Playing the game of life with Linux Game Tome maintainer Bob Zimbinski


Author: JT Smith

By Julie Bresnick

Open Source people
Robert William

“real” job is senior developer of Web applications for a large
consulting firm in Minneapolis called Syntegra. In a perfect
illustration of the Web’s potential and the impact of its inherent Open Source
mentality on the nature of media, Zimbinski took over the maintenance of The Linux Game Tome in the fall of

Having loved gaming ever since
he was young enough to ride a bike with a banana seat, and having
committed to Linux not too long after that, he liked visiting The Linux Game Tome to
see what new games were out on Linux. So when its original author, Tessa
Lau, stopped maintaining it, he felt its absence. Because he’d cultivated his skills in a programming community that
shares the burden of innovation, he contacted her, and they worked
together to transition the upkeep to Zimbinski.

Now he spends as much time on it as he can. “It varies greatly
depending on how much free time I’ve got. I typically try to spend an hour or so
per day looking for stuff that needs updating and searching for new games
to add to the database.” But his job, which he loves, can be demanding, and
after one rough month where “I think I felt more stress from neglecting the
site than I would have had I neglected the job instead” he called to the community for help. “A couple dozen folks responded.
Now a few of them are actively contributing to the upkeep of the database,
which is a nice relief. With the number of items in the Game Tome
approaching 600, it’s no longer so easy for one person to keep a handle on every
one of them.”

Upkeep includes not only combing the landscape for new games but
keeping existing information up to date and accurate–which is why, though many
contributors ignore it and send email instead, there’s an “update”
link. When all is going well the site pretty much runs itself; all Zimbinski has to
do is monitor and approve changes. Considering there are “about 25,000
page requests from about 5,000 unique hosts from every continent, every day
(except Antarctica,)” that says a lot about the paradigm’s efficiency.
Especially given that it’s not Zimbinski’s job, it’s his hobby, which also
says a lot about Zimbinski.

Anybody working on or running an Open Source project is generous, but
this is a bit different. For a programmer whose preoccupation is
programming, working on an Open Source project can be an indulgence, but for Zimbinski, to work on a site about gaming is not to indulge directly in his obsession
for gaming; in fact, it eats up time that could be spent playing.

Born on the Chanute Air Force base (his father was a dentist there)
in Rontoule, Ill., Zimbinski spent most of his youth in Duluth, Minn., where his
parents had two more children and tried to raise Zimbinski Presbyterian. He learned to program when he was about eleven. His father’s friend, who had
joined them at the family cabin, brought an OSI Challenger (a PC that
pre-dated the Apple II, had a 6502 processor, 4k of memory and built in BASIC
interpreter). “He gave me a book full of short BASIC programs and left
me alone. A couple of hours later, I was hooked.” But while he never faked
being sick to stay home and write code, he did make that excuse in order to game,
specifically to play Ultima III on
his family’s Atari 800.

Zimbinski, like many subjects before him, protested my interest in writing about him, suggesting that his life wasn’t all that notable. Besides the fact that telling me
someone’s life is not compelling is like telling a French chef that
butter’s just a condiment, it’s clear to me that anybody engaged in the kind of
fantasy gaming available today has an either inherent or cultivated
capacity for wonder. I’m going to guess the former for Zimbinski because he hadn’t
been gaming that long when he explained to his parents why, even after
completing Confirmation class [a religious training], he was going to opt out of Confirmation

“They freaked initially, but I was able to clearly
articulate my reasons for not wanting to do it. In a nutshell: God is too pat an
answer for all the mysteries in the universe. Why not let there be unanswered
questions and strive to discover the answers?”

But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t enjoy playing a god. With a nod to
reservation because it’s a Windows platform game, Zimbinski says his latest
favorite is Black and White.

“You are the god of this world and you have a creature who does your
bidding in this world. You train him like you would a real live animal
by stroking him for praise or slapping him for punishment, teaching him how to feed
himself and where to poop and how to treat the people who live in the villages
in your world. It’s very complex and the artificial intelligence is
unlike anything that’s really been seen in a video game before.”

And as far as the mysteries of the universe go, it’s the breadth of
fabricated ones like Everquest which,
unfortunately, is also not available yet on Linux, that really inspire him.

“It’s a really wonderful example of the type of game where you log
on and there are thousands of other people doing the same thing that you are.
If you think about it too much it gets kind of,” he pauses to chuckle,
slightly giddy with appreciation, “I don’t know, I’ve been really awed by this
idea that we’re all in this world and pretending that it’s real and feeling
real emotions about things that happen in it. It’s really kind of cool.”

Though Zimbinski’s got Windows on his computer in order to play these
games, he favors Linux in every other way and it’s obvious why once he explains it. To
him, Linux is like a game in itself.

“Originally I got Linux because it was new and different and closer
to the systems that I was using at work [as a computer operator for Arthur
Andersen] and connecting to over the Internet and it was really cool
that I could have this mainframe-ish feeling operating system running on my
little 486 in my basement. An operating system like Unix is so complex that
you could never master all of it. You’ve always got a project to do if you
want it. It’s like the way people like to tinker with cars. You can do that
on a Linux system forever. And the degree of control you have with a big
operating system like that is unmatched by a commercial one like
Windows, where every action that you can take has been planned out for you.”

Stimulation is important to him. Boredom, to Zimbinski, is enemy number
one. He was working in book stores while studying math at Augsburg College in Minneapolis
when he decided he wanted to work with computers. Eventually he left
school for that Arthur Andersen job and hasn’t looked back at academia since
naming his cat after the famous fractal set, Mandelbrot.

Though he is looking forward to ubiquitous cheap wireless
networking, he doesn’t think portability is going to have much of an impact on gaming.

“Hard core gamers tend to have a mountain
of equipment to really get into playing a video game, if you’re going to
be obsessive about it, and you just can’t take that with you. Some
technology that allows the experience to become more immersive is probably the
next big change for gaming. I don’t know what that technology will be, although
that [virtual reality] gear from the ’80s didn’t ever really seem to go anywhere.

“I don’t know if I’m anticipating anything as much as it’s really
fun to be here right now and be able to watch, to be right on the edge of the
curve, to be able to see and play with the new things right as they
come out.”

As far as his own future goes, he hopes, after maybe going into
independent consulting and then retiring early, that “play” will
eventually be the operative word in that sentiment.

About Bob Zimbinski

First computer: Radio Shack TRS-80

Favorite all time game: Looking Glass’ Thief and Thief 2 are probably the
greatest games I’ve ever played on any platform. Loki’s
Linux port of Myth 2: Soulblighter
is a game I still play at least
weekly. It came out in mid-1999. If I was any good at it, I’d have beaten it by
now, but I still really like it. :)”

Favorite Album: The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld,

Just finished reading: A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval
and the Renaissance Portrait of an Age
, by William Manchester.

Magazine subscriptions: Double Take, PC Gamer, Harper’s, Linux

Stats of his home system: It’s a 700mhz Pentium III system with the typical
specs: 256m RAM, nVidia [that’s the key component] GeForce 2 video
card, big-ass hard drive, four-speaker sound card.

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