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Lizard Games: My sordid double life among Hackmud's failing newspapers and rigged casinos

Please state your name(s) for The Record

I once ran a newspaper. It wasn’t a real newspaper, with TV supplements and columnists to threaten. It was a fictional newspaper inside a fictional future – the cyberpunk dystopia of Hackmud [official site], a dense multiplayer hacking sim we’ve told you about before. It was a newspaper rooted in a fake world, which is arguably true of every newspaper. And yet the stories I was printing at the time felt real. They were real. Well, most of them. The story about the rigged casino in issue four probably left out some important facts. For example, the fact that I was also the person programming the dice.

If you missed our review of Hackmud, let me fill you in. It’s a multiplayer hacking game in which you and hundreds of others scrabble for GC, a digital currency, amid a quagmire of player-made scripts. These scripts can do a lot of things. One script might let you open up a dead NPC account and scoop out the delicious money inside, like a helpful nutcracker. Another script might empty your bank account, strip all your upgrades off your back, then steal your location and share it with the rest of the world. You don’t know which scripts are good and which are bad. You have to figure it out by asking around. You can also make your own scripts, but it requires a little coding knowledge.

It’s a deceitful and wonderful world that is difficult to get into. It shares most of its atmosphere with EVE Online, that other MMO notorious for being both an incredible story-maker and an inaccessible hellscape. Here, even the rudimentary gameiness of flying a spaceship and hitting hotkeys is gone. In Hackmud, you can gain a lot of money using other people’s scripts but you can only really enter the higher levels of play – the conniving, the drama - if you know how to program your own scripts, or if you are willing to learn.

I was willing to learn, at least for a little while. Cracking open one NPC after another and eating their innards like consuming a bowl of shellfish quickly got tired. And I could see from the chat channels and out-of-game gathering spots that there was a small set of elites who were dominating the net. In this game, everyone plays a ‘sentience’ - an artificial intelligence left behind by humanity, who have been wiped out by Welsh measles. It’s very odd.

The sentiences, other players from around the world, can range from dumb enough to run obvious scams posted in the first chat channel they see, to intelligent enough to manipulate events and code so that their pocketbook is constantly overflowing. This is what humanity would really look like if it was uploaded to the cloud. That’s a pessimistic view, maybe, but what else do you expect from a newspaper man?

Myself, I fell somewhere between the two. I was smart enough to double check every program I ran, suspicious of even the most reputable coders (good-hearted folks who make code that changes your font colour, or helps you find NPCs hidden among the list of junk and scams). But I was not a natural programmer, not a lateral thinker. And yet I still wanted to skirt that circle of elites at the top of the game. I needed to leverage whatever skills I had. So I deleted one of my usernames, resigning him to the scrapheap usually reserved for compromised accounts, and I came back in a different guise. The Record was born.

“FAMOUS AND RESPECTED NEWSPAPER REINITIALISES” read the headline of the first issue. Despite the claims of “THOUSANDS EUPHORIC” it was probably only read by a handful of players. In character, The Record was a narcissistic media algorithm gone rogue, an editorial bot who both craved the attention of its readers while simultaneously loathing everything about them. Out of character, it was me, sitting in my pants, eating mixed nuts as I tried to figure out how to make the font yellow or implement page breaks correctly. The second issue was much better.

Meanwhile, in the time it had taken me to learn enough to put together a single page of yellow text under a scrappy masthead, an entire cold war had started, raged and entered a cautious détente. It was a time of economic turmoil. The scriptkiddies and bottomfeeders of the ‘MUD’ were struggling to find even one pile of hidden money. Thanks to a spike in the game’s population, the NPCs were being hoovered up quicker than they could be replaced (they would regenerate every night at midnight). It’s not that there weren’t any treasure chests left in existence – it’s just that at a certain point, people would stop looking, because every stone they turned over seemed to have been looted already by another, faster mudskipper.

But as the lower classes of the game were going hungry, the masters of this universe were rolling in cash. Billions of the game’s currency were nestled in the accounts of a few brilliant coders - players who had been there since the beta and understood the architecture of the game with a thoroughness unattainable by most new players. Some of them were good-natured advisors, creators of helpful tools or free minigames with cash prizes for everyone.

Others were prolific phishers, hackers who squatted on harmless-looking scripts designed to fool people into giving up their location, their upgrades, their money. Mostly, the phishers and the helpers lived in relative peace. Until, one day, the creator of the game was hacked.

Sean Gubelman, the maker of Hackmud, had an in-game username called seanmakesgames. It was stacked with cash and, one day, that cash disappeared. What followed was a scramble for money and power, riddled with accidents, coincidences, paranoia, fear and distrust. The player who got the money (an eye-watering nine billion GC) was a hacker called alconchloe who didn’t even expect the lucky stab at the man's account to pay off. And probably didn’t expect to lose it all thanks to a typo.

I should explain. There are some programs, default scripts, which are very useful and used by all players. They aren’t made by players, but part of the game itself. They are the only truly safe thing to run. For example, typing ‘accts.balance’ will always display the amount of money in your cyberpockets, safely and reliably. But typing ‘acct.balance’, without the final ‘S’ … well, that’s trouble. That’s a person who has taken the username ‘acct’ and made their own mimic of the safe script. A trap for anyone who isn’t paying attention. Slip up by a single letter and all your money is now gone. Below, you can see what happened to an older character of mine when I typed 'sripts.fullsec' instead of the intended and legitimate 'scripts.fullsec'.

Everything my character owns (upgrades, locks, etc) is unloaded and his tiny wallet of money is transferred to the perpetrator. In this case, a well-known phisher called 'zzzyzzyx'. Thanks, zzzyzzyx.

This is what happened to the hacker who stole all of Sean Gubelman’s cybergold. Alconchloe typed something wrong. The money vanished from the hacker’s piggy bank and ended up in the account of the phisherqueen known as ‘v’. This player’s tendrils seemed to be everywhere and she was fast becoming the monster hiding under everyone’s bed. Hers was the name you heard when you first landed in the default chat channel ‘0000’ (a disreputable termite mound of a chat channel, full of scam artists and ill-fated noobs). Be careful, said the common shit-stirrers between bouts of spam, be a good sentience or V will come to get you. I know this because The Record was committed to constant surveillance of this channel, which sometimes produced ASCII art of the Toy Story dog.

A cabal of other powerful players had taken note of v. They targeted the phisherwoman and quickly discovered her ‘loc’. This is the Hackmud equivalent of a permanent IP address, something that opens you up to breaching and brutish PvP attacks. Under normal circumstances, this would have been Game Over for the scam empress. But these weren’t normal circumstances. The cabal threatened her and she threatened right back, promising to release 70+ locs of innocent players to the “public”, meaning any PvP hacker would be able to breach and steal from anyone on the list. In other words: open season.

In those early days, this was terrifying talk. It was akin to pointing a biological weapon at Times Square and saying: “come at me, bro”. In the end, the two parties came to an agreement. A very unconventional one. V took down her most offensive "mimic" scripts and Sean Gubelman, the creator whose own hacked account had sparked the whole drama, stepped in and reset everybody’s loc. I never found out where the money went.

Because of course I was lapping all this up in the aftermath. Or rather, the all-seeing eye of The Record was lapping it all up. Issue two covered the whole crisis. It was read more widely than the first, or it seemed to be, judging from the small donations I was suddenly receiving, many of them from the very subjects of the story I had written. People like to read about themselves, and I was sure, no, really, honestly, this would not cause any conflict of interest.

The third issue of The Record was about a heist, if there can be such a thing in cyberspace. The collective masters of the universe had worked to crack the highest-level NPC. In keeping with the nerd culture that has enveloped the world both inside and outside of this small videogame, the enemy nut they had cracked was called the “Gibson”. As the rest of the MUD was still recovering from a famine, trillions of the digital currency poured out of the Gibson and into the pockets of the emerging Triumverate – a programmer called dtr, the scammer v, and a user called soron.

Soron had become well-known partly due to a popular script that allowed players to change the colour of their font. Changing colours is great. Lots of people used this script, it was fun, it was useful. But soron wasn’t just some colour king. He had been the one to figure out v’s location in the previous crisis, and he could do it because she too used his colour script. He simply changed some code in it and her loc, eventually, was exposed.

I would like to say, as a vanguard of the press, that the implications of this act resonated throughout Hackmud. Imagine if Twitter temporarily changed their ‘tweet’ button so that it would hoover up private data on their users’ hard drives, all to catch a single criminal. This is essentially what soron did when he altered his program’s code. But this kind of behaviour was common in the MUD, and surprised nobody. I didn’t make too much of it in my report. After all, soron had made a healthy donation to The Record.

The fourth issue is when things started to wane. All was quiet on the news front. Either folks were settling into the MMO routine of farming NPCs, or all the drama was happening behind closed doors. I imagined scores of high-level players huddled in private chat channels where The Record’s glowing yellow eye could not reach. I needed a story. I needed to stay in the public view, craving the attention of the 0000 scum, players whom The Record routinely called “peasants” and “plebs” while also encouraging them to “share and donate”. We (in the chat channels, I had begun to refer to myself as “we”) needed a story. We found one in Iguana’s Casino.

The casinos and gambling dens of Hackmud are typical of an unrestrained and dystopian internet. There were trusted games like “Haunty Mall”, made by none other than the multi-trillionaire dtr. But most were simple games of chance that took control of your messaging system to broadcast “I won 50K at!” or something similar any time that you won. This was just another kind of refrain that popped up in the scum-chatter of 0000 with mundane regularity.

One of the games, iguana.coinflip, was a simple script in which you flipped a coin. It was run by a spammy, greasy casino coder called 'iguana'. If you got heads three times in row, you won a big prize. But you also had to pay a small amount for each ‘flip’. This game was rigged, and not just in the traditional sense of diminishing odds. I mean the code hidden underneath it all actually only gave a ‘heads’ result with odds of 4:6, and sometimes worse. I know this because I was the one who programmed it. Yeah, I was iguana. I picked the name after scanning my desk and seeing a postcard with an iguana on it. I have been meaning to send this postcard to a friend for the past 10 months.

You can have two usernames at any time in Hackmud. My life as a gambling scumbot ran parallel to my life as a high-functioning and basely corrupt newspaper AI. As I learned to template news reports and create databases in which to house each issue of The Record, I was also learning to code basic games of chance. The first attempts at a coinflip game were disastrous (not that the final version was much better). I couldn’t get the cash reward right, miscalculating every time and offering far too much to winners. Even with the odds stacked against them, the hefty prizes meant that I was losing money to gamblers who thought it was legit and walked away, unsurprisingly, very happy.

I could simply have not paid them (because I had to make every payment manually – don’t ask) but if I had done this then nobody would play tomorrow, or the next day. I would have a bad reputation. The fact that I actually paid out for my customers isn’t an attempt to gain some forgiveness in the eyes of the reader. I just want to describe how wrong this was going. I was a lousy gambling don. And I don’t just mean in the obvious way. I was trying to rip people off, yes, but I was also really bad at it.

I eventually got the coinflip code right. I posted ASCII art adverts of lizards and iguanas into the cesspit of 0000, enticing players to take a punt, which some did. Many did not. The second game of Iguana’s casino was released a week or so later – a single highstakes roll of a dice that tripled your bank balance when you rolled a six (wow!) but stripped all your money when you rolled anything else (oh no). The die, of course, was loaded. But to my horror, this still did not stop the very first player who rolled the die from winning, stripping me of a huge chunk of coin I had made. This was an outcome with stupidly low odds. I am still not sure if this user somehow hacked my game, or counter-conned me. I may never know. It is possible I am unlucky. It is possible that I am very bad at mathematics.

Iguana’s Casino was not working out. But the Record was in need of a story. We (“we”) decided that a blood sacrifice would be made. The fourth issue of The Record hit the non-existent shelves of 0000 that week. “RIGGED CASINO EXPOSED BY WHISTLEBLOWING FORMER ASSOCIATE” ran the headline. It was filled with quotes from an “insider” (me) and a single, short-tempered rebuttal from iguana (also me). Shortly afterwards, people stopped playing games at Iguana’s.

This could be down to the newspaper report – the vainglorious side of us would like to think so – but it is more likely a simple case of me logging in less and less often under that username in the subsequent weeks. I was no longer spamming the chat channels with adverts and grotesque ASCII pictures of lizards – ASCII art that I plundered from ancient web pages like a grave robber, rooting around in abandoned archives lost since the early 2000s and suddenly made valuable again to a metafictional gambling failure for the most banal digital reasons. Yes, I know how strange our world has become.

The fifth issue was the last issue of The Record, and it was probably the most professional-looking too. If you discount the entirely invented story about the sinkhole in Caracas, I mean. Dtr, the richest player in the game, was opening a bank. It was only a matter of time before someone did this. Other attempts had been made, with varying success. The Record ran a puff piece about the upcoming financial institution, more out of laziness than personal gain. All of my energy had already gone into a new database system for archiving the issues, allowing the public of Hackmud to read previous editions (before this, you could only read the most recent issue). I was proud of this. It involved learning more bits of JavaScript nonsense than I was normally comfortable with. At this point, I hit the publish button for issue 5 (I mean: I typed various long-winded commands), posted the usual advert to 0000 (“Issue 5 out now, plebs!”) and then sat back and resolved to play no more of Hackmud.

By now, I had put 90+ hours into hacking NPCs for cash, coding bad gambling minigames, and talking to villains and anti-heroes to get newspaper quotes, all while lurking in the fetid swamp of scams and spams that composed the game’s default chat channel. It had been a lot of fun, but man, had I reached the end of my capabilities. Short of taking a course in JavaScript, or continuing to work a second job as a bad journalist, there was not much left for me to do. Especially in terms of the game’s cash. There is a PvP route to go down, but following a failed casino and a failed newspaper, I don’t have the speed or stamina to also become a failed mercenary. Perhaps another day.

Until that day, if you ever do find yourself in the dark alleys of Hackmud, navigating the bustling and dodgy medina of 0000, you can type{issue:1} to see how it all started. The Record will never say no to donations. The Record will remember you when it is in ascendance.

Or, if you fancy your chances, there’s always Iguana's.

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