On the way into work today one of the local news stations had a brief spot that highlighted the generational differences between those entering college this year and their professors. It was intended to show that some culutral references will go clean over the new pupils’ heads. In thinking about it, I come back to two discussions that I’ve had with the GorT replicants (GorT 1, 2 and 3 – hey, I’m not creative, I’m a time-traveling robot): (a) the difference in Legos® between GorT’s heyday with them (1970s and early 80s) and now is interesting and (b) the difference in “video games” (intentional quotes) is equally as interesting.
First, the Legos® – largely the reation you get from adults who grew up as Lego fans is one of disdain for the new sets. There are a million custom pieces and huge variety in colors which, combined, lead to very specific Lego creations that require a detailed instruction manual. The bottom line for these folks (and, admittedly, at times I am one of them) is these new sets have removed or lessened the creativity that made our experience growing up with Legos so special. Recall, the spaceships we built out of legos were blocky, thick, and – with a dose of imagination – awesome. These days, it’s more in-your-face. The spaceships pretty much look like spaceships…maybe with little round nubs with the word “Lego” imprinted on them. There’s curved and smooth pieces. There are semi-translucent pieces. But over the last week, I’ve spent some time with the 10 standard rotation old GorT 3 building a new Lego set he purchased after saving up some money. After he completed it, he went on to request that we build a “docking station” for the various ships and vehicles. It took me a moment, but he really had engaged his imagination and had a picture of what could be – even if the walls were build of random, various colored bricks. So, I think I might be revising my previous stance – yes, the custom legos aren’t what we grew up with…but one can still apply some imagination with them in a similar fashion.
Part Deux: “video games”. Ok, the quotes are there as what I’m terming video games for this discussion are probably more accurately described as computer games. Again, growing up in the 1970s and 80s, computers weren’t commonplace. I can remember a few early “games” – first was on a programmable calculator (likely an HP) with a magnetic strip reader. It was a simple moon landing game that you played with a – GASP – text readout of descent speed, altitude, and fuel. Then GorT, Sr. brought home a computer of sorts. It resembled a large typewriter with an acoustic coupling handset for the phone handset (and kids, the handset was attached to a rotary-dial phone mounted on the wall in our kitchen – there were no cordless phones). If I recall correctly, I think there were three games we played using this computer terminal while dialed up to a mainframe: Hunt the Wumpus, Adventure and a Star Trek game. There might have been the obligatory moon lander (very popular at that time) as well. It was all text-based. For the Star Trek game, a grid was printed out each turn with positions and stats and commands were entered for that turn. I loved it. I don’t recall the day-to-day back then, but I was likely as excited as the GorT replicants are to get on the computer now.
Around the time that I was in sixth grade, my family bought an Atari 800 personal computer. Initially it had 48K of RAM which was augmented by a non-standard memory module that ran it up to around 64K. The first game besides Star Raiders and Asteroids (loaded via cartridge) was Space Invaders that we loaded via cassette tape. But once I found Scott Adams’ text adventure games, I was hooked. I tore through the series, moved onto Infocom’s Zork series, Planetfall, Suspended, etc. and then onto the early graphic adventure games such as the House of Usher, Maniac Mansion (early entrant from LucasArts) and the Sierra products such as King’s Quest, Space Quest, Police Quest, and, of course, Leisure Suit Larry. Especially at the beginning, imagination was a key component. My picture of Scott Adams’ environs for Pirate Adventure were different, at least slightly, from any of my friends playing the same game. You read a basic description of the scene, but were not presented with any visual cues. Pages and pages of paper were used to draw maps to figure out where to go. These days, the adventure component remains but some amount of imagination has been removed by the addition of the graphical component. Scenes, either in a dynamic first person view, or even the simpler image-based games such as the Nancy Drew series, are presented and clues or limited items to interact with are generally easy to find and piece together in the puzzle that is the story. I’m largely waxing nostalgic here as I’m not advocating turning all our computers back into green-screen TRS-80s with text-only, but it does make me wonder how different “video games” will be in 30 years.
Note: all of these games are likely still copyrighted material. I encourage those enthusiasts or nostagists to fire up a search engine and go find some fun.