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The Emo Kid, Troll, and Hacker in All of Us

Forumwarz writer and producer Mike Drach reflects on a game that turned into a massive critique of the Internet, even if nobody who plays it seems to care.

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Filmmaker Joss Whedon conducted an Ask Me Anything yesterday on Reddit, and was asked about fandom.

“All worthy work is open to interpretations the author did not intend,” he said. “Art isn't your pet--it's your kid. It grows up and talks back to you.”

When Mike Drach started Forumwarz with Robin Ward and Jason Kogan, conceptualized and developed in 2007 but launched in February 2008, they weren’t quite sure what they were making. It was, and still mostly is, an online video game about participating in online message boards. It's a concept that still makes me cross-eyed thinking about it.

Drach, writer and producer on Forumwarz, gave a talk at the Game Developers Conference this year called “Like Herding LOLcats: Managing the Internet's Most Unruly Gaming Communities.” After my experience with the fighting game community, I was curious. His talk suggested a man who was beaten and bruised from the last few years.

My barely played character, who just so happens to have my original Internet screen name. Ugh.
My barely played character, who just so happens to have my original Internet screen name. Ugh.

Forumwarz is currently in what Drach calls “maintenance mode.” The game hasn’t received any content updates since early 2011, and nobody works on Forumwarz full-time anymore. The servers are still running, though, which means people can still play the game and participate in the forums for the time being.

Every few weeks, Drach logs into his creation and, well, sighs.

“It's something nobody could prepare for career wise, you know?” he said. “Especially if they turn against you.”

Drach was recently monitoring a situation where one forum moderator banned a user for a series of inappropriate comments--standard procedure. One day later, another moderator unceremoniously unbanned them. Drama ensues. It's a familiar story.

“It's like a police force,” he said. "You are the commissioner in Batman or something, and this is all for things that, when you really break it down, seem really inconsequential."

The message boards are just one piece of Forumwarz, and a small one, too. The vast majority visit the Forumwarz website to play the game, then leave. Only a small percentage venture to the boards, and an even smaller number posts regularly. Those that do, however, post all the time. The moment a new thread pops up, it’s the same names.

Even though Forumwarz is in “maintenance mode,” someone has to maintain it. At times, that's Drach.

“It's still like being the mayor of a very small village,” said Drach. “The things I identify in my talk--they were kind of shallow. I didn't have much more than ‘this is how we coped.’ I didn't come up to any solutions to what's wrong with the culture itself, though I think that's a much bigger talk.”

I'll come back to that in a minute.

Forumwarz is surreal. The game is structured like any traditional message board, though Drach said his team’s specific influence was Something Awful’s infamous forums. On Something Awful, when you’re banned, you can come back but you have to pay. Users can even fork over cash to have your tagline changed. It’s a rough and tumble place, but Something Awful continues to exist, despite the harsh treatment, because it’s a good forum.

Drach believes Forumwarz resonates because parts of the game's
Drach believes Forumwarz resonates because parts of the game's "classes" are in all of us.

Players choose from one of four classes--Emo Kid, Troll, Camwhore, Hacker--and engage with fake instant message clients, boards, and shopping sites. The influence of traditional role-playing-games is immediately evident, as players earn experience points, gain levels, and employ different tactics in order to progress.

All the while, it’s incredibly easy, seemingly too easy, to be a troll.

The people aren’t real, so...why not? The game feels rigged to push people into trolling. Maybe that’s because of what happened halfway through development, when Drach realized he had a chance to try and say something with Forumwarz.

“What a lot of people don't get about Forumwarz,” said Drach, “is [thinking] ‘This is a game about trolling, I can't believe you're banning me for being a troll lol that's so stupid.’ Actually, when it's all said and done, this is a statement about Internet culture, and it's a critique.”

We’ve all been there once. Or twice. We’ve all been that guy (or girl!), and I can’t help but be thankful the current Internet didn’t exist when I was young enough to not really know any better. I’d like to think I wouldn’t be as bad as some of the people on the Internet that I encounter on a daily basis, but who’s to say? It seems like I dodged a bullet.

“We're giving people an outlet to virtually [troll],” he said, “but in the end, we're trying to say that this is something that all of us have done and all of us have witnessed or some of us have subjected to, but I think it's something that people should try to keep under wraps or maybe think twice about.”

There is an ending to Forumwarz, too, unlike arguments on the Internet. There are nine endings, and Drach admitted most players have not and will not see them. The endings are blocks of text, and much of the community doesn’t care for their inclusion. Users might roll their eyes at the chunk of moralistic script, but it’s part of Drach's vision.

“I knew people [that] would use the game in a certain way are more likely to do the evil thing,” he said, “but as a result, their ending was vicious. That was me trying to get the message across.”

Here’s the kind of vicious Drach is talking about, an excerpt from one of the game’s “evil” endings:

You become destitute, suicidal. In your depressed state, you start wondering if any of this really happened. You try to do some research, but all the records are gone. You post about your experience on message boards. People just think you're insane.

And perhaps you are. You start to commit petty crimes just to get attention. You damage property at random. You assault people on the street, shaking them, yelling about "the machine." Somehow, you can't help yourself.

You're arrested and tried, but found not guilty by reason of insanity.

You're eventually taken to a mental institution and kept on a steady regimen of pills, gradually losing what's left of your individuality as you absorb the debilitating insanity of the empty shells living--if you could call it that--in this sterile habitat. No more internet access for you; you're far too dangerous for that.

You lose all contact with the outside world, other than the occasional visit from your long-suffering mother, who just cries when she sees you.

Maybe it's for the best.

Drach figures (hopes) the Internet's problems get better with time. As a culture, we’re basically new to the Internet, and coming to grips with how to act around one another is a process. When we start to figure out how that works, maybe we'll teach our children how to be civilized, and everyone benefits. There is that whole anonymity thing, though, and Forumwarz is a clever encapsulation of that touchy issue, a trap that can get even the best of us.

“We took a snapshot of Internet culture when we started doing this in 2007,” he said. “Things have changed a little bit, but not entirely.”

Because let's face it, it’s still easier to be a troll.

Patrick Klepek on Google+