Wednesday, November 21, 2001

Why do I think computer viruses are games? I have been thinking a little about that since I idly mentioned it yesterday. I often get questions like "why do people hack computers or make viruses", and while I can't really say, the same way as I have no idea why some people like to play football, I can look at why I think it's a game. So me and set out to find some material about that.

Let's look at Huizinga's categories in homo ludens: First of all, they are restricted to a certain arena: the computer. The computer is perfectly suited to be a gaming environment, it's separate from the "real world" without needing to erect stadiums, it gives an equally good view both for the players and the spectators, and you have a ritualistic approach to entering the arena - you even have a secret pass-word.

Viruses are definitely superflous. Nobody needs a virus. They are a result of too much time, energy and occasionally imagination on the part of the creator. They don't belong in "real life" - even if they impact reality (as does soccer, being a huge industry), their function is beyond the ordinary use of the computer. Although there are viruses which are taken very seriously, Huizinga points out that "Any game can at any time wholly run away with the players."

Viruses are limited in time and space, like a game. They are created, distributed, isolated and stopped. The periodic nature of virus outbreaks has its own rhythm, like certain games - or like the bug they are named for. But where the flu isn't created with intent (we hope), several computer viruses are. Viruses are, in their own way, a different order, and they are an important part of creating a hierarchy in some social groups:

While research shows a lot of virus writers act from boredom, Evan says there are a variety of reasons: "It was some credibility in front of my hacker peers to say, 'hey, I can write a virus and you can't.' There's almost even an aspect of 'make them afraid of you,' albeit, no real threat here, but there was the mystique that 'hey, don't mess with that guy, he'll give you a virus.'"

Viruses claim fame and a place in the history books through elegance and effectiveness.

Virus creation and hacking gives access to a world-spanning community. And like sports, it's healthy, because it keeps the skills of the wider computer community honed.

Even the secrecy and mystery of dress-up is well taken care of in the hacking community, particularly when it comes to sending out virus emails. Disguised through several layers of proxy servers, using automatons or 'bots to launch the virus remotely on certain dates, the hacker also often communicates through dramatic, romantic aliases signifying the lone ranger, the dark hero of the digital frontier.

All of this confirms that making a virus and spreading it is play, but is it a game?
I'd say yes to that as well. Hacking has its own "score-sheet" with hits and misses, and that score-sheet has reached the news. It also has the professional antigonists and established "enemies", somebody to measure skills and abilities against. Hacking Nasa, Pentagon or Microsoft ranks high up there, like an olympic gold medal. There is a game-play nature to hacking and virus-writing which is mirrored in other games to play with computers, popularly called computer games.

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