Read Death by Video Game: Tales of Obsession From the Virtual Frontline Online

Authors: Simon Parkin

Tags: #Travel, #Essays & Travelogues, #Popular Culture, #Social Science

Death by Video Game: Tales of Obsession From the Virtual Frontline (24 page)

Gembe had broken into another secret room, filled with illicit treasure. It was, as he put it, a kingdom, one that he believed would solve the
Half-Life 2

At this point, Gembe wasn’t bothered about covering his tracks. So far he had nothing to hide. But he wanted to ensure that he would remain undetected as he explored further.

‘All I cared about at that point was not being thrown out,’ he says. ‘My first job was to find a host where I could set up some sort of hideout.’

Gembe began to search for information about the game. He found various design documents and notes about its creation, the kind of material he hoped he might find. As the weeks passed, Gembe realised that nobody at Valve had noticed he was inside the company’s network. He began to push a little harder. That’s when he found the ultimate prize: the source code for the game he had been waiting to play for so many years.

The temptation was too great. On September 19, 2003, Gembe downloaded the unfinished game’s code and made off with Valve’s crown jewels.

‘Getting the source code was easy, but the game didn’t run on
my computer,’ he says. ‘I made some code changes to get it to run in a basic form, but it wasn’t fun. Also, I only had the main development “trunk” of the game. They had so many development branches that I couldn’t even begin to check them all out.’

The secret was too potent for Gembe to keep to himself. While he maintains that he was not the person who uploaded the source code to the Internet, he undoubtedly passed the code to the person who did.

‘I didn’t think it through,’ he says. ‘There was, of course, an element of bragging going on. But the person I shared the source with assured me he would keep it to himself. He didn’t.’

Once the game was on the Internet, there was no containing it.

‘The cat was out of the bag,’ says Gembe. ‘You cannot stop the Internet.’

The community’s response to Newell’s plea for help was mixed. While many expressed their sympathy about the theft, others felt betrayed by Valve for being led to believe that the game would be ready for its scheduled launch in late 2003.

Despite a few leads, nobody was able to provide information about who might have perpetrated the crime. The FBI became involved in the investigation but also drew blanks.

Meanwhile, the team at Valve, who had been working hard to complete the game for months, was left feeling dispirited by the leak. The game was costing the company $1 million a month to build and the end was some way off. The leak had not only caused financial damage but had demotivated a weary team. One young designer asked Newell at the time, ‘Is this going to destroy the company?’

At 6:18 a.m. on February 15, 2004, Valve’s MD received an e-mail with a blank subject line from sender ‘Da Guy.’

‘Hello Gabe,’ the author began, before going on to claim responsibility for infiltrating Valve’s network months earlier.

Newell was unsure whether to believe the story at first. But two attached documents, both of which could only have been obtained by someone with access to private areas of Valve’s server, proved that the sender’s claims were valid.

Five months after
Half-Life 2
was released onto the Internet, long after all leads had gone cold, the thief had turned himself in. ‘I was sorry for what happened,’ says Gembe today. ‘I wanted them to know who did this thing, and that my intention was never for things to work out the way they did.’

But that wasn’t all that Gembe was after. The young man perceived a way he could create a positive outcome from his crime, both for Valve and himself. In a separate e-mail, he asked whether Newell would consider giving him a job.

‘I was very naive back then,’ he says. ‘It was and still is my dream to work for a game-development company, so I just asked. I hoped that they could forgive what I had done, mostly because it wasn’t intentional.’

To Gembe’s surprise, Newell wrote back a few days later saying yes, Valve was interested. He asked whether Gembe would agree to a phone interview. The true intention of the call, however, was to obtain an on-the-record admission from Gembe that he had been responsible for the leak, an FBI trick, designed to gain a confession by appealing to a person’s sense of pride.

Gembe quelled his suspicion and dialled the number he had been provided with. As far as he knew, this was an interview with two senior members of Valve’s management team. In reality, the call was being taped by the FBI.

‘I hoped for the best,’ he says. ‘I was not the brightest kid back then. At first they wanted to know how I hacked into the network. I told them in full detail. Then they asked me about my experience and skills. I still remember they were surprised that I spoke fluent English without much of an accent.’

The trio talked for forty minutes. Any sense of guilt dissipated for Gembe in the presence of his heroes. But that was nothing compared to the adrenalin rush he felt when he received an invitation to a second interview, a face-to-face meeting at Valve’s headquarters in Seattle, on American soil.

Having set the trap, Valve and the FBI needed to obtain a visa for Gembe (and his father and brother, who wanted to accompany him to the United States). But there were concerns about the ongoing access that Gembe had to Valve’s servers and the potential damage he could still cause. So the FBI contacted the German police in order to alert them to the plan.

Later that week, an armed German policeman woke Gembe before dawn. He got dressed and headed downstairs. The corridors were lined by police, squeezed into his father’s house.

‘Can I get something to eat before we leave?’ Gembe asked. ‘No problem,’ said one of the policemen.

Gembe reached for a kitchen knife to cut some bread. ‘Every policeman in the room raised his rifle at me,’ he says.

After drinking a cup of coffee and smoking a cigarette, Gembe climbed into the back of a van and was driven to the local police station. There the chief of police greeted him. He walked up to Gembe, looked him in the eye and said: ‘Have you any idea how lucky you are that we got to you before you got on that plane?’

The police interrogated Gembe for three hours. ‘Most of the questions they asked me were about the Sasser-Worm,’ he says, referring to a particularly vicious malware that affects computers
running vulnerable versions of Windows XP and Windows 2000, created by an eighteen-year-old German computer science student Sven Jaschan from Rotenburg, Lower Saxony.

‘For some reason they thought there was a connection between me and Sasser, which I denied. Sasser was big news back then and its author, Sven Jaschan, was raided the same day as me in a coordinated operation, because they thought I could warn him.’

Gembe’s bot exploited the same vulnerability as Jaschan’s. ‘Of course I denied this and told them that I never write such shoddy code,’ he says.

When the police realised there was no link between Gembe and the Sasser-Worm, they began to ask him about Valve.

‘I could have refused to answer and demanded an attorney, but I chose to tell them everything I knew honestly and completely, which I guess they appreciated,’ he says. ‘The guy questioning me liked me, because he said, “You are not an asshole like most of the other guys.” That department has to deal mostly with child porn. I guess I was so open with them because I didn’t believe I had done much wrong, at the time.’

Gembe was remanded to custody for two weeks. He was released once the police determined he wasn’t about to flee, with the proviso that he check in with them three times each week, every week, for three years, until his trial.

While waiting for his day in court, Gembe worked hard to change his life. He finished an apprenticeship and secured a job in the security sector, writing Windows applications to manage security systems and performing database and server administration work.

The trial lasted for seven hours. No one from Valve was present,
though a reporter from the
Wall Street Journal
showed up. Aside from the initial theft of the game’s source code, there was no evidence to suggest that Gembe had been responsible for releasing the unfinished game onto the Internet.

Gembe admitted to hacking into Valve’s network, and the judge sentenced him to two years’ probation, citing his difficult childhood and the way he had worked to turn his life around as considerations when it came to deciding on the relatively lenient punishment.

By the time of the trial, 8.6 million copies of
Half-Life 2
had been sold, its success unaffected by the leak of October 2, 2003.

More than a decade on from the raid, Gembe is remorseful.

‘I was naive and did things that I should never have,’ he says ‘There were so many better uses of my time. I regret having caused Valve Software trouble and financial loss. I regret all the illegal things I did at that time … and I regret not doing anything worthwhile with my life before I got busted. If I had the chance to speak to Gabe Newell today I would say this: I am so very sorry for what I did to you. You are my favourite developer, and I will always buy your games.’

Whereas Gembe had a glimpse behind the curtain of mystery that is game development, his actions made it unlikely that he will ever secure a job at a video-game company. If video games taught Gembe to hunt for secrets, this episode in his life taught him the difference between hunting for virtual secrets and commercial ones.

Most people are able to tell the difference between fiction and reality, to know that the action of shooting an image of a person in a video game is completely different from shooting a real person. But
it’s easier to have compassion for Gembe, a young video-game fan who, after years of hunting for secrets in video games, decided to hunt for secrets
his beloved video games.
Half-Life 2
became Gembe’s Bigfoot, and he would do anything to prove its existence and excellence to the world.

The longing for truth about the world is common to all people, not just the myth-hunters, the conspiracy nuts, the amateur detectives, and the bereaved or religious. Video games, as simulated worlds with well-defined rules and borders, should be devoid of mystery. Their objects and furnishings can be catalogued (each one was, after all, created by an artist), their characters able to be located at any time (no video-game character has ever gone missing; the computer always knows their location). Perhaps that makes the mysteries that we encounter in video games all the more alluring. We know that there is an answer out there and that somebody, be it the artist who drew Bigfoot, the writer who killed Aeris, the man who shot JFK, or the studio that made the game itself, holds the answer. And a mystery that can be solved is not only satisfying; it’s also comforting.


Joel Green is hysterical and there’s nothing I can do about it. I try bouncing him on my knee, but whenever I stop, the giggles give way to fresh anguish. I try offering him a carton of apple juice, but what little fluid he manages to swallow soon comes back up, chased by curdling screams.

Many video games are power fantasies. This video game is something else. It’s a puzzle without a solution. It’s a game about pain, loss, fear, and, ultimately, surrender. In many ways it’s a
fantasy. Except that Joel Green’s story is no fantasy.

‘That’s how it really happened,’ Ryan Green, Joel’s father and the co-creator of
That Dragon, Cancer
, told me. ‘We were in the hospital. Joel had acute stomach pains. It was right after that the doctors declared him terminally ill.’ Within two hours, Joel had become severely dehydrated and, because of the stomach bug, he was unable to keep any fluids down. The pain that any parent feels when unable to meet the need of their child is incomparable.

‘For six hours I couldn’t comfort him,’ said Green. ‘It was a window into hell. I felt overwhelmed. I called my wife and said: “You need to come. I can’t do this any more.” ’

When I first spoke to Green, his son Joel was four years old and fighting through his third year of terminal cancer. For three-quarters of his life he had been chaotically sick. His young body
had already endured a life’s worth of surgery, chemotherapy, and prayer. The tumours left him partially deaf and blind and, at one point, forced him to relearn how to walk. Yet Joel confounded his medical team’s expectations with a resolute determination to stay alive, to endure despite it all.

Any family made to live with ongoing pain, hope, and grief in this way must find a way to articulate, celebrate, or simply express their experience. Some do it with photographs, home videos, written diaries, or blog posts. Ryan Green, a game developer, decided to make a video game about his experience, a way to both record the journey and to try to make sense of it while he was still caught in the squall.

‘It’s important to me that, when I’m speaking about my journey, that I’m doing it from a “now” perspective,’ says Green. ‘You get a lot of wisdom in the pressure cooker. I like to think of this as a cup of water. I want to scoop it up and hand it down to someone to drink. I think I can do that more effectively in the middle of this thing than afterwards. I’m not trying to create rules for people to follow when dealing with cancer, or some potentially damaging platitude. This game is just a reflection of how I see the world, of my story.’

Back in the hospital room, I lay Joel in his narrow cot, the air thick with imagined smells of antiseptic and laundry. It’s the middle of the night and there are no nurses in the forsaken corridors. Joel’s screams are inescapable and unfathomably distressing. This is a video game, but the real effect of a baby’s suffering on the human instinct is no less diminished in unreality: everything in me longs to settle him, to meet whatever elemental need he has in this moment, to complete this most urgent of quests. Joel lies quietly on the bed for a moment. Then he smashes his head against the railings.
I hunt for an ‘undo’ button, some floating prompt to click that will reverse the action, lift him from the crib and stop this self-harm. But the only prompt I find reads simply: ‘Pray.’

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