A world without BASIC

June 27th, 2011 10:16 AM
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Filed under Musings, Software showcase;
6 comments.

The computers that Apple II users grew up with were nowhere near as user-friendly as today's machines. They had unintuitive interfaces, inscrutable error messages, and limited capabilities.

But those same limitations also made them an excellent tool for learning such important concepts as problem-solving, game design, and especially programming.

The Apple II was especially practical for that last function, as it came with BASIC in ROM. Without any other software, a user could turn on her machine and start building a virtual world of her own design. The lack of advanced features meant that the user was playing in a sandbox of conceivable limits yet infinite possibilities.

Yet by 1997, when I started college as a computer science major, I was getting laughed out of the classroom by using BASIC where other students were relying on Java and C++, as I related in Juiced.GS. Today, BASIC is almost nowhere to be found, as detailed in the leading item on Computerworld.com last Thursday "How are students learning programming in a post-Basic world?"

The story is an interesting look at the variety of languages with which to introduce modern students to programming. For some parents and teachers, the old methods work best; "My son's math textbooks contained exercises in Basic, but we could not do the problems until we bought an old Commodore 64 online," said David Brin, author of "Why Johnny Can't Code". Others prefer more popular scripting languages, such as Python; still others use a language designed more for educational than practical use, such as MIT's Scratch, the language of choice of the computer science teacher where I used to teach. She's offering a camp this summer to introduce 13- and 14-year-olds to programming, using a different format from last year's camp: "I changed the language from Alice to Scratch. Alice was too glitchy for me. Scratch is easy to pick up, and hopefully will be fun for middle schoolers."

But none of these languages will offer the same experience as learning BASIC. Author Lamont Wood had once dabbled in BASIC programming but had fallen out of practice until his recent experiment with Python:

The thrill was not the same as in 1979; it hadn't taken months to get the hardware to work, and it sure ran quieter … with Basic, I felt like I was rummaging through a small box containing a few crude tools. With Python, I felt I had pushed open the door to a massive but unlit tool warehouse and was darting in to grab the few that I could see.

I learned BASIC by doing: I was running a Warp Six BBS and needed to make modifications. Eventually, I was inspired to write my own door game, though since it was a port, I had to concern myself only with the coding, not the design. In either case, I always had either the code or design to work with; I never had to conceive and build entirely from scratch (no pun intended).

My challenge in adapting those BASIC programming skills to a modern environment is not so much choosing a language as it is choosing an instruction method. Just as I learned BASIC to run a BBS, I've set a goal of learning PHP to help me run WordPress, a modern equivalent of an online community. But elementary concepts such as functions and arrays seem more confusing than they did twenty years ago.

What's the best computer and language to teach programming — and where does one go from there?

The history of game design

November 22nd, 2010 11:11 AM
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My alma mater offers a major in interactive media and game design, a field that didn't exist during my time there as a student. It's one of many such programs that have popped up across academia in the past decade, in response to the growing popularity and cultural acceptance of video games as an industry and pastime.

Yet electronic game design predates its study by decades. When there were no templates, exemplars, formulae, or rubrics, creative programmers experimented with creative and risky innovations, setting the course for thirty years of successors. Although modern games can still be ingenious, such variation from popular game design is often relegated to low-budget "indie" games and not the big-budget blockbusters sold at retail, which are almost always sequels to existing intellectual properties (IP). This was not the case with the Apple II; visionary games such as Lode Runner, Oregon Trail, and Choplifter were enormous successes and are remembered fondly today.

When today's students are educated in game design and theory, it only makes sense to reflect on historical successes as well. Some academic institutions have wisely chosen to complement their modern game design with this retrospective look. Such a course was once offered at Stanford as the "History of Computer Game Design".

This course provides a historical and critical approach to the evolution of computer and video game design from its beginnings to the present. It brings together cultural, business, and technical perspectives. Students should come away from the course with an understanding of the history of this medium, as well as insights into design, production, marketing, and socio-cultural impacts of interactive entertainment and communication.

The course's required reading includes Dungeons & Dreamers, a book I gave high marks to when I reviewed it for Juiced.GS for its analysis of the 1970s and the era's intersection of popularity in Dungeons & Dragons, The Lord of the Rings, and personal computing. Considering such engaging assignments, I have to wonder why Stanford's course wasn't popular enough to have become a regular part of the school's curriculum; sadly, the "History of Computer Game Design" course does not appear to have been offered since 2005.

This class was part of an accompanying interactive project that has likewise not been updated in nearly a decade. It had an ambitious and socially relevant mission:

The aim of this project is to explore the history and cultural impact of a crucial segment of contemporary new media: interactive simulations and video games. Once the late-night amusement of nerds and hackers who built "Space Wars" and the "Game of Life" in the 1950s and 1960s, video games and interactive media have emerged as one of the most vibrant elements of today's entertainment industry. However, despite the growing popularity and legitimacy of video games, the importance of the medium itself has all but eluded notice by most scholars and media critics. As a result, this project seeks to ground the history and study of video games within a framework of rigorous academic discourse.

While Roger Ebert may contend that video games are not art, others have suggested the better question is: "Can artists express themselves through the video game medium?" I feel the answer to that is an obvious "Yes!", as demonstrated by games from the Apple II to today. It's only a matter of time before game design history is as common a field of study as art history, film theory, and music appreciation.

In addition to the aforementioned Dungeons & Dreamers, other books providing academic perspectives on game design's history include Twisty Little Passages by Nick Montfort, and Dungeons & Desktops by Matt Barton.

(Hat tip to Jason Scott)

Academic Ultima

October 7th, 2010 12:20 PM
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Filed under Game trail, Musings, Software showcase;
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Before my current job at Computerworld, I taught 11th grade tech writing at a math and science charter school. My fellow teachers had an open door policy that allowed me to observe their classes, and I developed a rapport with the computer science teacher. When an emergency called her away from class one day, she asked me to fill in but left me no lesson plan. Fortunately, I'd already installed both Adventure and VisiCalc for just such an emergency. The resulting lesson in computer history was reported in Juiced.GS, though I never did get the opportunity to explore Adventure with my students.

But other educators have had the opportunity to use electronic entertainment as a learning tool. Besides the use of interactive fiction in a classroom setting, as detailed in Get Lamp, Michael Abbott has taken a more ambitious approach to virtual adventuring by introducing his students to Richard Garriott's seminal role-playing game, Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar.

In his blog, the teacher doesn't outline his learning objectives, other than puzzle-solving and note-taking. I hope his goals were not much loftier than that, because it seems these students disappointed him:

It mostly came down to issues of user-interface, navigation, combat, and a general lack of clarity about what to do and how to do it. … it [wa]sn't much fun for them. They want a radar in the corner of the screen. They want mission logs. They want fun combat. They want an in-game tutorial. They want a game that doesn't feel like so much work.

Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar

That looks like a lot of reading!
Photo courtesy Blake Patterson.

I'm unsure how many of these obstacles were inherent to the game, and how many were symbolic of a generational gap. Today, I often want a game that immerses me within the first five minutes, and which I can put down after ten. That means either simple gameplay (in the case of classics like Pac-Man or Qix) or familiar gameplay (like Dragon Quest VIII, an RPG I played hours on end for a total of 80, but whose mechanics had remained largely unchanged since the franchise's origin in 1986).

I was not always predisposed against learning curves. I grew up playing and enjoying Ultima, but not on the Apple II. I was and am primarily a console gamer, and I played these games' Nintendo adaptations, which vexed me with none of the issues that these students encountered. I wondered how dramatically different the NES version had been that maybe it had eased my entry into Britannia. Sure enough, one blog commenter wrote:

… have you considered giving people the NES port of Ultima IV? It faithfully retains the ethical systems design of Garriott's original while reimagining the visual aesthetics and interface design according to the conventions of JRPGs. It was how I played Ultima IV back in the day, and it's still probably a lot more in line with modern RPG convention than the original PC Ultima IV.

But I'd wager that most alumni of Ultima IV experienced it on the computer, which apparently did not preclude its success, so surely its original interface was not insurmountable. More likely is the change in gaming mores over the decades. In the book Dungeons & Dreamers, authors Brad King and John Borland relate the detail and intricacy with which the developers of Ultima Online imbued their world. Ecology, economy, and more were devised to create a world that lived and breathed along with the players. When it finally launched — the world was shot to hell. Gamers traveled into the countryside, burning trees and killing animals. No plane could long host such chaos, so the developers had to go back to the drawing board. I suspect Mr. Abbott's students would likely have contributed to that headache.

Nonetheless, I hope the blog's conclusion does not spell the end of this exercise: "I love great old games like Ultima IV, but I can no longer assume the game will make its case for greatness all by itself." Just as we have courses in art and music appreciation, it's important to understand and appreciate the origin of Ultima and other video game hallmarks. Today's gaming industry was not born in a vacuum, and just as the bold experiments of yesteryear determined the future of the genre, they still have much to teach today's gamers and programmers about what works, what doesn't, and why things are the way they are. Finding a context in which to teach that lesson is, much like the games themselves, worth the effort.

(Hat tip to Richard Garriott)