Category Archives: Will Crowther

Early Computer Gaming and the Open Net

Into the Mouth of Cave Madness

Into the Mouth of Cave Madness

One bit from Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon’s Where Wizards Stay Up Late I found particularly interesting was a section of the chapter on E-Mail titled “Adventure and Quasar: The Open Net and Free Speech.” It featured Will Crowther, who was one of my favorite characters from this history of the internet. Earlier in the book he’s described as a brilliant computer programmer who had some eccentric working habits:

Crowther was quiet, easy to work with, and when it came to writing code, he was downright inspiring. He was also [Severio] Ornstein’s good friend and rock-climbing companion. Crowther seemed to concentrate best while hanging from door frames by his fingertips, doing chin-ups. And he was known for his mathematical doodling. While others passed the time at lengthy meetings by drawing squiggles and curlicues, Crowther filled his page with a thicket of differential equations. (98)*

And once he was done “hanging” around the office focusing his ideas, he would sit down and code for intensive intervals What’s not to love about Crowther? His code was described as “the leanest anyone who had worked with him had ever seen.” He worked alongside Dave Walden programming the packet processing for ARPANET. In 150 lines of code they had figured out the kernel that would launch the internet (100). I love this stuff, so already Crowther seemed pretty awesome to me. But when you marry that to the fact that in 1975/76, while going through a divorce, he used his recent passion for Dungeons and Dragons to program an interactive fiction game called “Colossal Cave Adventure” to connect with his young kids sublimates him to another level ;)

Crowther was an ardent cave explorere, and his wife Pat had achieved renown among cavers for having been part of a small group that discovered the first known link beteen the Mommoth and Flint Ridge caves in Kentucky….Crowther was the cartographer for the Cave Research Foundation. he used his off-hours to plot intricate subterranean maps on a BBN computer. In early 1976 Will and Pat divorced. Looking for something he could do with his two small children , he hit upon an idea that united Will the Programmer with Willie the imaginary theif: a simplified, computer version of Dungeons and Dragons called Adventure. (206)

Goblin Caverns

A Cave Map from Dungeons and Dragons

This story seems like the convergence point of modern nerd culture in so many ways. Programming, Dungeons and Dragons, and spelunking. According to Crowther he wrote the game over the course of a few weekends, played it a bit with his kids and colleagues and then left it paritally finished as his spirit was increasingly tapped by the divorce. Nonetheless, others found it and distibuted it and the game started filtering through the networked community. Crowther was approached by Don Woods, a Stanford graduate student in Articial Intelligence, and asked if he could refine the game to which Crowther was more than happy agree.

When Woods had finished his contributions to Adventure, “he created a guest account on the computer at the Stanford AI Lab to let people play, and swarms of people logged in. Adventuture spread like hula hoops, as people sent the program to one another over the network” (207). What I liked about this whole story was how the authors tie the passion people had for this game, which inspired a whole generation of games like the Atari 2600 Adventure as well as the interactive fiction game Zork, to the features of an open network . The open collaboration and free distribution of Adventure captured an ethos that helped this game flourish, and it was made possible because of the open network that was the internet:

Adventure demonstrated the appeal of an open networking culture. And the emphasis on openness grew with time. There were few closed doors on the network, and a free-spirit prevailed in people’s attitudes about who could come and go through them, and for what purposes….ARPANET was official federal government property, but network mail was being used for all manner of daily conversation. (208)

It’s not surprising that E-Mail was the killer app of the early interet because it provided a sense of community in early network culture. It’s also not surprising that the passion driving some of the best demonstrations of open sharing in the early network came in the form of a computer game—an immersive experience based on a port of a popular role playing game that people were pasionate about. It’s funny how much this history paralles so much of how internet culture still operates.

For a more detailed look the cultural history of Adventure take a look at Dennis Jerz’s article in the Digital Humanities Quarterly “Somewhere Nearby is Colossal Cave: Examining Will Crowther’s Original ‘Adventure’ in Code and in Kentucky.” I think this topic would make an interesting investigation for a group of students in The Internet Course. I can see it now, “the cultural history  off network gaming!” I’m just full of ideas on the bava this weekend for all the work the students could do :)

* All citations are from the 1996 hardback Where Wizards Stay Up Late printed by Simon & Schuster.