Thursday, May 2, 2019

My Gaming History

I recently joined Twitch, a company that is all about gaming and community—so it only seems appropriate to post something about my history with games. While I've never worked on a commercial game, I love games—but mostly retro games.

Board Games

Growing up there were no game consoles, arcade games, or home computers; but there were board games, and boy did I play a lot of them with my family and friends. First there were the games we played as very young children, like LIFE and Sorry and Trouble. As we grew older, there were the old family favorites: Monopoly and Yahtzee and Scrabble. There were the Parker Brothers classics like Clue and Masterpiece and Risk. There was Rack-O and Stratego.

In Risk you are out to take over the world. My brother Lee and I played Risk frequently, often roping in a relucant family member to be a third player. I'm afraid we tended to prey on the third player until we were both powerful enough to take each other head on, not a lot of fun for the third player (our mother eventually refused to play with us).

Clue was fun because you had to solve a mystery before anyone else did: who did the murder, with what weapon, in what room? Taking notes, analyzing new clues, and guarding your facial expressions were essential.


In addition to strategy games, word games were also special. Scrabble was/is great for vocabulary (and sometimes for bluffing), but you can wait an awful long time for someone to make a move if they have a poor set of letters. Over time we developed the art of pointing nearby objects (such as spoons, mug handles, pens, etc.) in the direction of the player who was taking too long to move until they got the hint.


Besides Scrabble, we played a lot of Boggle. I was quite good at rapidly finding all the words to be found in a random set of letters.


What about card games? Especially in earlier times, many families avoided official playing cards, not wanting to encourage gambling; but other card games were fine. In particular, Rook is popular in Christian circlesparticularly on my wife's side of the family. A family visit from the in-laws always means we'll be playing Rook.


We and our friends played games all the time. I guess we also went to school and worked somewhere along the way, but otherwise we were getting together for games whenever we could.

In high school I was on the chess club; in between matches we would meet in the library to play chess. By combining several chess sets, we were able to rig a 4-way chess game by adding half chess boards to the outer edges of a chess board, which was arranged omething like this:

Early Computer Games

In High School, on the last day of the 9th grade, I got my first taste of an electronic game. My friend Andrew asked if I had ever been to the Computer Room in the Math Department. A computer? In our school? This was news to me, and I enthusiastically went with him to see Room 214 of Connetquot High School. The room was chattering with noisy teletypewriters churning out text on paper rolls. These teletypes were connected to a DEC PDP-10 timesharing system the county owned, and we were fortunate indeed to have access as there were no personal computers at the time. It was the first time I had ever seen a computer of any kind, and I was instantly hooked.

On the walls were stapled listings of programs and program output, including many games. There was a CASINO game, offering games like 21 and slot machines. There was a WUMPUS game where you had to track down and kill an elusive Wumpus creature. LUNAR was a game where you could try to land the Lunar Module on the moon with a limited amount of fuel. In TREK, the user battled Klingons in a space grid. There was an ELIZA game, simulating a psychologist. And, there was ADVENT (Adventure), an Adventure game. Adventure was special: you explored a world, found and carried objects, overcame obstacles and adversaries. Adventure was in fact the very first interactive fiction, and I'll be posting more about it in the future.


Hunt the Wumpus

I no longer have any output from it, but I created a game on the PDP10 named CHASE, in which the player was moving around in a grid, being pursued by several adversaries. Each time you moved, the enemies moved closer; but there were barriers you could hide behind and leverage. It was basically the game of Fox and Hounds.

Arcade Video Games

When video games hit the arcades, I was in my late teens / early twenties, and I spent as much time as I could at the local mall using up my quarters. I mostly played BattleZone, QBert, Tempest, and Marble Madness.

Battlezone was one of my favorites, with its simple vector-graphics display but very effective strategic gameplay. I hear it was used by the U.S. Army to train tank gunners.


My all-time favorite arcade game was Marble Madness. I thoroughly admired the Escher-like artwork, the musical score, the zany elements of the game: all artistically combined. Using a trackball to control a marble was genius. I loved it. Alas, Marble Madness only had six levels so although initially successful it was not long lasting.

Marble Madness

I also played a lot of Pac-Man, mostly because that game was everywhere including restaurants and convenience stores. My programmer friend Randy had memorized winning patterns of movement for the first few levels and could play that game like a piano (for this reason, when Ms. Pac Man came out an element of randomness was added).

Later Computer Games

A few years later, after home computers had happened, game consoles for the home started becoming available. I had an Atari 2600 and later an Amiga computer. I purchased some of my favorite arcade games such as BattleZone and Marble Madness, but frustratingly these were often not-so-faithful to the original. Marble Madness in particular was hard to adjust to without the original's trackball, which was such a natural way to control a rolling marble.

In the early 2000s, I remember bringing home Zoo Tycoon for the PC. My daughter Susan loved it, and she kept playing. As a teenager she designed her own extensions for the game and joined an online design community. She met some of her best friends that way: she's currently at the University of Louisville, and got familiar with Kentucky chiefly through a connection she made in that Zoo Tycoon design community. She's visited another friend in Australia several times, another connection from that same community. It surprised me that a game I bought for her as a child (and its community) could have such an ongoing influence in her life.

Zoo Tycoon

XBox and XBox 360

In 2003 I was working at Microsoft, now with my own family and young children. In an employee knowledge quiz I ended up winning an XBox.

One of my favorite XBox games was Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb. It was done exceedingly well, and you really felt like Indy when you played. There were great settings, puzzles to solve, treasures to find, and villains to fight. It took me 4 months of weekends to get to the end of the game, somehow also keeping up with my work responsibilities.

Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb

We later upgraded to an XBox 360—only to be highly disappointed that many original XBox games would not work on the 360. I've never understood the XBox team's lack of concern over game compatibility with the prior generation of consoles; it's sad when you can't play your favorite games any more, especially considering the money you've invested in them. When I learned it was going to be the same thing all over again with the XBox One, I decide to stop buying XBox consoles.

Family Favorites

In addition to my own game interests, it was fascinating to watch the rest of my family's interest in video games. A family favorite on the XBox was Midtown Madness 3, which allowed you to drive like a madman (or madwoman) in either Paris or Washington DC. It was a sad day when our XBox died, and my family still talks about missing Midtown Madness to this day. Alas, it doesn't seem to be available anywhere on modern gaming platforms.

Midtown Madness 3

I made the mistake of bringing home Viva Piñata one day from the Microsoft Store, and my wife and kids loved it so much I saw nothing of them for the next three weeks ("umm... are we having dinner today?"). In this game, you have to domesticate candy-animals in a strange land. If nothing else, it's certainly colorful.

Viva Piñata

When the Kinect came out for XBox 360, we could get up off the couch and play interactive games. The Kinect could identify one or two players and respond to location, movement, and hand motions. Kinect Adventures let you do things like river rafting. Kinect Sports let you play many different sports, from bowling to football to volleyball. For a while, Kinect games were all the rage.

Kinect Adventures

Kinect Sports

Traditional board games became available for the 360, and we'd often play those instead of having to set up and put away physical board games. This included Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, Scrabble, and Yahtzee.

Monopoly on XBox 360

As my kids got older, their taste in games changed. My son liked driving games like Forza Motorsports 3 and Skate 3 (he likes breaking every bone in his body in the "Hall of Meat" mode). My daughter Susan liked Portal 2 and Skyrim. My daughter Debra liked Civilization 6 as well as Skyrim. Skyrim looked a tad dark to me, but I could see the legacy of that original Adventure game in these later games.

Portal 2

Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

As the Internet started getting more sophisticated, online games started getting better and better. I remember my young children enjoying Club Penguin, a family-friendly safe place for young ones from Disney.

Later, Minecraft was a craze. All three of my kids spent lots of time building blocky pixelated creations in Minecraft.


My son became obsessed with airplanes a few years back, and ever since he's spent a lot of his time with flight simulators, particularly X-Plane. He's flown everything from Cessnas to the Space Shuttle. By playing with others, he gets the full experience of flying, talking to air traffic controllers, navigating around other planes, and so on. I'd say these simulators must be pretty good, because when we took him on an actual flight with an instructor for his birthday last year, the instructor was impressed with his knowledge of the cockpit and rules of flight.


Today there is Steam, and for this retro gamer that's one way to play some of my favorite games from the past such as the Indiana Jones titles. But I'm still looking for a way to play Midtown Madness and Marble Madness.

One board game that has recently become a new family favorite is Settlers of Catan, particularly when my daughter Debra is home. She is cold, calculating, and vicious in her gameplay (I've never been prouder!) Catan features heavy strategy and trading elements, and while there's no warfare in the game it reminds me strongly of Risk.


Phone Games

Like the rest of the world, there's the occasional game craze like Angry Birds or Flappy Bird that everyone gets caught up in fror a while.

Angry Birds

The phone game my wife and I play the most is Words with Friends: we play it every day with each other. This is something we can do whether we're together or apart.

Words with Friends


One reason I'm a retro gamer is the amount of creativity I saw in the early days. Maybe that was a side effect of the limitations in platforms. Today it seems so many games are First Person Shooters or Driving Games. Many of them are done well, and there's lots of work on world-building, but it still feels to me like there was more creativity and inventiveness in the past. On the other hand, there are lots of modern games I haven't played yet.

Well, there you have it: a lifetime of game play that is continuing on with the next generation. I'll admit, I've sometimes been so busy at work I've neglected gaming at times. Fortunately, I now work somewhere where gaming is part of work. Let the games begin!

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