Imagine a computer that has no hard drive. Nada. Internal memory that is measured in kilobytes, not megabytes or gigabytes. A monitor that displays maybe as many colors as a 16-pack of crayons. No mouse. A five-minute startup time. No Windows, but a text prompt operating system that requires you to put in a disc each and every time you want to use it. Programs and games on unwieldy pieces of plastic the size of a paperback book(ish). Internal speakers that sounded like a car was downshifting from 5th gear to 1st while going 90 mph. A printer that took forever and merely dotted the paper with hundreds of little circles.
That was the IBM PC. That was my first computer love.
I remember the day my dad brought it home, even though I was only six or seven at the time. It was a huge piece of machinery that cost north of $3,000 (the only reason we could afford it was that my father’s work had a massive discount program that allowed us to get one for a little over a grand). He set it up in the den and showed us how it worked. My parents liked the word processor and spreadsheet, while my brothers were into the brick-buster game.
Me? I was head over heels into the thick of the manuals.
I think after a year or two, that computer became mine by virtue of just how much time I spent on it. Man, I loved computers. I was snagging shareware programs left and right and teaching myself BASIC and BASICA from very user unfriendly manuals that came with the system. I actually got pretty good at designing incredibly elaborate games — including RPGs and flight simulators — that far outstripped what you would find in books and magazines at the time.
The PC was the machine that I played KROZ, Starflight, Wasteland, King’s Quest and other classics on. Starflight — which I’ll talk about sometime — was very tricky because I the game was saved to the discs directly and if I died I had to start over, period. No reload from last save (unless I shut off the computer quickly before it saved).
(On a side note, anyone remember the Micro Adventures books from the 80s? They were these kids adventure books that would occasionally stop to have you run to your computer, copy and run a BASIC program, and see how it would help the main character/you out. I just want to say that most of these programs were crap. But it was a cool concept, in a way.)
For the greater bulk of the decade, that single, solitary IBM PC was the mainstay computer of our household. Computers were too expensive at the time to simply buy a new one every year or two, and I had to actually wait until 1992 to buy my own (my parents did get another one earlier than that).
If nothing else, that machine taught me great patience. You have to be patient as it’s taking quite a few minutes to simply boot up or load a program. And if it crashes? Bugs out? There was no online support forum back then or backups. I had to deal with it on my own and, as a result, got self-reliant with computers, fast.
Because I gamed on it quite often, the PC is responsible for why I have a weird finger positioning when it comes to MMOs (if you recall, I use the X key, not the S, for down/backwards, and always have my thumb on it). I actually remember seeing a mouse for the first time and finding it absolutely repugnant. Who would want to use such an imprecise devise when your cursor keys could be so accurate (and, y’know, slow)?
Aside from gaming and programming, what I remember most about using it is having it as a writing platform (I still have several small “books” I wrote with it) and for a nifty publishing program that let us create calendars, cards, and flyers with simple clip art. Small toolset, yes, but we were endlessly creative.
It was the computer that had a small modem in it that allowed me to access bulletin board services, which was my first taste of online interaction.
By the end of the 80s, the PC was just not cutting it any more. We certainly got our money’s worth out of it, but it did not age well. I would go to the mall computer store and agonize over all the games that I wanted to play but was pretty sure would never run on the skimpy specs. The last I saw it, it had been moved to my brother’s room when I went to college in 1994, but I’m sure it got tossed shortly thereafter.
As with our first MMO, I think our first computer is a special thing, especially in an era when they were rare. Some day I’ll get to tell my kids how I was part of the first or second generation to grow up with home computer, and they will not care because their phone will be a million times faster and better than that clunky IBM PC.