Friday, 4 January 2019

A short history of me and computer games

Writing a bird blog automatically disqualifies a person from being a geek, everyone knows that. However I can honestly say that over the last few days I have had as much fun as I can remember recalling days of nerdiness – before this blog came along, obviously. I was inspired to write this by watching a film on a plane, and subsequently reading a book I got for Christmas – Ready Player One, a glorious dive into 80s Pop Culture. Music, film and video games. Primarily the latter. If you are about my age I cannot recommend it highly enough, and watching it at home with the family yesterday evening perhaps gave them hints of my childhood and indeed early adulthood.

In 1980 I turned five, so the first half of that decade rather passed me by in terms of pop culture. However by the end of the decade I was a fully fledged teenager, and the subject matter of the film was my era. Now although I was quite a peculiar teenager, particularly when it came to music (think Tallis, Bach and Beethoven…), I did play computer games. Not many back then, as my parents were quite anti-computer and felt my time was better spent studying (bor-ing!), so initially I played at my friends’ houses – formative years with two buddies called Nick and Stuart. However at some point my lot relented, and so in about 1987 I was allowed to buy an Acorn Electron. I would have been around 12 years old. It was second hand, bought out of the local rag, and came with a tape recorder and a bag of cassettes. Looking at it now it is almost comic, but back then, wowsers! I also managed to get hold of a tiny tiny black and white TV. I was set! 

My pride and joy would have looked much like this

Once switched on and plugged into the TV you got two lines of text.

Acorn Electron



Then you had to load a game. That’s where the tape recorder came in. For those of you struggling with the concept of a cassette tape, it was how people once listened to music and predated the CD. Spotify? Hah! A game came on a tape. You loaded it up by typing something after the command prompt symbol and then playing the tape – all sorts of strange noises and hisses would come out, similar to what you hear if you dial a fax number by mistake, and meanwhile hexadecimal numbers would count up on the screen. You could go off for a wander, a bike ride, play a game of football, whatever, and when you came back it would almost certainly have failed. But the point was that it had loaded at least some of it, so you could wind back the tape to approximately where you thought it had fallen over, restart from there, and go on another bike ride. Eventually it would complete, and your game would start.

If you had asked me last week what games I had played on it I would have been able to name just two. Chuckie Egg and Elite. But having spent the last week stuck indoors and having researched the limited number of titles that were then available I have now filled in all the blank spaces that I vaguely recalled. Given this is nearly 30 years ago, I am astonished that mere screenshots of these ancient pixelated relics invoke such strong emotions in me. That castle game I could never ever finish was called “Citadel”, goddamit that was hard! I dread to think how many hours I devoted to that, all in ultimate failure. Chuckie Egg I completed several times, and I still remember the day I finished Commando. What an achievement!

The best game was Elite of course. A space simulator! You flew a ship from star system to star system (all identical, graphically), buying low and selling high, and fighting off space pirates! The graphics were terrible of course, but actually versus the awful 2D blocks that made up all other games I had ever seen, the “3D” wire-frame representation of various space ships was incredible. Along the way you could upgrade your weapons and armour, and gradually you moved away from being cannon fodder…..Harmless, Mostly Harmless, Poor, Average, Above Average, Competent, Dangerous, Deadly, ….Elite!  I can remember that rank progression all these years later. In fact I can still remember individual system names where I spent most time bounty-hunting pirates – Riedquat. The ship, a Cobra Mark III, well I reckon could draw its wire frame today, blindfolded. Fond, fond memories.

In about 1988 Nick or Nick’s Dad, a Cambridge Academic, got a PC. A real computer. You didn’t even plug it into the TV, it came with an enormous monochrome monitor. My dad had a typewriter. I didn’t quite move in with Nick but I spent a huge amount of time there. We alternated between playing an amazing tank game called M1 Tank Platoon, and building a very complex tank out of Lego. As only 15 year olds could we accidentally left it on an opened velux window one day as we went downstairs for some lunch, and then closed the window when we came back upstairs, and well that was rather sad. After that we concentrated just on the game. If I recall we also played Sid Meier’s SimEarth, and a pirate-based game as well. His family found bits of Lego in the garden for years afterwards. 

Hours of fun!

Computers were banned in my house until about 1991 when I finished my GCSEs. I think I had an Amstrad Word Processor that was almost entirely incapable of doing anything fun with and thus got my parents’ seal of approval. Possibly as a result my grades were not actually that bad. I got into the town's best sixth form college, and was allowed to buy a proper computer, a mighty Intel 286 processor home-build with a 256 colour VGA monitor!  Cassette tapes were long gone, and I now had a 5.25 inch floppy disk drive. Better than that, I had a 20 *mega*byte hard disk. This was a double height 5.25 inch format, ie about the size of four house bricks! I could store loads! These days of course you can get thousands of times that amount of storage in something the size of your fingernail for about a tenner, but back then hard disk drives were pretty new technology. It ran Windows 3.1, and had a mouse, an incredible novelty. The world was now my oyster! I learned from a neighbour how the different components of a home computer went together, and as funds allowed gradually replaced and upgraded bits of it. Naturally I went and bought games to play on it in glorious technicolour. The tank game obviously (a stunning palette of about 4 greens), but new titles that my now zippy 386 DX-40 machine could run easily were being released all the time, plus all the older ones I needed to catch up on! SimCity and Space Rogue I remember being excellent, as well as rise of the first person shooters like Castle Wolfenstein and Doom, but the ones that really stuck in my mind were the role-playing adventure ones. You know, wizards, elves and dragons. Eye of the Beholder, Shadow Sorcerer and the Ultima series which by then was on about its fifth installment. Reading about these over the last few days I am amazed at how much I remember of them, especially the character names and maps from the Ultima Games. I must have got really into them as when I saw screenshots of them earlier this week they brought the memories flooding back.

For some reason my A level predictions were not very good, and I was forced to delay my university application by a year. My parents, both in the teaching profession, despaired. I was just a teenager and was bewildered by their angst, but looking back I must have really put them through the wringer. I don’t exactly recall if my computer got confiscated, but whilst I didn’t quite turn a corner it was a least quite a sharp bend and my actually results ended up being much better. Not as good as perhaps I was capable of, but enough to get me to a decent university. Of course this was for the following year, 1994, as all the places for the coming year had been allocated based on predicted grades. I had 15 months of no academic work, which meant…..

Of course, looking back on it all, I wish I had had the foresight to have just gone birding instead, but it is rare that teenagers have this kind of wisdom and I did not buck that trend. I didn’t just sit in a darkened room and play games though. I went to France for nearly a year to work in a Cognac factory. I gave multilingual tours of the cellars and information centre to tourists, and worked on one of the bottling lines with the engineering department. My French, already good, went up several notches, and I didn’t touch a single computer during my entire time there. Once back home however I was reunited with my PC, or at least whilst I wasn't working. I had two jobs, a breakfast shift at a university canteen, a day shift in a central admin office, and then an evening shift back at the canteen. There were always nights however, and now that I had some money I rebuilt it into a 486 DX2-66, which literally flew. I got little sleep, and caught up on all the games I had missed. I remember titles like Myst, Day of the Tentacle, Simcity 2000, and most of all devoting hours to Frontier Elite 2, the much anticipated remake of Elite nearly a decade after the puny BBC Micro and Acornsoft versions. I also remember being devastated that all my hours of efforts led to nothing when the main plot line turned out to be a bug-ridden game-ending flop.

Anyway, university started. And what do students do at university? Yes, they drink and they, er, do other things, but what else? Yes that’s right, they play computer games! Now to be fair there was a lot going on at university, wooing Mrs L for starters, and so during my first year there computers barely got a look in. I am sure there is no correlation, but my first year went very well academically and romantically. During my second year, off campus and in a shitty house (think The Young Ones) in a crappy town in Surrey, computers came back. It was around then that multi-player gaming first started to make an appearance, or at least that we found out about it. To manage it you had to buy a special serial cable and physically place two computers close enough together to attach it, but our student house contained more than one geek, including a computer scientist for whom this stuff came very naturally, and so hours of fun were had playing Doom, Quake etc. And all away from pesky meddling parents! Civilization II, UFO Enemy Unknown,  X-COM, Duke-Nukem….

Second year results were not quite as good as year one, again a total mystery, but at least this had the benefit of concentrating the mind for Finals which counted for a lot more. I don’t recall playing any computer games at all until I had finished my exams. This was probably for the best, as Mrs L and I got identical degrees thus eliminating any “I did better than you” conversations for all time, and I also improbably equalled my father’s grade. This has helped enormously to stem any parental criticism of my academic record. Instead they concentrate on my hobbies. And my weight. However it does put my own children under severe pressure in the coming years Then again, they don’t play computer games at all, we don’t have any consoles and never have, and nor do they watch TV (and despite all my screen time, neither did I and I still don’t), so they’ll probably be fine. Anyhow, then I went of travelling, and then I started work.

In those early days, Mrs L worked as an auditor for a multinational, which meant she was frequently abroad all week. Rather than go out drinking or frequent seedy establishments, I simply looked after my plants and played computer games after work. The biggest revelation was Baldur’s Gate, a Dungeon’s and Dragon’s adventure that was identical to the pen and paper version I had played with my mates many years before. It is difficult to put into words but although I was in my early twenties it was as if my childhood had started again. You are probably imagining a long-haired greasy oik emerging red-eyed from the house every morning, but despite everything I’ve written above I mostly defy the stereotypes that go along with ‘gamer’. I loved playing them – also from that era were SimCity 3000, The Elder Scrolls III and IV, Baldur’s Gate 2, Icewind Dal, Neverwinter Nights and X2 The Threat – and I am sure if I ever played them again I could reasonably clearly remember the plots and hidden twists, secret chambers and so on for most of them, but I was never a true hardcore gamer. I’m sure I’ve wasted hours over the years, hours that could have fruitfully been used elsewhere, but those hours were only ever a distraction rather than defining. As I mentioned above, and indeed several times previously, I wish I’d discovered the pleasures of local birding a lot earlier, but it is all part of growing up and dare I say it, life.

I’ve played two computer games in the last 10 years. Just two. Birding, children, even more chlorophyll-based enthusiasm, travel and photography have all taken over. I very much enjoyed a game called Skyrim for a few months back in about 2012 , and then more recently, and fittingly 30 years after the original Elite was released running on computers with 16kb of memory, an all singing all dancing remake was released called Elite Dangerous. It was indeed dangerous, and for a while I became addicted. Then again I never do anything half-heartedly. However it was just too big, too vast, and every few months they released more and more content to the extent that unless you were prepared to devote your entire life to the game it became pointless remaining involved with it. It was online, what they call a massively multiplayer online game or MMO. These are as I understand it all the rage, and whilst this one was a thing of beauty – both graphically and conceptually  - for me it was too big, and I let it go.

Skyrim, released around 2011, was a visual feast

I don’t think anyone will ever die wishing that they had spent more time playing computer games. As the creator of the online world in Ready Player One says at the end of the film immediately after quoting Groucho Marx, [only] reality is real. They are however very much a part of modern life, and like the premise of the film, to see how they have developed from almost their earliest days (I missed those by a few years) is quite fascinating, and I had forgotten how fascinating until just now. Chunky square monochrome graphics to practically movie-like sequences in the space of a generation. The novel/film of course also reference movies and a great many other genres and eras, and each person who watches it will come away with something different that will trigger a memory, or a series of memories. This is mine. My kids enjoyed it hugely, my youngest wanted to know when the VR technology would be available for her to use – she clearly views her current reality as far too dull!

Anyway, apologies for starting the year with a distinctly non-birdy post. I never quite know what, if anything, I am going to end up typing, but I’ve spent many hours over the last few days completely nerding out and felt I needed to share. By all means let me know if you too enjoyed any of the games I mentioned, or just if you were out birding like a sensible and wholesome child.


  1. I have never been a computer game aficionados, but can remember an Atari game console (simple tennis game called Pong? springs to mind). My nieces (and then daughter's) have owned various games - from SegaMega Drives via Playstations - so I joined in now and again, even buying myself Quake, Gran Tourismo and Wipeout as ways of avoiding housework, bed and being an adult. I was, and no doubt still am, crap at any game that needs dexterous hand movements.

  2. I seem to have a knack for doing things 'ass-backward' to most people so came to computer games late in life. This is not the ideal way to do it as my reactions are getting slower and the games are getting faster and more complicated but I've still managed to spend more time than I should this winter with Red Dead Redemption 2 and the 'Fallout' series.

    There, I now feel like I've been to a group therapy session and admitted my darkest secrets ;)

  3. Chuckie Egg, oh my days... :)

    1. Just because I write in the style of a ten and a half year old doesn't mean that I actually am a ten and a half year old...but thank you, nipper.

  4. That was a fun read, even though I was never a gamer. I recall PCs making an appearance in my workplace in about '88, and within no time someone had worked out how to play games on them. There was a golf game I enjoyed (and got quite good at) but the novelty quickly wore off. Some of my colleagues were distracted from proper work by Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards, and I remember that Castle Wolfenstein you mentioned (from the early 90s?) and there was similar stuff, but none of it appealed to me. Maybe I was a bit too old. Though, come to think of it, some of my colleagues were older...

    It was nice to read about your uni days. Am I right in thinking you were at RHC? I can tell you that in 1977-78 there were very few electronic games available on campus. In fact I only remember one, an incredibly basic ping-pong game that lived in one of the bars I think. I much preferred the tactile skills of pinball, and back then there were still several lovely old machines to chose from.

    1. Yes I was, the crappy town I mentioned was the glorious Egham. Our landlady created a five bedroom house by taking a three bedroom house and dividing two of the rooms with plywood, hey presto five lots of rent.

  5. My first computer was the Commodore Amiga 500. I got pretty good at Lemmings and loved Pinball Dreams. But I remember Doom on the PC too!

    1. Lemmings, I think was a mid-90s game as well, I think it got played in our second year uni house along with something vaguely similar called Worms.