I was an elderly hobbit.

ElendorMUSH, a text-based online role-playing game.

Once upon a time, I was an elderly hobbit.

Or, at least, I played one online.

ElendorMUSH is an Internet-based role-playing game set in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth universe (familiar from The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings). The “MUSH” stands for “Multi-User Shared Hallucination.” Each new user creates a character, choosing a race (e.g. hobbit, elf, orc) and a name that fits the selected culture. Over time, the character’s details get fleshed out, as the player decides on an appearance, a backstory, and a weapon of choice. Then, game time is spent “role-playing”–that is, acting out Tolkienesque scenes with other players.

The twist? MUSHes are entirely text-based. Elendor boasts no slick graphics, no beautifully-rendered landscapes, and no orchestral soundtracks. The entire game experience is mediated through the written word.

If that seems needlessly ascetic, consider the fact that the MUSH’s heyday was the mid–90s. Broadband hadn’t yet been widely embraced, and most users had piss-poor Internet connections. Text consumed far less bandwidth than graphics; a text-based game could be played even over the slowest dial-up connection.

Fifteen-year-old Matt would fire up our wheezy old Apple IIgs, dial into the local university’s network, and sign into ElendorMUSH. There, I acted out a fairly mundane hobbitish existence. I played Osmbise Bushet, of the Shire Bushets.[1] Osmbise had left his Northfarthing home and moved to Bree to escape a suffocating family life. He served as a police constable in that frontier town, keeping rabble-rousers and drunkards in line. He spent his off-hours drinking tea–never ale–at the Inn of the Prancing Pony.

It didn’t take long for Elendor to take over my life. I role-played for hours on end and soon earned a reputation as a good writer. To my delight, no one on the MUSH knew (or, likely, cared) that I was a gangly, awkward teenager. Before long, I was invited to become a local administrator over the Bree user group. Excited, I upped my commitment and connected even more often. Often, I wouldn’t crawl into bed until just before dawn.

My virtual obsession may seem lame. But, in my defense, I felt that I was contributing to something communal and artistic. No, Elendor’s role-playing transcripts wouldn’t compare to Tolkien’s inspired prose. But the shared writing experience encouraged improvisation, literacy, and creativity. I can think of worse habits.

More importantly, Elendor represented a sanctuary from a disjointed, dysfunctional family life. In the wake of my parents’ divorce, things had fallen apart. Addiction, abuse, and mental illness reigned. MUSHing offered a safe, predictable alternative to the (frightening and uncontrollable) real world.

And, although I didn’t realize it at the time, my “Osmbise” character embodied my emotional response to this fractured home life. My hobbit abstained from alcohol; I wished for my parents to overcome their own addictions. Osmbise fled the Shire to avoid his family; I wanted to get away, too. And Osmbise served as a constable, keeping the peace; I had desperately tried to establish order at home, caring for younger siblings and cleaning far more than a fifteen-year-old ever should.

Soon after my promotion to local admin, connecting to Elendor grew more challenging. My dial-up connection frequently flaked out, booting me off the MUSH and interrupting my role-playing sessions. Other times, I’d be forced offline by real-world demands; we only had one phone line, and my mom didn’t appreciate me hogging the connection with weirdly cultish Internet games.

Eventually, the local university cancelled the old student account I used to connect to the Internet. I was forced to quit Elendor, cold turkey. I managed to detox and eventually moved onto more typical teenage pastimes: part-time jobs, dating, sports. By the time we finally got broadband at home, the virtual world held less appeal for me. In college, I never even owned a computer. My MUSHing days were done.

Elendor itself never went away. It’s still kicking out there on the Internet. But, like Middle-earth itself, the virtual world was doomed to diminish with time. By the mid–2000s, the broadband revolution had arrived, and online gaming exploded. Graphics-heavy MMORPGs like World of Warcraft siphoned users away from the text-centric games. Elendor’s virtual population plummeted. Today, you’re lucky to see a dozen players logged in at any one time. Back in the late 90s, hundreds of users joined the game each evening.

Last year, I reconnected to the MUSH for the first time in decades. I was instantly transported back to adolescence, with all its hurt and happiness. And, to my surprise, several players there recognized me immediately. There are still a few Elendor diehards who remember the grey-haired hobbit with the funny name.

  1. Don’t ask me where the name came from. I invented the most ridiculous, un-hobbit-like moniker I could think of, hoping to stand out.  ↩