I came across this blog post from 10 years ago. Little did I think that when I wrote it, I would be teaching in the classroom adjacent the room that housed the very thing I was writing about. Indeed the Plato IV terminals were in a small room that is now part of the painting studio. The room partitions are gone, as are the dedicated phone lines that linked the terminals to Urbana. Here’s a little blast from the past:
Sunday, February 18, 2001 10:32:14 PM
About the time my friends and I earned our driver’s licenses, we discovered a wonderful thing. Housed in an afterthought of a room in a “temporary” building at Sangamon State University (now the University of Illinois-Springfield) were six giant computer terminals which were part of the PLATO IV system. (Programmed Logic Automated Teaching Operations)
As slightly nerdy, would-be computer geeks, (computers, such as they were, were out of reach for all but the most well-to-do of individuals then,) playing educational games on the immense, plasma touch-screen terminal, which literally clacked and whirred (a relay simulated a ticking clock for its chronograph function!) was enough to get us out of be early on a Saturday morning.
An experimental computer educational computer system built by the University of Illinois supercomputing center and hooked to the ARPANET, the progenitor of the Internet through a sort of virtual private network, PLATO IV was required to be made available to the public for about six hours every Saturday morning. Since no one knew about it except us, we hogged every available minute.
In his book, Mediamorphosis, Roger Fidler makes the point in chapter six that, regarding the Viewtron and Prestel systems of the early 1980s, that it was not the multiple layers of information to be retrieved, but the interactivity and messaging functions that the people who used those early systems really liked.
The same could be said for PLATO. Even though it was created to carry instructional games such as “Projectile Mountain” and “Lunar Lander” (which taught trigonometric and analytical geometric formulas by having you try to shoot a mortar shell from the peak of one mountain and strike the top of the other – and landing on the moon) what really drew people to PLATO was its interactive, multi-user game such as Empire! and Airfight. Empire was a Star Trek – style game where you flew around the universe and captured planets in order to attack the ships and planets held by other players in the game. Airfight was a flight simulator (with gattling guns and missiles!) You could fly a Sopwith Camel against an F-15 and shoot it down because the game gave you a tighter turning radius and the same missiles your opponent carried. Airfight was later developed into Microsoft Flight Simulator.
We weren’t totally hopeless. My friends and I were actually on to something. The games themselves were fun, but the real joy came in taunting other human beings via the programs’ chat functions. It was the interactivity. You were pitting your wits against a real, live person (perhaps in Europe!) but having a friendly conversation with them as you did your best to shoot them down.
I have fond memories of carrying on chats with U.S. Air Force officers who were stationed on the early-warning line in Nome, Alaska who, likewise stationed their butts 24 / 7 in front of their PLATO terminals and endlessly played Airfight through the long winter months without sunlight.
Your tax dollars at work.
The terminals were there (of all places) for continuing education courses that they apparently never took. Hey, at least we weren’t nuked!
There was a guy (probably several guys) who went by the moniker “Midnight Shadow” who racked up more “kills” on Airfight than anyone. (The system kept track of the kills assigned to your login name.) He told me that the only reason he kept playing the game was that he enjoyed talking to the continuous stream of people worldwide who logged on and off the system throughout the day to take their shot at Midnight Shadow. It alleviated the boredom of being in Nome, Alaska and reminded him of why he was there.
Fidler is right. Tell me it’s not about the interactivity.
UPDATE: Check blackboard for a PDF of this Atlantic Monthly article. The machine described within would look like the desk-shaped device above right.