Sense of Community

Chaos in Print

Whatever happened to the sense of community? That feeling you get when you are with a group of your peers, and you can just sit back and let it all hang out? The kind where you could walk into a room and know that these people are cut from the same cloth; that you can talk about any subject and know that they are as equally well versed? Well, I’ll tell you what happened. Like all of the good and decent emotions in the world, it’s been co-opted by the big companies in an effort to turn you, you, and yes, even you, into another corporate drone and/or loyal customer. I’ve come to this heart-breaking realization twice recently.

I remember the carefree days of my youth, and when my friends would come over and we’d gather around my family’s first computer. Ahh, the simple majesty of the Tandy HX 1000. We’d had it for a few months when Mom brought home a Sierra games 3-pack. Enclosed in this handsome gift set were the classic games Mixed-Up Mother Goose, King’s Quest II, and Space Quest. Mom had tried them out at the computer store, so she booted up the computer, and showed us how to play. Mixed-Up Mother Goose was quite easy, so Mom figured that one would be good for my little sister. My brother and I were drawn to Space Quest, but Mom wouldn’t let us play it just yet, saying it was “too hard.” That left us with King’s Quest II, and we started leading King Graham on his quest for true love.

Sadly, though, King’s Quest II was somewhat difficult, and soon my brother and I were begging Mom to get us the Hint Book. The Hint Books were these wonderful accessories that Sierra sold for all of their games. It was a walkthrough for the game, written in invisible ink. When you came to a part where you were stuck and didn’t know what to do next, you opened up the Hint Book to the section where it asks, “How do I do this?” You used your special marker to render the invisible ink visible, and you’d get your answer. My brother and I were stuck on the very second puzzle of King’s Quest II, but thanks to that book, we finished it within a week. But still, we needed outside assistance to finish it.

Near the end of King’s Quest II, you have to slay Dracula to get the third magic key. And, my brother and I just weren’t fast enough typists to enter “Use mallet to pound wooden stake into Dracula’s heart.” We’d type “Use mallet to,” and then Dracula would wake up and drink King Graham’s blood. Then, one afternoon, my best friend was over, and he was one of the first true computer geeks I had the honour of knowing. My brother was still trying to kill Dracula, when finally he asked my friend, “Hey! Could we get your help with this?” So my friend sat down, typed in “Use mallet to pound wooden stake into Dracula’s heart” at lightening speed, and Dracula died. My friend, my brother and I all gathered around the Tandy and finished King’s Quest II that afternoon. It wasn’t until years later that I learned you could kill Dracula by typing in “kill Dracula.” It was a team effort to finish King’s Quest II, and with that chapter behind us, it was time to get to work on Space Quest.

My brother and I actually began work on Space Quest a month before, when a group of friends were visiting and began to get curious about it. So, my brother and I popped it in the Tandy and we all started playing it. Now, let me tell you, back in this day, playing an adventure role-playing game like this was a great party activity. Whenever you ran into a problem, or a puzzle you couldn’t solve, everybody would start yelling out suggestions. “Try this!” “Try that!” “Well, when you type in ‘look around,’ it points out that rock. That rock must be important. Pick it up!” Turned out the rock was a key to a door in the next room. With the four of us working together, we all got farther on Space Quest than just my brother and I ever got on King’s Quest II sans hint book. Right there, a feeling of community was developed. We were all allies in helping Roger Wilco on his adventure.

Everyone was helping you on the adventure, even the Sierra Company itself, thanks to the Hint Books. And, all of their games, the Kings Quest series, the Space Quest series, the Leisure Suit Larry games, were all in the same visual style. You looked at them and you couldn’t help but feel like a part of something bigger and special. Inside each game they slipped the phone number to the Sierra BBS. (A Bulletin Board System was what they had before the Internet caught on. You’d call up a server with your modem, and at this server you could download stuff and chat with others logged on to the BBS.) Not only were the programmers who made these games trying to help you solve them, they were putting you in touch with even more people to help you! It was huge, man! It was a true, genuine community! The people behind Sierra were celebrities to us: Al Lowe, the programmer who gave us the Leisure Suit Larry games, the pseudonymous 2 Guys from Andromeda, who brought us the Space Quest series, and the creator of the King’s Quest games, the founder and matriarch of Sierra, Roberta Williams. You were a part of something!

Now that I’m all grown up, I swing by the Sierra website from time to time, trying to see if I can recapture that sense of the Sierra community, but it doesn’t exist anymore. Their website lacks that communal feeling. It has just become just another online press kit for their latest games. Looking over this, I began to wonder what happened to that sense of community. Is Roberta Williams still hunched over a keyboard, writing the latest adventure of King Graham, or has she been banished to some board room, cut off from the community? I began wondering what happened to this sense of community in the world, when I had to go to work.

On this particular day, the company was sending me to a workshop. Part of my job is interviewing new students; determining their levels, finding out what class is best for them, and, most importantly, get them to sign up for lessons. It was a beautiful sunny morning as I rode the train into Shinjuku. I was still a little distraught, as the company told me that they would not be renewing my contract. I wasn’t looking forward to this at all. If I wasn’t going to be part of this company much longer, why would I want to sit in a room full of company men? I walked into the office where the workshop was being held, and all the trainers recognized me. “Oh, hi, Mark! Nice to see you again! Your seat is right over here! How are things in (check clipboard) Kumagaya?” I answered their questions as best I could, trying not to spit any bile up on these people who had just deemed me unworthy for the company.

The workshop began, and I looked about the room. There we were all, young men and women, dressed in identical dark suits, here to learn how to be better company people. After the trainers gave us a few pointers and modeled an interview for us, they paired us off and had us practice on each other. An hour or two of this, and soon all bile I had for the company had been swallowed. We were all laughing, having a good time, with these, our fellow company men. I started feeling relaxed and at ease. At long last, I had found that sense of community again! I was with my peers, having a good time, and here we were, all brought together through the glory of the company. I was feeling this sense of community towards the company. My community was the company. That feeling of a great revelation set in, and I began to feel angry. I couldn’t help but scream, “No!”

That’s just wrong! In 1984, they tell us of a world where it’s the state that cultivates our sense of community, so therefore we feel indebted to the state. But now it’s the companies doing it! They want us to feel that debt of gratitude towards them, so we’ll feel more compelled to stay with that company or buy their products, or bring more people into the community! No! First the greeting card companies stole true love from us, now this! I began to feel glad that the company didn’t want me to renew. Who wants to be part of community that tricks you into thinking the same, acting the same, and all to fill the pockets of some corporate head? I will NOT be assimilated!

And I’m also starting to feel glad that Sierra is turning cold and corporate. As much as I loved the sense of community I got from them back in the late 1980s, I almost appreciate them for not co-opting that sense to sell me more computer games. Perhaps it’s just a sign of the changing times. The 1980s were an exciting time for computers. The programmers who made these games still had the image of being lone geniuses hunched over keyboards; just another part of the community. Nowadays, these games are made by teams of programmers, part of the community within a soulless corporation, trying to get us to simply buy games. I still miss Roberta Williams and the community she created, but I bless her for not corrupting it.

I think it’s time to start fighting back. Let’s start rebuilding these communities. Let’s all start ditching our suits and heading out to the park. Let’s all meet and start doing something that we all love to do: watch movies, talk about books, cycle, hell, just be with each other, and not for the greater good of some company. I’ll even do my part. I’ll dig out my old copy of King’s Quest II, and we can all gather round and play it. Better yet, I’ll seek out King’s Quest IV. It was the first Sierra game with a female lead, ya know, and I’ve never played it. We can all solve the puzzles together! And, who knows? Maybe even Roberta can join us. Once again, we’ll all be united in a community. We’ll be a community of people dedicated to one goal: having fun.

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