Game-centric biography

I’m from a small farming village in the Vale of Evesham in Worcestershire.

My upbringing was rural, working on a smallholding and the associated farmshop and predominantly selling plums, apples, homemade jams, pickled onions and scrumpy cider to passing motorists. Winter activities, especially in a small Worcestershire village before the Internet, consisted of a few television channels, a three mile walk to the nearest public library and the occasional bus. It is not surprising that digital gadgets such as calculators and watches were a welcome distraction. And, as the the 1970s marched on, game consoles started to appear in my life.

My first was this brightly-coloured model from Binatone:

Binatone Superstar

For the time, it was great; cutting edge and something that would encourage schoolmates to visit. Though Binatone’s definition of ‘programmable’ was somewhat inflated, being solely toggle switches to control the bat size and ball speed.

Also, everything was a rectangle.

We entered the 1980s, and more of my farm-earned cash went on gadgets, usually bought from Tandy or WHSmith in the centre of Birmingham, or from a new tiny shop in the nearby town called Evesham Micros. Evesham Micros grew, moved several times, changed name and became, for a while, a substantial business.

Sidetrack: Amongst gaming gadgets, a mention must go to Astro Wars as during several winters of my childhood I played this particular handheld digital game frequently:

However, with computers my life revolved around TV-based systems. In 1981 I saved up for a Sinclair ZX81, which was initially exciting but rapidly frustrating in its limitations. Amongst many issues was the 16Kb ram pack which, unless sellotaped firmly, would fall off and waste the previous several hours I had spent laboriously typing in program listings from a magazine.

I did manage to design and write one game, a basic and, to be frank, rubbish version of Lunar Lander. This was compiled into error-prone assembler and marketed through Evesham Micros on C30 cassettes. It sold around 5 or 6 copies, 2 of which were returned; this marked the beginning of a very occasional and low-key career as a video game designer and programmer.

Next there was the Dundee-made Sinclair ZX Spectrum. The 48Kb one as that’s where the cool games were. Christmas Day morning was, for many in my year, either a delight – or a disappointment if parents had bought the 16Kb ‘Speccy’. As well as self-teaching myself playground economics through trading copies of ZX Spectrum games, mine was primarily used for entertainment. I devoured most of the output of Ultimate Play the Game, finishing Atic Atac on release day which earned me a letter of acknowledgement (sadly long lost) from one of the Stamper brothers. Sidetrack: I visited Ashby de la Zouch in 2014 on a kind of pilgrimage to see the place where Ultimate was founded, but was disappointed to find no recognition or plate.

Other home computers bought in the 1980s included the Amstrad CPC 6128, a semi-serious machine for programming with some nice games (and its own monitor so I could finally avoid using the family TV and have some privacy). Also, the Acorn Electron, a sawn-off version of the expensive BBC Micro with no Mode 7, for us working class kids who couldn’t stump up £400. Well, everyone is allowed one regrettable computer purchase and, despite having a lot of fun playing Chuckie Egg, the Electron was mine.

At school I was pretty much the nerd-geek of our year. I took English and Math(s) O-Levels a year early, and achieved grade A in both. This left me with a lot of spare school time during my final year in comprehensive school and much it was spent playing games on one of the BBC Micros (thank you Mrs Chapman for turning a blind eye to access regulations and giving me the key to the otherwise secured computer cupboard).

In 1988 I left rural farming life and went to university, encountering email and the Internet for the first time. Interest in gaming consoles was lost for several years, especially as the web – sorry, the World Wide Web – started to emerge. In 1992, going nowhere as a researcher on a PhD I was ill-suited for, I wrote the first set of web pages for the Information Studies department at Sheffield University. They were basic. Really basic. But they were departmental web pages, and one of the first of their kind in UK academia. Most people in the department thought this web thing would be a utter waste of time, though a few were interested.

…one of whom was Nigel Ford. One thing led to another and we eventually ran a course for the library school students of the time, “Cataloging in the Electronic age”. When I say ‘ran’, what we did was tell the students to get into groups, pick a subject, find websites on that subject, build a simple web index (basically a subject gateway) and only include the ‘good’ websites, justifying those inclusions and exclusions in a presentation.

I’ll probably never do anything as controversial again, and the sheer hostility from a few staff in the department was a blunt introduction to the academic obstruction of emerging technologies I’d encounter repeatedly over the years. But more importantly the students loved it and were good at it, it gave them a year or two of web experience advantage in the job market, many became employed by, or managed, digital library projects and services, and it resulted in a publication for Nigel and myself.

…which in turn led to being hired by Lorcan Dempsey (now at OCLC) as the Information Officer of UKOLN in 1995. There, I worked on several emerging web projects, most notably being the (web) editor of the first ten issues or two years of Ariadne. This was followed by a stint at the ILRT, then a year as the manager of a web-based health and medical subject gateway called OMNI.

Significantly, during my stay in Nottingham at that job, I bought a Nintendo N64 console on a whim, spending much of the winter and spring in what started my personal second era of video gaming. In addition to GoldenEye, Mario 64 and Banjo Kazooie, one game in particular stood out – Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I spent two months playing Zelda for a few hours a day (remembering my landlady avoiding all social contact with me during the especially bad “Water Temple fortnight”). And it was at one particular point, Gerudo’s Fortress…

…that I realised how grand a piece of whole-world culture this particular game felt, and that games were emerging as a major form of entertainment I very happily wanted to be a part of. Perhaps, my first gaming epiphany as an adult.

The next few years saw a move to Scotland, first Glasgow and then westwards to increasingly rural communities as I moved away from academia and its obsessions with meetings, and meetings about meetings. It also saw more spending on console purchases, and starting to write a little about games in education. The Neo Geo Pocket Color was a nice handheld console that unfortunately was not viable for very long. And speaking of short life spans, the Sega Dreamcast was a console I’ll remember fondly as (to date) my favorite of all of them owned due to the considerable array of unconventional games. It would also be the first console I’d buy on the day of release, after seeing a demonstration of Soul Calibur and running to the bank to draw out enough money to buy both console and game.

And there was also Shenmue, but that game deserves a full post to itself. Another time.

Of note is that, through Phantasy Star Online, the Dreamcast rewarded me with another epiphany, this time on the potential for using digital games in education. Here was a console game which was also a full-on MMORPG, expansive and engaging, encouraging the player to explore, but was also playable over dial-up with seemingly no lag. PSO also offered a multitude of ways to communicate with other people. Real people. Without delay, so you could have conversations. There was … something … of interest here. I wasn’t sure exactly what, but there was something.

Like other games on the Dreamcast, PSO was ahead of its time. Unfortunately the marketing of the console, especially against the juggernaut of the Sony Playstation 2, was somewhat behind the time and the Dreamcast was (officially) short-lived. But, I still played it for years after its official demise, and there is still a significant development community.

And that epiphany nudged me to start reading around, then writing about, the potential and actual uses of digital games in education, learning and teaching, a strand of research which gradually became my line of work.

Other consoles bought so far this century include the original Xbox, on which I played Halo for many, many hours. Or rather, didn’t so much play Halo as experimented with it, using it as a sandbox to see what it could do and how the game dealt with certain situations. This turned into an interesting and extended meditation on the game as simulation, though this didn’t go down well with friends who played it. While they were running around killing each other in multiplayer games, I would be testing the realism of the physics by attempting to fly a banshee down a cave, or trying to nudge vehicles off cliff edges to see how they would tumble and fall. These seemed more interesting than just ‘shoot everyone and complete the game as quickly as possible’, which always struck me as the blandest and most boring method of play in this genre.

Another console was the Nintendo GameCube, a slight disappointment compared to the Dreamcast and Xbox. But, the GameCube hosted Animal Crossing, a game I’ve returned to every time a new version is released. As Animal Crossing works in real time, I played it very nearly every day for a calendar year to see all of the events that the game contained as the seasons changed.

More recently, I’ve owned a Nintendo Wii, then the Nintendo 3DS on launch in 2011. This handheld console is a particularly fascinating and under-utilised box of tricks, with its well-known 3D graphics and not so well-known augmented reality functionality. Perhaps inevitably, I used it for a multi-year play of Animal Crossing (New Leaf). Here’s a few of my screenshots from this subversively positive of games.

Also recently, I’ve restarted playing text-based adventures. This may seem a little odd; in this time of graphically highly-polished games, I find myself reading text-based location descriptions and typing commands such as “North”, “Inventory”, “Eat cheese” and “Shoot arrow at Grue”. But, like reading a good book, the text is and has been a primer for the imagination and images in the mind, and they’re simple, quick to download and play, and above all, fun.

As of the time of typing, summer of 2017, I’ve been experimenting with designing fragments of text adventures, and specific mechanics. Now I’m at the point of starting to design, write and test a more substantive game, though it’s going to take a while. It feels good, however, to be both a player and a game designer at the same time, in an abstractly similar way to being an academic researcher who both reads the academic texts of others, and contributes to the sum of human knowledge by writing their own.