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You are here: Home > Young Writers' Hub > Blog > Lucy Prebble: 'Gaming is an artform just like theatre'
Lucy Prebble: 'Gaming is an artform just like theatre'
Enron playwright Lucy Prebble became hooked on computer games as a child. And, she says, they are as well crafted as works for film, TV or the stage

The first thing I remember is Zork. The year I was born, four guys who had invented a programming language at MIT released an interactive text "computer game" that went by the futuristic, silly but imposing name,Zork. It's difficult to remember computers as they were then without our current sense of technological sophistication (or should that be naivety?). My father worked in IT, so there were computers in my house from an early age. I remember vividly my older siblings being taught to "code"; to enter strings of commands to form a short "program" that meant the computer did something like change its screen colour or show a moving triangle.

Most of us remember the blackness of DOS, its blinking, patient but demanding cursor. This was a time when it felt that the depths of your machine were on show. You turned it on and there were its black innards, waiting to be ploughed through, vulnerable, demanding, endless. There was none of the pretty, cheery Apple design or the blue chiming order of Windows. We were yet to build a cosy home from these raw materials. No, DOS was as open and black as the American plains at night and as scary. But there were prizes to be won for those brave enough to tame the frontier.

And what those of us who remember DOS realise now is that we are protected from how a computer actually works: how to code, design or run a program. We have tamed the frontier and so lost those basic skills. Few of us would give up our sleek, compliant virtual homes to be out in the cold night again, but there was an excitement to that blackness. Out of that blackness sprang one of the first stories I remember being told.

Zork was a text-based computer game, which just meant that from a black screen, sparse white text appeared, telling you where you were, what was happening and then awaiting instruction. "You are standing in an open field," it began, "west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here."

Then you would type in what you wanted to do. No multiple choice, no avatar, you would type in… anything. It's difficult to explain the thrill this was to a tiny, book-obsessed child who had recently learned to read; cushion tucked beneath her bottom, eyes reflecting the screen's glow, Ribena poised dangerously by the keyboard. It was asking me what to do next. It was asking me to join the story.

You remember that exciting bit in Big where the newly adult Tom Hanks designs the next major toy: an electronic comic book where the reader can make choices along the way that affect the ending? Well, congratulations, dude, you just invented gaming eight years after reality.

Of course, it was also rubbish, in a way. It recognised only a limited range of words to do with direction or action, and it was easy to get stuck being repeatedly killed by a grue in a cave, but it was genuinely spooky and you had no idea what would happen next. There were clockwork birds and a "sinister lurking presence" and so much darkness that you were narratively, textually, literally pressing through. It was clear that there were authors to this midnight-black adventure. You could tell because when you put in rude words instead of commands (as I defy anybody to resist doing, whether it's Zork or Siri on your new iPhone 4S), the game recognised them and chided you with appropriate twinkle. At that point, a tiny girl in her dad's office and four grown men at MIT bonded. In a totally OK way.

From this point, my journey was Sega-bound. The Gamesmaster, the Mega Drive. There were those who went the Nintendo route with its lighter colours and squat Mario bouncing. I eschewed them. You were Nintendo or you were Sega and ne'er the twain should go round each other's house for tea. I can still hear the voiceover from the Mega Drive's Altered Beast. I can still do an uncanny impression of the sounds Ryu made when he threw a fireball on Street Fighter. So why did I become an avid gamer, while many, in those days at least, did not?

For the rest of the article

The Guardian


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