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Everything I Learned About Computer Games I Didn’t Learn at Yale

These are my memories... Growing up in a world with three TV channels and paper mail... My years writing some of the earliest 8-bit games (CRISIS MOUNTAIN, DINO EGGS, SHORT CIRCUIT)... And now reviving my best-selling game as DINO EGGS: REBIRTH.

Yale University

In 1976, I took the only computer course I would ever take. I got a “D,” the worst grade I would ever get.

Five years later, I was making my living writing home computer games, and would continue to do so for the next nine years.

You understand –– my story begins before the Internet, before Windows, before Apple.

In 1976, I was a junior at Yale, and the phrase “home computer” did not exist. Yale had just proudly installed its first PDP-11 (the size of a large closet). No longer would students need to save their data on thick poker decks of punch-hole card stock. Open reels of shiny magnetic tape were the thing. Each student purchased his own reel of tape for $20. I kept my tape from unraveling with a rubber band; it didn’t even have a case.

We learned languages like Fortran, APL, and LISP from a professor whose first language was Hungarian. I turned every programming assignment into a game. This did not please the professor, but I enjoyed every minute of it. 

Not for an instant did I think computers had anything to do with my future. I majored in music. I was born to be creative (or so I thought), and nothing with the word “science” in it (like computer science) qualified as being creative. Trying to be creative in that computer science course got me my lousy “D.”

Message received, loud and clear.

It was only four years later, as my first attempts at a post-graduate career were foundering, that I noticed the computer game genie escaping his bottle at local taverns and 7-11’s in the Seattle area. What were those machines over there in the corner? They weren’t pinball. They weren’t one of those blocky black-and-white Pong screens. They had color, multiple moving images, and joysticks. 

Joy. That’s what you felt when the moving images responded to your hand movements. Wow. I’m a part of these images. I’m in these images.

And every couple of weeks, another type of machine magically appeared, expanding this new realm of motion and – what was that new word – interactivity?

Here comes Lunar Lander with its emulation of rocketry and physics...

Is this what these games will become – all studious and tutorial?

Here comes Pac-Man with that steady treadmill rhythm, and the brilliant turn-on-your-enemies twist.

Here come the tanks in Battlezone – with those vivid neon-crisp vectors throbbing across the screen...

Will games now be drawn by these cool green lines rather than with red hot pixels?

Here comes Missile Command – with that stubborn little bowling ball of a controller...

Will joysticks now become passé?

Here comes Defender – with its smooth side-scrolling...

Where is that landscape coming from?  Could it keep going on forever?

Does all this feel a bit random and chaotic? Well, it was. Make no mistake about it: No one knew what these new audio/visual experiences were going to become. No one knew what they were supposed to be.

No one knew anything.

In 1937, Walt Disney created the first full-length story told in hand-drawn animation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Before Disney, no one imagined that a cartoon could hold an audience’s attention for more than six or seven minutes. No one imagined that an audience could care about such obviously artificial characters like the dwarfs, even to the point of weeping with them.

1981 saw the appearance of the Snow White of video games, Donkey Kong. Before Donkey Kong, you played, you celebrated, you cursed. With Donkey Kong, you cared. You were not only among the images, you were one of the images. You were that little nameless guy.

 

You had skin in the game, and that skin was made of pixels.

 

To be continued...

 
Next Post:  No Such Thing as a Random Number

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These are my memories...  Growing up in a world with three TV channels and paper mail...  My years writing some of the earliest 8-bit games (CRISIS MOUNTAIN, DINO EGGS, SHORT CIRCUIT)...  And now reviving my best-selling game as DINO EGGS: REBIRTH.

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