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Continued from page three ...

"Atari. Even the name was cool"

Aaron lived with both of his parents, a few blocks away from Kenny. Aaron's dad did an arcane thing called "finance," which none of us understood. His dad would sit in a little room and use a computer to make charts. He made money from the patterns that emerged. Later Aaron explained that his dad was an arbitrageur, which meant he bought things low and sold them high. Aaron's dad had no fear of technology. He was the first to buy any new high-end electronic device -- calculators, digital watches. So it seemed perfectly natural for Aaron's dad to buy an Apple II computer.

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Apple IIe

The Apple II was a computer for cool grown-ups, science whizzes, and kids who liked to take things apart and rebuild them. From the beginning Apple's founders, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, had insisted that all technical details of how the Apple worked -- such as how the hardware communicated with the software, and what codes were controlling the chips inside -- be available to anyone who asked. The design of the Apple II reflected their ethic: it had an easily removable top panel so that you could fiddle around with the circuits inside. The Apple was built on the virtue of Information Transparency -- the more people there were who knew how they worked, the more programs would be written; the more programs were written, the more people would want an Apple. A virtuous cycle. And it worked -- the Apple had more software from a wide range of authors than any other home computer.

Noise. Explosions. Action. I wanted to save the world and then hit RESET to give it another try.

The problem with Aaron's Apple was with its games; they lacked redolent color, verisimilitude. Apple games were crippled because the Apple II's microprocessor, the Motorola 6502, had no support. All graphics and sound had to go through its tiny logic gates. That made sense for a machine whose designers saw it as a home computer, not a souped-up game console. Their ideal user was made in their image -- a fearless, curious hobbyist willing to get down with the machine, maybe write some code of one's own along the way. I wanted raw power. Noise. Explosions. Action. I wanted to save the world and then hit RESET to give it another try. Scott could do that. He had an Atari.

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Atari 400 & 800

Atari. Even the name was cool. It meant "check" in Japanese, as in chess, but we didn't know that. It just sounded good. Scream Atari as loud as you can, do it again, and you'll know what I mean. And the logo -- three vertical parallel lines with the outside lines curved slightly outward at the bottom -- created an image that said: Alien. Alien attack. Like in Space Invaders. Atari made games, and games were the best thing ever. Apple? A fruit. I liked candy, ice cream, and anything made by Sara Lee. Fruit and vegetables were hated, parentally mandated food groups. A computer for kids should not be named after such beastly things. So Apple had a few handicaps to overcome before an arcade fanatic like me would consider owning one.

I would play my favorite arcade game -- Tempest -- down the hill from my school, at Joe's Pizza. Built by Atari, Tempest was one of the first video games to offer a real sense of three dimensions and fluid speed. I took on the role of a claw-shaped object on the rim of a wire-frame tube, trapezoid, or combination of both. Using a spinning knob to whirl around the rim, I hurled bolts of fragmented energy down at crawling objects heading up the wall toward my perch. If they made it to the top I would be crushed, eaten by one of these odd bugs. The finest moment in the game came after clearing an entire level of parasites: at that moment I hurtled forward, down down the electric tube and out the other end into space toward an approaching object -- the next level -- on whose edge I would land and begin again.

I mastered Tempest, cycling onward to higher and higher levels signified by changing colors -- blue, red, green, yellow, crystal white. Easily earning extra life, I became so close to the machine that conscious thought itself subsided; everything was instinctual. A slice of pizza perched on top of the machine, the spicy scent of pepperoni mixing with sips of icy cold, sugary sweet grape drink. Lines of quarters preserving my lease on the next game. A cluster of people leaning over my shoulders. On our way up the hill, moments before history class, Scott and I would quickly run through our latest conquests, moments well played, new levels breached. I would think about Tempest, replaying moves, seeing a ghost image on the back side of my closed eyes, relishing the exquisite graphics. Minutes later I'd be listening to Mr. Newcombe, my history teacher, spinning long tales concerning Herodotus, the Peloponnesian War, and the Iliad. I rarely took notes. Instead I'd be scribbling pictures, sometimes from Tempest, or a hybrid in between Mr. Newcombe and the game -- Peloponnesian warriors perched on the edge of an electric-blue abyss, hurtling lightning downward into the pit.

Continued ... "A different way of seeing"

David S. Bennahum is a contributing editor at Wired, Spin, I.D., and Lingua Franca. His memoir, Extra Life: Coming of Age in Cyberspace, from which this excerpt is drawn, will be published by Basic Books in November.

Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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