This is an informal, and game-centric, biography.
I’m from a small farming village in the Vale of Evesham in Worcestershire, England. Childhood life was rural, working on a smallholding, orchard and the associated farmshop, and mainly selling plums, apples, homemade jams, pickled onions and scrumpy cider.
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, in the mid-1970s, game consoles started to appear in my life.
My first was this brightly-coloured device from Binatone:
In that time, it was great; cutting-edge and something that would encourage schoolmates to visit. Though Binatone’s definition of ‘programmable’ was misleading, being solely toggle switches to control the bat size and ball speed.
Also, everything on the screen was a white rectangle on a black background. There were no colours and no curves. But it was still my first gaming epiphany.
In the 1980s more of my farm-earned cash went on gadgets. These were often bought from Tandy or WHSmith in the centre of Birmingham, or from a new tiny shop in the nearby town called Evesham Micros. They grew, moved several times, changed name and for a while became a substantial business.
Sidetrack: amongst handheld games, a mention must go to Astro Wars. During one particular winter of much bad weather I played this one frequently:
But away from handheld games my life revolved for a while around TV-based home computer 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 several hours of laboriously typing in program listings from a magazine. (Which, even if successfully saved, didn’t work much of the time anyway.)
I did design and write one game. This was a crude and, to be frank, rubbish version of Lunar Lander. It 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 with complaints; this marked the beginning and end of my earlier career as a game designer.
Next 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 the not-legal trading copies of ZX Spectrum games, mine was primarily used for entertainment. I devoured most of the titles by 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). And the Acorn Electron, a sawn-off version of the expensive BBC Micro with no Mode 7. 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 and much 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 WWW (World Wide Web) – started to emerge. In 1992 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 was an 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 ‘good’ and those inclusions and exclusions in a presentation.
I’ll probably never do anything as controversial again. 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.
This in turn led to being hired by Lorcan Dempsey (now at OCLC) as the Information Officer of UKOLN in 1995. 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 research projects at the ILRT, then a year as the manager of a web-based health and medical subject gateway called OMNI.
Significantly, during that time, I bought a Nintendo N64 console on a whim and spent 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 and remember my landlady avoiding all social contact with me during the especially bad “Water Temple fortnight”. It was at one particular point, Gerudo’s Fortress…
…that I realised how compelling and whole-world-within-a-game complete this felt, and that games were emerging as a major form of entertainment I very happily wanted to be a part of. Perhaps that was 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 gradually moved away from 9-to-5 academia and its obsessions with meetings, and meetings about meetings. That time also led to more spending on games consoles, and starting to write a little about games in education.
The Neo Geo Pocket Color was a particulary good handheld console with, unfortunately, a short life. And speaking of short life spans, the Sega Dreamcast was a console I’ll remember fondly as (to date) my favorite of all I have owned or used. This was largely due to the considerable array of unconventional games. It would also be the first console I’d spontaneously buy without prior research, after seeing a demonstration of Soul Calibur and running to the bank to draw out enough money for purchase.
And there was also Shenmue, but that game deserves a full article or paper or page to itself. Another time.
Sidetrack: through Phantasy Star Online, the Dreamcast rewarded me with another epiphany. This one concerned the potential for using digital games in online 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. And 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 was somewhat behind the time and the Dreamcast was (officially) short-lived. But, I still played it for years after its official demise, and the last time I check in there was still a significant development community.
And that epiphany nudged me to more extensively read around, then write about, the potential and actual uses of digital games in education, learning and teaching. This became a strand of research which gradually became my line of work, and a variety of projects and reports were produced for companies in the private and public sectors. But with Phantasy Star Online, I can draw a direct line from the many nights exploring that world and trying to figure out why it was designed as it was, to experimenting with other virtual worlds, being introduced to Second Life by Aleks Krotoski, and eventually being funded by the Eduserv Foundation to create and run Virtual World Watch for several years.
Other console purchases included the original Xbox, on which I played Halo for many, many hours. Or rather, didn’t so much play Halo as experimented, 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 real-world 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 most boring method of play within this genre.
Another console was the Nintendo GameCube, a slight disappointment in comparison to the Dreamcast and Xbox. But, the GameCube hosted Animal Crossing, a franchise I’ve returned to nearly 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. One of my great regrets is not keeping any kind of diary, as this could have made for an interesting article or paper.
After this I owned a Nintendo Wii, then the Nintendo 3DS from its launch. This handheld console was 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.
The 3DS was the last console I owned, apart from a period where I bought a second-hand Sega Dreamcast to play games from the turn of the century through one summer, and selling it the following autumn.
Roughly 2011 through to 2015 was spent undertaking works for various clients in the academic and private sectors, but also becoming disillusioned with the cuture around games and gamers. In addition, quite a few learning games of this time felt contrived and disappointing in the implementation. There were exceptions, and some great learning games during the first half of that decade, but I became ambivalent and then increasingly bored at seeing the same ineffective and derivative mechanisms and tropes in a large number of (often expensive) educational games.
In 2015, I stopped undertaking games in learning projects for clients. Instead, I worked on several projects concerning environmental issues and food distribution chains. These gave me deeper perspectives in these areas, and led to a greater appreciation of climate, environmental and food issues, as well as a healthier lifestyle.
Having said that, I keep up with some of the issues and developments around games in learning, by reviewing abstracts and papers and carrying out some personal research. In 2017, I undertook a small personal research project comparing and contrasting a selection of meta-analysis reports. I’m repeating this, scaled up to be a more substantive work, as part of my current research program.
But I didn’t play many actual games in that time. For the first time this century I decided to not purchase the latest Animal Crossing game. While many have found it a useful occasional diversion from the pandemic, I was concerned about how much time I may end up dedicating to it.
Instead, as of May 2020 and exactly 19 years since becoming a self-employed independent researcher, I’m back in the field of games in learning projects and work for clients. The year ahead is primarily concerned with catching up with background reading, re-establishing myself, and undertaking some smaller works. I’ve returned to the field with a fresh feeling and some new perspectives, especially on games for teaching issues around climate change and the environment.
As for playing games themselves? While I’ve given the aforementioned Animal Crossing a miss, the retro world of text adventures has appealed again and I find myself occasionally in a cognitive battle against the designers of these cerebral games. 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.
Who knows; just maybe one year I’ll finally finish writing one myself, several decades after that first and not-great experience of game design and publishing.