I’ve done a lot of reading lately, but outside of the Danny Dunn series no books have inspired me to jot down my thoughts until today.
ZZT by Anna Anthropy is centered around a gaming community that consumed a big chunk of my life between the ages of 13 and 15. ZZT was a game creation system, which meant it came with it’s own built-in world editor. I discovered the game and community when we signed up for AOL using the AOL software for MS-DOS in 1995. There were tons of user-created games to download and play, and you could even upload your own. A magical time.
I made several games under my ZZT company Ultraware. The community I bonded with on AOL, then later via the web and listservs, allowed me to escape my restrictive homeschooled upbringing while hanging out with a bunch of people like me. (Note: for more on ZZT’s impact on me check out this episode of My So-Called 8bit Life.)
In ZZT, Anna Anthropy teaches the history of ZZT through the lens of her experience. Anna is a trans individual so throughout the book we’re given snapshots of her adolescent interactions with the game and it’s community as she discovers who she really is. One section highlights how ZZT specifically appealed to trans kids. The story of the first trans girl she ever met online tugs at the heartstrings a bit too.
That’s a theme present throughout the book. Many of the individuals interviewed had issues growing up: depression, abuse, identity confusion. A lot of lonely kids found comfort in this silly little game. I was one of them.
Outside of the biographical asides we’re given a detailed history of an almost-forgotten subculture. Alexis (formerly Greg) Janson, the creator of the Super Tool Kit and ZZT’s successor MegaZeux, has a stronger presence in the book than I expected. Janson was known in the community for being a little mysterious. You’ll find out why. Her interview in this book is the most open one I’ve seen from her.
There’s great original research that went into chronicling the ZZT scene on Prodigy: both ZZT CLUB and ZZT CLUB PART 2. Janson was a member of Part 2 which is where I’d heard of it, but it’s always been sort of a ‘lost chapter’. Anna talks to some original members and sources previous interviews to paint a pretty clear picture.
The book has it’s points to make. A lot of gender politics, but nothing I disagreed with. There’s a section towards the end that makes a great argument for computers as tools instead of appliances. I think modern gaming developments like Minecraft, Valve’s Source Engine, Little Big Planet, and others have done a great job carrying ZZT’s torch. She does have a point when it comes to “newb”-level computing.
At times the book gets too technical (the IRC tutorial seemed out of place for example), but this is honestly some of the clearest documentation I’ve seen on ZZT-OOP (ZZT’s programming language). The descriptions of gameplay even taught me, a guy who’s been playing this game nearly two decades, some new tricks. There’s also a decent list of suggested games and a tutorial to get ZZT running on a modern system in the back.
I’m glad somebody finally wrote the story of my people. ZZT provided a community for kids like me who didn’t have one in the real world, and as evidenced from the stories in this book we all still have a little ZZT in us.
I’ve been involved in several online communities since ZZT was a part of my life, but you always remember your first. Online communities come and go, but when you get in deep enough they inform and shape who you are. This quote from draco towards the end of the book sums it for me: “…we poured our blood, soul, and guts into those ASCII games. And that was the most beautiful thing possible for us at that time.”
I picked up this book expecting a fun trip down memory lane. I put it down surprised at how much it moved me. It blasts the nostalgia at full blast, but it also made me think about online communities and my relationship with them in a different way.