Sunday, November 04, 2007

Is Werewolf Killing the Conference Hackfest?

The latest craze at conferences, especially those associated with O'Reilly or Ruby, is the game Werewolf (historically known as Mafia, but Werewolf has become more popular). The premise of the game is simple: (from Wikipedia's Mafia article)

Mafia (also known under the variant Werewolf or Vampire) is a party game modeling a battle between an informed minority and an uninformed majority. Mafia is usually played in groups with at least five players. During a basic game, players are divided into two teams: 'Mafia members', who know each other; and 'honest people', who generally know the number of Mafia amongst them. The goal of both teams is to eliminate each other; in more complicated games with multiple factions, this generally becomes "last side standing".
Substitute "villagers" for "honest people" and "werewolves" for "mafia members" and you get the general idea. They're the same game.

Again from Wikipedia:
Mafia was created by Dimma Davidoff at the Psychological Department of Moscow State University, in spring of 1986, and the first players were playing in classrooms, dorms, and summer camps of Moscow University. [citation needed] The game became popular in other Soviet colleges and schools and in the 1990s it began to be played in Europe (Hungary, Poland, England, Norway) and then the United States. Mafia is considered to be one of "the 50 most historically and culturally significant games published since 1800" by about.com.
So you get the idea.

It's a fun game. I first played it at Foo Camp 2007, and I've played at each Ruby-related conference since then. It's a great way to get to know people, and an interesting study in social dynamics. I have my own opinions about strategy and in particular a fatal flaw in the game, but I'll leave those for another day. Instead, I have a separate concern:

Is Werewolf killing the conference hackfest?

Last year at RubyConf, Nick Sieger and I sat up until 4AM with Eric Hodel, Evan Phoenix, Zed Shaw and others hacking on stuff. Eric showed a little Squeak demo for those of us who hadn't used it, Zed and I talked about getting a JRuby-compatible Mongrel release out (which finally happened a year later) and I think we all enjoyed the time to hack with a few others who code for the love of coding.

As another example, RubyGems, the definitive and now official packaging system for Ruby apps and libraries, was written during a late-night hackfest at an early RubyConf (2002?). I'm not remembering my history so well, but I believe Rake had a similar start, as well as several other projects including the big Rails 1.0 release's final hours.

This year, and for the past several conferences, there's been a significant drop in such hackfests. And it's because of Werewolf.

Immediately after the Matz's keynote last night, many of the major Ruby players sequestered themselves in isolated groups to play Werewolf for hours (and yes, I know many did not). They did not write the next RubyGems. They did not plant the seeds of the next great Ruby web framework. They did not advance the Ruby community. They played a game.

Don't get me wrong...I have been tempted to join every Werewolf game I can. I enjoy the game, and I feel like I'm at least competent at it. And I can appreciate wanting to blow off steam and play a game after a long conference day. I often feel the same way.

But I'm worried about the general trend. Not only does Werewolf seem to be getting more popular, it seems to draw in many of the best and brightest conference attendees, attendees who might otherwise be just as happily hacking on the "hard problems" we still face in the software world.

So what do you think? Is this a passing trend, or is it growing and spreading? Does it mean the doom of the late-night, post-conference hackfest and the inspirational products it frequently produces? Or is it just a harmless pastime for a few good folks who need an occasional break?

17 comments:

David Koontz said...

The thing that's puzzling to me is, do the people who seem obsessed by playing warewolf not have any opportunity to play it elsewhere? I played it "back in the day" when it was mafia and it lasted a few months or so in my group. I think a lot of the novelty would wear off if people were getting in more regular plays.

Personally I go to RubyConf for Ruby, I go to several regional gaming conventions to game. Perhaps the people you observe being sucked into Warewolf are just uninformed as to the general world of gaming available in any major city? Or, maybe those people have known each other long enough that they want a break from the eat dinner or have a hack fest form of interaction that may be all they've ever known at a tech conference.

At the game developer's conference on Saturday night there is usually a group that gets together to play board games, which Warewolf would certainly fit into. Maybe RubyConf could use an unofficial
game night" where Warewolf + other, superior games are introduced to the community.

Or maybe we just need I.actually_hacked_on_stuff, :at => :rubyconf07 shirts.

Chad Fowler said...

As one of the people who created RubyGems at a conference, I get your point. My perspective is a little different, though. These days, many of us are fortunate enough to do Ruby full time. In 2003, I spent my days as a manager or a Java programmer or something else that was Just A Job. No Ruby. So, I would show up at conferences desperate to code with Ruby enthusiasts.

Now, my priorities are different. We do Ruby all the time. The conferences are all about Ruby people. What I love about Werewolf is that it is an amazing way to quickly establish deep connections between people. I've witnessed lasting friendships (and technical collaborations form as a result of a single night of Werewolf.

To me, Werewolf is a high resolution, rapid way to make lasting connections with people I might otherwise never have talked to beyond a simple "Nice to meet you".

So I think it's a trade-off.

Giles Bowkett said...

I can only speculate, because I had to cancel my RubyConf ticket, and it would have been my first RubyConf, but Greg Brown told me at Ruby East that RubyConf had way more hacking and way less Werewolf. He said it twice, and the second time he said it, I was like, why not start hacking, and we did.

I definitely think it was easier to do because we'd played Werewolf, though. Ruby used to be a smaller community. People like me who came in with Rails have made Ruby a much bigger thing and just being fellow Rubyists isn't social lubricant now. But maybe I'm wrong. My presentation at Ruby East had a tiny hackfest component to it, and that could have probably been social lubricant enough.

You're not going to like me when I say this but I think this is like your post on writers being tech poseurs. Those two things were definitely related, but you asserted a pair of opposites where there wasn't one. I think that's going on here too. This is another kind of false dichotomy. If Werewolf was killing the hackfests, then taking away Werewolf would bring the hackfests back. But like Chad says, it could be the hackfests are lessening for a totally independent reason, so if you took away Werewolf, the hackfests would still be diminishing.

You could say the hackfest just went to the Web; if you do, it got bigger, not smaller. Lots of people get paid to hack open source Ruby these days. These people often have more in common with each other than they do with the people they actually physically share office space with. In effect Werewolf allows you to meet your co-workers. You only get to see these people pretty infrequently, so you pack a ton of getting to know them into a really dense, powerful format.

Personally, if I *had* made it to RubyConf, I'd only be satisfied if I got to do some hacking and some Werewolf.

Ed Borasky said...

Well ... I guess I'm ambiguous about this. I don't do Ruby except on a hobby basis, but by the end of the day of a conference I'm too tired to hack ... then again, I've never played Werewolf either.I did stand around and watch the first part of one game last night and it doesn't strike me as the sort of thing I'd be any good at.

But ... yeah ... there seems to be a lot more Werewolf this year than there was last year and a lot less hacking.Oh yeah ... Obie talked me into firing up a Ruby blog, so I did -- ruby-perspectives.blogspot.com.

Patrick Mueller said...

The "pro" game on Saturday night was run at the same time as RejectConf, yielding a double rejection for the presenters.

On the other hand, Chad is right. Plenty of tech conferences I've been to with fellow "experts" ended up in various non-hacking activities; there were usually some technical side notes to the activities, but it was largely entertainment, release, and enjoying interacting with people, in person, who I rarely met in person.

The "problem" will fix itself, if it is a problem.

Lyle said...

My experience with some hackfests at some past conferences is that they can get a little cliquish. The guys who already know each other naturally tend to stick together, often to the unintentional exclusion of newcomers.

I've only participated in one Werewolf match so far, but I was immediately struck by how inclusive the group was. There were guys who had only been using Ruby for a short time, alongside guys who had been working with Ruby for many years. Likewise, a few of the guys were Werewolf veterans while others of us were newbies. That match was the beginning of some great new friendships for me, and I'm glad that's becoming a part of the Ruby culture.

Kevin said...

I feel like in a rapidly growing community it's easy to lose track of the _people_, and it's people that make projects successful and long lasting. Hacking still gets done (I did a fair amount), but maybe what's more important is that though a simple game you take a group of people that may have no connection and force them to work together. At that point it's easier to get things done _after_ the conference. After the conference lasts rather longer than the conference itself.

Seth Thomas Rasmussen said...

Perhaps the hackfests could benefit from some friendly recruiting? Some people might not be comfortable approaching relative strangers at their computers.

I played my first game ever of Whateveryouwannacallit at this last Ruby Conf, and despite an absolutely abysmal display of strategy on my part, I thought it was a lot of fun.

Gregory Brown said...

I didn't play Werewolf this weekend, even though I had a lot of fun at RubyEast playing.

I think it's true that Giles and I may have missed each other if we hadn't played Werewolf though... I'm not really sure.

Chad, I think you've got a point that it's different now that everyone is doing Ruby for work. Still, these conferences are opportunities for developers who are geographically separated to actually hack together in the same room.

Charlie: I'm not sure Werewolf is killing the hackfest, but the Werewolf to hacking ratio is a little too unbalanced for my tastes. I think this will ultimately work itself out though (or I hope).

Anonymous said...

Seeing this locally as well and not just in the Ruby community. Various programming groups around town (PDX) having weekly (or bi-weekly) Werewolf fests. Lots of it was going on during OSCON as well. I've never played, so I don't want to be too negative, but I do hope the fad dies out soon.

But maybe we should look at the "silver linings" and perhaps leverage this type of social phenomenon into something the melds the hackfest with the competitive game? What kinds of opportunities might this afford?

I think one of the best things to come out of the various programming conferences is code. The advantage of the conference is that you've got a lot of people with similar interests in one place, so it should (and it has been in the past) be a good place to get the ball rolling on new projects via the collaboration that can exist there. So using that collaboration time for gaming seems like a bit of a wasted opportunity.

The question is: how can we re-relace the Werewolf fad with with the hackfest? Maybe the hackfest needs to look more like a game? We can't just derride the Werewolf phenom and mourn the loss of the hackfest; we need to come up with something that's more attractive than the Werewolf-fest.

lex gibson said...

"Is Werewolf Killing the Conference Hackfest?"

I think it clear, just from the fact that Charles is asking that question, that he is, in fact, the werewolf.

Patrick Mueller said...

The question is: how can we replace the Werewolf fad with with the hackfest? Maybe the hackfest needs to look more like a game?

Jason Hoffman provides a clue in Episode 21 of ps pipe grep. About 43 minutes in. "Level 78 Code Ninja"

Devin said...

Umm... what Chad, Giles, and Lyle said.

I think "newbs" and "celebs" alike are flocking to the game at least partly because it lets them have a conversation without feeling like they're on either end of a source/sink relationship.

I'm not sure "openness" is a good enough solution, at least in a hackfest. Sometimes the newb/rockstar thing is a distinction without a difference, and sometimes you really don't want to spend 30 minutes explaining to some doofus how to use darcs just so he can submit a patch you're not likely to accept.

Does Werewolf somehow solve this issue, or will it show up in due time? Is the "pro" exhibition game a sign that werewolf cliques are soon to follow?

My only thought is that the prerequisite to participating in a hackfest on an existing project is to have made some contribution (code, test, doc) to the project already, via Internet-land, thus forcing the above issue. I'm not sure I like that thought -- waterfallish.

Perhaps there is a technique to learn from unconferences? I hear they manage to produce value and avoid total chaos, though I've never been to one. Do we just need a big whiteboard and a mediated brainstorm for an hour?

Michael said...

I've been really interested in what Charles said about Werewolf and RubyConf and have been following comments closely. I was one of the "werewolves" at RubyConf, and I admit to preferring it over evening hacking sessions and encouraging others to join us as we played.

As someone who plays a lot of werewolf (I calculate that I've played 100+ games) and plays games on a regular basis at the Lucky Lab, you'd think the last thing I'd want to do is play Werewolf at a conference.

But contrary to that, I *do* like to play Werewolf at conferences - for me, conferences are about the people. There are talks and meetings of minds and so on that are all very inspiring and conference specific, and that's all fine, but hidden between the cracks about what everyone attending is obviously interested in (in this case, Ruby) are an incredible amount of other varied and intense interests as well.

I can learn about people's interests in Ruby, and learn more about the things that something like RubyConf can teach me online, but what's harder to learn are the "hidden" interests. People often project a single persona both online and at conferences that suggest all their into is that one thing their projecting.

But I've learned that Werewolf helps break that "i'm only into x" thing. We all sit down and play, and we're equal in our interest to win (whatever that actually means). We ignore for a moment Ruby, or the fact that some of us may play significant roles in the Ruby community and may be "famous", and begin interacting with people on a very intense sort of level. In my first game of werewolf ever I played with Jeff Bezos. My first words to Jeff Bezos were "I think you're a damn dirty liar and I think we should all kill you now". No "oh, hi, you've done neat things" or other sort of expected greetings on meeting someone influential for the first time - just honest and pure statements of obvious deceit (I was wrong about him being a liar, for what it's worth).

I've had the opportunity to meet Jeff since that game twice and we both remember that moment, and we both laugh about it every time. During that game I struck what I assume will be a lasting relationship that is far stronger than if I'd met Jeff and we'd talked about web applications or space ships.

But I do like the coding hack fest too - when at RubyConf I joined up with a couple of people for a few hours at a time and got some cool stuff done, but given the exclusive choice of the two - I'll take Werewolf.

Mike Booth said...

Shorter everybody:

Werewolf : tech conferences
::
golf : business conferences

But there's more to it than that. Werewolf *is* a hackfest, distilled to its essence.

The technical portion of a face-to-face meeting shouldn't last more than an hour. That's when you review the state of the project, collect ideas, come up with an action plan, and divvy up the work. After that, people have to retreat into their own heads, review what they've heard, start writing prototypes or design specs, and (if necessary) conduct passionate technical debates via email or blog, where they won't waste everybody's time.

What's the point of doing all that at a conference? The chairs suck, the tiny laptop displays suck, the connectivity sucks, you're half unconscious because you've been roaming the hallways all day, and you can't concentrate because people keep interrupting you.

Socializing is a better use of conference time. Playing Werewolf with your collaborators will enable you to hear their voices in your head when you chat with them on IRC six months from now.

Lupus said...

Columbus, Ohio - NFJS 2007

Non-local attendees, with hotel rooms, got together and played LAN video games. Ted Neward showed up and hung out in the hotel's "business center", i.e. computer lab, as well.

Tragedy? No. Good social interaction? Yes. Overanalyzed? No.

Pen & paper Werewolf @ RubyConf. Werewolf played.

Tragedy? No. Good social interaction? Yes. Overanalyzed? Yes.

Ankur said...

i think the game is a harmless way to improve the team dynamics :)
i love the game