Life and death in Subspace

Matthew Butcher’s hockey teammates started a memorial fund for him last week. Some of these friends had known him for as many as twelve years. Few had ever met him in person.

These friends all played an online video game called Subspace. The game came out in 1997 — making it one of the earliest massively multiplayer online games — and it has a simple premise: fly around in 2-d spaceships shooting at each other. Even though the game was commercially abandoned shortly after its release, devoted users reverse engineered it and released an open source version so they could keep playing and add security improvements.

The game’s genius was that users could reinvent it — they can setup their own gaming servers, with a unique map and altered settings. One of these user-generated versions attempts to emulate hockey: users “check” each other by shooting their guns, and control a fiery ball inside a rink shaped arena.

The Realistic Subspace Hockey League (RSHL), where players form teams and try to win a coveted trophy, just wrapped up its 16th season. They keep stats, and even make their own editions of Sportscenter.

More importantly, they chat. The last time I checked in on the RSHL was about 5 years ago. I found familiar names from my playing days like Matthew (or white_0men as he was known in-game), as well as many, many new players. In fact, most of the current players only picked up the game relatively recently, well after it was commercially abandoned.

But when I asked them why they still played, they all said roughly the same thing — they liked talking to each other, meeting people who were older and younger, who had different jobs, lived in different places. Some players come to the Zone just to watch others play and catch up with friends. (In fact, when I played, my dial-up connection was so bad that sometimes all I could do was chat.)

Last week I got an email that brought me back to Center Ice, the website hub where the hockey players congregate. white_0men was killed during a robbery at his business in Los Angeles, and his friends were alerting all players, past and present, about the donation fund for his family and a memorial message thread (now hundreds of messages long).

This may seem strange, although perhaps less so to the 80 million active users of Farmville or any number of other online games. Glancing through the Center Ice message board, I thought about what some of the other threads might look like to an outsider.  Forum chatter may seem silly, obnoxious, to some even profane.

Yet Center Ice is certainly a community, and not merely in a virtual sense.

If you’re interested in learning more about how this community is composed, shaped, and regulated, here is what I wrote about life in Subspace in 2005.

2 Responses to “Life and death in Subspace”

  1. Navimaster
    July 12th, 2010 | 6:02 am

    Hey, I’m Navi from Hockey Zone and I’ve been reading what you wrote about Subspace in 2005. I have to say, it is pretty damn interesting and it is a shame that you do not play it anymore. I guess you could call me one of the “new” players since you took part in the community way before 2007, the year I decided to become a devoted HZer. I love HZ. I know we have our problems and things can get to us rather easily and we can fight over a thousand things, but in the end, when you look at it, we’re all in this for more or less the same reasons. We want to chat, argue, reach the top, become “e-famous”, and fill our boredom playing with others.

    Anyway, I think your “Life in Subspace” doc is very well-written. In a very important way, it is a contribution to the zone and should be respected as such. For some reason, however, this is the first time I’ve heard about it. I would’ve missed it if it hadn’t been for your forum post on the white_0men memorial thread. What do you do nowadays anyway? Still play online games? Also, do you think it was worth it to write all of that up? Thanks.

    –Navi

    P.S: I’m thinking of writing something important about SubSpace in the future as well. Although, I don’t think it’ll be as good as your draft. Hopefully, if and when I become a coach someday, I can bring myself to put my thoughts on Hockey Zone and how to manage a team down on paper (or in this case, in a word processor). I’ve learned a lot since I joined Hockey Zone a couple years ago and I think I have a lot to say about our online gaming community. At least, some day in the future, perhaps…

    Anyway, thanks again for writing such an interesting piece of literature about our Zone. Goodbye.

  2. DAM
    July 18th, 2010 | 6:42 pm

    Nice post, DAS. It’s certainly interesting that we continue to orbit this game. It reminds me of how Joyce described men’s minds magnetised about a new centre; for us, in this case, it is an old centre. It was not accident that Aristotle came to mind when I wrote that little prose elegy for Matt. I’d always found the odd combination of rational elegance and empirical difficulty (read: lag) experience in the game reminiscent of nothing so much as the Peripatetic musings on slightly out of the way topics like the nature of breath and bees.

    And, I must say, I’m not remotely surprised to find you posting form a Harvard Law blog. :)

    Cheers–
    DAM, aka Xenocidal Maniac