Review: Commadork and The Hidden Collective Experience of 80’s Vintage Computing

80’s Home Computers: The Hidden Collective Experience

The world is awash with collective experiences into the 21st century. In fact, it’s very hard to find something that is experienced by an individual without the ability to somehow communicate that experience with others. Every hobby, comic strip, graphic novel, book series, sports team, rock band, TV show, movie, video game, road-side attraction, salt and pepper shaker collection, etc. has some sort of internet-based community built around it that, at least to some extent, is open for nearly anyone to communicate and participate within if they so desire. In fact, many communities have sprung-up that support collective experiences around things that do not even exist yet, but are anticipated in the near future.

All of these communities have been facilitated by the advent of the personal computer and the internet. The fact that nearly every home has a computer and some kind of connection to the internet makes all of these collective experiences possible. It’s ironic then, that just 25 years ago, during the advent of the consumer-based home computer, there was very little in the form of a public “collective experience”, at least from the outside looking-in. This all falls in just about the year 1983. Atari and Commodore were both selling massive amounts of home computers for prices around $199-$299. Parents were buying them in droves for their kids as an alternative to “brain killing” video game systems. Bulletin Board System that could be used for communication between computers existed, but the ability to connect to one required an expensive modem and use of a dedicated phone line, which was were things that neither came with a standard home computer package, nor were available to the average kid who received a computer for Christmas or their birthday. This, in effect, left a generation of kids to explore their home computers in relative loneliness. They could play games, use software, type-in magazine listings, and write their own programs, but much of it was done as a mostly solitary activity, or among siblings or close friends.

I’ve written in the past about my first experience with my own Atari 800 home computer on Christmas day in 1983. To me, the most important bit in that story was this:

“My brother and I dove into that computer and all the riches it held and did not come-up for air until two weeks later when we had to go back to school.   We wrote programs, played games, and discovered everything we every wanted to know about owning our own computer.   The guy my dad bought the computer from had collected dozens of games, and we tried them all.   Every Zork adventure, every Scott Adams Adventure, all the Atari created arcade translations, Star Raiders, and tons of others.  We explored financial programs, graphics demos, the realms of the public domain, and everything in-between.  Nothing was off-limits, and everything was of the utmost interest.  It was the purest moment I ever knew as a child.   It was the joy of complete intellectual and sensory discovery.  The computer held the promise as a device that we could control, and meld into what we needed and wanted, and as an unlimited tool for learning and creating.”

That article has been well-received by many people who, curiously enough, had the same experience. Recently I received this email message from Mr. Steve Barlow regarding Atari computers and the early 80’s.

“In Christmas 1982, and I was in 7th grade.  I got a colecovision for christmas! My 3 year old nephew.. yes, my 3 year old nephew! Got an Atari 400. Well, this kid was a wiz at video games since he was 2.. amazing, but the computer was over his head.   When his mom(my sister) asked to swap the colecovision for the atari for a while, I reluctantly agreed.    They had purchased a program called “Pilot”.   Me and my friends starting writing programs, charting graphics, all the stuff you did!  I was HOOKED. I talked my mom into buying me Atari Basic, and I spent the second half of the 7th grade coding programs during class at school.  My friend and I attempted our own computer game, “Awesome Attack”.  Quite lame, but we had dreams. “

-Steve Barlow

It’s interesting to note that these experiences pretty much mirror my own. However, they occurred 1000’s of miles away under completely different circumstances. The book Commadork by Rob O’Hara paints a similar picture (in the early chapters anyway) of the home computer being a an instrument of entertainment, solace and discovery as does the book Extra Life by David S. Bennahum. All of this circumstantial evidence points towards one conclusion for me: the computer kids of the 80’s did in fact have a “collective experience”. It might not have all happened at once, and it might have been in small groups or clusters, first at other kids houses and later on modems and BBSs, but the effect was the same. We were the first generation to embrace this type of technology, not as a garage hobby, but as mainstream, We all fell in love with our home computers, took a “geek” stand, and helped pave the way for the computer and internet revolution of the future. Mr. Barlow sent me a second email with, what I believe, puts a cap on this little of mine.

It’s interesting really… We were quite a bit ahead of our time.  Computer technology is accepted and ‘cool’ now, but back then, it was definitely it’s own subculture”

-Steve Barlow

To be honest, I guess this what our little experiment is all about. With games (Home Computer Wars, Atari Christmas Tree, Retro Blaster), words (8-bit Road Less Traveled, Asteroids Trek, Atari VCS Christmas), and other avenues (8 Tokens For a Dollar) we are attempting to describe this 80’s home computer collective experience while at the at the same time, apply it to our modern world and lives. Thanks for coming along with us this far, I hope you stay for the rest of the ride.


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