Friday, 16 October 2009

Electric dreams - what historical reconstructions can't show

The OU / BBC co-production Electric Dreams - following a contemporary family re-experience the household technologies of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, with time advancing at the rate of a year a day - has turned out to be a really good talking point. You didn't need to like the people or assume that they were representative to see lovely issues emerging about how we use technology and the effect it has on us.

But I was struck that despite the heroic and largely successful efforts to find and recondition authentic period gadgets (the Tech Team were at least as much the stars of the show as the Family), one thing which they could not recreate was the social milieu. So for example, to my surprise (and the surprise of the Tech Team) when the children were offered a choice between a Sinclair Spectrum and a BBC Microcomputer, they chose the BBC Micro, despite its nerdy image, talked up by one of the presenters. Had they been subject to the peer pressure of their friends, I'm sure they'd have chosen the Spectrum instead, because it had more of a games image. (Or should we take comfort from this, that young people can actually make sensible decisions, if separated from peer pressure?!)

The arrival of the computer and hand-held gaming devices (Game and Watches) in the home was interesting for its social effects. In the 1970s the family had all been together in the living room, playing Buckaroo or watching television (Saturday nights in the '70s = The Generation Game + The Two Ronnies + Ironside / Kojak / Starskey and Hutch) - at least partly because their bedrooms were bitterly cold (the central heating having been turned off, most houses not having it in 1970) and anyway there was nothing to do there. In the 1980s they all turned to their own gadgets and the family focus was broken. There was also a gender divide which opened up between Dad and the boy and Mum and the two girls (not including the toddler, who must have been mystified by the whole experiment).

All of that rang true to my experience of home computers in the 1980s. But even if we largely used our computers on our own, or maybe with a mate from school or (in my case) university, this didn't mean that we were isolated, because of the social environment created by the user magazines. Every machine had its own magazine; most had several. From them, you could find out what other people were playing and which games were worth buying. For anyone who was into adventure games, as I was, the network of other players was critical because when you got stuck with one of the puzzles you wrote to or phoned someone else who had completed the game: the magazines published their contact details. Anyone who played adventures on the Amstrad CPC in the 1980s will recall the name of Joan Pancott - an elderly woman, who didn't get out much because of her arthritis, but who had completed pretty much every adventure written for the machine and who must have helped hundreds and hundreds of much younger gamers. I owe her my sanity.

And there were fanzines too - word processed on our dot-matrix printers and photocopied. I subscribed to Adventure Quest, set up by Pat Winstanley for adventure game writers, where we exchanged ideas for plots and puzzles and tips for coding on the various authoring systems. It was through Adventure Quest and its sister fanzine for players Adventure Probe that I distributed my own adventure Bestiary.

Curious to think about it all now, because if we were doing it all today of course we'd be doing it on the internet, through Ning or some other kind of social networking software. The social relationships were the same, even though our technology was Royal Mail and printer paper. Things have perhaps changed less than we think.

1 comment:

  1. Joan was wonderful and incredibly nice and chatty. I was very young when I started ringing her first but she never talked down to me or made me feel anything other than a fellow adventurer. Would that there were more of her kind around today.