Where it all started, the ZX81 #altc

Today’s keynote from the 2016 ALTC conference was from the great Ian Livingstone – he of the Livingstone and Jackson fighting fantasy books, of Games Workshop, Eidos, and many other gaming initiatives.

One aspect of Ian’s keynote that was picked up on by a number of us on Twitter was how we started with the gaming, through Ian’s books, the game consoles, early computers, etc. Ian highlighted that, at the time (late 1970’s) publishers like Penguin didn’t understand what these fighting fantasy and dungeons and dragons ‘things’ were, but put their faith in the editors and staff who did understand them, and the people who’d end up buying them. This the transformed into the emerging world of smaller, more powerful computers, and the arrival of ‘home’ computers.

It got me thinking …

So. I phoned by Dad and asked him what made him buy me the ZX81? 

Note – we’re talking 1982 here. Before mainstream home computers and PC. Pre Windows. Pre home printing. Pre mouse controlled cursors. Hell, this was before BBC1 had it’s first ever breakfast show (before this there, well, just was noting broadcast to watch). It wasn’t until 1986 that BBC had a full day of broadcast, before this it usually switched off broadcasting during the day! Before we had this we had a games console, one you slotted a cartridge into and played pong, or other such simple game – I think it was a Binatone, remember these?

So, back to my dad. I phoned and asked him why did he buy me a ZX81 for my birthday? We can’t remember the timeline of events but we know this:

  • I was in a computer club at school, using a BBC Model B computer, playing the fighting fantasy type games Ian spoke about at ALTC today. These were text-based, read the story then press ‘1’ to turn left or ‘2’ to turn around and face the witch. Only half an hour a week but I loved it. That, and there was only myself and my best friend Philip.
  • My neighbours had a BBC Model B too, and we used to play games (what I can’t remember) on it.
  • Tomorrow’s World was on TV and was showcasing the new, improved computers and what they can do (graphics, sound, moving images, etc.) almost weekly.
  • I didn’t like sport but loved books.
  • This was a time before computer games and games design was a ‘thing’. Computer programmers worked on computers that were the size of houses, or bigger. These programmers were often mathematicians or physicists, certainly not kids at home with no knowledge of logic or binary this and that.
  • I used to buy magazines that reviewed games and the like, that had printed code as a pull-out in the middle pages … I’d run home, type it in, and type ‘RUN’ and hope I hadn’t made any mistakes. An hour of typing code usually resulted in two hours of checking each and every line, twice, to find the one anomaly. Fix that and then type ‘RUN’ again … ! Yes, it worked!!
  • I learned to code. I made my own games – I remember a worm race … six or eight worms race from one side of the screen to the other with random generator controlling how fast each went. Whichever got to the other side of the screen won, and I got the whole family to watch and choose a worm! Family time, eh?
  • From the ZX81 my parents bought my the ZX Spectrum, rubber keys and all. Colour screen, the ability to show graphics, process faster, play games, load games from tape, etc. Bliss.

So, here we are in 2016. the ZX Spectrum is being reborn in mobile, hand-held form in the guise of the the Spectrum Vega Plus. BBC have released the BBC Micro Bit, Raspberry Pi is powering ‘smart’ mirrors ( I so want to do this!!) and smartphones and tablets are literally everywhere!

Have I learned anything from this? Yes. I learned that my parents took a real punt on the ZX81. It may not have been expensive but it was costly enough and unknown enough to make them think twice before buying it. In 2016 we talk about screen time for kids (I know I do) but then there wasn’t this issue – kids TV was limited to something like an hour a day, top, there were only three channels in the UK as well, TVs were huge, heavy and expensive.

What I want is to do the same for my two boys as my parents did for me – give them the opportunity to try it out, see if they like it. See if they want to develop themselves as a coder (I already know they like games). They should both be able to experience the BBC Micro Bit at school, but that’s not until Year 7 (mine are in Years 2 and 3 – they’ll possibly be missing out if they wait a further 4 years?) so I might get a Raspberry Pi and get started at home (I’m sure I can rustle up an old monitor, keyboard, and mouse from somewhere). There seems to be plenty of places to go and things to do to start them off like this and this and this. I think they’ll enjoy it. Maybe.

So, thank you mum and dad. You took a real gamble on the ZX81, and me, and one I hope you can see, all these years later, paid off!

Image source: Barney Livingston (CC BY-SA 2.0)