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A moment in role-playing history

In Games, RP on 1 March, 2011 at 11:55 pm

Facebook isn’t the first to worry about role-players online. More than 2 decade ago, the American government was so concerned about the connection between computer crimes and computer games including role-playing that the Secret Service raided the offices of Steve Jackson Games (SJG) in Austin, Texas. It was a mistake on the government’s part. Not only did they not find the evidence of crimes they were looking for, the raid would also be one of the seminal events in computer gaming leading to the creation of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

It’s hard to say what exactly the government was seeking when they conducted the raid on March 1, 1990. Based on subsequent court documents and rulings, it is possible the government didn’t know either. Ostensibly, the hacker known as The Mentor was the target of both the raid and additional investigations. At the time, Loyd Blankenship, the human behind The Mentor, was writing the supplement Cyberpunk to GURPS for SJG.

Although GURPS was initially a tabletop role-playing game that used dice, current “free form” role-playing, including that practiced on Twitter, is in many ways an extension of it.  GURPS was unique when it was introduced in 1986 because it was a system the worked independent of the environment.  Players also controlled their characters verbally, similar to how characters are currently controlled on Twitter. The only thing missing is the dice.

Cyberpunk was one of the first attempts to move GURPS into a specific universe. In the case of Cyberpunk that universe was a dystopian future based largely on a novel by William Gibson. This too was a precursor of Twitter RP with their True Blood, Twilight, Supernatural and other RP universes.

The case against SJG would not go to trial for more than three years. When it did, the company prevailed on 2 out of 3 counts. The third count was turned down by the Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in 1994. The U.S. government was ordered to pay damages and attorney’s fees to SJG. GURPS Cyberpunk was eventually published as well.

For Twitter and other online role-players, the true impact of the raid was not on SJG. It was on the gamers, role-players, programmers and others who were mobilized to create the EFF and become leaders in the fight for civil liberties online and digital rights. The non-profit EFF has been a cornerstone in keeping up with the impact of changing technology on communications not to mention the legislation that may have unintended consequences on free speech and fair use online.

Twitter RPers and anyone else role-playing online owes a debt to that raid in 1990. Even if it is barely a footnote elsewhere.

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