How Dungeons & Dragons and spelunking birthed the internet

Photo by Jordan Sellergren
Photo by Jordan Sellergren

There is this great moment in Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary when Emma — the main character — stares at a mirror at home. She’d just cheated on her husband for the first time, and finds herself dazzling, mesmerizing, whole in the intimacy of her bedroom. Had she owned a smartphone, she would have taken a selfie immediately and uploaded it to her Instagram account — “Looking fabulous!!” — but Emma Bovary’s time was that of an analogic burgeoisie, devoted to mirrors and salons. Today we like to spend our time in the Cloud, mingling with a ubiquitous, hypersensitive, playful screen.

“La peau est ce qu’il y a de plus profond” [The skin is the deepest thing there is], said French poet Paul Valéry. Our digital mirrors are not meant just to stare at; they long for our caress. Emma Bovary lived in an immediate world, for she didn’t see the mirror, but what she believed was herself in it. The mirror remained invisible to her, even though it was there, framing, fleshing out her petite middle-class fantasy. Today, though, the mirror is all we care about. Our digital playground brings every interface to the fore, revealing our mediated condition. Our age is not as much about taking for granted the light playing on a clean surface as it is about shaping light itself with our fingertips. We love our smartphones and tablets because their iridescent skin makes light available to us. Malleable light, like clay, from which to create an avatar in our own image.

Emma Bovary didn’t have an avatar. She did her best to impersonate her romantic fantasies, to become the image in the mirror. We like to believe that we know better than that. When we apply a vintage filter to capture the nostalgia of our present we are well aware of what is at stake. We have become the executive producers of our digital personae. We choose the best settings for a photo shoot, act as photographers, pose for them, edit and promote the pictures, pitch a wonderful life, postcard by postcard, comment by comment. In the myriad roles we play each day to achieve this, our avatar is just a character.

Interestingly enough, we love our way of life. Profile management is a lot of fun. Emma Bovary couldn’t stand her fantasy and ended up poisoning herself, but we love Tinder, Grindr, Snapchat, Instagram or Facebook, to name just a few of the places on can pitch themselves. Just pick your poison; there is much more than arsenic in the App Store. Instead of feeling utterly lost in the digital labyrinth, we choose to embrace it, and the reason for that goes beyond the literary fantasy of being someone else and digs into the nature of the very medium that we have learned to love.

The internet is a serious and massive online role-playing game, not a novel or any other type of linear discourse. This is not a petty difference, for it changes the way our sentimentality reaches out to the other. If the internet were a novel in which to project our fantasies it would be a Choose Your Own Adventure book, not Madame Bovary. The world wide web is all about making choices, deciding which path to take, turning to the page that better suits our expectations. It comes as no surprise that the evolution of the medium ran in parallel with that of video games, since many of the ways we learned to browse the web come from the way we have fun with the machines that gave birth to it.

Dungeons & Dragons players at Geek City in Coalville -- photo by Jordan Sellergren
Dungeons & Dragons players at Geek City in Coralville — photo by Jordan Sellergren

Take the case of the first online role-playing game ever created. Will Crowther was working at ARPAnet, helping in the development of what later would be called the internet. He had gone through a divorce in 1975 and, feeling estranged from his two daughters, he had a brilliant idea. Instead of falling in the epistolary genre, best suited for the time of Emma Bovary, he decided to write his daughters a story with the technology that he was helping to develop. This story, written in silicon in 1976, was called Colossal Cave Adventure and it worked like the world wide web, only before such thing existed.

Crowther’s cave was a dungeon where you had to figure your way out. There were no images, only text, and you had to write commands in a parser the same way that today we google things. Three ideas converged to put this adventure together: Dungeons & Dragons — the tabletop role-playing game that Crowther liked to play at the moment — spelunking — the cave is actually a map of some of the caves that Crowther liked to explore in his free time — and the technology that was setting the standards for the Internet revolution.

That is, Will Crowther set a new narrative into which to project our fantasies. Borrowing the themes and the fun of Dungeons & Dragons (a game characterized for making profile management fun) he conceived the open, forking nature of computers, as a place where to find ourselves and reach for the other.

We don’t know how much his daughters liked the game (one of the first video games, and an early piece of interactive fiction), but the influence of Colossal Cave Adventure still resonates today. Back in the day, and due to the lack of, well, internet, the video game became a cult classic. People would play — and perfect — it around different university campuses. By the ’80s, when better online connections were available, the text adventure genre was already well established and the first MUDs — multi-user dungeons — saw the dawn of the first internet communities figuring out how to chat and convey emotions with just text while they slashed digital goblins. Emoticons popped up in these infinite caves, out of sheer fun.

Photo by Jordan Sellergren
Photo by Jordan Sellergren

The same way that romantic novels showed Emma Bovary the path to the center of her desire, online role-playing games were putting the social potential of the internet to test. Profile management, chats and emoticons — the basis of any digital social network today, from Twitter to LinkedIn — were tested and perfected here. It was just a matter of time before someone came up with the notion of a digital avatar. It was Richard Garriott, one of the video game moguls of the moment. The developer of the Ultima saga (spanning from 1981 to 2013), saw in Avatar — the main character of the story — the embodiment of the player fantasy. This game’s character creation isn’t unlike that of tabletop role-playing games, where you have to choose all sort of features and or attributes, the same way that you do today when you sign in to Facebook or Google. When Ultima went online in 1997 it became a social phenomenon, being one of the very first massive online communities on the internet, setting the basis for our social interactions online.

From emojis to profile pictures, online role-playing games constitute the underlying narrative of our digital avatars, the same way that the mirror framed that of Emma Bovary. We are not readers anymore, but players; and the games we play conform us without us being fully aware of them. The challenge, in my humble opinion, is not necessarily to break the mirror, nor to stop playing, but rather to see the mirror and ponder what it is at stake when we play. Games can be as freeing as they are alienating, and it is in our hands to make the best out of them. Take this as an old lesson, learned after thousands of games in the deepest dungeons of the web: the last thing that you want to do on the internet is to feed the troll.

Pablo Rodríguez Balbontín is a native of Sevilla, Spain. He is presently a doctoral candidate in Spanish literature at the University of Iowa, where he is investigating the interrelationships among literature, gaming and the media in the context of digitalization. Interests include sharing Spanish culture, literature and specifically poetry, through translation. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 202.

Curious what's happening this weekend? Sign up here to stay in the know.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Keep it free.

Voluntary contributions from readers like you help keep Little Village free for everyone.

Please consider a one-time or monthly sustaining contribution, in any amount.


A collaboration between The Englert Theatre and FilmScene


Help us build the greatest small city for the arts in America—right here in Iowa City. Learn more »

Donate Today

Strengthen • Grow • Evolve is a collaborative campaign led by two Iowa City-based arts nonprofits, The Englert Theatre and FilmScene that seeks a major reinvestment to strengthen the arts through modern and historic venues, innovative programming, and new models of collaboration.

Little Village's

The results are in! Find out which of your favorite CR and IC haunts took home a prize.