Following the blog’s timeline, the next wave of hackers were known as the “game hackers”. They used their programming skills not for traditionally “useful” applications, like creating a digital calculator, a la Alan Kotok, or accessible software for the everyday person, a la Micro-soft’s BASIC, but were instead in a position to create software for leisure. Computer games were not a novel concept, with primitive games like Spacewar! developed on PDP-1 way back in the 60s, but to play such a game required having the hardware itself, uncommon for the common man. Due to the hardware constraints of the personal computers, games were often limited to text-based adventures, such as Zork or Adventure. The latter, however, become the inspiration for Ken and Roberta Williams, creating the next generation of hackers.
Ken and Roberta Williams, along with a team of 5 programmers, created Mystery House, a computer game that featured a narrative story, much like Adventure did, as well as dedicated graphics. When they talked to a software distributor, Programma, they were given the ultimatum of receiving a fraction of the revenue in royalties, to which they denied and published the game themselves, keeping all the profit. This led to the creation of Sierra On-Line, a pioneer in computer gaming publishers, leading the way for other game publisher companies to follow.
Becoming a game developer required expertise in programming and netted a large return in investment if the final product was successful, and with the small catalog of games at the time, it was likely that a fun and competent game would succeed. Through the publishing company, the sales could be handled by people that were better suited to market their product, allowing the programmer to do what they do best – program. Programming was becoming lucrative in a way that was not previously possible, inspiring a new wave of programmers that did not necessarily do it for the love of computers, but for the expectation of money.
Although there is a clear difference between the game hackers of new and the historical “true hackers”, the two groups are not mutually exclusive and can coexist. Much like any hobby, there will be purists and the mere “hobbyists” that don’t have the same appreciation of the craft but still profit of it. In music, this can be illustrated using modern classical composers, like Notre Dame’s own Alex Mansour, versus modern DJs, that themselves question whether they are “just posers pushing buttons” (Diplo). However, despite massive success, these DJs and producers still value their own creations and protect their intellectual property, whether selfish or not.
We can see this hacker ethic survive in the modern world of proprietary software through the open source crowd, from small form groups like Notre Dame’s Linux Users Group, to entire communities that use the internet to exchange their ideas and creations (Source Forge, Git, etc). One can argue that this explosion of commercial software is responsible for inspiring those to follow the hacker ethic. As a matter of fact, I will argue that right now!
Having the marketplace of software restricts information and universal knowledge, but that does not mean the true hacker ethic dies. In certain ways, it makes the true hacker ethic even stronger and makes those that subscribe to it even more passionate. Hackers are able to unlock games hidden behind DRM protections faster and faster, often with improved performance, exemplifying the idea that stronger protections only create smarter “criminals”. Open source alternatives to software are becoming more commonplace, see Microsoft Office versus LibreOffice, mirroring Kotok’s aim to port the calculator to the computer.
Additionally, the world does not work in absolutes. A programmer can have the “true hacker” ethic in their minds and allow it to influence their creations, but they can also act in the commercial world. Even this behavior is being more accepted in the commercial world. People are free to mod games, creating extra content to the game without the restriction of upper management, and these mods are fueled by passion of the game. While these used to be supplemental downloads the player would have to seek, services like Steam are integrating them into their platforms, giving the modders a marketplace, whether that means charging a small fee (unpopular by today’s standards, but justified) or just exposure. While some companies can become “corrupted by the ring” – Nintendo for example – some game companies are beginning to embrace it, like SEGA, who hired a team of developers that made Sonic the Hedgehog fan games to create Sonic Mania, an official installment to the series, using SEGA’s own resources to develop. They saw the passion their games inspired and gave those inspired the ability to create personal works of art, as well as the commercial success.
Whether it’s better to be a “professional programmer, … the goal-oriented … responsible engineer” or the programmer with “love for [computing] in [your] heart” and “hacker perfectionism in [your] soul” is up to the individual programmer. Whatever makes them happy and feel fulfilled should be the route they go. The important thing to foster a whole range of perspectives to programming. No gatekeeping. No extremists. Just a beautiful synthesis of the different programming mentalities. Afterall, if there is no authority to combat, how would the true hacker feel accomplished?