How roleplaying games and fantasy fiction confounded the FBI, confronted the law, and led to a more open web
On January 17, 1980, FBI agents descended on a small business in Wisconsin to investigate a plot against the life of an American business executive in Beirut, Lebanon, named William Weatherby. The tip came to local law enforcement from a concerned citizen who had chanced on a written description of the conspiracy, which the police duly handed over to the FBI.
When investigators arrived at the offices of this company, TSR Hobbies, they learned that William Weatherby did not exist: he was a non-player character in a new espionage role-playing game called Top Secret, which TSR was playtesting. This was easily demonstrated to the satisfaction of all parties, and the whole incident would certainly be forgotten today—except that it inevitably became part of TSR’s promotion for Top Secret. It was a spy game so realistic that even the FBI thought it was real.
This misunderstanding arose only five months after TSR obtained widespread notoriety in a similar confusion surrounding the disappearance of college student James Dallas Egbert III in East Lansing, Michigan. A private detective hired to find Egbert had learned that the young man played TSR’s role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons—at the time virtually unknown to mainstream America—and hypothesized that Egbert had come to believe the game was real. Famously, this led to calls for a search of the college steam tunnels, where presumably Egbert would be found wandering in a deluded stupor, questing for monsters and treasure.
Actually, Egbert had run away to Louisiana for unrelated reasons, but a seed was then planted in the American popular imagination. Role-playing games were dangerous: they warped fragile young minds, breaking down the barriers between the real and the imaginary. The irony is that it was the authorities, not the players, who couldn’t tell a game from reality.
A decade later, on the first of March, 1990, the Secret Service raided Steve Jackson Games in Austin, Texas, and confiscated the manuscript of a product in development. One of the agents serving the warrant grumbled, in Steve Jackson’s presence, that his company was producing a “manual for computer crime.” In addition to the draft of the game, Jackson reported that the Secret Service also seized “the two office computers the manuscript was on” and “thousands of dollars’ worth of associated hardware and software.” This time, the misunderstanding admitted of no simple resolution.
When the FBI visited TSR in 1980, they found no Berettas, no exploding pens, no tuxedoed spies—so no assassination appeared imminent. The Secret Service came to Steve Jackson Games a decade later in an investigation into computer hacking, which everyone knew required only a cocky teenager, an inexpensive personal computer, and forbidden knowledge.
The 1983 film WarGames had recently taught America how such a computer hobbyist might unwittingly destroy the world. The film’s young protagonist attempts to hack into a game company, but mistakenly accesses a military computer instead, and instructs the system to begin a “game” of global thermonuclear war. The hacker is at first entirely oblivious to the real-world ramifications. After a gradual dawning of awareness, he asks the computer, “Is this a game… or is it real?” With the aplomb of a delusional college student wandering the steam tunnels, imaginary sword in hand, the computer replies, “What’s the difference?”
In hindsight, it’s difficult to explain how esoteric computers appeared to the mainstream in the 1980s. The Internet existed—but even in 1990, few had any inkling of the prominence it would soon attain. It was just one of several communications networks, largely confined to university environments and overshadowed by closed monolithic information services like CompuServe.
The web as such didn’t exist either, and even functions like email and newsgroups depended on a patchwork of interconnected systems with limited standardization. The promise of an open, global network for commerce, entertainment, and personal communications remained in the realm of science fiction.
Science fiction, however, had furnished visions of that future. The most salient was William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer, which imagined an immersive, ubiquitous computer network called the Matrix, famously characterized by Gibson’s coinage of the term “cyberspace.” Naturally, science fiction and computers shared an overlapping fan base in the 1980s.
To many disaffected computer-literate youths, Gibson’s world of technology, drugs, and intrigue read like a prophecy of a glamorous, if dark, future. The promise of cyberspace felt not entirely out of reach; it was a vision so compelling fans didn’t just want to read about, they wanted to experience it.
But in 1990, the territory where these stories played out remained imaginary: the Internet lingered on the cusp of becoming habitable. Only a marginal community of hobbyists spent any significant fraction of their lives online, in various bulletin boards, newsgroups, and chat services where they communicated with like-minded explorers of the electronic frontier. Perhaps the closest you could get at that time to an experience of Gibson’s future was in the role-playing games that tried to capture the flavor of that world, known by the genre label “cyberpunk.”
Loyd Blankenship lost his job as a software engineer for a graphics company in Austin, Texas, on Valentine’s Day of 1989. As a long-time fan of the role-playing game GURPS (the Generic Universal RolePlaying System), Blankenship knew well that Austin was home to its publisher, Steve Jackson Games.
Blankenship at the time explained, “I wrote up a nice proposal explaining to Steve what a great opportunity this was for him and the company, and Steve (being a very wise man) saw that this was true. Some four weeks later, I was in.” Blankenship joined the company as Managing Editor, quickly going to work on the GURPS product line.
What special qualifications did Blankenship possess that recommended him to Steve Jackson Games? In addition to his enthusiasm for games, and expertise with software engineering, Blankenship had the unusual distinction of holding a prominent place in the computer culture of the 1980s. As a long-time member of the storied hacker collective called the Legion of Doom, Blankenship had written an article called “The Conscience of a Hacker” (sometimes known as the “Hacker Manifesto”) under his alias The Mentor.
Blankenship’s piece, inspired by his hacking arrest in the mid-1980s, famously insists that “my crime is that of curiosity” and that “you may stop this individual, but you can’t stop us all.” His experiences made him uniquely qualified to take on a forthcoming Steve Jackson Games project: GURPS Cyberpunk, slated for a March 1990 release.
Steve Jackson Games had a progressive attitude towards technology, for a company that published tabletop games rather than electronic ones. The company operated a dial-in bulletin board called Illuminati, named for a 1982 card game published by Steve Jackson which parodied a variety of conspiracy theories, following the Illuminatus! trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea. Later, this computer system would evolve into the famous Illuminati Online, which for two decades resided at io.com.
Users logging in to Illuminati would read, “Greetings, Mortal! You have entered the secret computer system of the Illuminati, the on-line home of the world’s oldest and largest secret conspiracy.” The bulletin board joked that it was merely “fronted by Steve Jackson Games,” but that might not protect it from certain suspicions.
Blankenship became an administrator of Illuminati; his considerable experience with bulletin boards included another Austin dial-in, the Phoenix Project, which he ran jointly with fellow Legion of Doom member Chris Goggans. The membership of these two bulletin boards overlapped some amount: Blankenship was far from the only computer enthusiast who played games or read cyberpunk science fiction. But investigators saw no boundary where the games stopped and reality began. This association brought the Secret Service to the doors of Steve Jackson Games.
Shortly after the Secret Service raid in March 1990, in an account written in the next issue of Jackson’s in-house magazine Roleplayer, Jackson reported that “we have since been told that neither SJ Games nor the GURPS Cyberpunk manuscript was the object of the raids.” Indeed, he further reports that “the home of the GURPS Cyberpunk writer was also raided, and his own computer taken.” Blankenship, for his part, remembered waking up at gunpoint as the Secret Service confiscated his personal computers and related paraphernalia.
The affidavit submitted for a warrant by the Secret Service on February 28 unambiguously identifies Blankenship himself as the target of the raid. The violations it alleges are attributed to Blankenship and Goggans. It maintains that they had received “a stolen or fraudulently obtained computerized text file worth approximately $79,000.00.” This referred to issue #24 of the online newsletter Phrack, which republished a Bell South document detailing internal practices of its 911 emergency calling system.
Another member of the Legion of Doom, Robert Riggs, had downloaded the document from an unsecured Bell South system a year earlier. Both Phrack editor Craig Neidorf and Riggs had already been indicted in connection with this document, which, the government insisted, “could be used to gain unauthorized access to emergency 911 computer systems in the United States and thereby disrupt or halt 911 service in portions of the United States.”
The affidavit notes the availability of Phrack #24 on the Phoenix Project bulletin board, and speculates that after the seizure it would be found either there or on the Illuminati server at Steve Jackson Games, or perhaps at both locations.
The raid couldn’t have come at a worse time for Steve Jackson Games. Already in debt, the company depended heavily on new releases for cash flow, and the confiscation of the GURPS Cyberpunk manuscript would significantly delay the book’s release. On March 9, the company let go eight people from its staff of seventeen. Since the Secret Service did not immediately return the manuscript, the team frantically reconstructed it from earlier draft materials and hurried it into print.
Ultimately, however, it turned out that the Secret Service had been chasing something no more real than William Weatherby.
The seizure itself had its share of procedural defects, but behind them loomed another, weightier issue: how valuable, and potentially damaging, the 911 document truly was. Bell South had reported the intrusion into its computer network to the Secret Service in July 1989, and claimed that its 911 “program” was engineered at a cost of $79,449—the Secret Service affidavit conflates cost of the program with that of the text file reprinted by Phrack.
This fed a certain hysteria in the media, which faithfully parroted the government’s exaggerations.
But as far as forbidden knowledge goes, the actual document contained only the most cursory overview of the bureaucracy surrounding the 911 system, without any code nor any actionable information which could threaten the stability of emergency calling in the United States. Moreover, equating copying an electronic document with theft raised a host of untested legal questions.
And could GURPS Cyberpunk, a casualty of collateral damage, serve as a “manual for computer crime”? J. Eric Townsend reviewed a copy for the early computer security zine RISKS in June 1990. He lists sixteen things therein you might glean if you were wholly ignorant of computer hacking, none of which offer any significant advantage over common sense; tips along the lines of, “Passwords can be really obvious, or hard to remember text strings.”
Townsend perhaps overlooks tokens of “realism” sprinkled throughout the text: for example, GURPS Cyberpunk mentions real-world hacker hangouts such as Altgers and tchh, albeit without explaining how such systems might practically be accessed.
While real-world hacking experience informed the speculative future of GURPS Cyberpunk, it bestowed only the sort of realism that games have. It could no more turn a reader into a computer hacker than Top Secret might turn its players into James Bond. But people who believed that the forbidden knowledge in the 911 document posed a threat to public safety could conceivably deem the realistic flourishes in GURPS Cyberpunk practical and specific information. It is easy to put yourself in the hysterical script of the movie WarGames when you lack the technical expertise to distinguish a game about hacking from reality.
For the first half of 1990, no one knew the true object of the Secret Service raid. On May 8, they announced, to great fanfare, a widespread crackdown on computer crime under the code name Operation Sundevil. At the time, when the affidavits and investigations remained under wraps, the raid on Steve Jackson Games quickly became conflated with this operation in the popular press.
The published edition of GURPS Cyberpunk understandably milked the controversy for all it was worth, given the company’s cash flow problems. The cover, in a conspiratorial eye-in-the-pyramid graphic, advertised the work as “the book that was seized by the U.S. Secret Service!” The Secret Service is also thanked on the title page for “unsolicited comments,” directly after the credit to the Legion of Doom as “hacking consultants.”
But Jackson also saw the larger context of his predicament. At the end of his introduction to the book, he notes that “now it seems that anybody with any computer knowledge at all is suspect,” and thus the “maybe the cyberpunk future is closer, and darker, than we think.”
Jackson had good reason for pessimism, but it turned out his example inspired a historic reaction against that dystopia. By June, Jackson’s case had come to the attention of John Perry Barlow. A veteran of 1960s counterculture who collaborated with the Grateful Dead, Barlow had been active in computer circles since he joined the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (WELL) in the mid-1980s. Moreover, Barlow had himself already been questioned as part of a law enforcement investigation into the unauthorized distribution of Apple source code, which convinced him that the government’s ignorance of emerging technology posed a fundamental problem for online civil liberties.
That spring, Barlow wrote up Jackson’s story in an article called “Crime and Puzzlement,” arguing that the Secret Service, “in over-reaching as extravagantly as they did… have provided us with a devil…. In the presence of a devil, it’s always easier to figure out where you stand.” Together with some powerful Silicon Valley allies, Barlow decided to do something about it.
When Barlow and Mitch Kapor announced the foundation of the Electronic Frontier Foundation at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on July 10, 1990, Jackson joined them in person. The EFF provided him a lawyer to help recover both computer equipment still held by the Secret Service and some of the costs the raid had incurred. The legal backing of the EFF also persuaded the government to abandon its case against Craig Neidorf.
One particularly damning revelation in the trial regarding the $79,000 911 document, as The New York Times reported, showed “that Bell South included the same document in a booklet that was sold to the public for $13.” In the end, the government finally saw it was lost in its own labyrinth, imaginary sword in hand, questing after a beast only it could see.
A quarter century has now passed since these events, which were immortalized in cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling’s book The Hacker Crackdown. The computer enthusiasts who could only dream of an open, global network in 1990 would go on to staff the dot-coms of the next decade. The closed networks that once guarded forbidden knowledge quickly fell by the wayside, and curiosity about computers could no longer be imagined a crime.
Our cyberspace today has its share of problems, but it is no dystopia—and for that, we must acknowledge the key part played by the messy collision of table-top games, computer hacking, law enforcement overreach and cyberpunk science fiction in 1990.
Jon Peterson is the author of Playing at the World, a history of role-playing games and wargames. We at Offworld loved his book, recommend it, and are grateful that he donated this article to us.
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