I Am Flynn

I saw TRON: Legacy just before Christmas. Twice. I loved it for some very personal reasons.

When I’m not pretending to be a 3000 year old high elf, I’m a computer scientist and developer. I’ve worked on some games, I’ve worked on operating systems, I’ve worked on system software such as compilers and linkers, and I’ve worked on a silicon compiler as well.

When I was in grad school, I went to see TRON with a bunch of my CS grad school friends. We saw it in Sunnyvale, in the heart of Silicon Valley. We stayed for the credits so we could see where it said that it had been rendered on a Cray supercomputer (THE most powerful computer at the time)

Tron was fun for us in that it invoked all sorts of little things that were a kind of “secret” lore at the time. Tons of concepts in computing were given physical manifestations. Overall, though, it was kind of a dumb movie, but I loved it because for once, my life was up on the screen. I’m not a hot pilot, or a whip-bearing archeologist, or even a county sherriff who thinks we need a bigger boat. But here’s my world, being portrayed by Hollywood, or a reasonable facsimile thereof.

The same holds with TRON: Legacy, primarily in the character of Flynn. Flynn is a programmer, a very talented one. I am a programmer, and I have a few decent credits, nothing so astonishing as Flynn. Flynn dresses like Steve Jobs and decorates his house as though he were in an Apple commercial. My own house could be an Apple commercial, as I own probably half a dozen computing devices made by them.

Flynn spends a lot of time in the film’s present practicing meditation and action through inaction. I have been studying Tai Chi for years. One of the companies I worked for, Silicon Graphics, had a CEO – Ed McCracken – who was known for his practice of Transcendental Meditation.

And then there’s the central idea of the plot – that Flynn created CLU as an agent of himself, in a kind of parthenogenesis. By the way, programming seems to me the closest equivalent our world has to Athena’s creation, springing from the brow (the locus of thought) of Zeus.

But it’s gone wrong. CLU manifests the same issues that HAL did, or Skynet did – what we see as valuable, he only sees as imperfection. But Flynn’s response to this is not that CLU must be destroyed, but that he must be re-integrated.

I love this part most of all, and it’s got nothing to do with computing. Evil is not something perpetrated by some unknowable other, it is the product of good desires carried out to extremes, and in denial of the consequences. To Flynn, the error was not anything that CLU did, but in turning him loose.

And if I am Flynn, it must follow that I am also CLU, which is a sobering thought.

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At Terra Nova, Timothy Burke writes that in the MMO world, World of Warcraft is CLU. Psychochild discusses the issues of order vs chaos in MMOs thus:

In general, many people strive to impose order on chaos. Along came World of Warcraft and imposed order on MMO gameplay. Using deep pockets, Blizzard created a world that was more orderly and stable than other competitors… and, perhaps more importantly, a lot more popular and financially successful than those competitors. The wild nature of the other games had been diminished in favor of a tightly scripted and controlled environment which people flocked to in large numbers. For some people, this is frustrating because with all this order there’s no room for the chaos needed to show new possibilities in game design. People keep chasing after the order imposed by Blizzard, but can’t quite match it for various reasons.


I don’t think that World of Warcraft is evil. It’s exactly what its developers and players want it to be. Which is pretty much an argument in favor of Wow = CLU. However, I don’t think that its success has all that much to do with the imposition of order, on the transition from “open gameplay space” to “closed gameplay space” And I argue that because Everquest II, which launched one month before World of Warcraft, had many, many features which promoted order and structure, most of which were despised by the player base. No, it has everything to do with how well it enabled solo play, via the same quest-heavy structure that EQ2 had, only EQ2′s was oriented to groups.

EQ2 promoted group play endlessly, with group-only encounters, group bonus experience, group-only buffs, and shared experience debt. Well, that last was meant to enhance good group behavior, but it didn’t work out so well. The crafting system was highly structured and also was meant to impose more interdependence among crafters. The player response to this was to make alts to do the crafting of needed subcomponents. Independence and self-reliance are a high value among MMO players, and WoW let them do that.

The other two pillars on which the success of WoW rests are, in my opinion, low system requirements and the Blizzard sense of humor and story. The success of WoW certainly has spawned many imitators of the solo-friendly, quest heavy style, but few of the “low system requirements, but still looking good” variety. Which has kind of stifled creativity, but don’t blame Blizzard, they are us; they are me, and I don’t even play WoW much any more.

3 thoughts on “I Am Flynn

  1. I don't quite agree with your assertions about EQ2. Yes, SOE was trying to impose its own order on MMOs, but it was really WoW's absolutely focused presentation that ultimately won the day. (And, if you want to get really particular about who first started imposing order on MMOs, you might point to EQ with its numerous “you're playing the game wrong” fixes which were adopted by WoW. Remember “The Vision(tm)”?)I'd even go so far as to say that the soloability of the game is one of the important aspect of the experience that Blizzard made as the focus of WoW. I think this goes along with the order/chaos thing pretty well, since soloing makes it easier to impose order on the play experience. Other players are inherently chaotic they're not as easy to predict or control. Encouraging people to play alone made it easier to impose an orderly experience; in fact, a lot of the experience was disrupted if you bothered to play with friends in some cases (like rescuing Sharpbeak in the old world).I think this is part of what's driving the nostalgia we've seen in the last few years. People want a bit of chaos to stir things up. Grouping, sandbox gameplay, user created content, etc. are all things that could do this. Something needs to happen, otherwise MMOs will stagnate to death.

  2. @Brian,I think maybe we are arguing semantics of “chaos” and “order”. I submit that it isn't order as such that made WoW successful, but the right kind of order.I see your point about “humans are inherently chaotic”. It goes double when they are playing a game, as opposed to working at a job or something.As to “The Vision(tm)” I was too much of a clueless noob in my EQ days to really follow this, but I remember things like them saying that they had never thought of such things as feign death pulling and quad kiting. And I remember that you could have certain abilities that were nice, but had very little scope to be used, after the nerf bat came through. Think lock picking and poisons, for example. I don't think MMOs will die, we are social creatures, we like doing stuff with each other. I think we may be in for a fallow period, though, as we figure out new ways to organize online activities and organize ourselves.

  3. Well, I'm using order in the same way as the Terra Nova piece, and as I discussed on my own blog. Whereas the older games had a much more open and wild feeling to them, WoW gave people a very directed and scripted experience. Not to say that you couldn't go off the rails (and sometimes be rewarded with a little something special), but the intended experience was a lot more focused. Hell, WoW had something you could call the “intended experience”, whereas it was a lot of other games practically dropped you into the world with no direction at all.The problem with such order is that this experience is hard to repeat without being a clone. That's why we've seen the MMOs we have in the past few years.I'm not so sanguine on MMOs. Yeah, maybe they'll just go dormant for a while. But, I think social games are showing that there's a serious chance that other games will come along and scratch that “online social” itch. Maybe eventually we'll see some indie projects get some positive attention, but it seems like people would rather post how they're “tired of” MMOs rather than trying to support something unique.

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