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3:51pm on Monday, 17th November, 2014:

A Political Gesture


There's an interview with me on the Guardian Technology web site out today. The headline is: "Richard Bartle: we invented multiplayer games as a political gesture".

Gawd knows what Roy Trubshaw must think whenever he reads this stuff. The thing is, we never discussed the politics of what we were doing at all. Back then in the 1970s, you had to have a certain kind of creative yet scientific mind to be able to do anything with computers, so the people who worked with them tended to have the same science-for-creativity outlook on life. It was later called the "hacker ethic", but no-one learned it off anyone else: it was your own ethic, that the people around you happened to share.

Thus, when Roy began work on MUD (and despite the impression you may get from interviews, it was his baby for for 18 months before he passed control to me), we never discussed what we were doing in terms of changing the world. We didn't need to: we both had reasons to work on MUD and those reasons were aligned. We talked about giving players "freedom" through an open-ended design, but we never discussed what it was we wanted them to have freedom from — there was no need. We tacitly understood that we were working on it because the world wasn't fair and we wanted a better one. There may have been more, but I can only recall one occasion, early on, when the subject was broached: I asked Roy why he was creating a fictional world and he said something like, "because it can't be worse than the real one".

In real-world political terms, Roy and I weren't in step with regards to how to achieve what we both wanted to achieve: a fairer and more just society. Roy was a socialist, and so believed that the best way to change society was through group action — people working together. I was (and remain) more liberal, and so wasn't willing to take the means-to-an-end step of collectivism if that would entail having to support soem arguments with which I disagreed. Neither of us was naive enough to believe that either approach would ultimately succeed, though, which is why we independently took the view that if you can't change the real world, well then you create your own.

This level of understanding and agreement doesn't make for great headlines or explanations, though, which is why it sounds as if I'm describing Roy and I as if we were revolutionaries. We didn't see ourselves that way at all. We just wanted a better world, so we made one.

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Copyright © 2014 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).