Sponsor Profile: Steve Jackson Games

Steve Jackson Games is one of the icons of the US – and indeed global – game industry. They have everything from casual tabletop games, to more involved family games, to their own roleplaying game line, to crunchy strategy games, to apps and online modes of play.

Their casual games include the Munchkin family of games, which has been running for 13 years and shows no sign of slowing down its satirical take on new genres – having started with a heroic fantasy theme, they have quickly moved on to affectionately mock the clich├ęs of space opera, superhero comics, zombie movies, paranormal thrillers, Lovecraftian horror, spy films, Westerns, post-apocalyptic sci-fi… I don’t think they’ve got to noir or romance yet, but it’s probably only a matter of time. (Oh – and the base set is also among the donations you can get for free this year!)

GURPS, their Generic Universal Role-Playing System, likewise covers a huge range of genres, but from a less mischievous angle (mostly). Instead, it provides a basic set of rules for creating characters and resolving story actions, and then offers a hugely modular set of rules and setting information to allow you to play through stories in almost any milieu imaginable. All the geek genres above are covered, but so are the Ice Age; both fantastic and historical versions of past Earth civilisations such as the Aztecs, Celts, Greeks, various Chinese dynasties, the Old West and more; near- and far-future science fiction; magical realism; a range of other fiction franchises, such as Star Trek, R.E. Howard’s Conan, Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon, Discworld, Hellboy, and the Vorkosigan Saga; and more. And because they all use the same basic ruleset, they all interoperate! So if you want to tell a story about, say, US conscripts and Viet Cong in mid-battle suddenly falling through a portal to a distant science-fantasy world, you can.

These are only a few of their offerings – they also do crunchy tactical games, single-die push-your-luck games, reprints of obscure classics, and more! You can see a great selection on our donations page [inactive], and the full range at their website! But I wanted to move on, because awesome as all their games are, there’s more of interest to libraries about this particular sponsor.

You see, Steve Jackson Games was a central figure in the early skirmishes in the battle over the government’s interception and seizure of private information, and their case was one of the catalysts for the formation of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, leading defenders of freedom online. It’s a terrific story, though indubitably it must have been awful to go through – it nearly put SJG out of business – and one told very well by SJG themselves, as well as Bruce Sterling in his book The Hacker Crackdown. I recommend you read at least the SJG page linked above, in which the US Secret Service appears to exhibit one or both of:

  • the same tendency to indiscriminately violate the rights of people adjacent but unrelated to the actual subject of their inquiry (in this case, computers from the home and workplace of someone who had talked to hackers for a writing project) that has now metastasized into programs like PRISM.
  • the kind of inability to distinguish the imaginary from the real that people used to worry about gamers supposedly showing.

If you’re interested in knowing more, there are more source documents on the SJG site, and the court documents are available at http://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=15578406156657124091.

I can’t help but think, though, that if game publishers back then were accorded a comparable degree of cultural respect to book publishers, we might have seen an even stronger response to such a blatant violation of the rights of a premier independent publisher with an international reputation – perhaps even one that might have slowed the rise of the surveillance state? It’s a might-have-been, of course, but nonetheless it’s a sobering thought that our assumption that play and everything about it is inherently trivial might have had such a serious cost.

So thank you, Steve Jackson Games – for producing games in every flavour of fun from frothy silliness to strategic depth, for donating some of them to libraries for International Games Day, and for being the canary in the mine that helped kickstart the movement for online freedom.

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