A gaming community in 1998

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Petz wasn’t one of the first games I played on a computer, and far from the best game I played on a computer, but it was probably the most influential in terms of actually learning about computers.

Petz was a game where you could adopt a cat or dog. You could play with your pet, feed it treats, and your pet could even fall in love with another pet and make more Petz (in a very child-safe euphemistic way). The game had nice little touches: a mouse lived in the wall which you could lure out with cheese; seeds that could be planted in the garden which when watered would grow into flowers. It was a simple but appealing game. I liked it a lot. I was twelve.

Petz 3 - breeds

There was no social network especially for Petz – or any social networks at all, really, because it was the late nineties – so many members of the community set up their own websites. It had a sizeable online community, led mostly by people the same age as me.

I set up my first real website in a Geocities page builder, before feeling frustrated with its limitations (ahem) and graduating to FrontPage Express and a FTP program.

My sites committed a variety of technical and aesthetic sins. It was 1998 so I set everything in Comic Sans, used tables for layout, and had autoplaying Midi files on a loop. I used dividers made out of pawprints and was completely thrilled with it all. Each pet had a .pet file, and these Petz were put up for ‘adoption’. I remember not being able to sleep at night for the thought of people all over the world visiting my site and downloading the .pet files.

It was common at the time to list your ICQ number or AIM handle on your site, and I’d talk to other Petz fans with websites and at one point later on I co-owned a site with several other people. (It was all for fun and of course we never made any money.)

In terms of game play, it was quite easy to “finish” the game quite quickly. The thing that made me stick around for a while was the community and ways people were building on the functionality.

Hex-editing shapes and colours of Petz became popular after a site called Silver’s Petz put up a guide to editing pet breeds using Vim. (Here’s the actual guide). It was easy to do, and it became popular to create litters of colour-changed Petz and allow visitors to adopt them.

So I was part of an entire community of 11–13 year olds comfortable mucking around with .pet files in a text editor and putting their creations on the internet. This was never sanctioned or intended by the game creators, but was one of the most interesting aspects of the game.

By the time I became bored with Petz, PF Magic magic had already been subsumed into a larger company, which had also been bought out. But I’d learned how to cobble websites together, make images like logos and buttons, do basic JavaScript, and work on projects with other people.