Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Discordianism and the EFF

Historia Discordia has a guest post by Brenton Clutterbuck, "Chasing Eris: The Case of Steve Jackson Games, or how Discordianism helped the U.S. Secret Service inspire the birth of the Electronic Frontier Foundation."

Steve Jackson Games, based in Austin, Texas, had an interesting game, "Illuminati." Science fiction writer Bruce Sterling explains, "'Illuminati' got its name from a card-game that Steve Jackson himself, the company's founder and sole owner, had invented. This multi-player card-game was one of Mr Jackson's best-known, most successful, most technically innovative products. 'Illuminati' was a game of paranoiac conspiracy in which various antisocial cults warred covertly to dominate the world. 'Illuminati' was hilarious, and great fun to play, involving flying saucers, the CIA, the KGB, the phone companies, the Ku Klux Klan, the South American Nazis, the cocaine cartels, the Boy Scouts, and dozens of other splinter groups from the twisted depths of Mr. Jackson's professionally fervid imagination. For the uninitiated, any public discussion of the 'Illuminati' card-game sounded, by turns, utterly menacing or completely insane."

Oddly enough, Sterling doesn't mention the apparent inspiration for the game. His book is available free on the Internet. For that matter, Clutterbuck doesn't mention Sterling's well-known book.

When Lewis Shiner interviewed Robert Anton Wilson in Austin, Shiner brought up the game:

Do you know about Steve Jackson's Illuminati game?

RAW: Everybody I meet thinks it's based on my Illuminatus! novels and I'm getting royalties on it. He claim it's not based on the novels, so I'm not getting royalties on it. Different lawyers give me different opinions. Decide for yourself.

In Clutterbuck's account, Steve Jackson at first considered adapting Illuminatus! " Instead of taking on the book, due to the complexity and payment for creative rights, his company, Steve Jackson Games, began to make a game built instead on the concept of the Illuminati generally, throwing in a couple of explicit Discordian references. To play with their interest in conspiracies and Discordianism, Steve Jackson Games had on their BBS the tongue-in-cheek announcement:

Greetings, Mortal! You have entered the secret computer system of the Illuminati, the on-line home of the world’s oldest and largest secret conspiracy. 5124474449300/1200/2400BAUD fronted by Steve Jackson Games, Incorporated. Fnord."

So I guess that settles it. Steve Jackson decided to go in a completely different direction!

My own opinion, while expressing no opinion on the legal issues, is that there would have been no "Illuminati" game without the Illuminatus! trilogy, and that Wilson and Shea indirectly deserve credit for a series of events that created the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the leading civil liberties group for the Internet.


michael said...

Steve Jackson and Dan Brown (and hell: maybe even Chris Carter of X-Files) were "smart" in seeing that they could dumb-down the essentials in what RAW (and Shea) were doing and market to the masses.

I'm sure the law and their lawyers had long ago advised them: don't mention your influences.

Because of my awareness of RAW's financial problems and mainstream recognition eluded him, I feel a loathing for Steve Jackson, who so clearly ripped off RAW and Shea. Or rather: it seems clear TO ME.

The not-all-that-good mainstream Hollywood film The Number 23, starring Jim Carrey? Jeez. Watch it, and try and tell me they weren't mining from RAW too. As far as I could tell: no mention at all about RAW in the credits. Joel Schumacher says he had no idea there was "23" cult before the writer Fernley Phillips suggested the idea. Phillips says a friend mentioned the 23 enigma, and it led him to read Illuminatus! So the influence is explicit. There's a character named "Topsey Kretts," which seems straight out of RAW's style of naming characters. Further, there's a "Dr. Leary" in the film.

It's not a good film, but there was money behind it. The makers were not up to exploiting the stuff full-on. It did freak out Jim Carrey though, supposedly:


Jesse said...


"Shea liked what Jackson had done and wrote an introduction to the first expansion set. Wilson was less enthusiastic, complaining to his agent that the game infringed on his intellectual property rights. His agent disagreed, and no legal battle ensued. In practice, the game probably helped rather than hurt Wilson’s bank account, since it served as an advertisement for Illuminatus!"

As a personal footnote, I'll add that it was the game that alerted me to the existence of the Illuminatus! in the first place. So it certainly did its advertising work in my case.

fyreflye said...

I assume everyone here knows that Steve Jackson Games also pirated the Principia Discordia for fun and profit.

phodecidus said...

It's been years since I've seen The Number 23 but I recall some sneaky reference to Sirius in there.

Bobby Campbell said...

I totally understand RAW's annoyance w/ someone making money off of his ideas, esp. when he's struggling, but I agree w/ Jesse's interpretation.

Similarly it seems like The X-Files probably lead to "Everything is Under Control" from Harper.

The Dan Brown thing is a bit grey too, because as I understand it (I've never read Da Vinci Code) the main thing he stole from RAW was the idea to adapt ideas from "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" into a fictional novel. Also, I think "Illuminati" being a household word bodes well for the future of the Illuminatus! trilogy.

The 23 stuff originally comes from William Burroughs, but I like to think that terrible movie leads google searchers to RAW.

The Principia Discordia is (or at least should be) renowned as an early iteration of creative commons intellectual property. "Copyleft" -
"Ⓚ All Rites Reversed – reprint what you like."

When I was 23 years old I was at RAW's house watching "Son of Frankenstein," he paused the movie after the line "Everything is under control," looked over at me and smiled, "Everything really is under control."

I'll never know what he meant!

Brenton Clutterbuck said...

Hey Tom,

I got the bit where Steve Jackson was directly inspired by Illuminatus! from his article here; http://www.sjgames.com/illuminati/designart.html. It seems possible that the royalties question played into things as well but since there's no definitive answer on that it's just speculation. I've done a small edit on the article to reflect that.

I haven't read Sterling's book yet, but it's been recommended a few times. At a glance it looks great, and I'll certainly bite into it before the final version of the article climbs into the book. Mostly I took my info from the legal documents and the media coverage around the case.

Certainly I think a lot of popular modern ideas wouldn't have their lofty place in the modern memesphere if not for RAW and Shea.

Looking forward to restarting Illuminatus! next week with everyone.