The World Wide Web of International Intrigue

Simon Szykman and Manus Hand


When Diplomacy was first introduced, the intended form of play was face-to-face (FTF). As the game picked up a larger and larger following, postal 'zines started popping up all over the world and the postal Diplomacy hobby evolved. More recently, the computer age entered the game (or rather, the game entered the computer age) and the Internet play-by-email (PBEM) hobby emerged. The Diplomacy hobby now consists of these three communities, which exist with some amount of overlap and varying degrees of polarization in their membership.

Most Diplomacy players who are active in the hobby realize that the postal Diplomacy community is rather extensive and includes players in countries across the globe. However, many of them may not realize the extent of the PBEM Diplomacy hobby. For them, we present a few starting facts and statistics.

Most PBEM Diplomacy games are played using computers referred to as "judges," which run software that accepts electronic mail from players. The judge machines not only serve as a middleman, allowing players to send messages to other players, but it also receives and automatically adjudicates submitted orders. Games may run in real time but more typically run at a rate of one season to one game-year per week. At the time of this writing, there are about ten judges running; over 5400 people have registered with the most-highly-played judge (although, admittedly, many of them are no longer actively playing); over 1400 games have been completed using the PBEM judges and there are well over 450 games currently in progress; many more games have been played by e-mail informally without use of the judges.

These statistics should give you a feeling for the size of the PBEM Diplomacy hobby. This paper, however, does not focus on PBEM Diplomacy, but rather on an even more recent development in computer technology -- the world wide web -- and its current and potential impact on all the communities which comprise the Diplomacy hobby.

The World Wide Web

This section gives a brief introduction to the world wide web for those who are completely unfamiliar with it. Those who do not fall into this category may wish to skip to the next section.

In the beginning there was the computer, and it connected merely to the wall socket which provided it with the electricity which is its lifeblood. Then, sometime long ago, someone got the idea of connecting two computers to a telephone line and letting them phone each other and exchange information. But the world was slow and without form, so, although it was good, it wasn't good enough. Technology advanced, and computers began to be able to transmit and receive information more quickly. The administrators of a bunch of military computers got together and decided to break with tradition and never hang up on each other. They bought what the telephone companies call "leased lines" and connected all their computers to each other on forever-active telephone wire.

All of a sudden, a computer that was connected (even by a temporary, soon-to-be-hung-up phone call) to just one of these "networked" computers could, through the magic of computer communications, send a message almost instantaneously to any other computer that was on the network. First universities and then the real world looked at what the military had done and decided that they wanted some of this too. Soon enough, thousands and thousands of computers were added to the network, now known as the Internet, and the telephone companies had a field day, making money hand over fist.

People began to realize that being connected to almost any computer in the world suddenly made it possible to provide information to the largest audience ever assembled. Various forms of electronic publishing were proposed as means by which information could be put on one computer and requested, located, and displayed by any other. The winning information format turned out to be a language called HTML, the HyperText Markup Language. Information which is written in HTML and put on a networked computer in specified locations can not only be found by any number of publicly available "search engines" but also displayed in highly readable, attractive, graphical, and "hotlinked" form (meaning that the document can itself provide "links" -- ways for the reader to jump immediately by the click of a mouse -- to yet other HTML documents on any machine, anywhere). The race then became one to develop the best HTML browser (i.e. display program), and Netscape Corporation won that battle. Now it's Netscape which is making money hand over fist.

The objective behind the development of the world wide web was to come up with a new way to deliver information using computers. The key idea here is delivery. Before the advent of the world wide web, electronic information existed in various places but it always had to be retrieved through a variety of mechanisms such as by typing an "address" that referred to an electronic document, by copying a file from an electronic archive, or by sending an e-mail request to have a document sent. Furthermore, delivery of information over the web avoids several drawbacks associated with previous distribution mechanisms by reducing publication time and effort, eliminating the need for maintaining subscriber lists as well as copying and mailing costs, saving resources by not having to replicate information for each interested person, etc. Several of these drawbacks apply not only to information distributed on paper, but to electronic media as well.

The primary innovations brought to the mainstream through the web are (1) the use of links to remotely located files, which can be located in a document and replace manually typed addresses, (2) local display of information that may be located remotely (without having to make a local copy) and (3) the HTML language which is used to create web documents (these documents are referred to as pages though they are usually be more than a page long when printed). This language allows web pages to contain not just plain text, but text formatting, layout formatting, graphics, links to other pages and more.

The world wide web consists of literally tens of millions of pages distributed across several hundreds of thousands of sites. Pages exist on virtually any topic you can think of, from sports to movies to sex to people: everything from aardvarks to zoology, including, of course, Diplomacy. Not surprisingly, with this amount of information available, people began to assemble information on a given topic to make access easier. The most common form of this is called the home page, that is, the home for information on a topic. Along with all the lesser-important people/places/things such as McDonald's, IBM, NBC Television, and the White House, Diplomacy has a home page of its own.

Diplomacy on the Web

The page which follows shows the front page of the Diplomacy home page [see the real front page instead of figure], which is called The Diplomatic Pouch (located at Links to other pages are indicated by underlined text. For example, clicking your mouse while the pointer is over online resources takes you to a web page which fronts the online resources section of The Diplomatic Pouch; clicking on accolades takes you to a page which lists some reviews of The Pouch, and some awards which it has received. The graphic icons on the page are also links, so that clicking on the i icon brings up a page that gives some background information about The Pouch, while clicking on one of the six larger pencil-sketch icons below takes you to any of the six main sections of The Pouch.

So what? One of the sections of The Diplomatic Pouch happens to be a 'zine that you view on the computer instead of on paper. It looks nice with those graphics and all, but how is this different from, say, opening a file using a word processor? As mentioned earlier, what's new is the access to and the method of delivery of information. One difference is that the information medium is not linear, as it is with a word processing file. For instance, you can read the sixth article in the 'zine without reading or even scrolling past the first five. Another difference is that a reader can browse through and selectively read the 'zine without having to download a potentially large file to do so. But these are relatively small differences. The distributed nature of information actually has a much greater impact; of much greater significance is the fact that the web provides instant access to distributed, remotely located information.

A Virtual Repository

Even the use of the 'zine as an example does not truly illustrate the advantages of access to distributed information. Let's instead consider the online resources section of The Pouch. The online resources section provides links to over fifty information sources at over twenty sites spanning nine countries. From that page, a user is one or two mouse clicks from just about any Diplomacy-related information available on the Internet, including introductory information for new players, articles on strategy and improving your game, dozens of maps for many variants, Diplomacy statistics, reference materials, a half dozen electronic 'zines and much more.

This section really is a virtual repository. That is, to the user it seems that all that information is available in one place, separated by nothing more than a click of the mouse. With the world wide web, access to all this distributed information is seamless. Aside from an occasional small delay associated with data transfers, there is nothing to indicate to the user this file is stored in Japan and that one in Germany. But having links to all of that information is entirely different from actually having it all in one place. The cost and effort involved with storing and maintaining all that information, and the logistics of providing access to maintainers would pose a tremendous barrier to that. By distributing information, the associated time and costs are distributed as well .

The New Nature of Information

Another feature of the world wide web is that it removes one of the major boundaries associated with storing information: its static nature. When information is archived, it generally remains in the same state in which it was left. The fact that information on the web is distributed allows it to be separately and individually maintained and updated as necessary. Some information does not require updating and does remain static. However, other information may need to be updated periodically (either at fixed intervals or whenever necessary) to reflect evolving information on a topic, in this case Diplomacy. The update interval can be as long as months or as short as hours: the 'zine section of The Diplomatic Pouch is updated only five times per year when a new issue comes out, and at the other extreme, a web-provided list of openings in PBEM games (linked to from The Pouch but provided by a hobbyist whose computer resides in Norway) is updated every two hours.

The undesirable solution to information updating, which was common before the web came about, was for people to have to re-retrieve files whenever they wanted to make sure they had the latest version, or to make a "mass-mailing" to all interested parties whenever information was updated. Using the web as an information distribution mechanism, people always have the latest information available. Because information that is accessible by everyone is stored in only one location, it only needs to be updated once, making it simple to ensure that up-to-date information is available to everyone. No more out-of-date paper copies.

Bridging the Gap

An interesting consequence of the world wide web is that this new information medium is creating an interface between the FTF, PBEM and postal Diplomacy communities. There can be considerable overlap between members of these communities. People who have access to the world wide web typically have it through a major online service (such as CompuServe or America Online), a smaller Internet service provider, or through an Internet account obtained through an employer or, for many students, a university. While people who play PBEM Diplomacy have, by necessity, access to the Internet, there are many more people who have access to the web who do not play PBEM Diplomacy. The world wide web can serve as an information source for anyone with access to the web, regardless of which community they belong to.

With this objective in mind, sections within The Diplomatic Pouch were created specifically to serve each of these communities. The Face-to-Face section provides (among other things) information about past and upcoming conventions and tournaments for the FTF Diplomacy community; the Postal section contains a links to electronic copies of lists of player openings for North American and European postal 'zines; the PBEM section includes links to information about how to get started playing Diplomacy by email using the judges. And in addition, there is in The Diplomatic Pouch a wealth of information that may be of interest to any hobbyist, for instance links in the 'zine and online resources sections to articles on Diplomacy strategy, a library of openings, variant descriptions and maps, and other electronic 'zines.

An interesting example of bridging the gap between communities is the Backseat Driver Variant. This variant was first played by electronic mail, and first described in full in an article in The Diplomatic Pouch 'zine. This article was read by a person involved with the postal Diplomacy hobby, who then adapted the variant for postal play, after which it was published in the postal 'zine Dipsomania. Since a significant percentage of the subscribers of Dipsomania are presumably not part of the PBEM community, the world wide web enabled the bringing of this variant to a group of people who otherwise would most likely never have heard of it. There are several other variants, such as modern and hundred, which have been played primarily by e-mail but may find themselves filtering out into the FTF and postal Diplomacy communities via the web.

Conclusions and Outlook for the Future

From the discussion above, it is clear that the Diplomacy hobby already has benefited greatly by the advances in computer networking. It should also be clear that there appears to be no limit to these benefits. Electronic communication has enabled people from across the globe to create alliances and stab each other in the backs every day, and the advent of the web has enabled the fast-growing hobby to be well-served by easy access to a huge and ever-expanding pool of resource information.

The play of Diplomacy will soon be brought to yet another new forum. From face-to-face, to the corner mailbox, to the electronic mailbox, and soon to the web itself, where web pages will do everything for the game player, even up to presenting modifiable planning maps to each player. Each new arrow he or she draws using the mouse will be available to an ally instantly. Communication, negotiation, and yes, deception and chicanery via the medium of the web page is just around the corner. And wherever the next corner lies, the Diplomacy hobby is sure to be there to take advantage of it. After all, it is in our nature to take advantage and exploit new opportunities, is it not?

Simon Szykman
Manus Hand

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