Although I can’t really describe myself as a gamer, as a Gen-Xer I am of the first generation which could have been into video and computer games in a big way, just as Baby Boomers were the first generation who could’ve been into rock music. Sarada, a Generation Joneser, has noted that the gulf between her generation and its predecessor is much greater than that between her and our children’s. I actually think that’s slightly less true than before because music seems to have gone through a more independent phase and has now returned to being corporate as it was in the 1950s. Both Sarada and I were of a generation which believed it was possible to change the world with music, an idea which is now passé. Anyway, this post is not about music but gaming.
Probably my first experience of computer games was TV football, as I knew it, or Pong as it’s more widely known. However, it wasn’t as an actual Pong console plugged into a telly but played on television and broadcast on a children’s programme, possibly Crackerjack (CRACKERJACK!), a programme of which I was by no means a fan. This was in about 1974. It’s quite impressive how thinly computer power was being spread in that situation. Not only is Pong, even by standards later in the decade, a remarkably primitive game with what feels like practically no demands on the hardware, but also this game was not actually being played in the living room or even an arcade, but in a TV studio in London being watched by millions. It was a spectator sport. I presume the idea was a bit like Blue Peter: vicarious enjoyment of what the rich kids could have, such as companion dogs and cats in the case of Blue Peter and a video game in the case of Crackerjack (CRACKERJACK! Gets old quickly doesn’t it?). This is in keeping with the way the BBC used to approach things at the time, wanting to provide for the poor and do something about their situation, an ethic which sadly seems old-fashioned today but maybe it will come back into fashion. But it also worked as something to aspire to. It was the climax of the show and the kind of thing which was correctly considered an exciting draw on children.
Also in 1974, John Craven, later of Newsround, presented the first edition of ‘Brainchild’. This used a similar idea, where a computer referred to as BERYL – the Brainchild Electric Random Year and Letter Indicator – formed the central feature of the series. My memories of this programme are exceedingly vague but I seem to remember it involving a piece of equipment which would select topics for a quiz using a Teletext-like display. Teletext was an interesting phenomenon which aimed to transmit text and graphics on the top and bottom lines of a CRT TV display of a standard which was initially impossible to realise because affordable hardware would have been completely beyond the domestic budget of the average household during the three-day week, scheduled powercuts and candles in the cupboard under the stairs for when the lights went out, which is about the time it came out. I don’t really understand how Teletext was supposed to work considering that there weren’t any Teletext decoders commercially available at the time, but I seem to recall it was used on Brainchild, in the studio of course. Again, this was a computer “game” mainly for viewers rather than something you could actually play at home with your own device, unless you count the television set.
Just as a brief aside, Teletext was a standard ahead of its time. It enabled most of the ASCII character set to be displayed in 24 rows of 40 columns on the television screen with 2×3 block characters for graphics and the eight colours black, red, green, blue, magenta, cyan, yellow and white, with flashing and double-height characters as an option. This was at a time when most British television sets were black and white and many of them couldn’t even pick up BBC2, and the most advanced personal “computer” would’ve been a four-function pocket calculator or a desk calculator with a thermal printout which made aircraft taking off noises when you plugged it into the wall, as was obligatory, so it’s pretty impressive.
My next encounter with computer games was in 1975, once again completely passively. At the time, the University of Warwick published a fun maths magazine called MANIFOLD which I used to read, and is incidentally the origin of the Radio 4 game Mornington Crescent. This mentioned a computer program called STAR TREK (lots of things were in capitals back then, partly because it would double the number of letters a computer had to recognise to have lower case as well, although by then the problem had been largely solved.). This was a text-based game which had been written in BASIC for the SDS Sigma-7 mainframe computer in 1971:
By Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31996455
(man not included). I knew this thing was out there but had no idea how it worked or how to play it, but it excited me considerably. At the time, the idea of writing a program that could do this seemed utterly Herculean.
Later in 1975, I played my first computer game! It was on a teletype connected to an HP mainframe at Imperial College, London, although the teletype was in Kent, linked to the computer by an acoustic coupler and telephone. I might need to explain some of this. A teletype is an electric typewriter which can be used to type information into a computer and print information sent to it by that computer. Here’s an example:
This particular machine dates from the 1930s and was used for telegrams, as most were back then.
This is an acoustic coupler:
These were needed because at the time, telephones had wires screwed into the walls of buildings. An acoustic coupler is a bit like a headphone and a mike. The signals sent by the computer and teletype were converted into screeching noises which were then picked up by another phone at the other end and converted back into computer data. These kinds of things were examples of the kind of repurposing of objects designed for other functions which computers tended to rely on back then. Nowadays it’s the other way round. Ironically, just as I typed those words, I lost my internet connection.
One way in which my experience resembled that of gamers today is that it involved the telecom network and connecting to a distant computer, so whereas at the time the internet only existed for the purposes of the military, government and universities, the rest of the world was gradually groping its way towards it even back then.
The game involved was Lunar Lander. The illustration above is a little misleading as it didn’t involve any kind of video display but me typing in numbers to tell the computer how much fuel to burn. The usual response of the computer was to tell me that “YOUR NEXT OF KIN HAVE BEEN NOTIFIED” because I’d crashed into the lunar surface, but the reason that happened was that at the time I was unaware of the difference between the digit zero and the letter O on a computer, or teletype, keyboard and kept typing the wrong characters, so rather than typing “100” I would instead accidentally type “1OO” and die.
To be honest, I found the game incredibly boring. I tried to make it more exciting by imagining that the teletype was a robot because it stood on a pair of legs.
For a couple of years after that, computer games didn’t really impinge on my life at all as far as I can remember. The next thing to happen was in 1978, with the advent of Space Invaders. This had an appealing aesthetic of a black and white monitor with what was effectively high resolution graphics, at least for the time. Although it didn’t do colour, that was added by sticking bits of coloured cellophane onto the screen, although it wasn’t for many years that I realised that was what they’d done. It was also at this point that I began to disapprove heartily of computer games. It disappointed me that the power of computer chips was being used just to play games. In fact, at the time I was an incipient communist as well and thought microchips were going to make everyone unemployed, which was a Bad Thing, so I swore off computers and the like for quite some time.
Something else also came into play for me in the next few years, related to my purism. At the time, I strongly disapproved of colour telly and this seems to have turned into a weird theme in my life connected to computer games themselves. There are said to be traces in the distribution of the galaxies in the universe of the sound waves created by the Big Bang, even though there is in a sense no sound in space and those galaxies are now millions of light years apart. Likewise, my childhood disapproval of colour was to have a long term affect on me which is still in evidence today. However, it was also tempered by another thing going on in my life at the start of the ’80s: ‘The Hitch-Hikers’ Guide To The Galaxy’.
The pictures are of course better on the radio, so I was rather disappointed by the TV adaptation of the series in question, but one aspect of the series really stood out for me: the “computer graphics” used to illustrate the Guide itself. Like the cellophane on the Space Invaders monitor, I didn’t realise at the time that they were fake. Cellophane was in fact also involved here. What these graphics told me, however, was that there was such a thing as computer graphics of this kind of appearance, and that was enough to rekindle my interest in computers. I will get back to computer games, honest!
Another preoccupation of mine in the late 1970s and early 1980s was the Voyager missions, which NASA illustrated using computer animation which again would probably still stand up quite well today. That said, the above frame and the YT animation linked to seem to have been redone because the textures on the moons look like what the probes ended up imaging themselves when they got there, and the picture of Io shows volcanism. The quality of the animation is, however, about the same.
At the end of 1981, during which I learnt BASIC despite not having a computer to practice it on, which was my own fault because I’d chosen to boycott them and the school computer club for political reasons (for the workers!), the long-running BBC Horizon science series broadcast a documentary on computer graphics, which completely blew me away. At the time, I thought it was the best thing I’d ever seen on telly. One of the most impressive things for me was the brief sequence Sunstone, a still from which is shown above. This dates from 1979. However, all of this compares rather poorly with the kind of thing you could do with a home computer at the time. Even with the outrageously expensive £350 and then £400 BBC Model B Micro you had the choice of up to “sixteen” colours (actually eight plus eight flashing colours) at 160×256 resolution or up to 640×256 resolution but only two colours. Obviously I preferred the latter because you get more detail for the memory and storage available. It’s no longer an issue but it stayed with me.
At the time, serious computers such as the IBM PC didn’t even bother with graphics at all because they were considered frivolous and just for games. Even after they did, CGA graphics gave a kind of grudging nod to the idea of graphics and gave you stuff like 320×200 with four colours from two possible palettes or 640×200 with two colours. This was in a computer costing almost ten times as much as the already outrageously expensive BBC Micro, which had better graphics – higher resolution and more colours, and the sound was also way better.
By the end of 1982, I had a ZX81. It had frustratingly poor specifications even for the time and after a while I got worried that I was getting obsessed with it and gave it up for a bit, but it did have some surprisingly impressive games. A famous example was 3-D Monster Maze:
Amazingly, this game still stands up today for jump scares. Nor is it even the most impressive thing ever done with a ZX81.
By this time, I’d started to worry about violence as well, and there were also a couple of porn games around which really didn’t impress me: Custer’s Revenge for the Atari 2600 (I meant to talk about that console earlier) and Commodore 64 Strip Poker. I wasn’t impressed, so I forswore the whole thing for a bit, although I did buy a Jupiter Ace after the company went bankrupt.
After that there was a very long gap. Looking back on my time with home micros, arcade machines and games consoles, I was never really much of a gamer and didn’t even really approve of games. It wasn’t until 1994 that I finally got back into computers, and I’ll leave that for the next post, but I’m not finished here yet.
My involvement with computer games, then, was somewhat half-hearted, but these are of course embryonic and I was on the margins with some rather self-defeating and idiosyncratic prejudices – I disliked colour, saw computers as anti-communist and perversely saw games programming as a waste of power. The reason, however, that I saw it in that way was that my entire reason for being interested in them in the first place was aesthetic, namely the graphics. It’s entirely feasible to create good graphics on an early ’80s eight-bit home micro, as this loading screen for the Commodore 64, released in 1982, shows:
However, although I did manage to do some art on the ZX81, with its 64×48 monochrome resolution, and that’s if you include the two lines at the bottom of the screen used for status messages and input, my approach was largely mathematical rather than artistic and I aspired to a higher resolution screen. It occurs to me, though, that my focus on visuals and graphics prefigured what my son would do decades later on much better hardware.