Linden Labs’s Second Life wouldn’t be half so interesting if players couldn’t create things like their very own furry costumes, physics-defying strap-ons, or fully-animated sex beds. The latitude given to users for creating their own content has brought the game whole shopping centers where the buildings, the people inside, and the clothing and body modification sold (angel wings, devil horns, aforementioned dildos) – near all of it – has been created by the players. This caught the game a number of headlines when user Kevin Alderman (who’d just won temporary fame for ebaying islands on Second Life for 50,000 USD) logs in to see that his creation, the “Sex Gen Bed,” was being copied and sold for a fraction of the 45$ USD equivalent he charged. And since their in-game money has Earth-dollar equivalents, the budding entrepreneur lawyered up. To Kevin, it may have been about more than just money.
Gary Gygax’s Master of the Game, written roughly 20 years before the tools of Second Life, is ultimately Gygax’s search for the “Grand Master Game Master,” a nerd capable of creating whole worlds, “with geography, climate, weather, nations, politics, economics, population, flora, fauna, and so on…” Who can stretch the limits of pre-packaged things like D&D, since, "Even the most developed and expansive game system cannot cover everything. The human imagination is too fertile."
In a sense, he’s saying that rules like D&D, or its predecessor Chainmail, rules which dictated how much damage a sword might do, or how many sword swipes a champion could sustain before falling in combat… Those rules came second to being able to meaningfully deploy them. It’s more important that you can create a story, and make it fun.
Not that he had kinky pixels in mind, necessarily.
But those questions – about what it means to be a good illusionist, or Grand Master Game Master, or Second Life creator – will start to matter a great deal more. Or so says Gygax’s counterpart in online games: Richard Bartle. Without Bartle, there likely wouldn’t be a World of Warcraft. Nor a Second Life, Secret World, and probably no good phone apps or many interesting web pages. He’d created the first text-based online world, called MUD for “Multiple User Dungeon.” While he’s written some of the most wonderful, challenging things out there on creating such worlds, my favorite talk by him started with the gibberish of carpentering the very first online world:
Right, well, what I knew to start with was that memory is made of cores. These little torus-shaped pieces of soft iron and they're hung up over this little crosswork of wires with a read wire going through it. I also knew that I could build AND gates and OR gates out of electrical circuits by combining those in a NOT gate, a bit more sophisticated. I could make flip flops. JK flip flops, SR flip flops. You could combine flip flops together to build units which would do half adders, which would do a half the arithmetic or a full adder, which was made up of a several half adders. You could shift registers from side to side. You could also build a register which told you which of the other registers you wanted to use.
It went on for awhile. Later, he’d write, “Only having seen the transcript do I now realize how arcane what I was saying must have sounded to the audience. It’s like something out of Finnegans Wake.” But we weren’t lost on the point he was making, because after five minutes of that deeper magic from before the dawn of time, he spent one sentence on the little bit of imagination he added, the spark that gave his Frankenstein world life.
“What I want,” he eventually said, “is just to get to the point where all you need is that little bit of imagination on top.” AND gates and OR gates were that deeper magic. That, “no-one needs to know it, but someone needs to have known it.” We don’t need a PhD in Chemistry or Engineering to make use of the internal combustion engine. Same deal with games.
At some point, we’ll just get in and go. The way a writer hammers on a word processor, or a director splices together footage. Whether it’s in five years or twenty, the less technology people need to know, the more they’ll be able to do. That’s on the way.