What small towns and niche internet communities have in common
In the last month, I’ve made continued progress on Pinwheel, my MUD game engine. In fact, there are only a few remaining elements of the core source code remaining before I feel ready to start building my developmental game world. In the course of refactoring and building this engine, I’ve cycled through many different themes for a game I could potentially build with it. I’ve tried not to let those themes steer my designs too heavily, with the goal of making a universal engine that can be molded easily to fit different themes. Some MUD engines come with stock content to showcase how the code could be adapted, but often times this content feels prescriptive and can get in the way of other ideas.
Before I go any further, let me mention that you should check out The MUD Coders Guild, a fun collection of like minds. We’re all interested in or working on MUDS, and there’s a lot of interesting discussions on our Slack. There are lots of cool and interesting projects going on at any given time, and there’s something for players and developers alike!
Anyways, in regards to stock content for Pinwheel, I’m not actually planning to include any with my engine due to the scope of the project! The developmental game I’m looking to build will actually become the engine, more or less, as the entire point of this project has been to adapt a game engine so I can understand it from top to bottom (as in, take it all apart and put it all back together again), and then add unique features to that engine when needed (which would theoretically be straightforward, if I understand the entire engine).
Some of my earlier ideas were low fantasy in nature, and then I considered doing a period piece. Now I’m currently hooked on the idea of making a town, an Everyville, USA quintessential American town. I want to do this for a variety of reasons, and those reasons have a lot to do with what small towns and niche internet communities (like MUDs) have in common:
In small towns, tropes often hinge on a very tight cast of characters filling the roles across the municipality, sometimes even overlapping or sharing multiple roles. The idea is that there’s not a lot of people, but everything making up an Everyville, USA is still representated. For this, I’m following the cues of Archie Comics and how they construct their towns. I find they tell a variety of stories with a reoccurring cast of characters that overlap in engaging ways.
Online, the same phenomenon can occur, wherein a limited amount of people show up regularly, perhaps wearing a variety of different hats within the community. These people can become characters upon themselves and the community may adopt their mannerisms or opinions as their own. Archetypical players come up, and the community begins pondering upon what the perfect player of the game would embody.
Anyone who has lived in a small town knows that word can travel fast, and it doesn’t have to travel far. Business and gossip and worries and fortunes all stay within the town, the sole focus of the narrative lens. This forces a small scale but the reduced scope can be useful in lending agency to the players (more opportunity to be important locally, and therefore important globally).
Similarly, the hierarchy of an internet community is dependent entirely upon the domain in which it lives. The clout does not leave the locality. This is how the internet works by design—isolated pockets within a network—and so it lends itself well to a MUD which can be limitless in theory but is improved with a focused design (in my opinion). Small chat communities have always used this principle: IRC, Discord, Slack, etc.
MICROCOSM OF POWER
This element presents the most gamification. In small towns, a sense of importance can become bloated without perspective. People who are powerful in a small town and exert immense influence amongst locals (or at least, that’s the perceived idea). I feel that successful MUDs use this principle. A small town has city councils, elected officials, government employees, factions, partnerships, coalitions, and more. Finding reasons to connect like-minded people with similar goals is a key ingredient for emergent gameplay. In internet communities, this has been traditionally represented as the “admins” or the “moderators” (sometimes abbreviated to “mods”). These roles still exist, but the titles and the power they can exercise can vary depending on the needs of the community. In a game world simulating time and space, you can gamify this power hierarchy to motivate those types of players. Politics fuel power struggles, which in turn fuel combat and gameplay.
US VERSUS THEM
Tribalism is rampant in small human populations, and it emerges in all sorts of ways. Speaking of those councils, factions, partnerships, and coalitions above: these monikers of identity can polarize us for the worst in the real world and make us hostile. In a digital environment with anonymity (like some forums or chats), tribalists can be empowered by the mask of the internet and engage in harassment. In a MUD, this problem is lessened by the time and effort taken to construct and embody a character in the game world. It loses its sense of anonymity, and feels more like an extension of the original person. That’s not to say they’re not an awful person, but at least they’ll be a closer rendition of their true self (maybe).
So instead of being a problem, tribalism can instead be gamified. This is commonly represented as warring cities, fighting factions, and other discrete schools of power. The us versus them mentality can motivate your players can carry your game along its tracks.
Small town residents tend to cherish their local traditions because it gives them a shared identity and a link to the past. Defiling or forgetting these celebrations can be met with hostility, as they represent things carried down from those before us. For many, this creates a moral compass. Internet communities (especially MUDs) also leverage this concept. In the right environment, players are motivated to claim and define elements of world you present them, and they use those concepts as anchors for their identity. Players can become immensely attached to certain areas of the game and react strongly to any changes to the textual description. In playing a MUD, you are creating a shared concept, a shared universe that can only be perfectly pictured in one’s head, and must otherwise be described in text.
Changing a favorite hangout can be met with backlash. Players may commemorate times in the past—good or bad. When you give players the opportunity to take ownership of the game, they hate being reminded that ultimately you are steering the ship. Temper this by allowing the community to engage with the development of the game, and forge those traditions together.
This list was constructed while building an Everyville, USA type of game world, a project which has just only begun for me. With these ideas in mind, I’m ready to experiment with interactivity and emergent gameplay in this space and find the fun as fast as possible.