Friday, July 25, 2008

Shall we play a game?

In 1983, aged fourteen, I'd owned a computer for less than a year but was already completely smitten with using it to dial into whatever free online systems I could find. A neighbor's father had a couple of Bulletin Board numbers and that was where it started - the first system my friend David and I connected to was called "PBC", or Play by Computer. This was a nascent game BBS system put together by a computer enthusiast in the DC area named Porter Venn. PBC never took off, but watching those white-on-black text characters crawl across the monitor - at 300 baud speed they appeared in about the time it took to read them - was a unique sort of thrill, especially since one kind of information you could get on a bulletin board, was phone numbers of other bulletin boards. Our online life had begun.

The 1983 film Wargames - celebrating its 25th anniversary this year - is the subject of a well-done retrospective in Wired, and was a perfect fit for David and me as we watched it with our big buckets of popcorn back then. But then, wouldn't anyone identify with the idea of seeking out interesting connections - finding out little known or exclusive information, maybe a new or unreleased game? Not to mention logging in remotely to the school computer to change a grade or two. One of the film's most accurate observations: security was lax then as now... the protagonist (also named David) simply noted the password written down for reference, as he sat near a secretary's desk waiting to be disciplined.

The retrospective is worth a read if you're interested in one of the first, and perhaps still the best, cinematic interpretations of the early online experience (with, of course, a healthy dose of Cold War paranoia and speculation on artificial intelligence. If a computer's whole world is a wargame, don't be surprised if it doesn't know the difference between a game and reality...)

No comments: