My 1973 birthdate put me right on the frontline of the most revolutionary development in kids’ leisure time since TV had been invented. Arcade games started appearing in the UK in 1978, and two or three years later home computer games machines showed up. A little before I got my first D&D set I went to a friend’s house and played my first computer game on a Texas Instruments computer – “Wumpus”, a “you are in a cave” monster hunt, primitive but totally gripping. Nobody my age had any idea of whether a game was sophisticated, or complex or even predictable: our minds and aesthetics were wide open for videogames.
That same computer also dialled up to a network, Prestel I think, and you could play adventure games via that too: we were only allowed to play for a handful of minutes because of the phone bill, but it was enough. The graphics were so alive, so colourful, and the sense of possibility so vast: I can still half-remember a vivid green and yellow screen with a series of numbered choices, each one a door which I was never allowed to open. “Dad, can we-?” I asked when I got home. “No” – my friend’s father worked in telecoms, he got deals on the equipment, for anyone else it was a prohibitive luxury.
Videogames absorbed and killed tabletop gaming in the end, as soon as their processors could simulate an RPG ruleset: the tradeoff between social interaction and cool graphics was no tradeoff at all. In return the structure, worldview and concepts of RPGs have thoroughly infected videogaming. The infection began early: the original text Adventure game is steeped in the same trad-fantasy trappings (thieves, dungeons, ogres) as D&D. In 1982, home videogames were one of two developments that turned my desire to get my friends roleplaying from weird to acceptable.
The other was Fighting Fantasy, the series of interactive gamebooks (starting with The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain) that became a major craze at school. The gamebooks were a hugely successful try at translating D&D’s attractions (heroic ‘lets pretend’ adventures governed by a fair ruleset) into a solo format: they also provided the descriptive and plot depth that early computer games promised but couldn’t deliver. I loved them, and I loved that my friends loved them, because it made D&D into an easy sell-through: a few gamebooks and they knew all about goblins and spells and dragons. So Fighting Fantasy sparked the interest and videogaming provided the motive.
Parents were suspicious of computer games – they had no redeeming value and would send us all blind. But six of us getting together on a Saturday afternoon to play other games – even if they were strange ones that no Mother understood – was surely better. Of course within an hour of sitting down to play D&D somebody would have plugged the ZX Spectrum in and it would be Atic Atac all the way. Everyone apart from me approved of this: I would have liked more roleplaying. But some was better than none.