For a long time, my family’s computer was in the middle of the living room.
As soon as you opened the door to our house and turned one sharp corner, you were looking right at the screen. This central placement was on purpose.
The Internet was a brand new toy and cases of pedophiles meeting kids on the Internet were just starting to become prevalent. My mom, prone to over-exaggeration, was sure every person I IMed was going to convince me to meet them at a Motel 6. I was about 9 years old.
My parents were just being cautious, but in fact, there wasn’t really much for me to do online yet. In 1997, there was no Facebook, no Twitter, no Tumblr — all social networking sites where I have unfortunately seen 9 year olds these days.
Back then, there was AOL Instant Messenger where I mostly just talked to my friend Melissa, and there was Slingo, an online bingo game with an added chat function so the players could interact with each other. Most of the Slingo chat conversations had nothing to do with the actual game, and a lot to do with the good ol’ “a/s/l?” pick up line. My response was almost never the truth: “9/f/my parent’s house.”
Until I was about 13, I mostly used the computer to play educational video games. Tons of them.
The gaming started in my school’s computer class. My private elementary school had a whole room full of thick, gray monitors: the kind that went blue with white robot text when they stopped working. The room was a narrow sliver off to the side of the library and we all sat in tiny chairs back to back, facing our screens.
Our teacher was tall with frizzy brown hair and a face only a principal could love. He also had no computer science background whatsoever. That was a persistent problem at my small, religious school: no one ever had to answer to anyone else regarding hiring decisions. A lot of my teachers were less “qualified to teach,” and more “somebody’s nephew who needed a job.”
This guy clearly wasn’t going to be a resource and so my grade relied heavily on how good I was at computer games.
The most popular game in the class was Oregon Trail, a history bonanza that simulated the experience of a 19th century pioneer settler. You were responsible for your digital group’s welfare, getting food through hunting and making the tough decisions when someone fell ill. It was also supposed to teach kids responsibility and consideration.
It did not.
When it came to naming the six people in my Oregon Trail wagon, it was always me, my crush, three of my best friends and some girl that was bullying me. Then, I would squeal with delight when she inevitably got bit by a snake or developed cholera. On her epitaph, I’d write something like, “Here lies a stupid-head. She sucked.”
Though she sat three feet from me, living to noogie another day, it gave me some satisfaction to know that, at least in one universe, she had dysentery so bad she’d pooped herself to death.
The best part about Oregon Trail was the hunting, something I think college sophomores try to recreate today through the bar game Big Buck Hunter. You could bring much-needed meat back to your wagon by controlling a little rifle target and shooting bison, rabbits and deer in the face.
You know, typical kid stuff.
The other game we played at school was Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing. Mavis Beacon is a fictional 30-something Afro-Caribbean (I looked up her exact race) woman whose job was to promote literacy. I was always a little unnerved by her dead-eyed, unmoving smile. It seemed to denote some sort of psychosis, maybe what lead to her obsession with proper typing.
The game’s title seemed so strict: Mavis Beacon will teach you typing. You have no choice. It’s like she was saying, “Put your see-through ghost hands on those keys in the ASDF row and use your thumbs to press the space key or I will come after you in your sleep. Don’t even think about hunting and pecking because Mavis Beacon will hunt and peck you.”
The best part about Mavis Beacon was the game room, which included car racing, avoiding sharks, and training a wayward chameleon. My favorite was called “Penguin Crossing,” wherein the pace of your tiny fingers was responsible for the lives of a bunch of adorable penguins. In a way, it was also a game about survival of the fittest: Adapt to typing fast or these endangered penguins will die.
(PS: I’m really sorry, Mavis Beacon, but it still feels super unnatural for me to type the way you taught, even though I spent so long under your fictional tutelage. Hunt and peck ‘til I die.)
Because of the prevalence of these games at school, my parents got me a bunch more to play at home. There was Storybook Weaver, Math Blaster, Reader Rabbit, Word Munchers and Number Munchers. They all came in huge, rectangular packages from The Learning Company and were played on the PC in my living room. Some were even floppy disks.
My favorite of these games was called OutNumbered! I played that game so often that I am ashamed to admit I had to Google “educational video game 90s detective” just now to remember what it was called.
OutNumbered! was supposed to teach math and computing skills. The absurd main character was a detective in a blue jacket, yellow shorts and face-obscuring red hat and huge magnifying glass.
His job was to stop the Master of Mischief from taking over a radio and TV station before midnight by solving math puzzles and fighting an evil TV robot. I’ve never seen HBO’s The Wire, but I’m going to assume the plot is just like OutNumbered!
To me, the interesting connection between these games, besides their educational value, is that they were all single player.
Nine-year-olds today would be confused by the isolation of sitting at a computer just to play a game. If OutNumbered! existed in 2011, it would have to include some kind of GChat function, you’d have to use Twitter to log in to it and you’d be encouraged to post your scores to Facebook.
My Mavis Beacon words-per-minute was for no one but myself.
And now, I’m cool going to the movies alone, or reading quietly by myself on a Friday night, or perusing articles on the computer. I make my living online, through the isolated art of writing and blogging. Being alone doesn’t make me feel insecure. It’s comfortable. The kids, like me, who grew up on these games learned math and reading, sure, but they also learned an important skill: how to entertain themselves — alone.
It’s something I’m sure most of us are still pretty good at doing.