Wednesday, February 03, 2021

My Life In ... Video Games

The tenth in an occasional series of alternative Curriculum Vitae because no-one on their death bed says "I wish I'd spent more time in the office".

Just as music can bring back memories so certain video games are associated with specific events and places. In general I was a moderate to rubbish player. I never was a gamer and certainly not a MMORPG player like my nephews.

Note: the dates link to the relevant Wikipedia article.

Pong (1972). I first encountered this primordial game on one of the archaeological summer schools I attended. From the release date it must have been the two weeks I spent excavating at Portchester Castle in the summer of 1973 directed by Sir Barry Cunliff. We volunteers stayed in a dormitory of the kind that would be familiar to anyone who has been on a school field trip. It was very basic accommodation but it did boast this primitive game console. 

I remember at one point I was working on a medieval cess pit that was full of discarded ancient mussel shells one of which sliced my finger open. I went to Barry's wife who was in charge of the first aid kit holding my finger up in the air to stem the flow of blood. She was so petite that I had to kneel down for her to be able to reach my finger.

Moon Lander (1973). Friends I met in 1975 were doing research in the nuclear physics lab where they had an early DEC PDP-11 minicomputer. On that computer they had a moon landing game, one of the first vector graphics games. When you successfully landed the lunar module a little astronaut would pop out and plant a flag on the moon's surface. Apparently it was a major sales tool in the salesman’s armoury. 

Tom who managed the computing facility smoked a pipe and when the safety equipment was serviced he would stand under the detectors and have a good puff to make sure they were not set too sensitive!

Space Invaders (1978). I played this in Oxford where I had my first job after college as a computer programmer with Oxfordshire County Council. It was the first game where I was able to get my name up in lights on the leaderboard. My mate Pete Miller lived in the big city and on one visit inducted me into the mysteries of the Portuguese defence. It turns out that when the aliens are nose to nose with your gun they can’t actually shoot you because they are too close. The technique is to pick off the end columns until the invaders are right down close, pick off the whole of the front row one by one, remove the end column, the aliens drop down one rank, rinse and repeat in the opposite direction until they are all destroyed.

Asteroids (1979). Working for Coopers & Lybrand (MCS) in their Shelley House offices in Noble Street we also had a PDP-11. This one had Asteroids installed. All keyboard-driven and apparently a classic but we didn’t spend too long playing it because we were hard at work on a stock control, sales order and ledger package.

Missile Command (1980). There were a group of us working on this project and we would regularly go to the pub after work. In those days many city pubs would close early; Bradies, the nearest pub, would close at 7 o’clock. Some people would go home and others would go on to the next pub, The Clanger. That one closed at 9 o’clock and again some people would peel off and some would go on to a third pub that stayed open till 1030. It was in Bradies where I encountered Missile Command. This one had a trackball to control the direction of your fire power. I wasn’t very good at it. I was lucky if I got to 50,000. But then my brother's friend Dave showed me the technique of laying down a barrage of anti-missiles in a continuous screen. Suddenly I was able to get up to 300,000. If there hadn’t been any good players in recently I might just have got my name up in lights again.

Image credit: By Source, Fair use,

Crystal Rooms (1980).  One evening, during a lull in my social life, I went into the West End to the crystal room amusement arcade. There I mostly played Space Invader Mark II until my knuckles bled I was gripping the control knob so hard. There was also a Missile Command console which I played occasionally for a change. 

At the same time there was a bloke playing Missile Command who was clearly very skilled. I watched in amazement as he got up to around 850,000 and then stopped. When I asked him why he had stopped, he replied that he had so many spare cities in the bank that if he killed any more missiles he would have gone round the clock and would have been unable to put his initials up. I was seriously impressed that not only could he play that well but was also able to keep mental track of how many cities he had spare and do the calculation to know when to stop. Have you ever seen the film The Last Starfighter? If it were true the aliens would be coming for this guy very soon.

Defender (1981). Another pub-based video game, this time in pub number two, The Clanger. By now the games were getting distinctly more sophisticated with the thumbnail overview and the main screen. I was just hopeless at this, my reflexes were to head-butt the aliens rather than shoot and fly around. I could not get the hang of it for the life of me.

Leisure Suit Larry (1987). By now I was working for Inforem, a small consultancy, and departmental minis had been replaced by these upstart PCs. Leisure Suit Larry was doing the rounds in the office. A harmless piece of “adult“ gameplay that was in fact very tame. Somebody brought in a virus-infected version of the game which then spread around the office and a number of PCs had to be cleansed.

Tomb Raider (2001). I never even played this game. I bought a DVD of the movie thinking it was a bit expensive but I wanted to watch the film. It was only after I got it home that I realised it also included the game. Since I had no console to play it on that was a bit of a waste of money!

PS3 (2007). Mary bought me a PlayStation 3 for Christmas. Not for playing games but for playing Blu-ray movies. But since it was a gaming console I thought I ought to have a go. I bought a copy of Avatar (2009) and was completely hopeless. I just couldn’t work the large number of buttons and spun randomly in circles blasting at anything and everything missing most of them until I run out of credit.

Little Big Planet (2008). On the advice of my gamer nephews I tried the adventures of SackBoy as a gentler game not requiring rapid reflexes. I soon got bored and decided that a gamer's life is not the life for me.

Game over!

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