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From the moment he arrived, Egor lived for mayhem. The time was 1982, and the place was the first online game world, called MUD (short for Multi-User Dungeon). Before Egor there had been duels, pranks, and the occasional fire-breathing dragon, all amiably playing out in the MUD world, hosted on the servers of the University of Essex. A rough kind of social contract had held.

Egor was the screen name of a player who set out to test the limits. He learned the shortcuts allowed by the code. He wrote scripts that let his character level up quickly. He discovered a way to fake other players’ logins. With a borrowed screen name, he would go on sprees of destruction, and watch with amusement as the real player logged on later to face a raging mob. He “ganked” new players—killed them before they knew which end of the sword to hold.

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Thirty years down the road, an online multiplayer scene would grow geometrically from those few hundred players logging into the Essex server. About 618 million people now participate in online worlds; on a given day, the most popular might boast 2 million people playing at the same time. The industry built around these so-called massively multiplayer online games (or MMOs) brings in $14.9 billion in annual revenues, greater than the gross domestic product of Iceland.

Yet that whole massive industry was shaped, in some way, by how the game handled the problem of Egor. At the golden dawn of online space, he brought a snake into Eden. He forced his little world of techno-misfits to answer its first big questions, questions familiar to students of any society and its basic rules: Who’s in charge, and by what authority? And how does a community test and affirm its social boundaries?

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Neighbors can create the ineffable threads of a good society, a point made in the book The Great Good Place, by sociologist Roy Oldenburg. He argues that for this to happen, a culture needs a place for people to meet informally. He calls this a “third place.” It isn’t one of practical functions, like a courthouse or an office building. Instead, it encourages the alchemy that happens in unstructured “hanging out.” In the past, that’s happened in the agora of ancient Greece, or in the cafés of Enlightenment-era France. Chat is common in a third place; so are games.

The earliest online communities ticked many boxes of a third place. Until MUD, however, none of them had really been a place. Richard Bartle, who designed MUD with Roy Trubshaw in 1980 at the University of Essex, sees this as a signature contribution of his game. MUD was the first game world that could host dozens of players at the same time. A database housed a chain of “rooms” that allowed players to wander from one to the other. If they happened to enter the same “room,” they could do things that people did in real life: chat, fight, even kiss.

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“MUD brought the concept of space to the Internet,” says Bartle. “People could feel they were ‘there’ in a way that they couldn’t from chat.” That experience proved powerfully addictive. When the university server connected to ARPANET in 1980, the popularity of MUD exploded. In the early days, the University of Essex server would only allow dial-up players to use the network to play between midnight and 6 a.m. Fans quickly changed their sleep schedules, becoming vampires to power up their characters through all-night sessions.  

In short, MUD began to operate very much like Oldenburg’s third space for a new demographic: the first generation of computer geeks. “On the whole, players were tech-savvy and intelligent; as a consequence, the real world regarded them as nerds, dweebs, whatever,” says Bartle. He designed his software as both hangout and a kind of sanctuary. “Players could shed the personality constructed for them in the real world and get to be who they really were.”

At the golden dawn of online space, he brought a snake into Eden.

While a physical sanctuary was a pretty new concept for what was then called the wired world (the Internet would come later), the concept has deep roots in our offline experience, according to anthropologist Tom Boellstorff. Boellstorff spent three years applying real-world ethnographic tools to virtual spaces, which resulted in the seminal 2008 book Coming of Age in Second Life. As he finished the book, he couldn’t help but note similarities to work he was doing with gay and lesbian populations in Indonesia.

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“On the ground I was finding that being gay in Indonesia was less about an identity; it was about a space,” he says. Marginalized communities in Indonesia became tied together, he found, by the spaces in local parks where they met. “I found the same thing happening online, in the ways that groups cohered when they had a place to go to.”   

A screen shot from the MUD game, Act of War. Garumike/Wikimedia Commons

Like spaces in the offline world, MUD had to establish its rules, and those were partly shaped by a crisis of social behavior—which brings the story back to Egor.

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“For the first two or three years, MUD was played in the spirit of face-to-face games, which is to say ‘nicely,’ ” says Bartle. “Then along came Egor.”

Bartle is quick to stress that, offline, the man who played under the screenname Egor was a nice guy. His rampages in MUD simply expressed a nascent hacker ethic: inventive, independent, and inclined to test the limits, qualities that would later come to shape many corners of wired space.

To the first fledgling MUD community, however, Egor posed a clear and present danger. Bartle’s response was as elegant as it was ancient. He dug his fingers into the programming of the world he had created. He hard-coded a bolt from the heavens—the Finger of Death —and smote Egor to bits.

Perhaps it’s surprising how quickly the wired, technical community populating his game jumped to what looks like theocratic rule—rule by supernatural intervention. “Most users had a disinterest in authority,” says Bartle. Part of that came, he says, from the mindset it took to code in the early days. Making computers work was a meritocracy of best solutions and finding better ways to do things. Yet when problems arose, an all-powerful being outside the physics of the game simply made the most sense.

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The hierarchy quickly codified. Players were “mortals.” With hard work, a player might hope to rise up to “wiz” or “witch.” A wiz could be a local administrator, hex players with punishments, or perform other in-game parlor tricks—even smite lower level players. But the game developer, and a handful of chosen ones, served a higher role. Their duty was to resolve any conflicts that could not be met by an in-game meritocracy. To do this, they used their power to change time and space.

The man who played under the screen name Egor was a nice guy. His rampages in MUD simple expressed a nascent hacker ethic.

Bartle called the role he assumed in MUD an “arch wiz,” but his later theories elevated that role. He became an evangelist of the term “god” as the technically appropriate word for an MMO designer. They invent physics, yet are not bound by their own laws, he argued. Good gameplay demands that they must also be free of social rules they put on others. In 2011, in a talk at the University of Bristol, Bartle went so far as to say that this role of god was not metaphorical — it was a literal function of those who molded the worlds where millions of people spent countless hours of their lives.

In the games that followed MUD, “wizzes” stayed, but virtual world developers adopted the “god” terminology. By and large they didn’t flaunt their power. As in any theocracy, the day-to-day was fielded by a team of qualified administrators, responsible to the players they watched over. Gods might even walk among mortals, under the guise of another character. But when social crisis hit, the social contract depended on creators who were on hand to mete out a very personal justice.

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Was it possible to entirely wash the theocratic flavor out of a game? A 1985 experiment by the programmer Ben Laurie, called Gods, allowed the players complete self rule, a true meritocracy with no gods or arch-wizzes to step in. High-level players could place their altar in the main square. If others came to them with tribute, they gained godly powers. The idea was that players would have a say about which administrators they felt best suited the game. There was even a playerless god, called Blob, that players could worship while there were no real people to worship.

Gods, however, never became the success that MUD was. Players voted with their virtual feet for worlds run by supernatural entities.

Tales from virtual space, according to Boellstorff and a growing number of researchers, can shine a light on who we are in our offline lives. He goes even further, to say that some part of the human experience has always been virtual. “Since it is human ‘nature’ to experience life through the prism of culture, human being has always been virtual being,” he writes.

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What is the nature of our virtuality? Boellstorff argues that we experience it largely through shared symbols—things perhaps like gods and religion. Robert Wright offers a theory about an arc in that virtual conversation in his book, The Evolution of God. He suggests religion is supplanted as a tool of power over time, replaced by legal codes.

That pattern echoes the fate of the gods in multiplayer games. Initially, the power of divine rule expanded with the growing player base. A few worlds even became known for deities that were notoriously capricious. An admin named Lorry ruled over of the multi-user dungeon MIST in the mid-80s. “I am the law!” he would announce, killing 1 in 10 players on his server in a digital plague. His legendary manifesto preached the virtues of arrogance, ego, and random destruction—and somehow brought his game active converts.

As time wore on, and player populations radically expanded, the gods’ power began to ebb. One pivotal episode from the early ’90s made the pages of the Village Voice. A player named Mr. Bungle had run rampant in the world of LambdaMOO. Community users couldn’t turn to the wizards; they had grown tired of settling social arguments in the large world, and forced players to come to collective agreement before they would mete our justice. Enough players wanted to “toad” Mr. Bungle—a variation on the Finger of Death—to get the superpowers who ran the servers’ attention, and the sentence was meekly carried out.

“I am the law!” he would announce, killing 1 in 10 players on his server in a digital plague.

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Today, gods are almost entirely absent from online worlds, at least in the form of capricious, genius creators who can reverse gravity on a whim. In the more commercial games, like World of Warcraft, the player now signs a terms-of-use covenant that “clearly defines each type of penalty and how each may be used to protect players’ enjoyment.” The occasional robed “Game masters” offer little more than an in-game help desk. The brief, strange phase of digital gods has largely come and gone.

Nevertheless, digital gods prompt us to consider what we do when we create civilizations unbounded by the constraints of the physical world. Game worlds free us to indulge in atavistic exploration, not only of those worlds, but of who we are. In the space of 30 years, players moved from cults of magic and personality toward a kind of constitutional state, retracing a much longer real-world journey familiar to any historian. What other lessons about the human condition exist in the greatly accelerated experiment that is online gaming?

As for Egor, he eventually gave up griefing other players, discouraged by the Finger of Death. Turning a leaf, he became the youngest wizard of a multi-user dungeon, then a notable game developer himself.

It seems that there’s a secret no one tells you about being a griefer, or a wiz, or a god for that matter. It eventually loses its thrill.

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“No one wants to be a god,” says Bartle. “They want to be a player.”

Jason Anthony is a writer and game designer. He lectures about games with deep histories, and advocates for games as good spaces for social and ethical conflict. 

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