Is Werewolf Killing the Conference Hackfest?

The latest craze at conferences, especially those associated with O'Reilly or Ruby, is the game Werewolf (historically known as Mafia, but Werewolf has become more popular). The premise of the game is simple: (from Wikipedia's Mafia article)
Mafia (also known under the variant Werewolf or Vampire) is a party game modeling a battle between an informed minority and an uninformed majority. Mafia is usually played in groups with at least five players. During a basic game, players are divided into two teams: 'Mafia members', who know each other; and 'honest people', who generally know the number of Mafia amongst them. The goal of both teams is to eliminate each other; in more complicated games with multiple factions, this generally becomes "last side standing".
Substitute "villagers" for "honest people" and "werewolves" for "mafia members" and you get the general idea. They're the same game.

Again from Wikipedia:
Mafia was created by Dimma Davidoff at the Psychological Department of Moscow State University, in spring of 1986, and the first players were playing in classrooms, dorms, and summer camps of Moscow University. [citation needed] The game became popular in other Soviet colleges and schools and in the 1990s it began to be played in Europe (Hungary, Poland, England, Norway) and then the United States. Mafia is considered to be one of "the 50 most historically and culturally significant games published since 1800" by
So you get the idea.

It's a fun game. I first played it at Foo Camp 2007, and I've played at each Ruby-related conference since then. It's a great way to get to know people, and an interesting study in social dynamics. I have my own opinions about strategy and in particular a fatal flaw in the game, but I'll leave those for another day. Instead, I have a separate concern:

Is Werewolf killing the conference hackfest?

Last year at RubyConf, Nick Sieger and I sat up until 4AM with Eric Hodel, Evan Phoenix, Zed Shaw and others hacking on stuff. Eric showed a little Squeak demo for those of us who hadn't used it, Zed and I talked about getting a JRuby-compatible Mongrel release out (which finally happened a year later) and I think we all enjoyed the time to hack with a few others who code for the love of coding.

As another example, RubyGems, the definitive and now official packaging system for Ruby apps and libraries, was written during a late-night hackfest at an early RubyConf (2002?). I'm not remembering my history so well, but I believe Rake had a similar start, as well as several other projects including the big Rails 1.0 release's final hours.

This year, and for the past several conferences, there's been a significant drop in such hackfests. And it's because of Werewolf.

Immediately after the Matz's keynote last night, many of the major Ruby players sequestered themselves in isolated groups to play Werewolf for hours (and yes, I know many did not). They did not write the next RubyGems. They did not plant the seeds of the next great Ruby web framework. They did not advance the Ruby community. They played a game.

Don't get me wrong...I have been tempted to join every Werewolf game I can. I enjoy the game, and I feel like I'm at least competent at it. And I can appreciate wanting to blow off steam and play a game after a long conference day. I often feel the same way.

But I'm worried about the general trend. Not only does Werewolf seem to be getting more popular, it seems to draw in many of the best and brightest conference attendees, attendees who might otherwise be just as happily hacking on the "hard problems" we still face in the software world.

So what do you think? Is this a passing trend, or is it growing and spreading? Does it mean the doom of the late-night, post-conference hackfest and the inspirational products it frequently produces? Or is it just a harmless pastime for a few good folks who need an occasional break?
Written on November 4, 2007