IRC Games

Kenrick Mock is the "Goodson & Todman" of IRC.

That is to say, had Mark Goodson and Bill Todman, the legendary architects of 46 television game shows, including The Price is Right and Match Game, been computer programmers with PhDs in artificial intelligence, perhaps they would have found their niche on IRC instead of on daytime TV. And rather than having to rely on the Teflon charm of hosts like Bob Barker and Gene Rayburn, maybe they would have programmed their own robot hosts, or "bots," to run 24-hour Internet games, entertaining legions of competing minutia hounds desiring arcane trivia questions, witty zingers and a healthy dose of game show kitsch.

That is what Mock did three-and-a-half years ago. A Cal-Davis grad student at the time, he created his first IRC game channel, now known as #RiskyBus. The allure of the channel, hosted by a quick-witted "gamebot," was that trivia buffs could participate rather than just watch. And while there are no celebrities on #RiskyBus, or on #Chaos, #Boggle and #Acro--three subsequent Mock creations-- IRC games have managed to thrive without the draw of Charles Nelson Reilly and Paul Lynde. Many players, in fact, point to the clever, everyday folk the channels attract--students, housewives, 9-to-5 slackers and late-night insomniacs--as part of the games' social appeal.

"One of the things I like about #Acro is that the people on the channel are absolutely brilliant," notes Katherine Minges-Albrecht, a Harvard graduate student and #Acro and #Boggle devotee. "I mean, they are among the smartest people I have met on the Net, and I have made some friends because I found that we all had similar personalities in a lot of ways."

Risky Business, played on #RiskyBus, is the current version of Mock's first game. Originally called #Jeopardy, the game was similar to the popular television quiz show. AlexBot, the host, took his name from the real Jeopardy!'s Alex Trebek, and was brought to life by a C program that communicates with IRC servers the same way a human would. Given the game's instant popularity, it was remarkable that Mock's channel lasted for about a year before he received a threatening letter from the killjoys at Tristar-Columbia-Sony, the owners of the real Jeopardy!. The letter warned of a lawsuit if Mock didn't "cease his infringement of their copyright and trademark."

The result was a new channel name, as well as several cosmetic changes to distinguish the IRC game from Jeopardy!. The most notable change was the reworking of the "daily double." In the real Jeopardy!, contestants can wage big bets on a single question when they arrive on a "daily double." But #RiskyBus players can instead use the question to steal other players' winnings. Hence, AlexBot's new name, RobBot.

A disclaimer before each game further sets things straight: "Any similarities are purely coincidental, and this game is in no way related to or sponsored by the producers of Jeopardy!the TV show. Amen and Praise the Lard." The sophomoric repudiation is typical of Mock's sense of humor, which he managed to program into his bot's temperamental personality.

Players are greeted by name when they enter the channel: "Hi Hawk, thanks for joining the game," or "Welcome to Risky Business Corky." But don't be fooled. Cross Rob, and you might find yourself on the receiving end of acerbic one-liners like, "Are you just babbling?" and "Gee, what an enlightenment!" There are more than 1,500 canned responses triggered by player remarks. They range from silly non sequiturs like, "You have the body of a 19-year-old," to deceptively intelligent replies to words and phrases the bot was programmed to recognize. Ask Rob what smells, for instance, and he might respond, "Is that a beer I smell?" More than one frustrated player exclaiming, "I hate this category, Rob," has been startled by a comeback like, "How long have you felt this hatred?"

The mercurial bot's rapid success caught Mock by surprise. "It really wasn't meant to be a big thing," he says, explaining how he hung out on #AppleIIGS where channel regulars often quizzed each other with trivia. "I said, 'I bet I can make a bot do this,' and I made this thing for our little group of people. But then other people started joining, and I just started adding other questions, and it ballooned from there."

Originally programmed with a few thousand trivia questions, RobBot now brims with more than 42,000 questions in 1,020 categories. Still, the breadth of topics hasn't stopped a devoted group of #RiskyBus aficionados from playing again and again--these fans return so often that they've memorized most of the game's questions and frustrate newbies with their lightning-fast responses. "I am pretty good at trivia, and the game is fun, but there are people who spend way too much time on the channel and are absurdly quick with answers to esoteric questions," says Stacy Snover, a graphic designer and occasional #RiskyBus player from Michigan. "What is the fun in only knowing the answers through rote memorization?"

For those willing to battle the zealots competing for places on the bot's high score and lifetime wins lists, the rules are straightforward. Each game consists of 30 questions in six categories. The bot poses a question, along with a point value, and the first correct answer prefaced by "Rob," wins the points. Thus, for the "Babylonian Mythology" question, "The Babylonians thought these caused toothaches," the first to type, "Rob worms," wins points. Players chiming in with incorrect answers have points subtracted from their score.

In addition to predictable trivia fare like "English History" and "Classical Music," the game boasts several unique categories that aren't capable of being telecast on the real game show. In the category "Typing Contest," one question prompts players to retype "The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain," sans vowels. The first player to come up with "Th rn n Spn flls mnly n th pln" is awarded points. Other offbeat categories, such as "Human Oddities," feature questions like, "Buck Fulford could kill, pluck, cut up, cook and eat this in 100 seconds." (Answer:a chicken.)

In true game show form, at the end of each contest, the bot awards a winner make-believe prizes, like a year's supply of Pampers, 5,000 Twix bars and a "slimedog." Joke prizes are a mainstay of every Mock game, including #Chaos and #Boggle, shows patterned after the games Outburst and the Parker Brothers classic Boggle, respectively.

In #Boggle, hosted by BogBot, each three-minute round opens with a 4X4 grid of letters. Competitors frenetically spell out words, at least three letters long, created from adjoining letters. The first to type any word in BogBot's 87,000 word dictionary wins a point for each letter used. "I like Boggle, because it's a game you can't really memorize the answers to, so I began playing it more than Risky Business," says Subash Shankar, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, who's won a staggering 4,000 #Boggle games.

For "Expert Boggle," played on QNet, a private IRC server created for Mock's games, words must be at least four letters long. QNet is accessed by server, and hosts a version of each game. The advantage of playing on the stand-alone server instead of playing versions on the popular EFNet and Undernet networks, is less "lag." EFNet and Undernet each connect dozens of servers, and when servers fall out of synch, or split from the network, players not on the gamebot's server find themselves at a serious disadvantage.

Many #Boggle players use an IRC interface for Windows called IGM (IRC Game Machine) developed by game enthusiast Dwight Duensing. It's available for download at IGM offers graphical views of Mock's games, as well as several other IRC games like #poker and #blackjack. It's particularly useful in #Boggle, where the letter grid, which is integral to the game, gets lost in the scroll of most other IRC client programs.

The interface's advantage is less useful, however, for games like #Chaos, the team game hosted by ChaosBot. #Chaos has grown to become the most popular of IRC games. "I like #Chaos because you team with other people," explains Alan Barton, a graduate student at Cornell University who enjoys the game's camaraderie. "I wouldn't say it requires the most skill necessarily, but (it has) the most variety, in terms of the categories and things you have to come up with."

#Chaos players join one of two teams that usually sport silly names like "the Chia Pets," or "the stoopids." The bot delivers a category, and en masse, members from each team must chaotically submit words that fit with that category. Each category has 10 acceptable answers, and the first person to match each answer correctly wins a point for their team. Currently, #Chaos has more than 1,875 categories, many with a lighthearted edge. For instance, in the category "slang terms for bathrooms and toilets," ChaosBot accepts answers like crapper, backhouse and little girls' room. A tight group of game regulars have also created their own set of IRC lingo, things like "WTG 1!" which means "Way to go, team 1." It's a unique language that's also spoken on #Acro, Mock's fourth game creation.

Acrophobia, the game played on #Acro, was the brainchild of Anthony Shubert, an IRCer who approached Mock with the game concept. The idea was brought to life by AcroBot, who presents player with an acronym three to seven letters long to open each round of the game. In one minute or less, players must attempt to devise an original expanded phrase of the acronym, and privately send it to the bot. A stop at the Acrophobia Hall of Fame located at, can give users an idea of the kind of witticisms the game is capable of spawning. For example, on e user cleverly defined LSDTGN as, "Last Supper: didn't tip, got nailed." Another user turned HSS into "Hitler sneezed snazis."

Every round, the first user to send a valid "acro" message to the bot wins two speed bonus points. But creativity pays more than speed. After the minute is up, AcroBot prints all of the expanded phrases on the channel, and players secretly vote for the best one (users may not vote for their own entry). The voting process has given rise to the acronym "vfy," meaning "voted for you," a way of signaling kudos to other players. One point is awarded for each vote your acro receives, and the player with the most votes also wins one point for each letter in the acronym. The first player to reach 30 points takes the match.

#Acro boasts more Web pages than any other IRC game. "With the right crowd, #Acro is a blast, and a great way to pass the time," says Chipp Morrow, who hosts the Acrophobia home page at "But the channel should come with a warning label. It is right up there with nicotine." One junkie has even written an official "acroholics song."

IRC game channels, with their addicted followers, defy the Net's conventional wisdom that images are a necessary ingredient for fun. The Internet has blossomed into a graphically driven medium, but games on the textual IRC remain incredibly popular. "I think for pure socialization and word-based games, IRC is the purest form of communication there is," says the pioneering Mock, who concedes he has considered bringing his unique style of game show to the Web, perhaps in conjunction with IRC. "You could be doing a lot of your communications on IRC, but then any graphics you might need, like a game board or pictures, or audio questions would be on a Web browser," he says.

Can you see the wheels spinning? Stay tuned, folks. He'll be back after a message from our sponsor. . .

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