Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Mimsy Were the Technocrats: As long as we keep talking about it, it’s technology.

Creative Computing and BASIC Computer Games in public domain

Jerry Stratton, August 24, 2022

Best of Creative Computing Volume 2 back cover

The creative back cover to the second Best of Creative Computing volume.

Among the most influential early home computer works were David Ahl’s BASIC Computer Games and More BASIC Computer Games. So many of the early video games on home computers seem directly inspired by text-based games that appeared in these works. From Star Trek to RobotWar and Lunar Lander to Slalom, the programs in these books would dominate the world of home computer BASIC for years after off-the-shelf home computers were introduced.

We were starved for BASIC programs in those days. Because Ahl’s books were already available they escaped the server rooms across the country into the wild. They were quickly published professionally, and besides the “generic” versions of Ahl’s books there were also special versions targeted to the home computers of the era, such as BASIC Computer Games TRS-80 Edition.

Ahl was also editor of Creative Computing the magazine. It was initially aimed at educational markets. Because it predated the home computer market, it was already available on the newsstand and in back issues, and occasionally even in libraries, for anyone who needed more information about the world of computers or who wanted BASIC computer programs to type in. It was a rare source of information about computers and computer programming once home computers became generally available.

Many of these works have generally been available in the shadow market of works that no one’s defending. But David Ahl has decided to explicitly return them to the public domain. This is awesome.

You can find most of them on the Internet Archive; sites such as Ira Goldklang’s TRS-80 Revived also have them for download now that it’s explicitly legal to do so.

I smell a Wumpus

Hunt the Wumpus is one of the very earliest computer games and was quickly adapted to home computers once they became available.

The interesting publications to me are the “best of” collections. These are what the editors thought were worth saving from the magazines. The first volume of The Best of Byte1 has reviews of the Z80, and the Cromemco TV Dazzler, for example. There are also articles on the basics of computers, how logic circuits work and how serial interfaces work.

But there were also important lessons. In his introduction to a biorhythm chart generator, Byte editor Carl T. Helmers, Jr., wrote

One danger of computer programming is the assumption that a logically correct program which executes without bombing out will necessarily produce meaningful results. — Carl T. Helmers, Jr. (Biorhythm for Computers)

Biorhythm generators were very popular in the day, probably because they were both simple and an interesting challenge, and probably also because they were a model that couldn’t really be falsified. This was one of the few programs reproduced in The Best of Byte, Volume 1. Trusting untrustworthy theories and data after they’ve been transformed into graphs is a problem that plagues us to this day.

Reality’s an untamed beast
That’s difficult to master,
But models are quite docile
And give you answers faster.

So build yourself a model
To glorify your name.
Then get yourself a task force
And learn to play the game. — J.C.L. Guest (Decison-Making)

Vicious Vic by Jay R. Hoggins

Vicious Vic, for the TRS-80 Color Computer, is clearly inspired by Chase in More BASIC Computer Games. It is more commonly known as RobotWar.

Byte was very different from Creative Computing. It was written for people who wanted their own computer and would build one if none were available. Creative Computing’s educational focus meant it was marketed mainly for people who had access to someone else’s computer. This meant it had more programs in it than hardware projects.

It also meant it was more focused on the academic paranoias of the day, such as the coming ice age. Could computers, asked an article in The Best of Creative Computing, Volume 1, and especially computer simulations, help us solve the “global cooling trends”?

Their graphs look a lot like biorhythms, with about the same science behind them. The problem may have literally turned on its head half a century later, but the solution of organizations like the 1970s Club of Rome remains the same: stop all sources of progress.

It was, as Simon S. Kuznets harshly noted, “a simplistic kind of conclusion—you have problems, and you solve them by stopping all sources of change.”

There are weird bits of pop-culture history hidden in the pages of the volume 1 best of, too. A gaming company called Flying Buffalo is profiled. This pre-D&D Flying Buffalo was focused on play-by-mail games. One article, by an eighth-grade student about their experience at Xerox PARC, focused on using Smalltalk in 1973. But they included pictures of the system they used, a system that looks almost but not entirely unlike the initial Macintosh interface, to paragraph Douglas Adams.

Even more fascinating to me: an article on a bunch of CalTech students who won 20% of the prizes in a McDonalds contest. “Enter as many times as you like”, so they did. It is, of course one of the many strange and wonderful CalTech stories used nearly verbatim in the surprisingly non-fictional Real Genius.

The introduction to The Best of Creative Computing, Volume 2 is perhaps the most fascinating part of this second Creative Computing collection. It was written in January of 1977. Ahl clearly had no idea that three major non-kit home computers would be released by the end of the year. But he and the other Creative Computing contributors absolutely knew that home computers were coming. They saw how computer chips were getting cheaper, smaller, and less power-hungry. It was obvious to them that such chips would eventually spread not just to home computers but to non-computer appliances as well.

Students Stuff the Contest Box

The basis of a CalTech legend that made its way into Real Genius.

In a few years, everywhere you turn, a computer will be there to assist, to inform, or simply to play with.

And despite their not knowing when home computers would arrive, they knew very well what a world where “everywhere you turn, a computer will be there to assist, to inform, or simply to play with” meant for privacy.

One threat to privacy comes from the willingness of most people to provide information about themselves voluntarily.

On the gaming front, there’s a version of the famous Hunt the Wumpus game in this second collection. This was an extraordinarily influential game: almost an adventure, turn-based, a couple of monsters, one or two traps, even a puzzle of sorts to solve. I made a version of Hunt the Wumpus for the TRS-80 Color Computer and among old-school games this is a fun one.

The BASIC game collections are fun reminders of how far we’ve come in the world of gaming—and some of these games remain fun in their primitive state. But these three magazine collections provide an extraordinary glimpse into a culture that was about to find all their dreams come true, far sooner than they expected. They’re a reminder that the problems plaguing us today are not new—and in most cases, they’re less problems in search of a solution than solutions in search of a problem.

  1. Which is probably not included under the release, since it was only edited by Ahl; he was not the publisher of Byte. It’s still freely available on the Internet Archive, however.

  1. <- Imminent contact