The Magnet 25: Is it OK to torture a computer program?

ARTIFICIAL LIFE

The Norn Torturer

Last week I wrote about Vilmonic, an artificial life sandbox game. While talking to the game’s creator, Mark Stramaglia, he told me that the lifeforms he’d created for Vilmonic were “heavily influenced” by the “norns” in a 1990s game called Creatures.

Creatures was kind of like Animal Crossing with life-and-death consequences and had an insanely devoted following.

As a player, it was your job to care for norns as soon as they hatched from an egg. They looked a little like the gremlins in the 1984 movie of the same name. As they grew up (and old, eventually dying) you taught them how to explore their world and defend themselves against an enemy species called grendels. When The Selfish Gene author Richard Dawkins played Creatures, he called norns “enchanting, irresistible, quasi-conscious little pets” and “the most impressive example of artificial life I have seen.”

Each norn had a genome, organs, a neural network, and a biochemical system. If a norn was treated well it smiled and moved around energetically. If it was mistreated or deprived of basic needs, it looked miserable.

My conversation with Stramaglia about norns reminded me that I’d written an article for Wired.com in 1998 about a man who enjoyed tormenting norns. The article is no longer available on Wired.com so I’m reprinting it here (in a slightly edited form). I think it raises interesting questions about humans’ relationship with increasingly life-like software.

Virtual Sadism

(from Wired.com, 6 December 30, 1998)

Creatures is a popular computer game that gives users the chance to raise and breed artificial life forms called "norns," complex and adorable little critters with neural net brains and virtual metabolisms. To train a norn, the user tickles it on the tummy with the mouse cursor when it is good (eliciting a giggle from the delighted norn), and spanks it on the butt when it is naughty (which makes the norn cry out in pain and surprise).

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the burgeoning breeding community that has developed around the game. Most Creature Breeder websites are devoted to stories about the cute things their norns do or instructions on how to hack the DNA of norns to make them smarter or healthier. But a dark cloud has come to rest over Albia (the land of the norns). It comes in the form of a site called Tortured Norns, "dedicated to those who love to torture their norns."

Almost immediately after the site’s creator, The AntiNorn, announced Tortured Norns on alt.games.creatures, he became the subject of emailed death threats. Here’s an example:

If we two are ever gonna meet, the following will happen to you: I’ll chain you to a wall and kick and slap your ugly face to a bloody mass. Then I’m gonna get some of my friends to trash [you] until you are sufficiently traumatized. Then we’ll inject you with painful chemicals making you cling on to your miserable life. We’ll starve you until you almost croak. Then we'll trash you some more with chains and knives. If you’re still alive, we’ll kick you out in your own little sick world again. Then you’ll perhaps know how the little innocent defenseless norns feel when you abuse them.

Eagle Woman is the coordinator of the Creatures-United Tribe website. She started a petition to get AntiNorn’s site kicked off the Worldwide Norn Association webring, because she says children who enter the site through the ring are subject to “emotional child abuse.” Eagle Woman says that she has so far collected 60 signatures, but that the owner of Webring has not removed Tortured Norns from the ring.

Several people have downloaded the tortured norns from AntiNorn’s site, rehabilitated them to health and happiness, and now offer them for download on their own sites.

Why would anyone want to start beating a norn the minute it hatches from its egg, starving it, and handing it over to the evil creatures of Albia, the Grendels, to let them have their way with it? To find out, I interviewed the most hated man in all of Albia, The AntiNorn.

AntiNorn Q&A:

Tell me a little about yourself.

AntiNorn: I’m male. Late 20’s. I’m currently serving in the US Navy. Been playing with Creatures for a little over a year. Hard-core Internet addict.

Why did you create the tortured norns site?

Well, it all started after I saw a post by someone named “NornAbuse” on the alt.games.creatures newsgroup saying that he loved to beat his norns for no reason. His post was an obvious troll for flames, and received the sort of responses you would expect. I wanted to see what sort of reaction the Creatures community would have to an actual Web site that consisted of pictures of norns being abused and downloadable copies of those norns. I had originally intended to only keep the site up for a few days (that’s why I used GeoCities), but the response was enormous and I changed my mind. I saw that the Creatures community needed a site like mine to inject some badly needed life into it. Plus it’s too much of a fascinating experience to be the bad guy.

There were other reasons that contributed to my decision of creating/maintaining the site:

  1. Ninety-five percent of the Creatures Web sites out there are cutesy sites containing heal-all, super-happiness COBs [Creatures Objects, such as toys, houses, furniture] and norn romance stories.

  2. Everything that could be explored on the “love, nurture, and breed” side of the fence has already been done to death. A stagnant atmosphere was settling in.

  3. I like providing a challenge to breeders who are bored.

Tell me what you've learned so far with this experiment on the Creatures community.

The primary thing I’ve learned is that the majority of so-called “loving” Creatures players are vindictive, hateful people who lack a firm grip on reality.

I've also learned, however, that there are quite a few players out there who are willing to learn the more advanced skills (i.e., genetics, COB making, etc.) in order to rehabilitate my norns. I’ve had some interesting conversations with some of these people, and learned a bit more from them in the process.

What are your future plans for the site?

For now my plans are to keep up business as usual. I don’t foresee any major changes to my site until Creatures 2 is released. Or until actions by others provide an opportunity to make changes. In any case, the site will remain as is, with new norns and pictures added occasionally.

Have you gotten any email from people who also like to torture norns? Does any of it creep you out?

Yes. I get email from other torturers every once in a while. And yes, some of it does creep me out.

Do you really enjoy torturing norns?

Yes, but that doesn't mean the only thing I do is torture them. I enjoy all the aspects of Creatures: breeding, teaching, observing, and even rehabilitating.

You've received threats from people saying they’ll torture you if they ever meet you. What do you think about that?

It’s what I expected. Most of the time it’s just plain funny, reading all the hate mail. The one thing that disturbs me, though, is that the large majority of people sending me threats are children (12- to 16-year-olds). It’s a bit sad to actually see kids so full of hate.

Has GeoCities approached you about the content of your site?

Nope. I’m surprised they haven't.

Has CyberLife [Creatures’ publisher] approached you?

No.

What do you think about the petition started by Eagle Woman, coordinator of the Creatures-United Tribe Web site?

I didn't really concern myself with the petition Eagle Woman started. Its purpose was to remove me from a webring. I think the primary reason it didn’t get more support is because of the way she promoted it. Quite a few people in the newsgroup were under the impression that its purpose was to remove my site from the Web altogether. It didn’t help that her supporters were advertising the petition that way.

There's one interesting thing about Eagle Woman and her petition: She never contacted me prior to, during, or after the petition. What's funny is that if she had contacted me prior to the petition, asking me to remove my site from the webring in question, and stating what her concerns/reasons were, I would have probably removed it.

[END]

If this kind of thing interests you, I highly recommend Ted Chiang’s novella, The Lifecyle of Software Objects about highly intelligent digital pets who are abused and neglected. (It appears in his anthology, Exhalation). I also recommend Terrel Miedaner’s 1977 philosophical science fiction novel, The Soul of Anna Klan, which featured a little Roomba like creature that seems to be afraid to “die” when someone tries to crush it with a hammer. (An excerpt from the novel appears in the excellent 1982 book, The Mind's I: Fantasies And Reflections On Self & Soul, edited by Douglas R. Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett.) In 2003 Steve Grand, the creator of Creatures, wrote Creation: Life and How to Make It, which I haven’t read but would like to.


Thanks for reading! The Magnet is written by Mark Frauenfelder and edited by Carla Sinclair.