The gaming scene’s collective memory of the turn of the millennium paints a picture of a time full of LAN parties where people lugged heavy CRT monitors. Counterstrike clans were founded on a weekly base, and websites and edgy forum banners were crafted for them with specially acquired HTML and Paintshop Pro skills. Shooters and strategy games were modded. And all that with your buddies after class, because the origins of this scene were male students. I can understand why the same images keep coming up. Most game journalists seem to write only about what they themselves experienced at that time. My experiences are quite different, though, and for a change I would like to talk about the more diverse parts of the early, tech-savvy gaming scene.
In 1998, I was a big fan of the PC games Creatures and Creatures 2. Around that time, I also had the opportunity to explore the Internet, and that was a good fit. I ended up in my first online community with other Creatures fans. It was made up of what felt like half women, many of them significantly older than me. They ran websites, organized meetups, and programmed their own mods. In hindsight, I think this mix was the perfect entry point for me because there was no gatekeeping and everyone felt welcome. I was curious to learn about all kinds of complex technical stuff, because there were no comments like “You’re a girl and you’re doing that?”. You could find many tutorials and helpful people who patiently answered noob questions. My own modding attempts didn’t really work out, but I was motivated by the Creatures community to teach myself HTML for my own fan page, and web design would even become my job years later. My first get-together with strangers from the internet was also with Creatures fans, even though there were only four of us. I alone with three older women in Frankfurt, chatting about virtual beings.
Fair enough, but aren’t these experiences just a cute anecdote about a niche fandom? It may be hard to believe today because it sadly gets so little mention in games journalism, but the Creatures scene was big back then. The relevant wiki lists 359 websites on the subject, which is only the tip of the iceberg because, for instance, the German websites I visited at the time are mostly missing. There were mailing lists, chat rooms, forums and said exceptionally active modding scene. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was one of the leading ones at that time. Especially popular were fan-designed objects that could be inserted into the world to let the norns interact with them. Redesigned skins or completely new worlds were also created. This was most comparable to The Sims, which was successful a few years later. In order for the norns to interact with a self-created object, you had to learn a programming language, and yet many fans tried their hand at it.
Fair enough, but isn’t that just silly child’s game? Creatures‘ reputation changed completely in the 2000s, unfortunately. After the third part was less successful, the publisher focused more on the cuddle factor than the scientific approach and marketed the series as a lowbrow Tamagotchi. It was also around this time that the distinction between games that required skill and casual games that catered to the growing female demographic emerged. I feel that with this re-evaluation of the series, a fan scene was pushed into a corner that didn’t fit it at all, and that the large female (or “not your typical gamer”) user base may have played a role in that. What’s interesting about Creatures is that in the 90s it wasn’t even considered a “game” by many fans because it took a sophisticated, scientific approach – casual my ass! The first part was a life simulation ahead of its time, and was received with respect. The first article I read about it was not in a game magazine, but in “Spektrum der Wissenschaft”, which dedicated a big report to it, and through which you could order the software directly. Richard Dawkins called it a “quantum leap in the development of artificial life”. And I learned more from studying chemicals, biology, and the genetics of my Norns than in many school lessons. Admittedly, we sometimes exaggerated a bit with what we read into this artificial life. But the community projects were no less challenging than the creation of CS maps shortly after.
All of this seems to have been forgotten. It’s a pity that the Creatures community is so often completely ignored in retrospectives on the history of the gaming scene. My first online community, which shaped me like no other, and which was so exciting and diverse. It doesn’t deserve this, especially because it shows that it wasn’t just pubescent boys who were having all the fun back then.
In Creatures, a simulation released for the PC in 1996, you could interact with so-called norns and monitor their bodily functions, but you couldn’t directly control these cute animals. They populated their own world, and successful breeding was still crucial in the first part, because you only got a limited number of eggs included. Creatures was created by Steve Grand, who made a name for himself with his research in the field of artificial life.
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