Generational hardware gap tres

September 3rd, 2012 12:43 PM
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Last month, the Commodore 64 turned 30 years old. Normally, that'd not be an appropriate topic for this Apple II blog; in fact, the wrong readers might take it as an opportunity to burn me in effigy, minus the effigy.

But the way in which Mat Allen chose to commemorate the occasion offers a cross-platform look at the way different generations interact with classic technology. Having seen this concept explored first in France and then in the USA, Allen invited several young Brits to play with his C64, to demonstrate that the game system of his youth was as entertaining and relevant today.


The video focuses primarily on the loading times, which is so obsolete an experience as to almost have faded from memory; I'm not surprised Allen's audience wandered away. Still, I wish he'd run a second experiment where the game was already loaded, so that the kids could provide feedback based more on interacting with the software instead of the hardware.

It was cute to hear the students couch their words to be as delicate as possible; referring to the C64's rudimentary graphics, one child commented, "For them, it must've been pretty incredible."

Apple's return to education

January 23rd, 2012 1:51 PM
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Last week, Apple announced iBooks textbooks and iBooks author, two iPad applications designed to redefine education.

Although I still favor physical literature for leisure reading, the elimination of physical textbooks in favor of e-books has been a long time coming, as outlined in this 2009 column by Mike Elgan who proposed that "education reform should begin by burning all the textbooks." And Apple may be just the company to get the ball rolling. Some pundits are seeing this move as a return to Apple's origin: the iPhone and iPad, which have been aimed at consumers and the enterprise, overlooked that "schools have been one of Apple's biggest market since the days of the Apple II", writes Ryan Faas for Computerworld.

Others are less optimistic, saying that Apple's methodology is fundamentally flawed by being based on false assumptions and failing to address long-standing issues. Glenn Fleishman, a senior contributor to Macworld, remembers hearing these same promises in the days of the Apple II and cites a nine-year-old study that questions the value of technology in education (in contrast to a recent pilot program by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt):

It is not yet clear how much computer-based programs can contribute to the improvement of instruction in American schools. Although many researchers have carried out controlled evaluations of technology effects during the last three decades, the evaluation literature still seems patchy.

Lindsey Turrentine, editor-in-chief of CNET Reviews, says that no matter how elegant the software, the problem of hardware remains the same as it has the past three decades: "There was an Apple II in my third-grade classroom. We used it to play Oregon Trail. Then it died. Therein lies the problem with iPads in high school: devices break."

iPads are expensive, and they do break. And it may be true that Apple is simply trading one set of problems (the expense, weight, and outdatedness of textbooks) for another. But much of Apple's early success was found in the education market; "Education has always been a big part of Apple's DNA," said Eddy Cue, senior VP of Internet software and services, in the above video. Millions of today's adults may not be able to tell you exactly what they learned by playing Oregon Trail, but they remember the experience and the introduction it gave them to the computers that demand familiarity from today's workforce. Don't today's students deserve the same opportunities with today's tools that my generation had with the Apple II?

Generational hardware gap deux

December 19th, 2011 7:36 PM
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Remember those modern kids confronted with ancient technology? They were, for the most part, baffled by archaic storage media and entertainment devices. It was an amusing demonstration of the changes in interfaces and expectations across the generations.

Here's another example of the clash between new and old. Four American kids, all siblings, are given three devices from their mother's attic: a tape deck, a Commodore Plus/4, and an Atari 2600.

It's great fun to see the girl's delight at getting the Commodore to work. Today's computers may be more elegant and inviting, but there's a far greater sense of accomplishment at mastering the rudimentary commands of yesterday's machines.

By contrast, it's challenging to believe the young man couldn't figure out how to fire in a game that has one button, it's not surprising that he and his brother would find the Atari games challenging. In 2009, I brought a 22-year-old to the American Classic Arcade Museum at Funspot. Bred into being a multitasker by today's complex and staccato media, she was confused by the simplicity of the coin-ops of the 1980s. Surely there was more to it than that?

I'm glad there are retro enthusiasts out there who are not only holding onto their tech but are willing to share it with their kids. May we always remember the way things were — the better to appreciate the way things are!

(Hat tip to ComputeHer, 8 Bit Weapon)

A world without BASIC

June 27th, 2011 10:16 AM
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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?

A generational hardware gap

January 10th, 2011 12:10 PM
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Anyone who has been using computers for a few decades has the questionable pleasure of reflecting on how far technology has come. We remember the massive leap forward 3.5" floppy disks represented over the old, which makes us appreciate the volume and affordability of modern storage all the more.

Newcomers to technology don't have that historical context — but rather than berate them for not knowing how good they have it, Montreal journalist Jean-Christophe Laurence brought them face-to-face with hardware older than they are. He presented several kids with such equipment as a Nintendo Game Boy, an LP record, several floppy disks, and more. With nary a hint as to their purpose, the children were tasked with determining the nature of the enigmatic tech. He recorded the results, which are presented in French with English subtitles:

It's a creative scenario, as it doesn't try to impress upon the students how different this stuff is from what they know: when they guessed an LP was like a CD, nobody said "Yes, but it holds this much less data, and has this much slower access times." It's more a matter of function and design than of better or worse, which is likely to be more educational and thus make them better appreciate (and familiar with) what's come before. (Maybe they'll learn the other by being taught programming on retrocomputers.)

It's also similar to what older generations have to do when confronted with new technology. We've heard those old chestnuts of newbies mistaking a CD-ROM tray for a cup holder, or a mouse for a foot pedal or a TV remote. Those mistakes happen because users are familiar with cup holders and channel changers, so they bring those analogues to their new experiences. It's impressive how spot-on many of the above children's guesses are, especially when they have to use modern metaphors to make their guesses. Although it's useful to have a frame of reference by which to learn new skills, as they demonstrated when confronted with a 3.5" floppy, it's also occasionally necessary to abandon old ideas to grasp new ones.

What do you think? Should these kids have been able to identify these objects? Would you have been able to?

(Hat tip to Genevieve Koski)

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)