When I was 13, I had my first kiss, got engaged twice, performed a wedding ceremony, telepathically communicated with crystal amulets, and sang songs to cast spells. It was a mystical era in Wehnimer’s Landing, the main town in a game called GemStone III.
This place and I existed in lines of black serif font—there were no graphics during game play. This world became my obsession as I walked north, south, east, and west, interacting with people and creatures and places through the verbs that I typed. In 1997, when I was figuring out who I was, GemStone III gave me a way to develop friendships, meet new people, and confront emotional situations. It gave me “experience points” for the real world.
The multiplayer role-playing game GemStone III launched 25 years ago on America Online (AOL), that sacred portal of connection that predates smartphones, Facebook, and Instagram. The original GemStone debuted in 1987 on General Electric’s online service GEnie. But on AOL, GemStone III quickly became one of the most popular games of its kind. At its peak, which was 1996, GemStone III had more than 2,000 simultaneous users and 1 million hours in a month—paltry by today’s standards, but huge at the time, says Elonka Dunin, former general manager and executive producer at Simutronics, the company that made GemStone III. Simutronics’ co-founder and CEO David Whatley was the main force behind the game.
GemStone III was also the first online multiplayer game accessible to people across different internet providers, Dunin says. That is, users of AOL, CompuServe, and others could simultaneously participate in the same virtual world. I kept AOL Instant Messenger open to coordinate meetups with friends, but once we were in the game, we could encounter anyone, and be anyone.
“We had people describe it as like a microcosm of society, as well, because you have humans in there, and wherever you have humans, you have everything that’s going along with humans,” Dunin said.
When you are 13, every day feels like it has the potential to become momentous and significant. For me, GemStone III gave those days a whole new level of meaning.
Growing up in a suburban Philadelphia condo building where the average resident’s age seemed to be Ancient, I felt more isolated than I do now in covid-19 quarantine mode. Baked into American suburbs is the assumption that everyone drives—but, of course, children can’t. I made up theatrical stories with my brother, but longed to be able to walk or bike somewhere, anywhere. My friends and I all lived miles apart from one another; after-school activities involved parents and planning. What’s more, I was a shy child who marveled at how everyone else seemed to know exactly what to say.
With GemStone III, suddenly I could “hang out.” I didn’t have to speak; I could type. In this virtual setting I could get to know my classmates better, but also meet total strangers from elsewhere. I learned to recognize the precise static and beeping sounds from the dial-up modem and AOL’s “You’ve got mail!” greeting that signaled I was in—it was auditory ecstasy. In those days my family had a single phone line, though, so if my character Lilybet and her hunting companions were attacking rats in the catacombs, a call from my grandmother could interrupt the excitement.
My friends and I weren’t the only GemStone III players who signed in to socialize. Adam Vartanian, a software engineer who now lives in London, played GemStone III from 1996 to 2002 and remembers the positive sense of community in the game. He spent time in gathering places where the same people often showed up, like the Town Square and Thrak’s Inn. He got so into deciphering the hidden game mechanics—“Figuring out how various things worked was a fun bit of science to do,” he says—that he got hired as a Game Master, a paid gig he kept up until 2010, helping shape the game world and its workings directly.
Another draw of GemStone III was creating and dressing up your character. With in-game money you could buy clothes, spells, weapons, and, yes, gemstones. Each class of character had its own powers and goals and ways of attaining higher levels of experience. After my bard character Lilybet died the first time, for example, she came back as a violet-eyed red-haired half-elf empath with healing abilities. Through a combination of scavenging, receiving gifts and shopping, she wore “an elegant pink skirt, a leather vest, a striped gold cloak, a purple scarf, a rusty anklet, leg greaves, and a visored helm.” I loved the descriptions of what people wore and what they carried.
People could buy in-game items from each other with game-based money, but also real currency if they made private arrangements. And sometimes Game Masters, played by people working for the game, would hold events to modify game-based goods however players wanted. Historian Benjamin Breen, who wrote a great blog post about the game in 2014, remembers: “It was really beautiful in a way because you’re, like, seeing the world being rewritten,” he said. “Your item is transformed before your eyes, and you can think of what you want it to be called.” Since this was user-generated content circa 1996, this resulted in objects like “a leather jacket with a screaming human skull face on the back,” he added. The descriptions may not have been elegant but, for Breen, who was 12 at the time, this act of creation was magic.
For me, GemStone III quickly became very personal in a way I didn’t expect. Before I had ever been kissed in real life, someone came up to me in the game and gave me my first kiss simply by typing “kiss Lilybet.” I wrote in my journal in 1997:
You’re playing along with 2000 other real people with fake names. You can talk to them, cast spells on them, steal from them, give to them, smile at them, kiss them, and a lot of other things. (yes, you can kiss people virtually but I felt a little uncomfortable when someone, I had no idea who they were, kissed me and when I asked them “Why did you kiss me?” they “rubbed me gently”!)
Reading this now, of course, it seems creepy that kids could interact with other players, possibly much older, in this way, or that anyone could receive these actions without consent. But these were the early days of the internet, when adults hadn’t figured out when to be concerned. In general, though, other players were respectful. Plus, it was only a game… right?
At a time when I could barely communicate with cute boys beyond smiling and waving, my character Lilybet had a lot of relationship drama. Lilybet used to talk, trade, and hunt with Kevel, played by an older boy at school. Kevel was only one of his characters, but each one of them got engaged, since marriage was (an optional) part of the game’s storytelling. Despite knowing she was one of many, Lilybet enthusiastically agreed to marry Kevel. “Then he starts giving me these technicalities like how he has to get the ring first, that you can’t actually marry until like level 10 but I wasn’t really paying much attention to that,” I wrote.
It was my first emotional rollercoaster of a relationship, and it only existed virtually. Throughout the year I struggled to understand my feelings for this boy who ignored me at school but played GemStone III with me for hours.
And then: a mutual friend told me Kevel had decided to break our engagement. I was enraged! I even noted this betrayal in all-caps with three-exclamation points. But in Gemstone III, action happens quickly. Lilybet quickly found a new fiancé, Tzaphquiel, played by a stranger in Texas offering two key assets: game-based jewelry (“pearl earrings, a topaz band, and a jeweled engagement ring“) and the chance to make my crush jealous.
Teen romance is fleeting, of course, even in Wehnimer’s Landing. A few months later, when I introduced a new friend to the game at summer camp, I hoped both of Lilybet’s fiancés had forgotten her.
If you had encountered Lilybet in the summer of 1997, you would have read that she was wearing a rainbow cloak, glittering rhinestone tiara, fire opal sunburst pin, fuzzy white tail, patchwork white toy butterfly, and baggy blue polka dot pants. I loved making cartoons and drawings of my own, but at no point do I recall wishing that GemStone had graphics. The words alone built everything up enough, something my classmate Geoff Wertime, who remains a good friend of mine to this day, relates to, too. We grew up that year in a world of words.
“The text-based aspect of it definitely ages it, but there was a certain freedom in not having to look at everything and having it all based on words,” Wertime said. “It really spoke to the power of writing. It let your imagination build your universe for you.”
I also created a different character, Jazziana the cleric, who had the power to perform marriage ceremonies. When Aymar, played by Wertime, wanted to have a wedding with his game-based girlfriend Yssane, there were no tables to hold the refreshments for the guests. I wrote of the couple at the time: “He dropped like 1000 food items on the ground in the garden and e-mailed everyone he remotely knows to come. So I said the usual stuff and they went off on their honeymoon.”
Today, Aymar—that is, Geoff Wertime, civil rights lawyer—recalled this game with a perspective I didn’t know about when we played together in middle school. Privately, he was figuring out his sexual orientation. Some of our other GemStone friends also, in later years, identified with the LGBTQ community.
“Those games can appeal a lot to queer kids and kids who are questioning their identities, because you really get to try out different characters,” he said.
We remember aspects of GemStone III as if they had happened in real life. So does Breen, the historian, who played from age 12 until college. In fact, he said one of his “favorite father-son memories” was hunting in the game with his dad, also an avid GemStone III player. Breen and I agreed that this game likely helped us become faster typers, and better writers and storytellers.
So why did I stop playing?
My GemStone life started to wind down at the start of 8th grade, partly because of the departure from AOL and the extra fees, but also because I got cast as the Nurse in “Romeo and Juliet” at school—I loved the idea of embodying a character on stage!—and needed time for rehearsals.
Behind the scenes, GemStone III moved away from direct AOL access around 1997 because AOL started charging its users a flat rate instead of hourly, says Dunin, who helped shape GemStone III. Simutronics also introduced a payment scheme for in-game accessories because the demand for special items and elaborate weddings had soared, Dunin says. Developers couldn’t keep up with requests for things like “six white horses drawing a carriage.”
As my friends and I grew into our out-of-GemStone adult bodies, others continued playing the game, and even met in person at fan conventions like SimuCon in St. Louis. There were real weddings taking place at these conventions, said Dunin, between people who met as GemStone III characters in Renaissance Faire garb.
By the early to mid-2000s, though, multiplayer gaming had moved toward sophisticated graphics. Simutronics lost some of its staff to other companies that would then produce popular products like EverQuest, says Dunin, ushering in the modern era of internet role-playing.
Today, Dunin is still a hardcore gamer and currently plays Final Fantasy XIV. It has “stunning graphics,” she said, but noted that people still use the chat function to roleplay in text like they did in GemStone. By typing “/em” you can “emote” using verbs and adjectives, such as “picks up a crystal and thinks about it” or “hugs” a character. “It’s fascinating to me that, to see the things that are in the games today that had their seeds in the early MUDs,” she says (a MUD is a multi-player roleplaying game).
And amazingly, all these years later, GemStone still exists. In 2003 it re-launched as GemStone IV, and while the world has expanded from the 25-year-old version that debuted on AOL, the environment and the mechanics are largely the same. And GemStone never forgot its pioneering players—there are streets and plazas still named for early characters Dunin recognizes: Erebor, Wisraith, Riverwind. Her own former character is immortalized in Vesitsa Place.
Before sitting down to write this article, I signed up for a free character and peeked in, too.
Seeing the descriptions of the locations appear on the screen and typing “go north,” I got an eerie feeling, like I was a ghost in a place I used to live. But I’m proud to be part of a small group of early-internet teens who learned to write stories because we inhabited one, who learned to be better people because we were disguised as characters, and who banded together in teenage adventures when it seemed like there was nowhere to go. We can still reminisce about a time when we craved togetherness in our isolation, and found a way to create a little bit of magic.
Elizabeth Landau is a writer based in Washington, DC, who covers a wide range of topics relating to science, technology, and society.