Before developing the hacking simulator that would earn him international recognition, Australian game designer Matt Trobbiani was just a seventeen-year old tinkering with the World of Warcraft III World editor.
Hidden in the directory files, it allowed crafty players to build their own maps. Trobbiani didn’t know what programming even was at that time. To satisfy his itch to tinker, he set up “elaborate systems of units” that used physical triggers, trees, and avatars in place of in-line commands.
But all too quickly, his ambitions surpassed the capabilities of this “janky” workaround. He needed to modify the inventory and a friend gave him a few simple lines of script to do it.
“It blew my mind. This whole time, I could have just been coding,” he said.
Today, Trobbiani is the creator of Hacknet, one of the most “realistic” hacking simulators in the market.
“Being able to take things apart, and encountering games early on encouraged me to change them. It built a really valuable mind-set that made me able to do what I do today,” he said.
To many in the public, hacker is just another word for cyber criminal. But developers like Trobbiani are flipping the script, harnessing the hacker mentality to encourage creativity and computer literacy among players.
An act of unstructured experimentation, hacking inspired some of the biggest innovators in game design. As Trobbiani put it, “It allows people who don’t have a computer science degree to express game design ideas.”
Hacking’s contributions to video games can’t be overstated.
“That playful, creative hacking approach took root in game developer culture,” said Intel’s community manager Josh Bancroft. “Modding introduced a whole generation of players to the idea of making your own games.”
Indie designer Brendon Chung still uses the hacks and tricks he learned as a modder to build fundamental parts of his award-winning games. His most recent game, Quadrilateral Cowboy, was built on the Quake 3 engine that he tinkered around with as a young modder in the mid ‘90s.
“Learning how things were built — hacking these games, essentially — was the leap into making my own games,” said Chung.
The hacker mentality in game design goes back to the word’s origin, codified at MIT during the 1960s. The “hacks” at the genesis of modern computer culture were light-hearted — closer to pranks than digital espionage. But engineering students seeking to one-up each other wound up offhandedly inventing video games in the case of the MIT Tech Model Railroad Club in 1961.
“[The MIT hackers] were just playing around,” said Alec Thompson, an MIT graduate and half of the Hexectuable development duo behind Beglitched. The genesis of hacking was “about being clever with technology, subverting stuff, and finding lateral-thinking solutions,” said Thompson.
Joining pioneers like TS-100, recent titles like Quadrilateral Cowboy, Hacknet, Beglitched, else Heart.Break(), and the sequel to the multi-million dollar game Watch Dogs make up a trend that uses hacking to inspire player ingenuity.
Aside from designing their games to be as modifiable as the original classics, these designers are turning hacking into a fun play experience anyone can pick up. Hacknet, for example, takes place almost entirely inside the terminal of the game’s fully functional (if fictional) operating system. To uncover the story, players must learn assembly-language programming and use it to come up with a myriad of solutions to technical puzzles.
In the process of mastering a fictional programming language, players learn the mind-set and more importantly, gain the confidence it takes to bring those skills into the real world.
The promise of hacking games however, extends beyond creating novel experiences for players. Both Trobbiani and Chung see video games as an ideal frame for computer literacy. Doubling down on the playfulness of hacking, the context of a game encourages players to get experimental.
Bancroft, whose background is in adult learning, pointed to the utility of “constructionism”, or, “the idea that we all construct our own learning by tinkering, playing; hacking, if you will.”
Trobbiani spent years observing countless play testers to ensure that everyone, regardless of technical skill, could play Hacknet from start to finish. The experience transformed those who once thought of themselves as being “bad with computers.”
“They found themselves in control of this intimidating, scary, technical system,” he said. “It proved to them that they could do it—they’ve got all the mental resources needed, because they’d been doing it for the past hour.”
The results were so promising that the Hacknet team immediately set out to create an educational build of the game that could be used to teach kids in schools around the world. As coding becomes an increasingly basic skill, Trobbiani believes games can make a big difference.
Ultimately, these game designers’ willingness to go under the hood and help players do the same only inspires a whole new generation of developers.
“I love making tools that encourage people to see how things work underneath, so they can mess with it and question it. That act, in itself, inspires more creativity,” said Trobbiani. “I want to make hacking almost compulsory. Everybody should become a hacker. It’s the future.”