Cookie Cutter Money Prison Online

In 1999, I did my best to explain what an MMORPG was to all of the adults in my life. There weren’t many; recently expelled from the ninth grade, the circle was mostly limited to my parents and my therapist. Even within that set, I only really had to be thorough with my Dad, to explain why I needed to put the monthly access fee on his credit card.

“You create this character,” I’d tell them, “and then it puts them in this game world, with all these other people who have created their own characters. And then, whatever. You can explore this world and play whatever type of character you want.”

In the web 1.0 days of adults’ moral panic around teenagers talking about sex in chat rooms, with anonymous strangers who were sure to abduct us (the only thing anyone could conceive we’d want to do online), one question inevitably came up: “What if the other people in the game are psychos?”

This had to be dealt with carefully for me, a 14-year-old with a dark sense of humor who constantly got into fights with other kids and threatened them with worse. I was often called a psycho myself, and after all, here I was playing Ultima Online.

In a way, my angsty offline lifestyle was the point. I played video games as a way of escaping into another identity, and few games in late 90’s offered as complete an escape as Ultima Online, known to its players as UO. It offered not just an identity for my own fantasy, but one to be observed by others, who would never know me as anyone else. I wanted people to see me as a grizzled adventurer with a devil-may-care disposition, like Wolverine, not a kid in an ugly school uniform with a principal-may-care disposition who would certainly die on a tour of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Or any chocolate factory, for that matter.

What would be even harder to explain was that the thing I sought an escape from was the life my family had decided was best for me: the private school life. Prior to my expulsion, I was getting bussed out of the city to attend school with my alleged social betters in the suburbs, at great expense to my parents. This, they told me, was the way to a better life for me. A life, apparently, of strip malls and overpriced chain restaurants, in a culture that despised my closeted queerness and had a very, very tenuous relationship with my Jewishness. A life spent in drab, cookie cutter houses, whose doors were always deadbolted while their inhabitants peered suspiciously through the peephole at anyone who came around.

One of the best un-talked-about aspects of video games is their general lack of soul-crushing suburban sprawl. They don’t need it. There’s not even anywhere to put it.

Your basic medieval crypto-European city in a game like Ultima Online is usually small enough to cross it end-to-end within about five minutes. Of course, it doesn’t fulfill the same matrix of purposes that real cities do. It requires no government, no school system, and very little in the way of social services. It doesn’t need outlets for recreation, because duh, the game itself is the recreation.

And it definitely doesn’t need vast swathes of oversized single-family homes, sitting on former farmland snatched up by greedy developers. In a single-player game like, say, Skyrim, any given city only needs one available housing unit, if that. But what if the game is an MMO that wants to provide its player base with the ability to build and furnish houses for their characters? What the hell do you do then, when your biggest city is maybe the size of an Ikea store?

As it happened, UO was the first game to answer this question. Especially in its early days, in-game achievements tended to be ethereal and fleeting. Whatever treasures you found on your adventures would only be yours until you were inevitably killed and your corpse looted by whoever happened to be around when you bit it. This made houses an extremely attractive concept. You could secure a house, and any chests or decorations inside, with unpickable locks. Whatever you put in your house was definitely your shit, which was never quite true for whatever you carried on your person.

Where to put these houses? UO’s solution was simple: since there was no room in the cities, they made the unsettled land outside them available instead. You had to buy a house deed from an NPC vendor in town, picking from about a dozen styles, then find a large enough patch of empty ground somewhere in the wilderness. Double-click the deed, target your chosen spot, and boom! You are now housed.

The problem was that, even with the entire country of Brittannia available, there just wasn’t enough space. As soon as house placement was enabled, most of the game world became one giant suburb. The bulk of the play-space that we were paying ten 1999 dollars a month for vanished. Instead of venturing through the untamed countryside, with no idea what might lie on the horizon, we now found ourselves weaving through a vast, cookie cutter house labyrinth.

The problem was scale. At its peak, UO had around 250,000 active subscribers; roughly the population of Buffalo, New York. To cross Buffalo end-to-end, you’re in for a 10-mile hike, 3 ½ hours at a good clip. Not only is it a much longer cross-town hoof than any UO city, it’s probably hundreds of times larger than the entire country of Brittannia.

Even with all those players divided between a couple dozen servers, there was enough demand for houses to render them virtually priceless. San Francisco real estate had nothing on Brittannia. If you were unwilling to pay real world currency for a house on eBay (probably because you were at least a little bit worried that there might be a Hell), you had to play UO basically as a full-time job, grinding out gold for hours upon hours every day, in order to buy one.

Having a house was one of the ultimate in-game achievements. You had to be a dedicated player for years before you even had a shot at it. The irony of this was that, once you had a house, there was almost nothing to actually do in it.

In 2009, ten years after my first existential battle with the hellscape of Midwestern suburbia, I found myself, every day, riding in the back of a coworker’s car through the same endless miles of subdivisions. The houses usually did not even cast shadows, thanks to the unbroken cloud cover of central Ohio’s fall and winter months. Far from the mail-order version of country life that the fossil fuel economy envisioned, they felt more like a cartoonishly sad prison for money: rows and rows of giant, neutral-toned cells under one big ceiling the color of concrete.

We were door-to-door canvassers for Save the Children, or the ACLU, or whatever other non-profit had hired us to jailbreak suburban money for them that quarter. Nobody was happy to see us, especially when we accidentally knocked on their door twice in the same evening, which happened surprisingly often.

In our defense, it was very difficult to tell visually if we had already been to a certain house. Just like in 90’s UO, they all conformed to a small range of styles, and they were all decorated from the same catalogue of accoutrements; after all, everybody bought their stuff from the same Target or Walmart up the road. Recognizing a Welcome Friends doormat, or the No Solicitors sign on a door, didn’t mean anything when half the houses on the street had the same one

At the end of every shift, we’d pass the same neighborhood in the opposite direction, having taken in six hours of vitriol, cynicism, and misery from the people who lived there. I’d almost feel guilty, leaving them behind. Like we were marooning them, in those bleak, angry houses, sitting on their shitty, everyday-low-priced dragon hoards. I’d watch them disappear in the rearview and think about how this was the best thing to do in the suburbs: leave.

The biggest difference between the Columbus suburbs in 2009 and the UO suburbs in 1999 was the strangely open-door nature of UO’s prefab dwellings. Despite the ability to lock other players out, most homeowners left their front doors open for anyone who pleased to wander in. It made sense; other than extra storage space, all you could really use it for was a personal museum.

The security of houses meant you could put your most treasured items on display without fear of theft. Generally, all you or anyone could do with these treasures was look at them. Most of the game’s coveted “rares” were pure set-pieces, notable only for the fact that there were so few of them: things like a whip, or a deck of cards, or a horse bridle, that seemed like they should have some kind of function, but didn’t. The early days of UO were full of these seemingly half-finished or abandoned features, which, at least for me, was part of the charm. But it also meant that the absolute apex of the in-game economy was centered around things that had no use, other than bragging rights.

A place in UO’s suburbs, when you got right down to it, was largely a way to tell everyone passing by, look how much time I have spent here; look how much gold I have, how dedicated I am to this world. All that time, all that gold, just to put a summary of your gaming experience into your very own online money prison.

A curious player working their way through the overbuilt countryside had access to shrine after shrine, dedicated to each individual homeowner’s unique Ultima Online experience. The true suburban bleakness of it was the fact that all of those experiences were the same one: the one that led to getting a house, by grinding away in dungeons, chasing gold and rares (or not doing those things, but paying real-world currency to other people who had). Just like the real suburbs, everybody had the same shit. Your digital dragon hoard, in a world where another whole-ass dragon spawned every few minutes.

I went off to college in ‘03, new owner of an Apple computer, unable to run UO or any other MMO except Everquest (which, ehhh). I left behind a game that I had watched, for years, try and fail to form a fully coherent play experience. I had loved most of its clumsy experiments to that end: the hideous, buggy 3D client that made people look like weird aliens, and the new monsters designed by Spawn creator Todd McFarlane, which looked like they’d been copy-pasted in from, like, a Call of Cthulhu game. But none of these had addressed the homogenized, consumeristic feel that the housing system had lent Brittannia, and over time, it felt less and less like the kind of escape I had sought as a 14-year-old private school fugitive. Leaving UO, in the end, felt like a relief; after all, that’s the best thing you can do in the suburbs.

I departed for the East Coast, to go try and be someone else. For real, this time.