Wednesday, 30 May 2007

The Numbnuts

Its time to introduce another part of the experience. With Aithne and I messing around so much we really started to get on well with the guild. Around about this time the first Master Level Raids were being run on Prydwen. I didn't pay any attention to that because I was having enough trouble figuring out how to level my Shade.

Aithne and I were busy running around finding the best hunting spots in Hibernia. We found some peachy places like the hill to the west of Howth where Deamhan Aeirs hang out. Most of the time we would just sit and chat renewing that old familiar bond. It was around this time that Wyst, the current GM of the Marsh Horde, and Briannon started to level new characters. Now and then we would also be joined by another decent bloke - Sky and his alts. We called the group "The Numbnuts" because well we had no healers and basically relied on doing as much damage as possible to mobs in order to survive. It worked quite well even if it was slightly unconventional.

We spent long periods of time sitting down and chatting on Skype. One of the major bonuses of this group was that we got to know two more people very well indeed. Both Wyst and Briannon had a solid knowledge of Hybrasil the Shrouded Isles expansion. This expansion did have some really nice content and so there was something to be said for the game design. In particular we spent a long time 'farming' on the beach at Necht and in the woods west of Necht.

These were long sessions and in time we all got to know each other well. I really feel like we bedded in. This group took us all the way to out first level 50 characters. So was the pixel that empty? At this stage no. The pixel was imbued with an old and new bonds all of which were developing and keeping me in the game. Behind such social bonds are emotions and of course old memories. At that time the game was imbued with meaning associated with all of these things. I agree with Ambera these bonds are the building blocks of community they are the starting point around which groups form and maintain themselves.

The game acts a medium for these bonds. The content of the game well it was more or less a sideline that did not really impact that much on the dynamics of why I was playing. I am not sure I would ever have got to level 50 without the company of these friends. I was paying to meet my firends and to experience something together. That was a wonderful thing.

Tuesday, 29 May 2007


The day that Aithne appeared on screen in sky blue coloured personal message, was the day I got hooked on DaoC. Up to now I was just getting going and making a right pigs ear of the whole thing. With a friend there it became easy to ask questions and I knew if he took the piss it was all good natured banter. It was more than that though. Aithne and I had been mates in Belfast when I was studying for my PhD. He was always around and ready to mess about at something.

When we lived in Belfast all we ever seemed to do was smoke and drink. Aithne was there when I finished my PhD. He was there when I went through a messed up relationship and he was there after I left Belfast to go work in London. We did a lot of cool stuff together and got into more than a few scrapes usually as a result of having a bit too much to drink and my big mouth (two rucksacks full of beer and a few hundred angry Orange men is not a good combination). Most of all it was just cool messing around. You know how you live as a student or in your first real job? That kind of couldn't care less communal living where you would drink all night and end up watching Teletubbies because you spent too long playing Ice Hockey on the Sega? Did you ever get the jokes they were telling each other? Sometimes the old games are the best.

To see him again night after night after 5 years of living in London was just so cool. Initially he was not sure about GOA the company and asked me why I hadn't started the account in the US. As usual I had no clue there were servers in the US. I am an optimistic sort and said it seemed decent enough. He started his ranger Aithne and was level 7 pretty quickly. I was around level 16 and had to move house from the rented accommodation to where I am living now. Moving house sucks but this is a pattern I have got used to. I have a very busy real life and it frequently takes me away from the game. This break was productive though because when I got back online Aithne was almost the same level.

The next time we met online we got Skype setup so we could smoke and get pissed together and mess about just like the old days. If you look cloesly in DaoC they have something akin to Orange men they are called Curmudgeons . The only difference is that the Curmudgeons are slightly brighter and a bit less predictible. I had just got my computer set up in the new house and between moving crap around and settling in we managed to squeeze a few sessions together. I was almost level 19 when Aithne and I were messing around with the Curmudgeons and suddenly he disappeared.

Sharkith "Fuck, where did you go?"

Aithne "Thats stealth."

Sharkith "No way! How do you do that?"

Aithne flashes in and out of stealth for a bit.

Sharkith "Seriously how do you do that?"

Aithne flashes in and out of stealth for a bit.

Sharkith "Stop it you fucker how do you do it?"

Aithne laughing. "You mean to tell me your a nightshade and you don't know how to stealth?"

Sharkith "I suppose your going to tell me this is important right?"

We start to laugh and it takes him 5 minutes to explain how I can stealth.

Sharkith "You do realise I spent days trying to creep past the Mummy Hags in Muire tomb and kept getting cained right? I thought this stealth skill is pretty useless..."

More sniggering down Skype.

If you know anything about Nightshades you will know that all their high damage combinations start when they attack from being stealthed. No wonder Sharkith was a right gimp! This doesn't mean of course that he was much better attacking from his newly discovered stealth skill. You had to have the right specification for that. I didn't 'ave a scooby' as they say in South London.

So finally the pixels had some meaning behind them. Don't get me wrong the Marsh Horde were brilliant. But having someone you know and know so well messing around with you really brings the game into its own. We largely ignored the content of the game unless we really needed an item then we would grind out the mission to get it. Otherwise we behaved very much like we had done in Belfast. Getting pissed and getting chased by huge mobs of well 'mobs'. It was through this friendship that I really grew to like the game and what it could do. A game that can bring people together who would otherwise never see each other has to be a good thing.

The problem with this of course was the fact that the game is nevertheless a flawed medium. We will come to that in time.

Monday, 28 May 2007

Sharkith and me

Ok so whilst there is a link between Sharkith and I. When I interact through Sharkith with others in the gaming world I get a sense of a different relationship that is between Sharkith and me. It is also between those other players and me. All of these things are interlinked and its hard to keep track of them at once 1. Social interaction is quite good at handling it even if I personally cannot process all the information at once.

Lets keep it basic. Being Sharkith was also to be me this relationship developed as I interacted with others in the game. The problem was of course that he was only as good as my knowledge of the game and his abilities reflected on me. This I know because in those initial months when I was getting to know the game. He was not very good, in fact he was awful. We were awful. He had become the victim of my indecision. Should I use blades or piercing weapons? Should I go for maximum stealth? I developed him in several directions at once and his progress slowed down. I am no expert on these kinds of games that’s for sure and poor Sharkith was not doing too good in those heady days because of me. I was an right 'noob'. I was often called that by some of the more honest players that I met in the game. Being called a noob at the start of ones MMO career is normal though and not something to be too worried about. Some people could be vicious about it others were just messing around.

Sharkith was not mine though. My memories of playing through Sharkith are mine. The company don't own those, they enabled me to have those memories, that's true, but its not the whole story by a long shot. Every memory I have of Sharkith I have subtly exchanged for other memories that could have been of different things, more tangible things. Things that I owned and that were indisputably mine. Memories that could have filled this time instead. My memories with Sharkith are entangled with the world in which he existed they are embedded in that game. That game is not my game it is owned by a company.

Anyway the point is a simple one the relationship between Sharkith and I/me cannot be explained by physical keystrokes alone. Neither had it anything to do with content, don't over rate your importance. The content was basically task driven and was basically a chore. At one level the relationships were normal social relationships and can be explained in normal interaction terms between the "I" wanting to achieve in the gaming world and the "me" emerging in interaction between Sharkith, other players and my knowledge of the game. I was learning a lot about the rules of play at that time. There is however another relationship here that is not quite apparent, that relationship is an exchange relationship. Something that becomes crucial to the long term story, something that can from time to time become nefarious.

I was not simply trading money I was trading time and memories to be Sharkith and to meet my new friends. There I was interacting on all those levels at that time I became more and more focused on the relationships and forgot about the company. They were my friend after all weren't they?

1. If you know symbolic interaction you will know the configuration being used here.

Sharkith and I

One of the odd things about the pixels that are Sharkith is their relationship to I/me. First of all we have the relationships with I.

Sharkith is a figure, a body in a digital world. Not my body of course not even like my body. He is an Elf after all and I am human. He has odd coloured hair and I have none. Sharkith has a large shock of hair - I thought thats what an elf should look like. If I had hair it would not look like his. In fact the only connection between Sharkith and I are the colour of his eyes (mine are green too) and the keystrokes I use to control his movements. There is no real physical feeling other than keystrokes. Sharkith is not physically alive he leads a digital existence, yet every time I press a key he moves. His movements are connected to mine.

His being is derived from periodic impulses directed through my fingers into a world that is presented to me from a third person perspective. I am not really him I am at once the world and him combined. Through Sharkith I can do stuff, stuff I would not normally do in a place that I would not normally inhabit. He can vanish from view. I can't. He can jump off a bridge, the side of a keep and only hurt himself momentarily. I practically injure myself if I hop more than six steps to the floor below. Sharkith can get stuck inside trees, he can get stuck in walls. I can't. At least I haven't annoyed anyone that much yet for this to happen.

Sharkith is around a foot tall if I zoom in enough to try and measure his real height. His movements are restricted and repetitive and he runs like he has a stick up his arse and has 'snakey hips'. He can swim underwater for very long periods of time. I can push a key that enables him to run without any tactile connection to the keystroke. Thats risky though. Everyone who has played a MMO has probably been through an accident where the character they were controlling was allowed to run along as they went for a coffee or tea only to find on their return to the keyboard the character far out at sea or being eaten alive by the various denzins of the world their character inhabits.

I possess Sharkith's body and wander around the game environment. Thats not totally accurate I control his body but posess the immediate environment around him. He dies but is 'ressurrected' feeling slightly worse for wear. A quick visit to a healer and he is better. A small fee and his statistics are restored from his 'ressurrection illness'. Sharkith can die and it doesn't affect me because there is no physical connection to me. But thats not all.

As my time developed in the game I noticed that I have become switched off at home. I am not fully aware of whats happening around me and anything that disturbs the connection between Sharkith and I is a source of irritation. My wife needing something done, the children playing around my feet. I am engrossed. This is not the first time I have become so preoccupied with a game of course so its not that different. Well actually it is. Sharkith is not mine, he is not stored on my hard drive and I have to pay to access him and the world he lives in. I am investing time in him but he remains a company's property. I pay to use Sharkith as an instrument for exploration. He is not mine though.

Not mine. Yet I continue to build him up. He improves and gets stronger as I explore. Its frustrating but rewarding. He is a nightshade. Its mostly frustrating. I feel I have put too much into things by now though and so I won't give up I will continue. I am tied to Sharkith through this developing bond. Sharkith is not mine though I pay to be through Sharkith, I am paying to be something I am not and I am paying to become something I can never be.

Sharkith the incompetent

Who is Sharkith?

The simple answer is that Sharkith is a character who exists in a game called Dark Age of Camelot on a server called Prydwen (renamed Dyvet). In short he is composed of pixels, a digital fragment, a database entry. He is an Elf Nightshade of the realm of Hibernia. He is mine. Actually he isn't mine. His skinny ass belongs to GOA the company I was payed to play the game. At the end of the day he is a digital signal located in a server somewhere in Paris (I didn’t really know any of this at the time). He is just pixels right?

I started him sitting in a rented house in Sheffield. We had just moved from London. I was delighted to finally start playing a game I had wanted to play for over six months. I had first seen the game at a friends house in Belfast. I was amazed that people could play together from all over the world and I liked the format of the game. It looked like it was more than just pixels. More than just beating the game and playing against a predictable AI.

I bought it along with the most recent expansion Trials of Atlantis. From the outset was I going to choose Albion or Hibernia. Hibernia was underpopulated. I liked the thought of the underdog and so I went for Hibernia. The problem was not many of the classes really caught my eye. In the end I went for the Nightshade. I suspected I might be playing alone and well a Nightshade seemed to be a good choice. I could not have been more wrong.

Sharkith and I got to know each other over the next few weeks as I played the game. The move to Sheffield was not easy, I found myself in the house alone frequently. We had to travel to London every other week. When I went to work I felt alone, I was given things to do that I didn’t like and work had little direction. Gradually I spent more and more time with Sharkith. Our relationship was not at all amorous (in case you get any ideas) after all he was just pixels.

The most important thing to remember at this point is that Sharkith was a Nightshade. He was not a very competent Nightshade in fact the adventure into the new world for Sharkith and myself was going decidedly poorly. Mythic describe the Nightshade as a “..sneaky assassin that has the ability to move about unseen, attack using deadly backstab combat styles, as well as limited magical ability.“ Thats the most recent description. Back then they had words like 'devastating' attacks and 'dispatching foes quickly whilst slinking away unseen'. Sharkith could do none of these things. He was more or less limited to a small blue spell to 'pull' monsters and kill them.

I was also having trouble with the content of the game. Apart from not really seeing the point of it. It was a source of constant frustration. After realising that most of the characters standing about looking bored were not really people but 'Non-player Characters' (NPC's ). I noticed that I could get the odd quest from them. For the first few weeks this involved running up and down along side a place called Lough Derg. Killing the odd monster and running away from many more. Water beetles became a constant plague on Sharkith and 'Clik' their evil boss was the cource of many beatings for the inept Nightshade. The quests did not really involve interaction just simply running through a script and following instructions in Sharkith's journal.

The instructions in the Journal were often opaque in the extreme. "Go to the west of x and kill the wandering wolf". Where was X? Often I would have a good idea but then when I got there there was no stupid wolf. Then to make matters worse night time would come and a bunch of evil looking monsters (mobs) would appear all around the poor gimp and he would get destroyed. Often finding himself miles away from the place where the quest was supposed to be. It was like someone had decided to single Sharkith out for some wicked joke almost everytime he was forced to do something. I often closed the game down in those first few weeks only to find myself logging back in because at the end of the day I don't quit anything. I never give up.

Other sources of frustration were learning how the world behaved around Sharkith. Some Mobs just destroyed him instantaneously others he could destroy instantaneously. Forced to log off after one particularly frustrating session I looked closer at the manual and discovered that the mobs had a colour code. 'Purple' = instant death, 'red' = death, 'orange' virually always = death, Yellow = frequently death and blue I could just about manage. That helped.

Gradually though through those first few weeks I began to learn more and more of the game. I conducted some searches on the internet and found a few sites where I could get information on quests and rewards. Through the use of these sites and a print out of zone maps with the locations of all the 'Mobs' I gradually figured out the 'content'. It was still a chore though and I was still frequently banging the table in frustration. I was often asking what it was about the game I actually liked.

It was after a few weeks into the game that I bumped into the first player controlled character by the name of Sky he was from a guild called the Marsh Horde. He invited me to a place called Muire Tomb where we grouped and things went superbly. I learned more about the game (after figuring out how to group properly) in a few hours than I had done in over a week. It was a lot of fun and I started to go to Muire tomb a lot more over the next few weeks. It wasn't long until I was in the Marsh Horde and people were explaining to me how to send a message to the guild. My first message was 'Hi'. That was my shortest ever message in Dark Age of Camelot.

Going back to Muire Tomb brought me in contact with quite a few different people. Some nice some not so nice. I began to realise that I should avoid some people and just stick with those who where nice. The new guild were brilliant in many respects and they helped me figure out the game world. The frustration of the game was still there but a large part of that was from incompetence and learning how to adapt to a completely different game format.

Then something happened that transformed my experience. My friend from Belfast joined the game in the form of Aithne a ranger.

Who is Sharkith?

At this stage of the story the simple answer is he was initially a series of empty pixels. A source of frustration and anger.

Yet the pixels only existed in relation to me, my life and what was happening to me. They only had meaning for me initally and then slowly as I got to know others in the growing world around me they developed a meaning for others. I realised that how I behaved in Murie Tomb when some people were rude had an affect on how Sharkith was seen by those people. I was frequently called 'noob' sometimes as a joke sometimes with venom. Finally, it was a very proud moment when I was invited to the Marsh Horde, even though at that time they would have taken anybody. Sharkith had a new identity now he was the member of a guild and a very nice guild at that!

With Aithne entering the game things where about to take on new meaning....

Sunday, 27 May 2007

A beginning after the end?

Its late on Monday evening the kids have been put to bed and I am tired. Its been a strange day really.

Earlier I had gone back to Freddy's House the community board of the UK Servers for Dark Age of Camelot where I once spent so much time arguing and discussing, writing essays (infuriating most there in the process), defining, redefining and generally struggling to understand what was happening. There where times when I got it wrong, times when I lost it and times when I felt we nailed it. Ultimately though in end there was nothing.

It seemed so empty. I suppose that was no surprise it had been around two months since I had even looked at the forum. Three since I had said I was never posting there again, old habits die hard. This time however I noticed something had happened and things changed once more.

Sometimes you know when you see something and a wheel turns in your head and your perspective changes slightly? You see possibilities and things open up that were once closed. and you feel a shift in something and your not sure what? That happened.

Not being too sure what I start to browse again. I read the thread and it does not shock me. The news was unsurprising, in fact a good few of us had discussed the possibility of its content four months previously. To see it in pixels though brought back those memories and I was once more gut wrenchingly sad angry and furious. Assailed at a computer screen by the emotions I do something totally contradictory. I renew my subs.

This Blog is a story about how I got to know Dark Age of Camelot, fall in love with it and then watch it all disintegrate.

This is the story of Sharkith.