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Nov 29, 2011 - Uncategorized    10 Comments

Gamerography, vol. 2: Trapped In Amber

On my nineteenth birthday, I made my first character on AmberMUSH. My then-boyfriend had been playing for a little while, maybe a month, and since he was suddenly spending all his spare time in the campus computer labs, and I wanted to spend time with him, I figured I might as well be doing something interesting while I was in the computer lab too.

I had no idea the changes this character, and the game I was entering, would have on my life.

AmberMUSH was based on the Chronicles of Amber series by fantasy author Roger Zelazny. They revolved around the travels of Prince Corwin (and later, his son Merlin) and the political machinations of his siblings as they fought to control the throne of Amber, a realm that represented the purest expression of Order in the universe. Between Amber and its opposite, Chaos, lay infinite reflections called shadows. Only those who carried the blood of Amber or Chaos could navigate or manipulate reality among those shadows. It’s the perfect setting for a roleplaying game because virtually anything is possible, and interpersonal relationships are the heart of the action.

Now for the ancient history. MU*s (MUDs, MOOs, MUSHes, etc.) were text-based platforms for real-time interaction among multiple participants, all logged in to a common database. No pictures, no avatars — all words, and nothing but. Players coded elaborate chains of connected “rooms,” in which only the inhabitants at any given moment could see. If you wanted something better than a raw Telnet connection, you needed a UNIX account so you could compile TinyFugue (other MUD clients would come along, but to the best of my knowledge, TF was the first of its kind). As a humanities student at my university, I had to ask my Computer Science major friends for coaching on how to ask for that UNIX account without admitting it was for gaming.

My character’s name was Selwyn, and she started as a shameless imitation of Tarma from Mercedes Lackey’s Oathbound books. She was six feet tall, with a long white-blond braid that swung down past her waist, and she carried a long sword. She had a pet lion named Rex that went everywhere with her; I actually went to the trouble of coding Rex as a puppet, reading carefully from the TinyMUD manual.

If I’d coded a flashing neon sign reading “NEWBIE” to float in the air over her head, I couldn’t have made it much clearer that I didn’t know what I was doing.

But I could type about 70 words per minute, and I knew how to spell and punctuate, and that seemed to buy me some grace from the other, more experienced players. I hung out in the Worlds’ End Bar — a saloon that served as a common destination for characters of all types to meet — and waited for Things To Happen.

And among all the things that happened, the most important was when I was got tapped to join TooMUSH, the out-of-character, invitation-only hangout. Imagine the ultimate cool kids’ table, where people commented and snarked on events from the other side of the mirrored glass. I was hanging out with the founders and wizards of AmberMUSH — wizards served as chief coders, editors, and arbitrators for the game — and the best roleplayers on that site, or any other. Too was also the intellectual laboratory for characters and plots of every size and shape, and soon I acquired another character, an odd little girl named Rebekah Aspnes.

But the really good play always involved features, or characters from the books, so that became my next ambition. I settled on a character who’d gone long unplayed, a minor human from the oft-maligned second series by the name of Julia Barnes. Julia was a computer science student at Berkeley who became Merlin’s girlfriend and a sorceress; the application I wrote played on the connection between programming computers and spellcasting. Apparently, the wizards liked it, and I became Julia’s player.

As such, I also controlled a not-insignificant plot device which could confer the ability to walk across shadows to non-Amberites. It’s funny how completely voluntary and utterly frivolous things can become serious responsibilities to young people, and I took control of that feature and her Broken Pattern very seriously, making myself available for regular (and large) chunks of time. But the role came with compensations that more than made up for the “responsibilities.” And the best compensation of all were the hours of scenes with the incredibly gifted writers who had become my friends. Some became internationally bestselling authors. Some went on to write and publish award-winning roleplaying games of their own. And one came to America and married me.

All told, I probably logged somewhere around ten thousand hours on AmberMUSH between 1993 and 1999. So what did I get, to show for it? I got my typing speed up to 100 wpm. I got a (VERY) little coding experience. I got to help write scenes that made me laugh out loud, and sometimes cry, even in the middle of a sterile university computer lab. I got some of the best friends I’ve ever had, folks who’ve stood by me through thick and thin for almost twenty years now. I got to meet the love of my life, and I got to watch other friends find theirs.

I tell people that getting together with my Amber friends is as close to a high school reunion as I ever care to get. I think that feeling is intensified by the fact that we don’t just have memories of shared life experiences — we have common memories of many lives’ experiences. We lived whole existences in the endlessly scrolling lines of text, walking through the pages of the collective novel for which we were all authors. We brought so many characters to life, gave them families and friends and habits and foibles, and sometimes we brought them to death, too. The very best roleplaying games help us live life more fully, more clearly, no matter how fantastic their premises seem. They magnify the themes, amplify the emotions, focus the images that define humanity. They let us practice the important choices, play out the potential consequences, rehearse the reactions before we come to the real crossroads from which there are no retcons.

The more we played this game, the better — the more human —  we became.

Nov 10, 2011 - Uncategorized    9 Comments

We Are…More than Penn State

I am a Penn State graduate; I received my Master’s in History in 1999, and I was awarded honors for that degree. I sought to complete my Ph.D. in the same program, but was one of the people marginalized and ultimately edged out because we did not fit the administration’s vision and mission for the History Department they were interested in building.

I worked with Penn State faculty of staggering intelligence, experience, and expertise. My advisor and Ph.D. committee members helped me acquire my own firm foundation in the history of ancient and medieval Europe and Japan. I collaborated with experts from a variety of disciplines on a curriculum-development program supported by an NEH grant, and I helped organize, and even presented at, the university’s international medieval conference. I’m not going to name-drop, but I’m immensely proud of the people of international and enduring stature with whom I studied.

I taught History, Religious Studies, and English at Penn State, as a Teaching Assistant, Lecturer, and Adjunct Faculty member, for 10 years. I wrote my own courses, from curriculum to annotated primary source compilations, and I earned what I was told were “impossibly high” student evaluation scores every semester. My students were, for the most part, bright and motivated and civic-minded.

All of this is to say that, when I talk about Penn State, I know of which I speak.

The people who say that Penn State football is the local religion are not wrong. In fact, it’s a more apt comparison than they probably realize. The institution is storied and expansive, inextricably associated with the reputation of the school and anyone who has passed through it. Its financial impact is difficult to quantify: there’s no question the program has brought in hundreds of millions of dollars over the years, but there’s also no question that the school allocates resources to athletics that can and should be spent on the university’s actual mission of education. As such, Penn State students pay what amount to private school prices for a state school education (mostly conducted by grad students, a topic for another day), because it comes with a winning team.

And while the edifice of Penn State football bears striking resemblance to the Catholic Church, its history and reputation has been largely constructed around a single person, much like today’s evangelical megachurches. Joe Paterno’s record may be the substance of Penn State’s athletic reputation, but his personality is the soul. Penn State doesn’t just claim a winning football program — it claims a moral one, a program that forms young men into admirable athletes and upstanding people.

So the most appropriate comparison to draw for the impact of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse case is to the Catholic Church sex abuse case. He contributed to the rise and reputation of the institution, while using the access and authority it conferred to exploit children who reasonably believed that their rights were nothing next to the man who was assaulting them. He used a charitable foundation to situate himself among his targets, and to shield himself from suspicion for being seen in their vicinity. He probably believed that these kids should be grateful for the attention and advantages he was giving them, and that the sex acts he forced them into were a fair exchange for that.

And, of course, he was utterly, criminally, repellently wrong.

But when the superiors who derived their reputations from that same institution were faced with proof that someone had exploited and subverted its authority for personal, immoral gains, their first thought was to protect the institution, not the victims. They surely thought they were being careful at first, wanting to “gather all the facts before acting.” Except that to act would destroy something that so many people depended on for income, security, and self-esteem. So a wish to proceed slowly and carefully slid into defensiveness, then resistance, then cover-up.

And even now, it’s easier for those who still get their sense of worth — after all, the cheer that goes up all over State College is “We Are…Penn State!” — from the institution to question the sincerity and timing of the victims, rather than deal with the hard fact that someone used the faith and pride a community had invested in them to do something unspeakable.

The kids who marched in the streets last night — it wasn’t a riot; the lampposts in Beaver Canyon get torn down for everything from St. Patrick’s Day to a busy night during Arts Fest — might have said they were doing it in support of their beloved JoePa, but it wasn’t really about that. It was about the value of what they’re at Penn State for. Most of them are going to graduate twenty to fifty thousand dollars in debt, much more than they would pay to go to one of the many Commonwealth Campuses across Pennsylvania. Part of what they’re paying for is the experience in State College, and for almost 50 years, that experience depends on having a team to be proud of, and a school that others admire.

It’s their reputation, too, that’s been destroyed, without consent or knowledge. Firing Joe Paterno was the only legitimate action that Penn State could take, but to kids and alumni, that’s an admission of guilt that’s on par with having to admit that the Pope is no longer infallible. And if that can happen, then maybe Penn State can’t offer them the security they thought they were getting.

If boys can be raped in the football complex, can anyone be safe anywhere on campus?

If JoePa would protect his reputation before that of the players whose futures ride on it, can any student count on the faculty and administration to prepare them for the harsh world that awaits them?

If a charity can be used to target and groom victims among the children it’s supposed to be helping, then has the world’s largest student-run philanthropy organization been doing good or harm (and what the hell have they been on their feet for 72 hours for, anyway)?

And if Penn State’s reputation crumbles with its football program, then what is that name on their diploma and résumé going to be worth?