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Justin Webb: Fun With Wikipedia

Column By Justin Webb on April 06, 2010

Recently, Eurogamer did a great interview with Dave Jones as part of their GDC APB coverage. Dave is one of the pioneers of the UK game industry. After reading the article, what really interested me was reading comment #6:

FTA "worked on the likes of Lemmings for Psygnosis before co-founding DMA Design, later Rockstar North, and co-creating Grand Theft Auto. "

Think EG need to have a look into the history of DMA/Rockstar... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rockstar_No...

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Pedantry aside, this is a very interesting comment. To take issue with Eurogamer’s brief introduction of Dave Jones at the beginning of the article is one thing. To be so angry as to then leave a comment regarding the paraphrased biography of Dave Jones is another. But to then quote a Wikipedia entry as a matter of fact is the icing on the cake.

This got me thinking. Wikipedia is clearly a fantastic resource, but how accurate is it at documenting and recording the history of old(er) online games?

I decided to look up on Wikipedia some old games that I used to play, the first being my favorite MUD-like game: Terris.

I dabbled with some MUDs on my Commodore 64 back when I was a teenager (late 80s), but it didn’t stick. Terris was probably the first online game I ever really got hooked on. At launch (1995), Terris was a text-based online role-playing adventure game (some graphics came later), played through its own client on AOL. Back in 1995, playing online games in the UK was phenomenally expensive. You had to pay by-the-minute charges to BT (the phone company), your internet provider, and (often) the game you wanted to play. When AOL discs started appearing in the UK, they provided a simple (and cheaper) way for people to get online for the first time. This is when I first noticed Terris.

I played Terris for about three years. Eventually, it was dropped by AOL, but continued online. It’s still playable today.

When I started looking on Wikipedia, searching for “Terris” led to a disambiguation page. The next thing I tried was “MUDs”, which led to a sizeable page, but no Terris. Clicking on a “see also” link for “Online text-based role-playing games” also yielded no joy.

Digging further, Raph Koster’sOnline World Timeline” (a phenomenally detailed history) also doesn’t mention Terris, but does list the dates that other games appeared on AOL: for example, Gemstone (which has its own Wiki page) and Mark Jacobs’ Dragon’s Gate (which has one too). Terris doesn’t seem to appear on any of Richard Bartle’s history documents on Wikipedia either.

Personal perceptions aside, there are some things I “know” to be true about Terris:

  • It released on AOL Europe in late 1995. It had its own keyword.
  • It opened wider onto AOL (USA) in early 1996.
  • There were always “lots” of people online.
  • At some point in 1997, AOL dropped all of its hosted MUDs, except for Terris.
  • Brian Blessed” did the introduction audio.
  • It has original code – it’s not a MUD variant.
  • There were enough players to hold sizeable player meets in 1996 and 1997. I have a bunch on my Facebook page.
  • PC Zone reviewed Terris higher than Diablo.

There are also some things that I “believe” to be true, in that I heard them from people I especially trust:

  • It had 5500 PCU (peak-concurrent users) at its peak. A massive amount for a MUD.
  • Terris had the most logged hours of any game on AOL for three consecutive years.
  • Marlon Brando played Terris.

However, according to Wikipedia, this game didn’t exist.

So, how does something like this happen?

Well, Wikipedia doesn’t care (and rightfully so) about things you “”know” or believe” unless there is a reputable online source (ROS) that verifies that thing. It’s usually very good at documenting known fact, as long as lots of people have written those facts down somewhere and posted them on ROSs. Many older games had their own sites, where the majority of all related information was stored. If that site closed down, that information is lost.

Many non-commercial early MUDs ran on University networks. Academia, in general, is better at documenting just about everything, which is why the early history of MUDs is so meticulously recorded. Commercial MUDs fare worse. Most old video-game magazines pre-2000 aren’t archived, so reviews, features, and articles from that period don’t exist online.

Also, to get a Wikipedia entry, someone has to write it. Obviously, if no one wants to write it, it doesn’t get written. Also, not everyone knows how to compile references and citations in a way that makes that entry safe from deletion. And, if you write an article and can’t back up the things you “know” with ROSs, that entry will be deleted. The person who deletes it won’t care if the things you know are true, only whether you can verify them or not.

In addition to there being some things that have been clearly omitted from Wikipedia, there are also lots of entries that have no business being in there in the first place. Since Wikipedia is so popular and well regarded, it can be in one’s best (self)interest to have a Wikipedia page, and to make that entry seem as important as possible. This happens a lot in the video-game business. And some people are really good at manipulating Wikipedia.

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