The (8-bit) Adventure Game: part 1

I’m starting a Computer Coding Club at my school this term. It’s called The Adventure Game. This is the story of why and how. I’ll post later to let you know how it’s going…

commodore VIC 20 Apple computer

Me outside the Apple Store in Newcastle this year, organising a VIC20 ‘flash mob’… of one…

It all began on Christmas Day 1982 when I was lucky enough to find this box and its exciting contents under the Christmas tree. In case you don’t recognise it, it’s one of the the first ever home colour computers, the first to sell over a million units (it ended up selling over 5 million) and was replaced by the very similar commodore 64 (which is still the biggest selling computer ever with estimates of over 20 million sold between 1982 and 1994 and becoming available to but again soon, watch this space).

commodore VIC20 box

But that’s all irrelevant for the moment. The point is it was a programmable computer. You type things in and it does things. You can make your own games and figure out how computers work. And that’s exactly what I did for for four years.

Then, like everyone else I moved onto a more sophisticated IMG_3690computer, in my case an Atari ST, at Christmas 1986. I then did what almost everyone else did with their computers as they became more and more powerful: I stopped programming and started using them as multimedia controllers: making music, artwork, desktop publishing, then managing photography, music libraries, video, animation and so on (getting my first Apple Macintosh in 1995). My much loved VIC20 went back in its box and into the loft.
But when I started teaching, it came back down. I set it up and took a photo of it (that was turned into a Top Trumps card by the makers of The Commodore Story see above). I set it up in my lab and left it on the side with this poster next to it, as teaching took over my life (as any new teacher will tell you).

commodore VIC20 A4 posterThe more I got into teaching and found out what kids of today could do, and not do, and saw the skills and ideas they had, and didn’t have, I came too a conclusion that many of the opportunities for learning that I got from my VIC20 are missing from so many of my students:

• they lack patience
• they lack resilience to overcome failure
• they lack strategies to process ideas logically
• they lack outlets to develop their imagination and creativity
• they struggle to organise thoughts
• they use technology but don’t understand it.


This advert for the commodore VIC20 from 1981 sums it all up: being able to use technology and play games is not a skill that will set you apart from anyone else. If you only use technology to surf the internet, use office productivity tools like Word, Powerpoint and Excel, great, but you’re a user, you’re an administrative clerk. If you only play games, great fun, but you’re living within the bounds of someone else’s imagination.


Hero: Ian McNaught Davis

The next piece of the puzzle came from the BBC’s Computer Literacy Project Archive (visit it here) and I started watching all the BBC’s excellent TV programmes from the 1980s hosted by the genius of computer expert Ian McNaught Davis and journalist expert Chris Serle. The way they introduced computers to a nation who knew nothing about computers was brilliant and I felt a similar approach could be used for a generation who used computers but knew nothing about computers.

If that wasn’t exciting enough, re-watching the excellent BBC docudrama ‘Micromen‘ about the beginning of the first computer revolution of the 1980s and the clash between Acorn and Sinclair made we want to get involved in something even more.

Computer programming (or ‘coding’ as it’s now known) isn’t taught very consistently in today’s schools. In the UK, it is now part of the National Curriculum, but there aren’t enough qualified teachers out there to deliver it and schools are left to their own devices on how to tackle it. The result is that it’s tagged onto ICT lessons, usually using a visual high level tool like Scratch, ran in an IT computer room on PCs running Windows.

Why I think this isn’t a good idea is because using a modern powerful multimedia PC to learn to programme is a little like using a Rugby field to play tiddlywinks in. Computer programs today are very sophisticated and have had in most cases thousands of experts working on them for many years. To use a modern powerful PC to play around with simple programming feels like a waste of time. It’s like using the Large Hadron Collider to understand simple electric circuits: the tool is just too sophisticated.

VIC20 circuits.jpgUsing a self-contained microcomputer to do the task is not only more appropriate, it’s more fun. And why not simplify things down a bit? It’s what we do in all the other sciences. In Physics, Chemistry and Biology, we teach smaller systems and model attributes of larger more complex systems. We use little motors and bulbs, make batteries from lemons, copper and zinc and make models of DNA from sweets and straws. We can’t investigate black holes or do neurosurgery in a school lab and no one would even question that we don’t. So why not use a similar approach and use the appropriate tool to teach computing?


My own computer notebook from my own experiments when I was 12.

I played with electronics as a child. When I show components to many kids today, they’ve never even seen them before. They just don’t take things apart. They’d certainly not take their MacBook or iPhone apart, and even if they did, the miniaturisation is such that you’d learn very little. Understanding how an 8-bit microcomputer works is so interesting as you can get right down there to the actual 6502 chip, send it commands and see the result straight away. Learning to programme on a modern PC feels like theoretical gardening – you just don’t feel you’re getting your hands dirty. There’s so much learning that can be done on a self contained micro.

So I had decided. Somehow I’d teach what I knew about programming and make it fun. But which computers to use? The perfect tool was and is, the Acorn BBC B microcomputer. That’s what it was designed for. (You HAVE to see Micromen!). I managed to get hold of three of them, they’ve still retained their value and as such are comparatively expensive. Plus, when they go wrong, I don’t know how to fix them (as I do the VIC20).

Raspberry-Pi-3-Ports-1-1833x1080The perfect tool would be the Raspberry pi. At £32 you can’t go wrong, except that is for the actual micro, you still need a keyboard, case, SD card, screen, mouse and a load of cables: not so good for setting up in a classroom – easily messy, prone to breakages and things going missing.


The brilliant FUZE

I briefly toyed with the idea of setting up my own computer company, making a Raspberry pi in a case like the BBC B or VIC20. How cool would that be! But I haven’t got the funds, connections or time to make that work quick enough. But then to my delight I found that someone else has already done it: FUZE.

They are doing exactly what I wanted too do: put a Raspberry pi in a durable (metal) case with a keyboard, all the ports (including a very useful breadboard for attaching external electronic equipment) plus a new version of BASIC, the computer language I learnt on.

IMG_3822When you add up what you get with a FUZE and add a screen, it comes to a cheaper price than what you’d spend if you bought a Raspberry pi and all the bits separately. The Raspberry pi is built with the Acorn ARM chip (and also in most mobile phones) as designed by Acorn originally for the BBC B. Things have indeed come full circle. I now have three FUZEs so far.

Commodore VIC20

My commodore VIC20s set up in my Physics lab to promote the idea of the club.

But what I know best is still the commodore VIC20 and the BASIC language (which was originally written by a certain Bill Gates. It stands for Beginners All Symbolic Instruction Code). I bought some more VICs from eBay, got some old TVs from local guys around Robin Hood’s Bay where I am, and decided that I’d start off where I first began: typing in BASIC. Interestingly enough, I can get the FUZE to emulate a VIC20 (or a commodore 64 or a BBC B or run the latest RISC based ARM OS).

So the stage is set. Next Wednesday we begin properly (after a few teasers, assemblies and a look at the equipment last term).

But what is our project? We can’t just mess around playing games, there has to be a goal. This is where The Adventure Game title comes in.

Scott Adams

Scott Adams then, and today.

In the late seventies, a new type of computer game was pioneered by a man called Scott Adams. He developed a range of text adventures (initially for the VIC20) and later added graphics and the technology evolved into the games of today. Those original games are effectively the origin of what we now would call  Artificial Intelligence, the ability for a computer algorithm to anticipate an outcome from an input and its internally stored data. Those early games were 33313-1actually the first use of Databases. The goal of my club has become for the students to learn enough about computer coding to be able to create such a database, to create their own original text adventure game and by doing so understand a computer language, the microchip, how artificial intelligence starts out and hopefully have a lot of satisfaction and fun along the way, just as I did when I was 11…

To do this we’re going to use the book by Usborne ‘Write Your Own Adventure Games’. All Usborne’s excellent books are available to download for free.

Using BASIC on the VIC20 and on the FUZE is a great point to start as long as we employ structured programming skills along the way. Then, the students will be able to translate their learning into other languages such as Python, Java or C++ just as those who now run the technology giant companies do, many of whom began on commodore machines. The adventure begins…

adventure game logo

Let me know what you think in comments below was well as any memories you have of programming your 8-bit micro.


My six VIC20s set up in my lab last term to generate interest in the idea of a club.


Thinking out of the box… but how did we get in it?

Commodore VIC 20

This can’t break its programming. You can.

Society has such an outmoded view of creativity. At best it’s a necessary evil, at worst it’s a waste of time.

If you don’t believe me, go and have a look at your primary national curriculum for schools and do a text search for creative thinking and see what comes up.

It’s a rhetorical question: why do we hold back from our creative potential? Because we were trained to. We were programmed to think we were good or bad at this or that and we’ve been running those programmes ever since.

Here’s proof. If someone asked you to do a drawing today, would your first reaction be, ‘whoopee!’? Or would it be one of fear and embarrassment? Ok, maybe you’re the exception, but most people would react in fear. Let’s remind ourselves why.

Let’s go back to being age 6, 7, 8 or 9. The teacher says we’re going to do a drawing. Can you think of anything more exciting? A drawing! It’s pure joy. We’re going to draw… an elephant. So we get going. Mine’s looking ok. But I’m not sure, so I look over at someone else’s which prompts a line of executable programming code from the teacher:

“Don’t copy!” the teacher barks.

So we’re programmed not to look at other people’s ideas. We don’t look to see what other people are up to. We don’t know what our competitors are up to so we can’t do better than them. We fear our ideas will be stolen so we hide them and never improve them. But paradoxically we fear that everyone else is better than us which undermines our confidence, but we can never look to see the truth because our programme stops us from finding out.

John turns to me to ask me something. This prompts the second line of code:

“Stop taking! Do your own work!” .

So we’re programmed not to discuss our ideas to brainstorm them with others. From now on we work in isolation and waste time re-inventing the wheel. We waste time making the same mistakes that others could have helped us with. We get stuck and don’t ask for help. We think that originality is better than collaboration and elaboration and never fully develop our ideas. We begin to doubt ourselves and what we’re capable of. We turn into perfectionists who never finish anything.

Then the teacher comes over and looks at my drawing. “That’s pretty good” she says.

Suddenly I’m programmed with a positive mind virus. It takes over my subroutine, re-calibrating my system with this logical argument.

Teacher is correct.
Teacher says I am good at drawing.
I am good at drawing.

Because she’s the authority figure, what she says must be true. Fast forward from that moment, a year, a decade, thirty years, and the programme is still running. Here I am. I can draw and I know it.

Then she looks at John’s. “Ha ha! What’s that supposed to be? It hasn’t even got a trunk.” She shows it to the class and they all laugh.

Teacher is correct.
Teacher says I am no good at drawing.
I am no good at drawing.

“She’s right. I can’t draw.” thinks John and he runs the further algorithm:

I cannot draw.
Drawing results in embarrassment.
Do not draw.

If we fast forward thirty years, not only does John actively avoid drawing, to avoid further embarrassment, he’s re-calibrated it as frivolous and irrelevant. Just to be safe, he’s lumped in all creativity with it, his software now labelling himself as ‘not a creative person.’

When I was seven I won a painting competition. The best in the village. I won £4.50. I bought a toy telescope with it. But was my painting really that great? If I showed it to you now would it really be that good today? Was it noticeably better than the 2nd place painting? Probably not much better. It probably wasn’t that much better than the worst painting. The painting is of course irrelevant. It’s the fact that I was programmed as a painter that counts.

Can we take credit for what we’re good at (or think we’re good at) today? We can certainly take credit for what we’re not good at.

Did we have talent that was encouraged and developed? Or were were programmed, sometimes randomly, sometimes arbitrarily? Have those programmes stuck, making us think we’re good at (or not good at) something?

The reason so many of us can’t ‘think outside the box’ is because we were forced into that air-tight box all those years ago and we’ve remained there ever since. That’s not really  ood enough. We need to do better. We need to break that programming.

I dare you to do it.

Make a list of the ordinary things you’re not good at. My guess is it will include some of the following: drawing, writing essays, maths, mental arithmetic, memory, sport, geography, finance, cooking, DIY, public speaking, selling…

These are all base-level skills that require little or no talent. They just require confidence and practice.

Pick one, and practice it. Seek the extra bit of training if needed to crack it, and break your programming.

You are not a color home computer loaded with a Beginners All Symbolic Instruction Code operating system and a flashing cursor awaiting instruction on what to do. You are a self-determining creative being. You need to start acting like one. We all do.

Ayd works with people and businesses to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

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