In the dark and foreboding days before quality personal computers, there was the TI-99/4A. By the time my mother bought me one in 1984, it was already an obsolete piece of equipment that Texas Instruments had stopped producing. But I had seen WarGames, and I suspected old computers could still be cool. And I had no friends to tell me that my TI wasn’t cool, so I was free to become a bigger dork than I already was.
I would spend hours copying code out of computer magazines, painstakingly building tiny little graphics one bit at a time in TI Extended BASIC. I would print out my code on pages and pages of continuous feed paper with my huge dot matrix printer. There was no reason to print it out, but I had nothing else to print out, so I printed it out.
I once programmed my very own video game. It was loosely based on a James Bond movie I’d seen on TV. Imagine a white television screen, no colors, no sound. There was a black line across the bottom. On the left side of this line stood a little blocky man. This was you, the player. Your only movement options were run left, run right, or duck. On the right side of the line stood an identical blocky man, except he was facing you, and he was wearing a hat. Here’s where the action ‘heats up’: Apropos of nothing, this man would throw his hat at you – you had to react quickly. If you didn’t duck in time, his hat would remove your head, and your headless body would lie down on the line. Game over. However, if you successfully ducked and avoided this lethal headgear, you would be rewarded—with nothing, because I didn’t program anything for that. Instead, the man would throw another hat at you. He would continue throwing hats at regular intervals until you were inevitably killed. If you were truly brave and courageous, you could attempt to run across the screen to attack the hat-throwing man. Except there was no attack move, and when your player overlapped with the hat man, the program would crash. It was not a very good game.
I had a few game cartridges—most of them knockoffs of popular Atari games: Parsec instead of Defender, Munchman instead of Pacman, TI Invaders instead of Space Invaders. They were pretty cool, but what really set off my geek radar were the text-based adventures. Text adventures (which came on audio cassettes) were interactive stories – choose-your-own-adventures of only text and a patiently blinking cursor. For readers who have never experienced text-based game play, please allow me to present a simulation:
YOU ARE LOCKED IN A ROOM.
THERE IS A DOOR.
> Open door.
CAN’T DO THAT. THE DOOR IS LOCKED.
> Unlock door.
CAN’T DO THAT.
> Use key.
YOU DO NOT HAVE A KEY.
> Kick door.
CAN’T DO THAT.
> Punch door.
CAN’T DO THAT.
> Ram door.
CAN’T DO THAT.
> Fuck door.
CAN’T DO THAT. YOU DO NOT HAVE A KEY.
It could go on like this for hours, or days. I spent an unhealthy amount of time alone in my bedroom with that computer, and now that I’m an adult, I’m still basically doing the same thing. Except now, instead of a black & white Japanese TV set, I have a flat screen monitor. Instead of a wobbly little tray table, I have a nice big, only sort-of-wobbly Ikea table. And where I once suffered through the molasses-slow performance of the little TI, I now have a PC running Windows, which practically almost never crashes. Much.
I wonder why it is that we feel nostalgic when it comes to something like old technology? I don’t think it’s the technology itself, but the time in our lives that we spent with the technology that brings on the fuzzy feelings. It’s not a question of whether the technology was better or worse than it is now, it’s that we got it—we held some level of mastery over it. No matter how meaningless our knowledge becomes a year or a decade later, it was an accomplishment for us at the time.
It’s why computer veterans speak with strange overtones of pride about using punch cards, or 5” floppies. How they had all the DOS commands memorized, or how charmingly crude Atari 2600 games were. It’s why old school mechanics love to talk about carburetors, and graphic designers wax nostalgic about cutting and pasting with Xacto knives and glue. And it’s why aging geeks like to talk about time spent staring at pages of code, so a little blocky man could get decapitated, over and over again.
* TI-99/4A is featured in my collection Everything You Didn’t Ask For.
* Listen to the audio essay version of this story
* Read more short fiction.