Ep. 20: Text Adventure Gemstone III with Liz Landau

Journalist Liz Landau reminisces about the old days of text-based adventuring through MUDs (Multi User Dungeons) and how they’re the stepping stones to all current-day MMO’s and social media platforms from her Wired article, “How Old-School Text Adventures Inspired Our Virtual Spaces.” Though some thought the internet was just a passing fad, others dove head first into this game, Gemstone III, they saw on the AOL home page. Imagine: that text wedding cake tasting you held for your in-game wedding for your role playing character is the reason you can now claim Instagram Model as a career.

See more from Liz Landau:

Website: lizlandau.com

Twitter: @lizlandau

YouTube: /lizlandau

Podcast: Pod Paper Scissors – podpaperscissors.com

The Video Game History Hour music is Blippy Trance by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com) Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 4.0 License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/


Kelsey Lewin  00:09

Welcome to episode # 20 of the Video Game History Hour presented by the Video Game History Foundation. Every episode we’ll be bringing in an expert guest, someone who’s done their research and has an interesting story for video game history to tell. My name is Kelsey Lewin. I’m the co-director of the Video Game History Foundation. And I’m here as always with Frank Cifaldi, the founder and co-director of the Video Game History Foundation.

Frank Cifaldi  00:31

Our guest today is science writer and reporter Liz Landau. Her recently published article How Old School Text Adventures Inspired Our Virtual Spaces dove into the history of MUDs explaining their history, not just in terms of video game history, but really in the Internet as we know it today. Liz, welcome to the Video Game History Hour.

Liz Landau  00:51

Thank you.  It’s great to be here.

Frank Cifaldi  00:53

It’s great to have you. So just to start things off. When I say MUD, what is it that I’m talking about? What is a MUD?

Liz Landau  00:59

So MUD stands for Multi-User Dungeon. And that term actually goes all the way back to the 1970s, which is really even before the Internet as we know it. It actually began with a couple of students at the University of Essex in the UK, Richard Bartle, and Roy Trubshaw, they created this computer game with that they called Multi-User Dungeon or MUD. And the idea was that it was a text adventure that anyone could play if they were connected to the school’s server. Now again, let’s remember that in the 1970s, there was no world wide web, there was no way that people could collaborate with anybody from around the world just in on a daily basis the way that we do today. So this was actually really revolutionary. And when people think about, you know, what was the origin of the kind of games where anybody, regardless of their location could play together. In some sense. It really began with MUD.

Frank Cifaldi  02:11

And so the I mean, this is, at least back then, like, there are sort of video game mechanics to it, right? There’s combat and looting and things like that.

Liz Landau  02:22

Yeah. So what I was most interested in looking at is this idea of exploring a virtual space, only in text. And again, back in the 70s, and 80s, because graphics were so primitive computing in general was so primitive compared to today, people really imagined their worlds with words. And yeah, they would navigate these worlds with commands like look, or open, or go left, go right, go north, you know, use a sword against creature with certain commands. And these things all developed in the 70s and 80s.

Frank Cifaldi  03:08

Right. And really, I mean, in your article even states this, right, like the the MUDs sort the spawns from the text adventure, right? Like, you could even go all the way back to Colossal Cave Adventure, which is kind of considered the first text adventure, the predecessor to things like Zork. And and it seems to me, again, as someone who’s not played a MUD that that, essentially a MUD is a text adventure like this, but that exists in a persistent virtual space with multiple users being able to exist at the same time. Is that is that about, right?

Liz Landau  03:44

That’s right. And I talked to a developer, Raph Koster, who says that, really everything that we do right now with social media, also everything that we do with things like Pokemon Go, where we’re interacting with other people around the world, in these collaborative ways. These can all actually really be traced back to MUD. And before that, really two, Colossal Cave Adventure from 1976.

Frank Cifaldi  04:13

I mean, Raph would say that as, as the Ultima Online developer, Raph is a treat we love Raph. So you yourself, were a MUD player in the 90s.

Liz Landau  04:27

Yeah. And it really, I think that whatever you were doing in the 1990s really depended on how old you were and you know, kind of what stage of life you were in. I think I was–

Frank Cifaldi  04:40

Feel like you’re getting ready to defend yourself here already.

Liz Landau  04:45

And I only say that because like, you know, I have friends who were born in the 1990s today, and so when I talk about being kicked off the Internet because my grandmother called they’ve never had that experience.

Kelsey Lewin  04:58

I was born in the 90s I had that experience. Alright well, I mean, I guess it depends when in the 90s you were born, but

Liz Landau  05:06


Kelsey Lewin  05:08

So what, what got you into? I mean, how did you find MUDs? How was this world opened up to you?

Liz Landau  05:17

Yeah. So when I was 13, and I was in seventh grade, this was 1997, my friend, Arianna told me and a bunch of our friends about this game that she was playing called Gemstone III. And we had all very recently gotten America Online accounts, which was already a huge revolution that we could actually, you know, instead of passing notes in class, what’s the point of that when you can actually be at home, typing to each other, like, you know, for hours, I really loved the ability to chat with my friends, I would actually go into chat rooms. Again, this was the 90s. So there weren’t as many, like controls for kids on these kinds of things. In any case, like, you know, I really enjoyed being able to, to communicate by text, which was a brand new thing. And so Arianna told us about this game called Gemstone III. And you know, I went home that night, and I logged on, I created an account. And it gives you the ability to create a character. So I created this character named Lilybet, she was a bard, and she could cast spells to paralyze and slay monsters. And she could go around this world called Wehnimer’s Landing, you know, meeting people and, and hunting these creatures and gaining experience points. And it was like nothing I had ever experienced before. Because not only was I playing a game, I was playing a game with other people who weren’t in the same room. And I was playing a game, both with people that I knew and with strangers, and you could just chat in the text in the game, you know, as part of the story that was unfolding before you. So yeah, I would say I was really into it for a lot of 1997. And so were my closest friends from seventh grade.

Kelsey Lewin  07:17

So I want to jump back a little bit and, and talk about kind of the history of Gemstone, because obviously, I mean, we make a pretty big jump here from the 70s to to Gemstone III, being on America Online. There’s a couple of decades in there. So how did how did Gemstone come about?

Liz Landau  07:39

Yeah, so I was actually inspired to look into the history of this because I recently found my diary from when I was 13. And I was…

Kelsey Lewin  07:50

That rules.

Liz Landau  07:50


Kelsey Lewin  07:51

That’s awesome.

Frank Cifaldi  07:53

Wait, did you did you write down like your stats and stuff?

Liz Landau  07:56

Yeah, no, I was really struck by how many of my diary entries were actually about Gemstone, and actually about how I was interacting with my own friends through Gemstone, how I was interacting with this boy that I had a crush on through Gemstone. Like, you know, all of these like, things that would happen to a 13 year old. Normally, we’re actually happening in this fantasy world in some sense. And so that got me thinking, what like, how did this game come about? And so I reached out to some of the early developers and I also made contact with the creator of this game, David Whatley. And he is from the St. Louis Missouri area. He was a college student who was not super into college, he liked creative writing, and not much else. And he kind of loved not only playing some of these early MUDs, these Zork style games, but also writing them himself. And he wrote a very early version of Gemstone, he also wrote some other early MUDs. And he actually ended up pairing up with some investors and starting a company called Simutronics. And they actually launched on this very early internet platform called the GEnie from General Electric, which I’ve never even seen, you know, this was back in the very early 90s, or I guess, even late 80s at this point. But Gemstone didn’t really become the huge phenomenon that it was until they partnered up with AOL, because AOL had this huge subscriber base. And when you logged on to AOL, you could see immediately like how to access the Gemstone portal basically. So so that was huge. them and they had about 2000 simultaneous users at any one time back in the mid 90s. And, you know, for today, it’s like 2000 people like whatever. But for the mid 90s, to have 2000 people on an online forum at the very same time, like this was revolutionary.

Kelsey Lewin  10:22

When I mean, not everyone had the Internet, even in the mid 90s, we’re still, we’re still a ways away from, you know, grandma and grandpa and everyone in the world, wanting to be online and having things to do online too.

Liz Landau  10:37

Oh, absolutely. And, you know, I, I feel fortunate that I was, in some sense, an Internet pioneer, although I was only 13 years old. I didn’t invent anything. But I did get to experience this very different culture of the Internet at that time, where it was, like kids like me. And then, you know, people who were very interested in technology and moving this new mysterious thing forward, like my best friend actually said that his brother at that time, you know, who was only like 4 or 5 years older than us. Like he actually, like, thought the Internet was like that, in general, the Internet was like a passing fad, right? There wasn’t yet like this sense that this was going to take over everything. And that, you know, newspapers, were gonna be largely read online and magazines and everything like that.

Kelsey Lewin  11:28

So I have a really nitty gritty question for you that I’m not sure if you know, but in your article, you said that the first Gemstone was Gemstone II, why was the first Gemstone that they released? Gemstone II,

Frank Cifaldi  11:41

Thank you for writing that question down. I forgot to.

Liz Landau  11:46

You know, it’s funny, I didn’t actually ask David that. But, you know, it has crossed my mind. And what I like, largely confident about is that Gemstone 1 is the thing that he wrote, originally, like, for himself as a MUD. Right, and then I believe that Gemstone II was, what they launched on the GEnie that became this interactive,

Kelsey Lewin  12:12

I follow that logic. That makes sense to me.

Frank Cifaldi  12:14

But how am I going to know all the lore? So, you know, we like to talk about approach and and process here. Because, you know, we’ve done this kind of work ourselves, right? We’re historians, we’ve published things.

Liz Landau  12:31

Oh, actually sorry, I just found an answer to your question.

Frank Cifaldi  12:34

Yes, please, please.

Kelsey Lewin  12:36

I didn’t think to Google this or anything.

Liz Landau  12:39

No. Elonka Dunin in who we might discuss later. She was one of the early Gemstone developers and she actually has the timeline on her website that has helped me a lot in reconstructing this history. And what she says is that in 1987, Gemstone 1 demoed to the GEnie under Simutronics’ pre-incorporation named Crystal Blade. So that was like the first name of David Whatley’s company, Crystal Blade, and, and the demo that he showed to the GEnie platform was called Gemstone, 1. And it wasn’t officially opened until 1988. And that’s it. The point it was Gemstone II.

Frank Cifaldi  13:19

So so no one outside of the developer has has existed in the original Gemstone. Wow.

Liz Landau  13:26

I guess that’s true. That’s so interesting.

Kelsey Lewin  13:28


Frank Cifaldi  13:32

So yeah, we like to talk about process here. And, you know, how we sort of approach people throughout history and speak to them and things like that. You managed to speak to at least a couple developers from Simutronics. How did you find them? And and, you know, were they happy to talk? Were they kind of weirded out? Like, why are you talking to me about this old stuff?

Liz Landau  13:58

Oh, yeah, no, great question. So actually, I think the first person I made contact with was Elonka. And I should say, I’ve actually now done two different pieces, one for Gizmodo, and one for WIRED, just because like, there was so much interesting material, and I wanted to do a personal essay, and I wanted to do more of a reported piece. And but yeah, even for the first one, Elonka was really essential to my understanding of history. And I found her I believe, because of Raph Koster, actually, because he has a website. And it has a lot of this like MUD history on it. And I believe he from that website, links to Elonka’s timeline that I was just referring to, and I was like, Okay, well, she has the timeline of the whole Simutronics history then she must be like the person to talk to. And when I talked to her, and we had an amazing and delightful conversation and it was like meeting an old friend who, even though we had never met, we talked on the phone. And like, we just had so many shared memories of the Gemstone world I guess, like, it was just amazing to hear her talk about kind of the, behind the scenes where she, as one of the developers, you know, could be in the game with people and changing things in real time. So if like people are in Cathedral setting, like she might say, like the wind chimes, shimmer, or like, you know, you when you’re in a location in the text based world, even if you’re not doing anything, sometimes they’ll just be lines of text, that pop up kind of just describing what is happening in that scene. And the fact that I realized that she was one of the authors of the scenes as they were happening, like, that is so amazing, right? Especially having been on the side of it. It’s just a player when I was 13 years old, like, wow, like, this is somebody who, who really shaped what I was seeing at that time.  So that was–

Frank Cifaldi  16:07

I mean.. you’re talking to a god.

Liz Landau  16:10

Yeah exactly, exactly, yeah.

Frank Cifaldi  16:14

You know you mentioned how she could sort of in real time start, you know, actively describing things right. And I don’t know whenever whenever I hear about user experiences on MUDs, it’s it’s like, they already accomplished what I think a lot of startup money is trying to accomplish right now. So you talk about Sandy Springer, for example, in the in your article, flirting with someone by by turning them into a frog.

Liz Landau  16:43


Kelsey Lewin  16:44

Which has been done too

Frank Cifaldi  16:45

And well, what it’s like, to me the only difference between that and like what people are seeing or thinking about with stuff like Ready Player One is that it’s a regular frog and not like the Honey Smacks frog. Like they already did it. And I just wonder, like, you know, like, does adding fidelity to a graphical MUD actually make it more immersive?

Liz Landau  17:14

When you say fidelity, what do you mean?

Frank Cifaldi  17:16

I guess graphics? I don’t mean further prose, I guess.

Liz Landau  17:23

Yeah, no, it’s so interesting. I mean, for me, in particular, I’ve never gotten into any of the graphics based MUDs, which are now called MMORPG, these are things like League of Legends, World of Warcraft, things where you have, you know, not just 1000s, but possibly even millions of players, and they can all be existing in this world that has graphics. For some reason, even though I was really into Gemstone, which was text based, like I’ve never really, it just now hasn’t appeal to me to play a graphics based MMORPG. And maybe I’m just a person who likes words, but I just really enjoyed the the aspect of just imagining what is happening, as opposed to like the screen showing me what is happening. I know, there are other people who feel the same way that especially back in the mid 90s, when this was all very new and magical, like the fact that we could imagine what was happening was even more compelling than seeing some graphics,

Kelsey Lewin  18:36

Right? Because I mean, we didn’t throw away books, when movies became a thing, you know, it wasn’t like, well, we now we have this new way of telling stories. So screw the old way of telling stories, you know.  So it makes a lot of sense to me that there’s still a lot of things that text can express and make you feel I mean, rather than just what you can see with your eyes and hear, you know, with whatever audio a game is providing, you can talk about how something smells and talk about you know, what a weird, like, chill you might be getting in the air and that sort of thing that still, you know, barring like a Ready Player One scenario. We just we don’t have the option to do that. And, to Frank’s point, I don’t know that it really adds as much as people think it does.

Liz Landau  19:30

Definitely, it was also very striking to me. There’s this whole kind of other dimension to Gemstone and its sister game Dragon Realms as they evolved. You know, people wanted to have elaborate weddings in the games and they would pay real money to have somebody on the Simutronic side actually write out the scenery for their wedding. Even the food for their wedding, they would have food tastings with It just blows my mind that you would have like a text based food tasting. Right? Like, you know, you would have like the cake written out for you, and that this would be something I would never even think of this. Right? That’s just how into this world people were.

Kelsey Lewin  20:19

And I think that’s something so interesting, especially from when you’re trying to cover something like this from a historical standpoint, I mean, you can’t just be like, okay, go play Gemstone. And you’ll, you’ll see, it’s, you know, it’s exactly the same, or I mean, especially, like, let’s say 50, 100 years from now, if it’s not run by real people anymore, and it’s just kind of whatever show was leftover. I mean, things were being manipulated in real time, they were building the world, in real time. And that’s a difficult thing to that’s a difficult thing to kind of, like preserve, and make sure people understand about this world, because it’s not always going to be an easy thing to recreate.

Liz Landau  21:03

Definitely. And it was actually really striking to me when I was talking to David Whatley, and, you know, I was very upfront about the fact that I had played it. And you know, we were also kind of reminiscing about it. And he said to me that, like you couldn’t make this game today. And that he actually doesn’t think that the value of the game is the game itself. It’s the community that has grown around it. And like that was really striking to me. Like, I think that I do think there’s something special about the game itself. But it’s also in the context of the people who were playing it in its heyday. And, you know, apparently, they do get, you know, repeat players from 20 years ago now. And they have all that data. And I did this myself, I actually requested my old character, and they gave it back to me. Like, it was, it was an amazing experience to to get back into the game. But again, it was because I had all of this this context and memories. And it would be interesting to know, like, if somebody played it today, without any context whatsoever, like what would they think?

Frank Cifaldi  22:13

Yeah. And, you know, you say in the piece that, essentially the, their entire business now is, is just bringing back old players it, it didn’t seem to me that they’re attracting new players to this. And I just kind of wonder if that’s even possible anymore?

Liz Landau  22:31

Yeah. And I mean, for the creator himself to be like, yeah, you can’t get new players that was really interesting. He’s like, yeah, we spend no money on advertising. Like, we are only reaching out to the former players. And I don’t know about you guys, but like, I’ve never heard of this game in any other context from throughout my life. Like, you know, sometimes I might have thought of it a little bit, but I’ve never heard anyone else mentioned Gemstone. And so that was another reason why I wanted to research it is like, I obviously wasn’t the only one who was playing it. But it was, it was simultaneously a very niche community, but also a very broad community, because it was sort of the most popular thing of its kind at that particular moment.

Frank Cifaldi  23:21

Well, right, and I don’t know, it’s like, part of the reason that we wanted to talk to you really was that we, I think that video game history tends to overlook some things that don’t entirely fit the mold. And something like Gemstone III. Well, first of all, in arguably a video game, you know, you might call it more of a virtual world than a game, but it’s it is a video game. And not only is it a video game, it’s something that was included on the most popular internet service provider of its day like it, it was kind of a big deal, even though it’s essentially been forgotten in terms of our history canon.

Liz Landau  24:08

Absolutely. And again, like remembering what the Internet was capable of in 1997 when I was a teenager, I mean, this was in some sense, like, the height of achievement at that time, even though maybe you didn’t get so much credit for it. It wasn’t the first it was definitely wasn’t the first collaborative MUD. And it definitely wasn’t the first MMORPG but it was at this pivotal point in our internet history where people could meet, interact, and not just talk but feel like they were sharing something substantial online.

Frank Cifaldi  24:51

So when you spoke to Raph Koster, Raph sort of bridges, things like you know, MUDs to A lot of the ways that we occupy virtual spaces today, I mean, he even makes a comparison to Twitter, can you? Can you sort of explain what he means by all that?

Liz Landau  25:11

Yeah. So and when you really think about what is Twitter, Twitter is a shared virtual space in which there are these rules for interaction, there are ways that you can communicate very publicly or privately. And, you know, disregarding all of the kind of controversy and disregarding the fact that it has been a source of strength for some people, you know, there are a lot of positives and having a very structured way in which you can access people from around the world and see what they’re up to. And, you know, while you’re not slaying dragons together, there are some senses in which Twitter is a collaborative platform, and then we go back to worlds like Gemstone, you know, it was also a shared virtual space that was unfolding in text. And, you know, if you use a service like TweetDeck, you know, the tweets are going by kind of fast. And if you’re in Gemstone, the text is moving by kind of fast, and you can be talking to people at the same time. So yeah, I mean, there, there are definitely commonalities. And I think there are a lot of people from my generation, who really learned how to communicate online, through things like Gemstone, but also chat rooms. And you know, now we have Twitter. So I think that’s where that connection comes from.

Frank Cifaldi  26:48

For me, I’m thinking about it. And it’s like, it kind of feels like when we introduced this notion of a virtual space. We kind of needed real world analogs to understand that right, like, okay, Oh, I get it. I’m in, I don’t know, pub, a cave. Like, I know what these things are. And I can imagine myself in them. And it’s almost like, you know, 20, 25 years later, we’ve adapted to being in virtual spaces so much that, you know, the virtuality is itself the space. So something like a Twitter maybe couldn’t have existed back then. But now we’ve come to sort of be comfortable enough with being virtual that we don’t, we don’t need to be grounded by that description of something analogous to our reality

Liz Landau  27:44

its true. And another thing I was thinking about is, you know, in Gemstone, you you make your character, you role plays that character, you put a very specific version of yourself or your dream self forward, right? And, and honestly, a lot of people do that on social media too. Like, you know, if your Facebook friend is only posting about all the awards she’s been getting, and all the beautiful babies that she’s been having, like–

Frank Cifaldi  28:13

Who are you subtweeting right now?

Liz Landau  28:16

No subtweeting. You know, like, we don’t see the real picture, like, we are all choosing what aspect of ourselves to put online and, and some people learn to do that through virtual worlds like, Gemstone, and you know, now you have very specific Facebook timelines that are, in some sense, like people role playing as their best selves.

Kelsey Lewin  28:40

And the other thing about Gemstones, too, is it’s, it gives you so much more tools for that, because you can be entirely anonymous, as opposed to, you know, something like Facebook, where if you’re changing up your hairstyle every every two weeks or whatever, and trying to put a different version of yourself forward. You know, there might be some like self consciousness that comes with that, like that, you’re still kind of indecisive about who you are, but in a role playing game and something where, you know, you get to kind of decide what you are, who you are, what you look like, without having to attach yourself permanently to it. I think that’s like a that’s a really cool and wonderful tool for a lot of people, especially in you know, when you’re like 13 in your formative years.

Liz Landau  29:30

Definitely. Another thing I’ll mention related to that is that my really good friend Geoff has told me and I actually quoted him in my Gizmodo article that, you know, as a as a queer man, when he was 13. He was able to use games like this to explore his sexuality as well. And not just Gemstone but but many other kinds of role playing games are really important to kids who are trying to understand like what is their sexual identity, especially if they grow up in communities that are very conservative and not open to frank discussions about that. These are places where queer kids can meet each other, can experiment with different kinds of identities and understand the full range of possibility.

Kelsey Lewin  30:23

I did want to sort of talk about how even the roleplay part has persisted into some of the virtual worlds that we the graphical virtual worlds that we occupied today. You quoted someone and I forgot to write it down. But how people are still using kind of these old school MUD commands in MMOs. And in fact, as someone who, you know, grew up in the 90s, early 2000s, mid 2000s, I thought they came from these MMOs, because that’s where I learned to use, you know, those sort of commands and that thing, but really, I mean, they have their roots way, way, way further back, but people are still using this like adding text to add another layer of color to the graphical worlds, like just seeing their characters and walking around. It’s not enough, it’s not the whole experience, you have to be able to say things like, you know, picks up thing and looks at it or smiles brightly, you know, and, and express to people that you’re still or express people more than what your character is capable of expressing. I found that really interesting that like, we are still doing that today, even with graphics.

Liz Landau  31:38

Yeah, so Elonka and I were talking about this. And she in particular, was saying that in Final Fantasy XIV, she’s noticing people interacting in this way, like still using text and still using these sort of descriptions of things in text, even though Final Fantasy XIV is a graphical based game. And as you were talking just now, I realized that there’s something very subtle that I’ve been saying recently that in some sense, harkens back to the original Gemstone type games, which is that sometimes, you know if I’m talking to somebody over text, I’ll say hugs, right? Like, you can’t actually hug somebody right now because of COVID. Right?

Kelsey Lewin  32:27

Right. And when emojis just don’t quite do it for some of those like there’s not there’s not good emojis for actions like.

Frank Cifaldi  32:34

I emoji hug you. Not a good hug.

Liz Landau  32:39

It’s not a good hug! Exactly, exactly. And like, in many circumstances right now, like the only way that we can convey that we wish that we were able to hug our good friend is to literally write the word hugs. And I think I learned how to interact that way to to write the word hugs in Gemstone. So I think that’s sort of another way that, that people who have learned to interact through text online, you know, 25 years ago, are still kind of perpetuating this idea that you can, even though we have like so many sophisticated graphics, and you can like send people photos, you can send people videos, but there is something still special about writing out like the action that you wish you could take.

Kelsey Lewin  33:30

Do you think more people should be writing about their experiences with these because I think it to me, it feels like this is really the only way to convey that these were important is to just do what you did, and like interview people who were there and had these feelings and, you know, had these experiences and felt like they changed their lives in some way. We you know, we don’t have like, there’s not screenshots you can take that showcase any of that, you know?

Liz Landau  34:00

Definitely. And yeah, like I didn’t save and it didn’t occur to me when I was 13 to save screenshots of my Gemstone sagas. I did actually, through internet search, find a professor, I think out in California who wrote a blog post about his Gemstone experiences, and he had a lot of very similar memories and really interesting philosophical takes on it as well. And I talked about him a little bit in my Gizmodo piece. But other than his blog post, and maybe a few other blog posts, I’ve found like, I haven’t seen a lot of writing about Gemstone III or similar games of that era. And I would absolutely encourage everybody who has memories of them to to blog about them to, you know, look back and see what what you remember.

Kelsey Lewin  34:54

I think that’s something we– I mean that’s– –sorry, go ahead.

Frank Cifaldi  34:57

I mean, I think you’re about to say what I was going to say which is that? Something that is discussed a lot in our world? where, you know, we’re we’re an organization dedicated to the preservation of video game history as well. How do you preserve, you know, an online virtual experience game? Traditional video game preservation tends to be, you know, you take this old Sega or Nintendo cartridge and you copy the files from it. And, and that’s it. That’s the game. But we don’t have that notion for virtual worlds. And I think that Gemstone still existing right now is such a perfect case study for being able to demonstrate that, like the game can still exist, and you can still log in and play it. But I mean, like, you tell us Liz was when you logged in, was that the Gemstone that you played?

Liz Landau  35:50

Yeah, no, I felt like, I had two kind of reactions. One is like, Oh, my God, I have no idea what I’m doing anymore. I feel like it’s like old woman who has returned to her hometown after like, 75 years and doesn’t know where Starbucks is, you know, I literally had no idea, like what to do except for like, the super basic commands. And so my, my really good friend, Geoff, we decided to kind of do this together that we would both log in together with our old characters, and see what we could do. And so we had this experience of like, trying to find each other, like he found where the pub was. And then I had to, like figure out like, how to get directions. And there was actually like, a map you could download and all the things and, and then like, I finally found him, and I think, yeah, he said, like, Aymar hugs Lilybet and –Oh, no, I felt I felt like really a genuine elation of like reuniting with my friend who in real life I have not seen for more than a year. So like, that was a beautiful thing. And we did go like hunting in this graveyard and, and I like almost died, like pretty quickly. That was like kind of embarrassing. But yeah, I mean, like that. That was a really fun time, it wasn’t exactly the same as when we were teenagers. But but it was definitely worth doing. And I’m not sure that I’ll make it a habit of logging into Gemstone. I feel like that would be kind of a commitment. But people are doing it and you know it when you’re in these different, you know, the town square and the pub, like you get a list of like, who else is in there. And then we’re definitely like, a lot of other characters and all the spaces. So the people are definitely still playing it. And there was this one guy, I don’t remember his character’s name, but like, who could like clearly see that we were lost and actually, like helps me get like a teleportation ring and everything. Yeah, so I was like, wow, like, there’s still a lot of like goodwill in this game. And I love that there are these people who have gotten married in real life because of Gemstones. I talked to some people in California who have what they’re calling the LA crew, where there’s like 20 people who have known each other since the 90s. Because of Gemstone, and they all like hang out and before COVID would have these, like very elaborate and long lasting parties at somebody’s house in LA and yeah, I just I love that, like the community really does continue. Even if people stop playing the game itself.

Frank Cifaldi  38:38

I guess the better question is, if if I jump into Gemstone, what is it, IV?

Liz Landau  38:42


Frank Cifaldi  38:43

Is that what we’re on? Yeah, if I jump into Gemstone IV right now. Am I having? Am I experiencing the experience you had in the 90s? Or is this now a completely different game?

Liz Landau  38:55

So it’s funny, because it is, but it isn’t like, you know, very literal sense. It is the same game. It’s the same framework, it’s the same location, they’ve actually expanded the worlds you can you can go into many other, I guess realms or cities or whatever. And there are many more commands, and there are many more things that one can do. I guess. It’s not the same in the sense of when I was 13. There was just a lot of exploring in this world and like talking to strangers like and, you know, role playing and things like that. And I guess I’m not sure how much of that happens today. And I’m not sure how much of it is that we as a internet faring society, like we just we communicate very differently to strangers online than we did in the mid 90s. Like I feel I–

Kelsey Lewin  39:57

Right, you can’t bring the context Have the mid 90s. Back. That’s, that will always be a missing component.

Liz Landau  40:04

Yeah. And I think in a very genuine sense, when I logged on to AOL when I was 13 years old, and I would play Gemstone or go into a chat room, I had this feeling of, Oh, I’m gonna make a new friend today. Like, who says that anymore? online? Like, when was the last time you thought that you’re going to make a new friends? Just by hanging out in virtual spaces? I just feel like that approach has completely changed. And I would be interested to know if people actually make friends on Gemstone today, or if like, the friendships that were formed online 25 years ago, or more, like, if that was very particular to that moment?

Kelsey Lewin  40:49

Yes, I think what we’re getting at here is, you know, what people I think often neglect in figuring out how we preserve video game history and how we think about video game history. And you know, what’s going to be important in 100 years is I think what gets neglected is, all of these stories in the, you know, the articles you wrote, are probably going to be infinitely more useful than actually jumping in to Gemstone IV as a historian in 100 years. Like, those are going to color the experience and provide a more a more accurate representation of what the game was and what it meant for people and what the culture was, then the game itself. And so I think that sometimes kind of is missing in the focus of game preservation is that we get so. So beaten down, and so worried about making sure that the games are still playable, that we’ve missed kind of like what was important about those games.

Liz Landau  41:55

Okay, so that really warms my heart. And I feel like super honored I, I definitely did not have that in mind when I wrote these articles. But thank you, I hope they are useful in 100 years. But I will say it did make me think about the fact that when I was researching the early MUDs, when I was trying to find out information about Zork, and you can see what Zork looked like and everything, but it wasn’t, it wasn’t super meaningful to me, because I don’t know this world like and it’s not the early 80s anymore. But I found this review of the game in which this reviewer is just so elated by the idea that he could write, eats the lunch and drinks the water and have a text line in response to that, saying that he like he enjoyed his lunch and drank his water. Like, like that was so novel at that time, and so meaningful and like, you know, for me into in 2020, when I was researching this, like, you know, I couldn’t have appreciated how amazing that was, without having read his review of it. It is kinda like what you’re saying, like, his emotional reaction to it is what gives it meaning not just like, the line of text, like he ate the lunch, right?

Kelsey Lewin  43:15


Frank Cifaldi  43:16

Yeah, and it’s, I don’t know, it’s, I guess I’m gonna bring up Farmville. Again, it’s the Farmville problem, I think, which is that I guess Farmville actually got shut down recently, or is about to so this doesn’t quite apply anymore. But like, if if you actually play Farmville now, I, I don’t think that you are experiencing what made Farmville a phenomenon because you’re not getting, you know, carrot requests from your aunt that you haven’t talked to in a year or whatever, it’s just not the same experience, even if the game is literally the same. And, and, you know, I think that’s why we keep bringing this up. It’s just we it’s oral history for these moments like that, I think is preserving what the game was more than it would be if I were to give you a playable copy of Farmville right now.

Liz Landau  44:08

Yeah, for sure, if I haven’t even heard the word Farmville in a long time, like you didn’t like what you’re saying. I’m like, Yeah, like that was, that was a big thing. Yeah. Like I knew people who were like sending me carrot requests or whatever. And like, I didn’t know what to do with them, and then just kind of like faded and I haven’t heard about in a while. But yeah, I mean, as you’re saying, like it’s it’s really about, like how people use the thing, not what the thing literally was. Well, that got really philosophical. That’s what we=re a show about right?

Frank Cifaldi  44:40


Kelsey Lewin  44:40


Frank Cifaldi  44:41

Yeah, not not history philosophy. Liz, thank you so much for joining us on the Video Game History Hour. Where can people find you on the Internet and what else are you working on right now?

Liz Landau  44:56

Yeah, it’s been such a pleasure being here with you guys. So you You can find more of my articles at LizLandau.com. You can follow me on Twitter: @LizLandau and I have a podcast that I co-host with economist Ben Klemens. It’s called Pod Paper Scissors. And it’s all about game theory and everyday life.

Frank Cifaldi  45:19

Thank you so much.

Kelsey Lewin  45:21

Thanks for listening to the Video Game History Hour brought to you by the Video Game History Foundation. If you have questions or comments for the show, you can find us on Twitter @GameHistoryHour or email us at Podcast@GameHistory.org  Did you know the Video Game History Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit and then all of your contributions are tax deductible? You can support this podcast and all of our other work on Patreon or at GameHistory.org/Donate. This episode of the Video Game History Hour was produced by Robin Kunimune and edited by Michael Carrell. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll see you next time.