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8:48am on Wednesday, 1st February, 2006:



A couple of years ago, I was contacted by some guy writing a book on the history of computer games, asking me how much the PLATO system at the University of Illinois influenced the development of virtual worlds. He was very put out when I told him that its impact was minimal at best; he'd arrogantly assumed that PLATO was the root of everything. I do know some industry old-timers who cut their teeth on PLATO and who have influenced virtual world development (eg. Gordon Walton and Andy Zaffron), but the system itself had only a minuscule effect. Our current virtual worlds are the descendents of the text games invented in the late 1970s and the 1980s: MUD1, Sceptre of Goth, Island of Kesmai, Aradath and Monster. PLATO did have its virtual world, Avatar, but this came after MUD1 and it evolved without interaction with the other games mentioned, on its own, separate (and ultimately moribund) path.

The thing is, I get the impression that some ex-PLATO people just can't get over the fact that there are some aspects of computer game history which don't have PLATO as their starting point. They like PLATO and they want it credited for its many numerous achievements; this is fair enough. It's not fair, though, when they start claiming credit for things they didn't invent. Virtual worlds are one such thing.

There was a game on PLATO called Oubliette, which predates MUD1 by about a year. I recently managed to play this, to see if it really is the virtual world it's touted as being. I wasn't impressed. Its inter-player communication is extremely limited, its inter-character interaction is nominal, and its world persistence is zero. It's close, but not close enough for me. It's a multi-player game, but not quite a virtual world. Avatar, on the other hand, is definitely a virtual world by any standards.

Still, there's this desire to be first with PLATO. Never mind that even if Oubliette were admitted as a virtual world, it's the same kind of "first" as "golf was invented by the Chinese in the tenth century". Maybe the Chinese did play golf back then, but they hardly carried their passion to the rest of the world. The modern game began in Scotland in the 1500s; Chinese golf — if indeed it was golf, as it had no holes in the ground — had no effect on what people play today whatsoever. Oubliette had no effect on today's virtual worlds either.

The reason I'm ranting about this is because of the creeping appropriation of virtual world history I'm seeing in Wikipedia. Here's what it says under MUD:

The first known MUD was 'Oubliette', written by Jim Schwaiger, and published on the PLATO system in 1977.

Right. That would be why we call them MUDs, then...

Here's the opening of the "history" section for the definition of MMORPG:

The beginning of the MMORPG genre can be traced back to non-graphical online Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) games such as those developed in the late-1970s for the PLATO System. Earlier games such as pedit5, dnd, Dungeon, orthanc, baradur, bnd and sorcery were multi-user games, but the players could not interact with one another. Subsequent games on PLATO including oubliette, avathar (later renamed avatar), emprise and moria allowed players to interact, including helping each other in battle and trading equipment.

That's a travesty of the truth! You can't trace World of Warcraft back to pedit5! You can trace it back to MUD1 and to some extent Aradath (via Dark Age of Camelot). You can probably trace Avatar back to pedit5, but Avatar's and World of Warcraft's paths don't cross. Even if they did cross, pedit5 wasn't the first multi-player game anyway. It might have been the first dungeon crawl, but that's not a prerequisite for being a virtual world. How can anyone say that today's MMORPGs began with pedit5?! Augh!

Of course, I'm at liberty to change Wikipedia. However, whoever is inserting the pro-PLATO references is also at liberty to change it back. The difference is that I don't like self-aggrandisement (which is what it would be if I blew my own trumpet by altering the Wikipedia references) whereas the PLATO fans seem to have no shame in this regard.

I often quote Wikipedia here in QBlog. It's a good resource. Yet knowing what I know about the bias and falsehood in entries concerning some of the subjects with which I have intimate knowledge, can I really be confident that such inaccuracy isn't present in every other entry? Even the entry for my own name says I co-wrote "one of the first multi-user dungeons". No, I co-wrote the first one. If Oubliette were a MUD, we'd be calling them "Oubliettes".

How much of anything in Wikipedia is fact and how much is what people would wish us to believe is fact?

[Edit: it has been pointed out to me that my reference to Andy Zaffron and Gordon Walton could be construed as an implication that they had something to do with the Wikipedia article. I'd like to make it clear that this is not what I meant at all! My intention was to suggest that any influence which games such as Oubliette did have on the industry was through the early impressions made on luminaries such as Andy and Gordon. I didn't intend to associate either of them with PLATO-bores, and apologise if I gave this impression. And I'd say this even if Andy weren't a lawyer!]

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Copyright © 2006 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).