Sometimes it seems the Internet is, at its core, a tremendous nostalgia machine. You are, at any given moment, just a few clicks and keystrokes away from local television that aired 40 years ago, from discontinued toys, and from sounds you haven’t heard in forever (or at all).
It seems fitting, if not outright magical, for example, that the immersive virtual worlds of my youth—computer games like Lemonade Stand (1979), The Oregon Trail (1979), Choplifter (1982), Carmen Sandiego (1985), and Think Quick! (1987)—are all playable online.
Back when I was playing these games on my family’s Apple IIc, they were often side-eyed by a generation that had first encountered home computers as adults—and distrusted gaming as a waste of time. If anything destroys the practice of reading once and for all, The New York Times warned in 1994, it will be computer games.
Computer games did not destroy reading.
Instead, games had a profound effect on the popular perception of computers. The ginormous machines of the 1960s and 1970s were viewed as either complex and boring or, in science fiction, threatening. “I think the fact that computers were primarily used to play games really helped to get people to accept that computers were good and helpful devices instead of the negative portrayals of them in the ‘60s and ‘70s in movies,” said John Romero, the co-founder of id Software and the designer of several hugely popular games including Wolfenstein 3D (1992), Doom (1993), and Quake (1996).
Games also shaped people’s understanding of what computers are for—and what humankind’s relationship with such machines could be like. Computers were serious tools, yes, but they could enable exploration and experimentation, too. Computers weren’t just expensive calculators or advanced typewriters; they were fun.