplace now. There was an in-game “wedding” for example.
Once again I was half sucked-in and half freaked-out. It was a hell of a lot of fun running around killing monsters and having a laugh with friends. But the underside of it bugged me: the crazy people, the very sad and lonely people, and the obsessiveness.
In 1992 I went to a social gathering in San Franciso that united these two groups; it was a Trivia/NWN “bash” at an airport hotel. I already had some friends through these two groups that I had met before and wanted to see again, and others I thought it would be cool to meet, plus, I love SF! So off I went.
I already knew that almost everyone would be funny-looking and weird, but hey so was I and most of my friends. What surprised me was the intensity of the social dysfunction, and not from the ones I expected. The NWN players were mostly happy gamer folks without a lot of issues: “Hi! I’m DarkRiverCastleFireBlade! Actually I’m Jim from San Diego. Wanna get a beer?” Nice folks mostly.
The trivia people were almost all insane. Almost everyone of them had arrived brimming with unresolved sexuality and convinced that they were going to hook up with someone they’d been fixated on for years. They set about pouring daiquiris into their faces and spurting out innuendoes immediately. Two guys put a Foreigner song on the boombox in the banquet room and air guitared. Assorted maniacs propositioned everyone like the worst person at an office Christmas party. People began conversations with boorish political fight-starters. It sucked really bad. I met a couple of nice people who are still friends to this day, and they and the people I already knew all went with me to the city and had chinese food and enjoyed San Francisco. We couldn’t be around this atrocity exhibition of human failure. People who had been smart, quick, funny, and pleasant on screen turned out to be drunk horndogs with incurable personality disorders.
I kept playing the games online. Through trivia and NWN I met my first sexual predator (a woman who charmed money out of people and became dangerous when denied), my first online knee-jerk right wingers, my first pathological liars, my first people concealing their gender online, and pretty much my firsts of everything that is now a cliché of internet socialization.
I made about ten good friends that I wouldn’t give up for anything this way, and it was the gateway to the new career that kept me from blowing my brains out as a mid level medical records supervisor. But wow did I get a crash course in cyberspace and its discontents.
Long story short: Trivia fans are fucking insane and often dangerous. Gamers are more used to role-playing and less insane. The internet is crazy.