A brief history of the computer environment

Our escape (as children) from the ugliness of human relations as exemplified by the old city environments to the elegiac beauty of nature, was purely and simply escapism. Even today, most American city centres are largely ugly, anti-urban places, where the only safe way to negotiate the downtown areas is from the safety of a car. It is the places between the cities which become the living realm; these are the suburbs, a form of space which is low rise, green and defined by clear territorial family boundaries and peculiarly American in its myths and meanings. The picket fence and the veranda define ownership, a memory perhaps of the early settlers, who we are led to believe marked out their territory 150 years before when the land was still unoccupied. It is possible to imagine the settlers’ homestead in The Searchers 150 years later, consumed and surrounded by numerous similar properties, a part of any American city suburb at the end of the twentieth century.

Of course there were many other reasons why the Western was such a powerful and resonant representation for children to mimic during the post-war years. The god fearing existence where homesteaders eaked out a living from the land, independent, solitary and noble in their physical and spiritual struggle, was one to which the immediate post-war generation of children could relate. It was an image seared into the memory because it was so evocative of a natural world (prior to the harnessing of electricity). Although this myth of the frontier and the early settler tied to the landscape helped to form part of the American dream itself, children growing up during the 1950s and early sixties were probably oblivious to it all. For me this was the childhood fantasy which was enhanced by cinema and (later) TV, which contained my childhood fantasies. It was the promise of a more beautiful physical existence, vast stretches of virgin territory, an escape from the restrictions of a society based on private property, which was restricted, out of bounds to small boys.

I grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s, the son of a Polish immigrant marooned in the suburban spaces of an English provincial town. My fantasies were perhaps understandably tuned into those American dreams since our suburbs felt claustrophobic and ugly. The first TV set in our household was only introduced in time for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, when I was 9. The flickering black and white cabinet was like having a new friend in the house. Its effects were dramatic as it dictated a collective albeit passive lifestyle for the whole family as we gathered around the ‘box’ for our favourite programmes. Throughout the 1960s, the entire Apollo moon rocket sequence was televised and became an essential component in our appreciation of a wider orbit. It was perhaps the first inkling of the new globalized culture which was to come.

Similarly for Stuart Piercy, an architect born twenty years later, his imagination was orientated towards the wonders of new technology as represented in science fiction films perhaps as a hangover from those televised Apollo space dramas which reflected the romance of technology with its potential for time manipulation. The inaugural commercial flight of Concorde in 1977 enabled the wealthy to arrive in New York before they left London. With the release of films such as The Empire Strikes Back (1981) and Back to the Future (1984) the Western myth was replaced by the time he was aware of film and TV narratives. More important for Stuart was the computer. The first home computer was introduced to his household when he was 9, in 1981. For a short time it had a galvanizing effect on male lifestyles in their household. However it was a more solitary form of viewing than the TV had been for me.

His father was an electrical engineer, and the first Sinclair ZX Spectrum was limited to conventional 2-d games; beyond its technical novelty, it did not dominate his life as computer games do today. In 1982 home computers were only a few years old. There was no such thing as a mouse or the ‘desktop’ with its little pictures of files where your information could be neatly stored. The hard disk was only available to well – endowed research scientists. Graphical user interfaces (GUIs) existed only as a promising experiment in an American research laboratory somewhere. It would be 1984 before Apple built a GUI into the Lisa and then into the Macintosh and created the mouse with icons to make computers user-friendly and available for everyone. Windows were even further away: Microsoft was just an obscure company in Seattle at that time. Yet there was definitely something in the air. The electronic landscape was beginning to stir.

It is worth describing the brief history of computer games in order to understand the amazing speed of development which has taken place over such a short period of time. The first computer game ever played on a monitor was called Space War. It was invented in 1962 by an MIT researcher called Steve Russell who developed the game on a large ‘mini’ computer called PDP-1. It was not designed for children, rather for scientists involved in computer development at that time. Small white dots dash around a flickering black screen. The aim is to avoid a white cross at the centre of the screen. The dots are controlled by a large ‘sink plunger’ joy stick. This is a game that is reminiscent of the first Disney animations. It is difficult to play, yet attractive to anyone interested in the early development of modern computer technology.

Ten years later the world’s first video game machine was installed in a bar in America’s Silicon Valley. It was a large machine with complicated controls and it appeared to be a somewhat quaint, almost anachronistic device. Nevertheless it suggested the great commercial potential of video games and convinced game developers worldwide to begin work on more compact and refined machines. The following year in 1973, the world’s second commercial video game, Pong was released by Atari. This was a ball and bat game which was easy to control, with the ball represented by a square dot moving around the screen, and the bat as a white line which could be varied in length depending on the desired game difficulty. The ball bounced between one end of the screen and the other making an irritating pinging sound everytime the ball came into contact with the bat. Pong was installed in pubs and bars worldwide and it did not seem out of place; its appeal was its simplicity, similar to age-old pub games such as cribbage and dominoes.

On the basis of its success, other ‘base line’ games emerged without much note beyond the computer community until Space Invaders was introduced in 1976. Described by its makers Taito as an inter galactic battle ground, in reality it comprised of abstract pin prick blocks of light moving in formation across the screen towards the player’s ‘dot’ or home planet. Its very name was reminiscent of space travel, and unambivalent conflict between good and evil appealed to the imagination; this and the novelty of its technology gave it instant appeal. By 1978 every coffee shop in

Japan had one. The Japanese economy was gearing up for unparalleled growth, whilst in the wake of the worldwide oil crisis, other nation-based economies were experiencing a significant period of recession. According to Masuyama, the game was so popular it created a scare over the shortage of 100 yen coins in Japan.11 Amongst the game’s major fans was a youthful Satoshi Tajiri, inventor of Pokemon.

Pokemon was one of the first worldwide hits which developed beyond the player’s own personal computer to create a defining digital children’s culture. Early on, the creator’s background in games culture brought him to the view that if players could trade monsters or bugs it would give the participants an altogether more stimulating experience. Nintendo introduced the Game Boy in 1989 and its communications cable gave Tajiri the idea to develop his bug game to be interactive. The game took six years to develop and was introduced to an unsuspecting world in 1996. The network dimension to the game enabled numerous players to communicate and play together via their computers. The natural extension of Pokemon’s astonishing success was game cards, which were traded in school playgrounds worldwide. Magazines, books and films followed on. A further catalyst to its rapid success was the evolving use of the Internet, particularly in Japan during this time. Pokemon’s communication system was certainly unlike any other game system which had come before. Its success mirrored that of the Internet itself.

Meanwhile in the UK, the developers of a new space game were obsessed by the need to keep players interested for long periods of time. Space seemed to be the easiest and most interesting scenario for those first generation games: ‘All you had to get right were twinkles against blackness and the environment was already persuasive.’12 It was an environment with no real architecture, therefore nothing in particular needed to be modelled. The very word ‘space’, came to mean everything and nothing beyond the imagination of the players. The ‘space’ was actually a void, to be filled in by those heads full of space travel myths and the desire to explore ‘the final frontier’____ 13

Space Invaders was all very well, however players became bored very quickly. Games culture had always applied the short attention span theory, that children can’t spend elongated periods of time playing a single game. Short and simple had been the philosophy for any successful children’s game up to that time with adult time frames dictating the length and depth of most games. Free play was potentially more open, however it only assumed a longevity when played outdoors. Indoors the space making activities of most children were usually curtailed by the adult need to clear things away at the end of each session.

To many children this may have appeared to be unfair, however it was usually a factor to do with the limitations of real space within the average family home or nursery. The virtual world was of course different since its space was not physical, rather it psychologized space through visual stimulation which became a real physical world for players negotiating their way through it. David Braben and Ian Bell, two university students, realized that the most exciting dimension of play was one where you became so engrossed in what you were doing that you could leave the game, go to school and come back home to pick it up where it had been left off the previous day. They wanted a game which would challenge the players and sustain their interest for days on end if possible. The new dimension they would bring to their game was time.

In 1982 they began to develop the software for what was to become the highly successful ‘Elite’. In addition to building extended time frames through ever more complex scenarios, they also wanted their space game to have three dimensions with space craft which could carry out interesting manoeuvres. They had been taken by the space craft docking sequence in Kubrick’s film 2001 and needed serious three-dimensional geography to provide a context within which players could negotiate the spaceship. They then applied ever – increasing levels of difficulty, enabling players to fly from solar system to solar system, fighting space pirates, and perhaps most interestingly, dealing in commodities ranging from vegetables to narcotics and then spending the profits on improvements to the player’s space ship. The game’s creator even set an almost impossibly difficult target which would make only the rarest player ‘Elite’. In order to qualify as an Elite player, you had to ‘kill’ 6400 enemies and in order to do this you had to spend countless hours in bedroom warfare. You could then send in a completed card to the makers to verify your commitment. Much to their astonishment, literally thousands of cards arrived at the makers’ offices.

The worldwide success of Elite was one of the first examples of the new generation of games which were compulsive to the point of obsession. Players would dissapear from social contact and inhabit the world of the screen in their bedroom, complete with its cartoon 3-d images and complicated layered narratives. For the new generation of players, this was much better than a once weekly movie. With John Wayne you had to fill in the space with your own inventive play from one week to the next. The new games culture could, apart from a few other non-virtual commitments like school and family holidays, play computer games all the time if you so desired, and many do.

The Le Diberder Brothers in their 1989 study ‘L’Universe des Jeux Video’ defined three game types: firstly, thought games which have their origins in text adventure books such as Dan Dare and Treasure Island.14 Secondly, there are action games such as reflex response games, the racing or fighting games where the player can compete with the computer or with one two or three other players. Finally, there is the category of computer games comprising simulation games played out within so called ‘on-line worlds’. A popular example of one of these on-line worlds is called the SIMS. The player has a family of characters, he or she can build a house for them and effectively control their lives. As eight-year-old Matthew explains ‘if you are getting bored with one of the people, you can get him run over in the street ’

Eleven-year-old Tim’s take on this is more representative of an academic adult perspective and one suspects his views are not entirely his own… ‘You get to mutate plants and animals into different species. You get to balance an ecosystem. You are part of something important’.15 Despite Matthew’s rather anarchic view of the family, the idea of the SIMS is non-violent creative play, analogous to role play in the Wendy House or the home corner with its child-sized furniture. When Joan Bakewell describes her childhood experience of washing the dolly next to her mother, the importance of this mimicry becomes clear:

‘I was given my own doll and encouraged to wash and dress her in parallel with my mother’s own routine for the new baby. I copied exactly everything she did – the reaching for the soap, the washing of the hair, the flannel binder, which in those days was wrapped tightly round the child’s navel as though it were a bandage healing a wound. All this I did to my doll, like a session of synchronized swimming, until my mother was driven mad…16

Of course the SIMS does not permit physical mimicry, however for older boys aged 8 + , it does allow a benign immersion in the life of the family, a psychologically valuable aspect of computer games, especially where family life is fragmented or difficult for children. It is also analogous to the most common architectural representation in its form as a set of interior room plans projected into three dimensions in isographic shape.

The complexities of a game such as ‘Civilisation’, which depicts history as a series of conflicts or contests over land and other resources, define rules and relationships which the players must respect, and in this sense there is a discipline which is more complex than a John Wayne film ever was, yet with the same ‘black and white’ morality. The landscape has a realism which is hardly ever monumental or beautiful yet it allows participants to move through it, developing mind maps of its features in a similar way one might explore a real landscape. However the ‘top-down’ maps encourage a disrespectful controlling perspective on the landscape. The screen represents the Middle East, its strategic location between Europe and Asia making it a highly volatile region, much as it remains today, and the landscape is a mixture of conventional maps and 3-d landscapes.

The modern equivalent of the backyard, fields and woodlands where previous generations played can be found in ‘capture the flag’ games such as

Castle Wolfenstein, Doom, Quake, Serious Sam or Unreal Tournament. These are early examples of the more sophisticated second and third generation games played by so many children these days such as ‘Halo’ and ‘James Bond’. Here the players are pitted against the enemy hiding in a landscape which comprises of more localized spaces such as streets, warehouses, rooms or corridors. Movement through these spaces is restricted to relatively plain environments and the physical features such as trees and shrubs are rendered in an unsophisticated abstract style. There is a sort of super realism or surrealism evident in these landscapes but, nevertheless, they are very architectural.

Exploration takes place through the gunsights or by the player seemingly hovering slightly above the friendly gunman (sic) as he moves through the landscape. There is a moment by moment immediacy about the struggles for spatial dominance. Single player games feature linear levels that are not meant to be explored, rather they must be cleared of hostile creatures, while multi player levels feature multiple overlapping paths with dangerous intersections. Exceptional players learn to read tactical possibilities from their knowledge of the spaces themselves. According to Jenkins and Squire, this draws on a concept from psychologist James Gibson that game designers construct spaces or objects for their games which offer players certain ‘affordances’ – spaces or objects embedded with potential for interaction and conflict.17

This notion of affordances is interestingly resonant with some early years developmental practice. In his study of children’s play, Harry Heft states that environmental features should be described in terms of the physical activities they encourage.18 He calls this concept ‘affordance’ in which, for example, a smooth flat surface affords or encourages walking and running, while a soft spongy surface affords lying down and relaxing. The affordance theory is one which relates to an integration between the body and the mind. It enables children to feel orientated, relating their self-image to a real space. Put in another way, there is a clarity about reality where children can touch and feel, orientating and learning through all of their senses. A pre-computer single reality. Today children deal with a dual reality, one which becomes distant as they grow up and seem to lose contact with the landscapes of previous earlier childhoods, moving as they grow older to a second altogether more disorientating reality, the realm of cyberspace.

The form of one particular cyberspace interaction has evolved out of the early 1970s role playing game, Dungeons and Dragons. For some reason, the term dungeon was adopted in the digital culture which was evolving at that time, to accommodate a number of individuals who wished to communicate together. Text messaging was the method of communicating, but the organization of the messages is within a conceptual representation of a physical space. So players may find themselves in a medieval church from which they can step out into a town square or a lakeside forest path. What was interesting about Multi-User Dungeons (or MUDs) was that prompted by the particular environment they stepped into, players could adopt and explore different identities, slipping into new and unexplored personae in response to the exchanges they had with other participants. The participants found this to be essentially far more creative and fluid than the average computer game.

According to Sherry Turkle, this was a new and exciting form of community, a virtual parlour game which encouraged the use of written text to create collaboratively written literature and would become the gateway to many other forms of joint creative activity: ‘… MUD players are MUD authors, the creators as well as consumers of media content. In this, participating in a MUD has much in common with scriptwriting, performance art, street theatre, improvisational theater, or even commedia


The lavish claims made about the potential for this form of participatory approach may be treated with caution. However many people claim to utilize MUDs as a scaffold for their own personal problems, in that it allows them to play and therefore escape from the reality of a stressful life. And here there may be a hint of a less male – orientated digital form. Certainly the form seems less child-orientated, but to do with play nevertheless, extending the limited possibility adults may have in ordinary life:

The psychoanalyst Erik Erikson called play a ‘toy situation’ that allows us to ‘reveal and commit’ ourselves ‘in its unreality’. While MUDs are not the only ‘places’ on the Internet in which to play with identity, they provide an unparalleled opportunity for such play. On a MUD one actually gets to build character and environment and then to live within the toy situation. A MUD can become a context for discovering who one is and wishes to be. In this way, the games are laboratories for the construction of identity.19

Updated: October 8, 2015 — 12:23 am