* CYBERSPACE *
* A biweekly column on net culture appearing *
* in the Toronto Sunday Sun *
* Copyright 1999 Karl Mamer *
* Free for online distribution *
* All Rights Reserved *
* Direct comments and questions to: *
TSR is a company that makes role playing games. Since the craze
began in 1975, TSR has been the overwhelming market leader with
its Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D) rule book series.
TSR really took off during the recession of the early '80s.
AD&D appealed to imaginative, cash-strapped university
students. Theoretically, AD&D is a cheap hobby, requiring a
one-time investment in a set of rule books and some special
dice. Using the rule books, gamers can then create and share
their own adventures. It doesn't quite work out that way, mind
you. Once hooked, most role players dump a few hundred dollars
on rule supplements, miniatures, dice bags, and other
Probably the biggest actual requirement, besides the manuals,
is paper. Role playing requires lots and lots of paper, mostly
for recording character stats and writing adventures. Gamers at
university found that their other pastime, hanging out in the
computer room, offered access to garbage bins full of paper.
Role players also discovered that computers made great gaming
aids. Modules and rule supplements could be created, stored in
public directories, and when the Internet came online in a big
way, these works could be shared over ftp and the web.
The relationship between TSR's success and university students
appeared to be a strong one. Universities hosted role playing
conventions. Like-minded gamers formed campus clubs.
Universities Internet sites housed vast amounts of these home-
made materials. An Internet newsgroup called rec.games.frp.dnd
was created to further the spread of the hobby.
One would think that this is an example of a perfect win-win
relationship. TSR gets loads of free publicity, TSR's coffers
get topped up as more people are attracted to the hobby, and
gamers get access to the works others have created.
TSR thought differently. In 1994 TSR representative Rob Repp
informed the readers of rec.games.frp.dnd that distribution of
derivative works using trade-marked terms via public Internet
sites must stop! It was an infringement of TSR's copyrights.
Simultaneously, TSR issued letters to system administrators
informing them to either remove the material or face legal
action. Administrators, not wanting to facing a costly legal
battle, dutifully complied.
A howl of protest erupted immediately on rec.games.frp.dnd.
Gamers on the net view themselves as some of TSR's best
customers and wondered why the company would return loyalty an
Early in its growth curve, TSR experienced a nasty backlash
from the Religious Right. Fundamentalists -- spooked by the
game's demons, elder gods, and wizardry -- began letter writing
campaigns, asking school principles, church priests/pastors,
and public librarians to ban D&D clubs. Stores that carried the
game were threatened with pickets. TSR's founder Gary Gygax
made a personal appeal to the game's adherents to help counter
the anti-D&D campaigns. Loyal gamers answered Gygax's call and
patiently explained to their local school officials, priests,
and library superintendents that the game wasn't creating baby
killing Satanists but was fostering in many kids an interest in
history, probability, writing, and literature.
TSR, forgetting that the company would have amounted to nothing
without these evangelical efforts, ostensibly saw the issue as
going no deeper than a fear that allowing users to distribute
"derivative" works put TSR's ownership of certain copyrights at
risk. Netizens **didn't** quite buy that explanation. Id
Software doesn't stop people from trading home-brewed additions
to its Doom and Quake games. Wizards of the Coast, makers of
the highly successful Magic: The Gathering card game (aka
Magic: The Addiction), didn't seem to be chasing down users
putting up pages featuring rules modifications.
Many suspected TSR, which was no longer in the hands of its
founder Gary Gygax and had gone "corporate" in a big way,
simply wanted to shake down gamers. Some felt TSR was afraid
"amateur" authors would offer works superior to TSR's
increasingly diluted product line. Others suggested the company
wasn't so much out to protect current copyrights but future
copyrights. Movie companies return all unsolicited manuscripts
unopened to maintain plausible denial should they be sued for
theft of intellectual property rights. TSR, with a demonstrable
net presence, would have a harder time arguing such ignorance.
It's not too hard to image a corporate lawyer suggesting TSR
risked a lawsuit every time it published a module because
someone had publish something similar via a web page.
Users miffed by TSR's action called for a boycott and
questioned whether or not TSR had a legal right to put the
kibosh on netizens distributing derivative works. After all,
the game is unplayable if one cannot distribute works using
trademarked terms. TSR representatives online counter argued
that there was a difference between playing the game by sharing
works with few close friends and distributing works to anyone
and everyone on the net. Netizens retorted that sharing these
works was simply a new facet of "playing" the game. So who the
hell was TSR to tell people how they should play?
A lot of debate about trademark law passed back and forth on
the net, but gamers eventually had to admit that they didn't
know enough about the law to say anything useful.
In what maybe TSR viewed as a conciliatory move, online reps
suggested that gamers could still distribute generic fantasy
material, as long as they didn't use TSR's trade marked terms.
That did little to stop the flame wars on rec.games.frp.dnd. A
particularly nasty one was touched off when, in an act of
supreme idiocy, a TSR online rep known as "TSRKeith" compared
consumers dissatisfied with the company's products and
net.policy to members of "the Hitler Youth". Not a good move.
People were pretty pissed off about New Coke, but the good
people of the Coca Cola Corporation never, in public, called
its more emotional critics "Nazis".
TSRKeith's remark confirmed that the once pioneering game
company had lost all connection with its dwindling fan base and
certain realities. Being number one for so long had imbued the
corporate culture with a supreme arrogance that made the
company lose touch with some obvious facts. Gaming culture was
moving online. Few software companies would dare release a
computer game without a network play feature. A pencil and
paper role playing game in an era of word processors and the
net was not much different. Users want to play games they
**can** tweak and then share with their peers on the net.
Creating a cool new monster or a cool new spell can you win you
your fifteen minutes of fame in the halls of gaming. Since TSR
wasn't letting anyone do it (save for a single public ftp site
that admitted only a handful users at a time) role players
moved to games produced by companies with more enlightened net
On June 3, 1997 came the announcement users rec.games.frp.dnd
of had been predicting since TSR stumbled onto the net back in
1994: TSR was bankrupt. It was being bought out by a company
who had used the net to its success, Wizards of the Coast,
makers of Magic: The Gathering.
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