Game Hackers (CSE40842 Reading 3)

Game Hackers (CSE40842 Reading 3)

2021, Feb 19    

The Gaming Industry Erupts

In part 3 of Levy’s Hackers, we learn about the rise of the computer gaming industry. The effort was spearheaded by Ken and Roberta Williams of Sierra On-Line. The story of Sierra On-Line really resonated with me. It instantly reminded me of my internship in 2020 at Deliv, a Menlo Park startup now owned by Target. The culture and people at Deliv had many parallels with those at Sierra On-Line. The engineers at Sierra On-Line came from many different backgrounds and experience levels, with a pair of programmers being hired for their first software role at the age of 50. At Deliv, we had programmers with backgrounds in English, degrees in Chemistry, and even no college degree. The startup culture was alive and well at Deliv, not nearly to the “dope-smoking and partying” levels at On-Line, but of the same open, relaxed nature nonetheless. The original game hackers at Sierra On-Line had many similarities with those hackers in the previous two generations, but they also had their differences. Sharing ideas and “secrets” was a normal thing - Sierra often met with friendly competitors to discuss and share such things. The hacker lifestyle was in full effect.

Dollar Dollar Bills

However, as with the second generation, the hardware hackers, a huge influx of money seems to distort the idealistic Hacker Ethic at Sierra and in the gaming industry. The industry reached a point where a hack wasn’t all that impressive - things were moving so fast that a game from a year ago seemed prehistoric. Hackers were making upwards of 100-200 thousand dollars a year on salary and royalties. Ken Williams remarked that he could “stifle” the True Hackers / original game hackers. He hoped to bring in people who weren’t going to burn out in a year, people he could effectively take under his wing and train to be strictly programmers and not necessarily hackers.

Can the Hacker Ethic Survive Such a Marketplace?

It seems that with the evolution of the gaming industry and commercial software industry in the ’80s that the Hacker Ethic was on its last legs. However, I believe that it still has survived. There will always be a place for the Hacker Ethic in computing. We can see that now through open source communities and projects. Just because being a programmer now (often) means working for some company making buko bucks doesn’t mean there is no room for the Hacker Ethic - it just means that the Hacker Ethic isn’t as easily monetized, something that is necessary for a company to survive. That last statement is partially accurate as more and more companies and individuals sponsor open source projects. I find no right or wrong in choosing to be a “professional programmer” vs. a hacker with a true love for computing. Maybe two years ago, I would lean more towards the hacker in this comparison, but now that I have a taste for corporate software engineering, I have to say I still have a tremendous amount of respect for both parties. You don’t have to have an absoulate passion about your day job. If you do, then great! You’re most likely a hacker or somewhere on the hacker spectrum. If not, that’s fine too! Collect your paycheck, do some work that is meaningful to you, and focus on the things in life that make you happy.

This post is in response to Reading 3 of the Hackers in the Bazaar course offered at the University of Notre Dame.