Hunt the Wumpus, Part 1

13 May

At the height of the hippie era, two fellows named Bob Albrecht and Leroy Finkel founded the publishing company Dymax in San Francisco to write books about BASIC. Yet Albrecht in particular had ambitions that went beyond merely selling books about computers. In those days computers were still the stuff of science fiction: huge, sinister machines that were always going haywire and causing Captain Kirk all sorts of problems. For this to change and for Albrecht’s dreams of computers as tools of fun and creativity to be realized, people needed access.

Albrecht, apparently a very charismatic and persuasive man, managed to wheedle a physical PDP-8 out of DEC and a remote terminal connection and an allotment of shared computing time out of HP. He soon turned Dymax’s Menlo Park offices into a sort of computing open house, where anyone could drop in and just play with the machines. By 1972 the for-profit publisher Dymax had spun off a very different institution Albrecht named The People’s Computer Company. PCC was not really a company at all — or at least not a company terribly interested in actually making money. Its name was in fact inspired by Big Brother and the Holding Company, the late-60s band that boasted one Janis Joplin as its singer, and this fact shows where its heart really lay. San Francisco was still largely living the hippie dream in 1972, even if some of the luster had begun to fade post-Altamont, and Albrecht and PCC fit right in with the counterculture there. Their mission was to bring computers to the people, which they accomplished not only through their open house but also through a newsletter whose first issue appeared in October of 1972. Its banner read: “Computers are mostly used against people instead of for people. Used to control people instead of to free them. Time to change all that. We need a… People’s Computer Company.”

The atmosphere at the Menlo Park office was described in this way by Steven Levy in Hackers:

The air was usually filled with the clatter of terminals, one hooked to the PDP-8, another connected to the telephone lines, through which it could access a computer at Hewlett-Packard, which had donated free time to PCC. More likely than not, someone would be playing one of the games that the growing group of PCC hackers had written. Sometimes housewives would bring their kids in, try the computers themselves, and get hooked, programming so much that husbands worried that the local matriarchs were abandoning children and kitchen for the joys of BASIC. Some businessmen tried to program the computer to predict stock prices, and spent infinite amounts of time on that chimera. When you had a computer center with the doors wide open, anything could happen. Albrecht was quoted in the Saturday Review as saying, “We want to start friendly neighborhood computer centers, where people can walk in like they do in a bowling alley or penny arcade and find out how to have fun with computers.”

This was the environment that the 27-year-old Gregory Yob wandered into one day, probably around the time that that landmark first issue of PCC’s magazine was being published. At the time a certain collection of grid-based guessing games written by Albrecht himself was popular there. Hurkle was probably the first of the kind:




               9    . . . . . . . . . .
               8    . . . . . . . . . .
               7    . . . . . . . . . .
               6    . . . . . . . . . .
               5    . . . . . . . . . .
        WEST   4    . . . . . . . . . .   EAST
               3    . . . . . . . . . .
               2    . . . . . . . . . .
               1    . . . . . . . . . .
               0    . . . . . . . . . .

                    0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9










Later variants made things a little more complicated: in Snark, one must enter the radius of a circle around a central gridpoint to be informed whether the snark is inside or outside, while Mugwump (the most difficult) tells only how far in a direct line the mugwump is hiding from each guess, leaving the player to puzzle out the direction for herself. In a sense, these are not really games at all; there is no way to really lose, only to end up with a lesser or greater total of guesses. One might imagine people competing against one another in the social atmosphere of PCC, but since each game is randomly generated it’s impossible to really know what two scores mean in relation to each other.

Yob’s reaction to these games was, in his own words:

“Eech!!” Each of these games was based on a 10X10 grid in Cartesian co-ordinates and three of them was too much for me. I started to think along the lines of: “There has to be a hide and seek computer game without that (exp. deleted) grid!!” In fact, why not a topological computer game — imagine a set of points connected in some way and the player moves about the set via the interconnections.

A “topological computer game” in which “the player moves about the set via the interconnections.” Starting to sound like something you recognize?


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22 Responses to Hunt the Wumpus, Part 1

  1. Jason Dyer

    May 13, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    I have a predecessor to Mugwump (which may predate Snark, too). But you’ll have to wait for my post for that!

    Looking forward to Part 2.

  2. matt w

    May 13, 2011 at 5:31 pm

    In a sense, these are not really games at all; there is no way to really lose, only to end up with a lesser or greater total of guesses.

    Even without going all Wittgenstein, this seems dubious; aren’t there a lot of games that give you a score at the end, instead of having victory conditions?

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 14, 2011 at 6:47 am

      There are of course the early arcade games, in which the player was guaranteed to “lose” in the sense of dying in the end. Although there is an element of randomness to most of these games, however, that element is not so extreme as it is in a game like Hurkle, in which a first-time player can quite possibly find the hurkle on the first turn through a lucky guess. Yes, there’s a logical strategy one should use when one plays Hurkle, but that strategy is so obvious that once it is understood the final scores boils down to luck. This means that comparing one person’s score to another’s (played with the hurkle in a completely different randomly generated location) doesn’t mean much. Nor is there much sense in striving to “get better” at Hurkle, trying to beat one’s personal high score.

      Obviously (and as Wittgenstein would agree) the boundaries between these categories are fuzzy rather than solid, but I’d personally tend to call Hurkle a very simple logic puzzle rather than a true game.

      Were early arcade games the example you were thinking of, or was there something else?

      • matt w

        May 14, 2011 at 11:48 am

        Well, I was thinking of early arcade games first. (And not-so-early; there’s Canabalt, and Tetris, and at least some match-3 games, and probably lots more.) But also golf and bowling, which can be played competitively but don’t have to be. –And yeah, we can get into games vs. sports here.

        I agree about the randomness of Hurkle, but that just means it’s not a very good game.

        While looking for Wittgenstein on games I found out about a really interesting-sounding book, which I will include a link to when I have a little more time.

      • Jason Dyer

        May 14, 2011 at 2:42 pm

        Hm, I’m on board with your argument for Hurkle but not in the abstract: what about Mastermind? You could argue it is uninteresting in the same way but a lot of people have purchased it and enjoyed it as such. Is it just “the logic is difficult” that makes it interesting? In that case Hurkle is still a good “game” for children for whom the logic or even the idea of a coordinate system is not obvious — which I believe was the intent anyway. You can still find a website peddling Hurkle for educational purposes.

        • Jimmy Maher

          May 15, 2011 at 11:51 am

          Maybe it’s the fact that Hurkle is both simplistic and non-competitive that makes me see it as puzzle rather than game. Certainly Tic Tac Toe isn’t much more interesting, but I wouldn’t say it’s not a game at all.

          But yeah, I think I can live with “not a very good game… for me”. Goodness is of course in the eye of the player. As a method of teaching the Cartesian coordinate system and logical reasoning, it can be very useful I’m sure. As a final irony, it actually (re)taught me a thing or two. Nobody’s remarked on it, but in the sample play above I was going the wrong way when it said to “go north,” counting down rather than up. I blame it on too much time working with computer graphics, where the Y-coordinate of each pixel increases as you work downward from the top left.

  3. matt w

    May 15, 2011 at 1:31 am

    So the book I was thinking of is “The Grasshopper” by Bernard Suits, which apparently argues that “playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles” — discussed here and here. It sounds like an interesting way of looking at some aspects of games to me, though I think the attempt to turn this into a necessary and sufficient condition turns into a predictable mess — for one thing, since he says the object of the game must exist independently of the game (you can put a golf ball in a hole without playing golf), that would rule out all computer games as games. But if you abstract away from that bit of philosophical territory-marking I think it’s worth pondering about why we like games. In the Hurkle the obstacles aren’t obstacley enough, perhaps.

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 15, 2011 at 12:00 pm

      Very interesting. That’s a book I was totally unaware of.

      If we say that the goal of an adventure-game player is to see the “You have won!” screen, the player could achieve that just by borrowing a save file from another, or for that matter watching the finale on youTube. But that’s beginning to pick nits.

      I think a bigger problem is that this definition opens up the word “game” to potentially apply to far too many things. Many of the finest things in life — running a marathon, restoring a classic car, learning to appreciate “difficult” music, learning martial arts, reading Joyce — really boils down to the overcoming of unnecessary obstacles.

      • matt w

        May 15, 2011 at 5:44 pm

        I was totally unaware of the book too, and I’m a professional philosophyer. As Warburton says it’s hardly known (in the US as well as the UK, I think). Tom Hurka says it’s recognized as a classic in the philosophy of sport, but that’s not exactly a well-known field, even as philosophy goes. (You know how sometimes non-academics point and snicker at academic subspecializations that they think are funny, like psychology of human sexuality? Philosophy of sport is kind of like that for philosophers.) — Though one of the commenters points out that it’s well known among game studies folk and has been cited by Jesper Juul. Reading that makes me understand a little more the issues some of the game studies folk have with Wittgenstein; Greg Costikyan and I had a little exchange about that here.

        Anyway, I think the attempt to turn Suits’s analysis into a necessary and sufficient condition on our preexisting concept of “game” will inevitably get caught up in an endless maze of counterexamples and countercounterexamples, to what point I don’t know. Maybe you could say that the goal of an adventure-game player is to see the “game over” screen, but that does so much violence what’s actually going on that it’s not going to illuminate anything. “Get to the game over screen” just doesn’t capture the challenge of the game in the way that “get the ball in the hole” captures the challenge of golf. Anyway, I don’t think Suits can even address the counterexamples. Apparently he says that the goal of chess is “that the pieces should be arranged so that the conditions for checkmate are satisfied,” but aside from how ridiculous this is as a description of the goal (and the fact that most high-level games aren’t played to checkmate!) it makes a hash of double-blindfold chess, where the pieces have no physical existence independent of the game.

        And of course you’re right that it makes too many things into a game. In one of the threads I linked Hurka says “reading mysteries is a paradigm example of a game. (So is writing school exams….)”, which is just plain false on any definition of “paradigm example” that I’m familiar with. It’s the sort of thing you wouldn’t say if you weren’t letting your theory lead you around by the nose. (Elsewhere [see comments 154 and 159] Hurka suggests that he didn’t mean that reading a novel was playing a game, so maybe he was typing overhastily in the comments there.)

        All of which is a shame, because as Hurka says in the “Games and the Good” article, it’s not particularly important whether the “overcoming unnecessary challenges” definition lines up exactly with our concept of game, because it’s an interesting lens to look at games through anyway. Which makes it a shame that Hurka (and Suits, apparently) make such heavy weather of the idea that they are coming up with an exact analysis of the concept and thereby refuting Wittgenstein. It distracts from the good that they are doing.

        [Disclaimer: I didn’t read Suits at all until I started typing this disclaimer, and he may have a lot more to say in context — but I did look at his passages on chess, and he really does seem to rely on the idea that the pieces are physical objects, which isn’t necessarily the case. Unfortunately his response to the objection from overbroadness seems to fall on a couple pages that aren’t in the google book preview.]

        Anyway, thanks for letting me use your comment section to go on about these matters!

        –Oh, and I found the source code for Hurkle, and it seems to give you five guesses before you lose. So that makes it a game after all.

        • Jimmy Maher

          May 16, 2011 at 9:15 am

          Yes, it’s very tricky to develop an ironclad definition of what constitutes a game, particularly as we are placing the label of “game” onto a huge variety of media by now. (This is one place where Suits arguably falls down, in having been unlucky enough to write just before the explosion in digital games invalidated some of his assertions.) I’ve felt for a long time now that certain types of “games” — such as adventure games and many computer RPGs — are better placed within the tradition of narratives than of games. But it would take a book rather than a blog post to fully work through that idea and the implications of it. A book I might just write, mind you. :)

          But back to games as games:

          Rather than stating that something is or is not a game based on a set of hard and fast criteria, we might indeed do better to talk about the extent of its “gameness,” to think in terms of a sliding continuum rather than strict categorization. See George Lakoff and Eleanor Rosch for more on this, and for plenty of evidence that people already think that way instinctively on a whole range of subjects.

          “–Oh, and I found the source code for Hurkle, and it seems to give you five guesses before you lose. So that makes it a game after all.”

          Actually, the original version did not have this. I’m just about to add a new post which will provide information on listing and playing it.

          And thank YOU for the comments. They’re very useful in providing directions for further research in addition to their intrinsic interest.

        • Victor Gijsbers

          May 16, 2011 at 12:43 pm

          “Philosophy of sport is kind of like that for philosophers.”

          I think it used to be, but then messages started to show up on the mailing lists asking for contributions to volumes like “Batman and philosophy” and “Philosophy and Battlestar Galactica”. I may misremember the titles slightly, but I’m not making these up.

          What I like about the “voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles” characterisation is that it captures that weird aspect of games that we are free to play them (there is no external necessity or use), yet playing them requires earnest commitment to rigid rules. To play a game is to freely give up freedom, while remaining free to reclaim it (by stopping to play).

          All this reminds me that I, of all people, should by now have read Homo ludens, but have not.

          • matt w

            May 17, 2011 at 3:14 am

            Well yes, but the philosophers I know tend to snicker at those titles. It doesn’t help (again, in my circles) that the series most of them are in skews continental.

            I should say here that I think that the pointing and snickering is usually unjustified — with philosophy of sport the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and I haven’t read enough to know if it is any good. (Though despite my criticism of The Grasshopper, it’s clearly up to interesting stuff.)

            I agree about the nice way the analysis captures that weird aspect of games; we’re binding ourselves to rules in an almost Nietzschean way, like the man who is fit to make a promise. (Don’t take my pretense to understand Nietzsche at all seriously. The “at all” is deliberately ambiguous.) But oh, if only we could escape the tired search for necessary and sufficient conditions!

            Jimmy, I want to read that book. And thanks for the info on Hurkle.

          • Jason Dyer

            May 17, 2011 at 3:46 pm

            I own the “Philosophy and Zelda” book which has some good ludic bits. Wouldn’t buy it for the philosophy, though.

  4. matt w

    May 17, 2011 at 3:16 am

    I just realized that “that the series most of them are in skews continental” is probably not parsable by anyone who didn’t write it. What I mean is, most of those books are in a series which tends to concentrate on continental rather than analytic philosophy.

  5. Nathan Laws

    May 8, 2012 at 2:01 am

    Just wanted to let you know that I have become very interested in IF, a genre which totally passed me by as a child but seems like it should be right up my alley. I’ve already played Hunt the Wumpus in an attempt to get some context by which to judge IF as a genre and Adventure is next on my gameplan but I wanted to you know that I am really appreciating your blog here with its helpful background. I believe that everything in life needs context to understand it on its own terms and this is a great help.

  6. Eric S. Raymond

    February 16, 2017 at 4:11 pm

    I’m late to this party, but there’s a background fact missing here.

    The “Hurkle” is undoubtedly a reference to Theodore Sturgeon’s classic SF short story “The Hurkle Is A Happy Beast” – Fantasy & SF, Fall 1949. In that story, one of the traits of the Hurkle is that it is difficult to see.

    The story was reprinted in anthologies of the 1960s, and two influential ones in 1971, that no serious SF fan could fail to have been aware of it.

  7. Jalen Wanderer

    January 4, 2018 at 8:16 am

    Missing word in the second paragraph: “Their mission was bring computers to the people” was intended, I assume, to be “Their mission was TO bring computers to the people” (or possibly “Their mission was bringing computers to the people”, but that doesn’t quite seem to read as well).

    Incidentally, I’ve been reading through the blog since I ran across it a month ago — I’m now near the end of 2014, which I think puts me well over halfway toward catching up — and I’ve noticed quite a few other uncaught typos in other posts. (Which of course is by no means a reflection on your writing; in an opus of this length some typos are pretty much inevitable.) I didn’t feel wholly comfortable pointing out the typos at the time, but I made a note of them just in case, and I’ve noticed that when people point out your typos in the comments, you’re invariably gracious about the matter and thank them for doing so. So I assume you would want to know about the remaining typos so you can correct them… but, while you don’t seem to mind their being pointed out in the comments, would you prefer I e-mail them to you so as not to clutter up the comments? Or would you just as soon I post about the typos in the comments as others have been doing?

    (I suppose it goes without saying that I’ve found your posts very interesting; I wouldn’t have read as much of them if I didn’t. I do disagree with your judgment of some specific games, but it’s not worth going into that here… in any case, your posts about the history of the people, companies, and technologies involved in computer games are fascinating.)

    • Jimmy Maher

      January 4, 2018 at 3:41 pm


      Typo corrections are indeed always appreciated. If you already have them collected, the easiest thing for both of us would be to just email them to me at

      • Jalen Wanderer

        January 4, 2018 at 5:10 pm

        I don’t necessarily have them collected in one place — I kind of jotted them as I found them, and they’re scattered in several places — but as I run across them I can e-mail them to you rather than clutter your comments.

        • Jalen Wanderer

          January 4, 2018 at 5:16 pm

          (Er… jotted them DOWN as I found them, that is, obviously. Yeesh, making a typo in a post about typos…)

        • Jimmy Maher

          January 5, 2018 at 6:39 am

          Ah, okay. In that case, either way is fine really. The comments are already pretty cluttered with that sort of thing, so a little more won’t make a big difference. ;) Thanks!


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