In my past life, I was a free software zealot. Free as in "freedom," not as in "free beer." You know---open source, no patents, copyleft, and that kind of thing.

I am still a free software zealot, but now something has changed. It used to matter to my software community that I adhered to this ideal, and now it no longer does, because I switched communities somewhere along the way.

I used to be an internet systems programmer. In that arena, free software ruled the roost. Think of all the big names: Apache, PHP, MySQL, Perl, and FireFox, not to mention the operating system that powers the vast majority of web servers, GNU/Linux. If you release internet systems software without the source code, you stand to get a lot of flack from the community.

These days, of course, I mostly travel in game-programming circles. Free software isn't even on the radar for most of these people. Sure, free indie games abound, but how many of them are open source? How many are free as in "freedom"? Almost none. Game programmers keep close guard over their development techniques, for whatever reason, even if they give the end result away for free. When I've tried to talk some of my colleagues into releasing the source for their games, I've made little headway.

Regardless, I've held on to my ideals, and I continue to release the source code for all of my games. Furthermore, I've strived to use only open-source tools when making my games. My websites make these ideals clear, discussing the tools that I used to make each game and providing links to my source code.

In my past life, this kind of asceticism (try to imagine life without Photoshop) garnered a bit of applause. In the games community, it's completely ignored.

Last month, I released Perfectionism, my first piece of software---ever---that was made with a non-free tool (Game Maker) and that runs only on a non-free operating system (Windows). How was this compromise of ideals greeted? By boos? By hisses? Not at all. No one seemed to notice. I did receive a handful of complaints from Mac users, but they didn't mention the free software issue at all.

Where did I pick up this ideal in the first place? From the community that I used to be part of. Ideals can be contagious, and social pressure is a powerful force. But what happens when the society around you changes? How can you tease your true ideals apart from those that have simply rubbed off onto you? Politicians face an acute form of this dilemma as they try to balance their personal values with the fluctuating desires of their constituents.

The following question is even more interesting: What happens when your ideals, be they socially-induced or true, stand in the way of one of your goals?

Idealism attempts to explore these issues through game mechanics.

Comments on