Leigh Alexander's Patreon for Lo-Fi Let's Play

September 19th, 2016 1:54 PM
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Two-and-a-half years ago, I pointed Apple II Bits readers to the YouTube videos of Leigh Alexander. This renown and accomplished journalist in the video games industry was creating Let's Play videos of classic Apple II games, recording her gameplay experiences combined with her personal commentary. It was a fun and original look at one player's history with her childhood computer.

A lot has happened to gaming and to Alexander since that April 2014 blog post. In August 2014, GamerGate broke. In December 2014, Juiced.GS reviewed Alexander's e-book, Breathing Machine. In April 2015, Alexander became editor-in-chief of Offworld, a BoingBoing-run video game journalism website with a focus on publishing marginalized voices. In February 2016, Alexander departed Offworld and the gaming industry entirely.

I was concerned we'd heard the last of this powerful and important voice — so I was delighted this month when she launched a Patreon to support her latest initiative: the return of her Lo-Fi Let's Play video series.

"What started as a fun outlet for me to recapture some of the sense of mystery and wonder I once felt about games became much more popular than I expected," writes Alexander:

Rediscovering and sharing these charming old works was a great source of comfort and joy toward the end of my time in the game industry. They had a sort of innocence I had missed, and a pioneer spirit I felt warmly toward, and they reminded me in an essential way why playing computer games was once a source of uncomplicated joy and imagination for me. The simplicity of their infrastructure, the severity of their limitations, and their earnestness in the face of those limitations is still a touchstone of inspiration for me in the age of modern high-end hardware and noisy social media. I can't tell you how thrilled I am that there are folks out there that share these feelings with me.

Alexander is asking for contributions on a per-video basis of an amount of your choosing. At $5, you get a newsletter with behind-the-scenes storytelling; at $20 and $200, Alexander sacrifices some degree of editorial control to let you help pick what games she plays next.

You may wonder why one should contribute anything; after all, "Thanks to the magic of emulation and the tireless work of archivists, the videos cost me nothing but time and love to make, and they are and will always be ad-free and available to all on YouTube," acknowledges Alexander. "But sadly, life as a freelancer means that the things I get paid for need to come first, leaving passion projects to languish."

I don't tend to watch Let's Play videos myself, but I acknowledge their value and importance in capturing the experience the Apple II invokes. I'm contributing to Alexander's campaign and encourage you to do so, too — but even if you don't, I hope you'll check out her videos and share in her joy for the gaming heritage of the Apple II.

If this is your first Patreon, don't let it be your last — these other Apple II creators are also seeking your support:

Pittsburgh Dad plays Oregon Trail

September 5th, 2016 10:51 AM
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Members of the Apple II community can at times express a certain "get off my lawn!" mentality, railing against today's youth and their new-fangled computers. Fortunately, this behavior is often in good fun: while a reasoned critique comparing old and new computers and enthusiasts can be well-founded, any actual castigation against a younger generation is often more self-effacing, tinged with a note of jealousy of how much better and easier things are now.

Actor Curt Wootton has made such parody his entire schtick with his YouTube series, "Pittsburgh Dad". His one-man, five-minute episodes offer a crotchety perspective on modern media and conveniences, including Pokémon GO, iPhones, and Captain America.

In the latest episode, Pittsburgh Dad plays Oregon Trail:

It's funny to see this behavior from someone just four months older than me. And yet, it's hard to imagine anyone I know from KansasFest playing Oregon Trail with this attitude. We tend to be enthusiastic evangelists for our niche hobby, and beating someone else over the head with it isn't going to convert them to our cause. I suppose that's why it's parody, eh?

(Also, I wonder if Dad knew that the malapropistic floppy label "Organ Trail" represents an actual game?)

For more of Pittsburgh Dad's takes on retro technology, check out the episode where he replaced his kids' Grand Theft Auto game with E.T. for the Atari 2600.

(Hat tip to Cat Morgan)

Week of the KFest

July 25th, 2016 9:38 AM
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Today is the first day after KansasFest 2016. It's a day when I, like all 83 of this year's attendees — the largest turnout in my 19 consecutive years of attendance — am in a delirious stupor from too much excitement and too little sleep. I have unpacking to do, software to test, publications to read, photos to process, and memories to cherish. It's an event that will stay with me for a long time — at least until KansasFest 2017, scheduled for July 18–23 at Rockhurst University.

In the meantime, I admire all the contributions made by the attendees and the committee, from organizing the event to giving presentations to livestreaming the videos. But as a YouTube content creator, one of the KansasFest creations I admire the most comes once again from Steve Weyhrich. Just prior to KansasFest 2015, Steve — who once built an entire Apple II in Minecraft — debuted the music video "KFest Funk", an inspired parody of the 2014 tune "Uptown Funk". For KansasFest 2016, Steve decided to kick it old school by reimagining the 1982 classic "Eye of the Tiger". The result is the music video "Week of the KFest":

Many of the photos Steve used in each of his last two music videos are my own, yet he puts them in a far more imaginative context than I could ever imagine. Not only that, but his audio and video production qualities are significantly higher than my own, despite his use of iMovie compared to Final Cut Pro. Why isn't this creative genius a YouTube star?

My thanks to Steve for this fun memento that we can share with our friends and family who don't quite understand what KansasFest is all about!

40 years in 40 seconds

March 28th, 2016 9:16 AM
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Apple is the most profitable company in the world, based on its market cap of $672 billion. (That's more than half a trillion, folks.) The iPhones, iPads, Apple Watches, and Macs all started in the apocryphal garage, where Steve Wozniak invented and Steve Jobs designed the Apple II.

Given all the success that's sprung from those early innovations, we diehard enthusiasts sometimes feel that modern-day Apple Inc. doesn't give its roots the recognition it deserves, as evidenced by the Apple II being erased from press releases. But our favorite computer finally did get a nod in this commercial celebrating Apple's 40th birthday on April 1, 2016:

On Facebook, commenters were underwhelmed, with "Not enough Apple II" being a recurring theme. It's true that Apple's classic machines constitute only a few of the video's opening seconds, but I'm not sure we could expect more than that: even more than the computers themselves, programs and peripherals for the Apple II lack the modern recognition of more recent innovations, such as iWork, AirPort, or Mighty Mouse.

Sometimes it's nice just to be mentioned.

(Hat tip to Shona Ghosh)

Kids react to the Apple II

May 26th, 2014 10:40 AM
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Our standards and expectations for computers have changed a great deal since the Apple II arrived on the scene. Internet access, graphic user interfaces, and mass storage are all basic features of any modern hardware and operating system. Those of us who grew up in simpler, yet less intuitive, times can mentally switch between the eras… but what about the next generation of users?

Watch as teen and pre-teen kids react to their first encounter with an Apple II:

"Kids React" is a popular and ongoing series by The Fine Bros, whose YouTube channel has over 8 million subscribers and 1.6 billion views. I suspect some of that popularity has gone to the kids' head, with the younger ones preciously overreacting for the camera. One of my favorite comments was a kid saying that the Apple II is at least better than Flappy Bird, an irritating iOS game; good thing he wasn't forced to play the Commodore 64 version! Another kid said the Apple II is good only as a footstool. Better that than an aquarium, I suppose.

But their reactions nonetheless have merit. It's reasonable for a computer to assume that, if you turn it on or insert a disk, you want it to react to that action somehow. Obtuse commands like PR#6 are not welcoming to a new user. The Apple II was a blank canvas, and we were patient enough to learn its language and idiosyncrasies; but were we more accustomed to being catered to, I don't think we would've taken to the Apple like we did.

Still, I wish the video hadn't been edited to be quite so down on the computer. Apple II games are not all that different in style from modern mobile games, and I think the kids would've had fun with titles like Lode Runner, Cannonball Blitz, or even Oregon Trail. Certainly the featured action game from Keypunch Software, D-Day, was a better choice than VisiCalc, to which I exposed my own students a decade ago. But we hardly saw any of their engagement with the game, instead watching them struggle with the interface and OS and getting none of the reward — though we do get a bit more footage in the bonus video:

Exposing a younger generation to its predecessor's technology is not a new concept. The Fine Bros. have previously given kids rotary phones and Walkmans to play with, and I've posted several other such videos to this blog before: French students playing with a variety of old technology, four Americans playing with a C64 and Atari 2600, and British students encountering a C64.

It's great to finally see the Apple II specifically be the focus of such a video. But I suspect any reader of this blog who exposed their own children to an Apple II would be greeted with far more fascination and enthusiasm. We're just a different breed.

(Hat tip to Adam Clark Estes via Kirk Millwood)

Let's Play Death in the Caribbean

April 7th, 2014 11:39 AM
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This winter, I launched a Google+ page for my YouTube gaming channel. As I began exploring the gaming communities on this social network, I discovered Leigh Alexander, a Gamasutra editor with a large following. She is an accomplished fiction author and columnist, and I've now enjoyed her writing for some time. But when she chose to expand into video, I was pleasantly surprised by the subject that a journalist on the cutting edge of technology would choose for her YouTube debut.

Alexander's first foray into video is a Let's Play of the Apple II game, Death in the Caribbean:

A "Let's Play" is a video game walkthrough with commentary that focuses on the player's experience, instead being a tutorial that provides strategy (though it can do that, too). Alexander follows through with that promise, having grown up playing this game with her father. On a recent return to her parents' home in Massachusetts (hey, that's where I live!), she recorded this video that reflects not only on how the game expanded her vocabulary with words such as "crevasse" and "brazier", but on other lessons: "[Death in the Caribbean] taught me from an early age that disaster can happen anywhere, at anytime. Even if the whole world sprawls out in front of you like a beautiful place ready to be explored — you can die, just by being a little bit wrong" — something you're never too young to learn.

The launch of Apple II Bits in 2010 coincided with my discovery of Let's Plays, at which time the genre was relatively unknown. I imagined myself being one of the first to bring this video format to the Apple II. While I've since recorded dozens of Let's Play videos of Nintendo games, I've never executed on the idea to apply that experience to my favorite retrocomputer.

Four years later, Let's Plays are booming, with no less prestigious an outlet than The Atlantic giving the issue coverage, detailing how PewDiePie, the most popular channel on YouTube, makes millions of dollars a year producing Let's Play videos. If you're baffled why Let's Plays are so popular, Jamin Warren of PBS Digital Studios explains the appeal of Let's Play videos:

Between the proliferation of Let's Plays and the age of the Apple II, you might think, what more remains to be said about our favorite games? Plenty, reminded one of my YouTube followers. "I hate it when people who LP an older game and say 'I have nothing original to contribute'," commented Gaming Media. "YES YOU DO! If you grew up with the game, you have stories about the game that no one else has."

Even those who didn't grow up with a game can still provide unique commentary. As Alexander did, Gaming Media recently turned to Virtual Apple ][ and recorded a Let's Play of Oregon Trail, a game that came out decades before he did:

(Skip to 4:52 into the first video for a fun blatant plug!)

Neither of these recent videos is the first Let's Play to come from the Apple II: Jesse Hamm recorded his own playthrough of Death in the Caribbean three years ago; Brian Picchi has recorded reviews of games like Gold Rush! that could be considered Let's Plays; and I in turn recorded a similar hybrid video of Picchi's Retro Fever, a year after unboxing and playing Zéphyr.

There indeed remains much to be preserved, shared, and experienced of the Apple II on YouTube. I hope that Alexander, Gaming Media, Picchi, and I continue to find the time and enthusiasm to explore this fun intersection of old and new media. What games would you like to see us play next?