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Evenly Distributed | 2226

In 1974 on the PLATO mainframe system there was a 32-player 3D networked first person space flight simulation game.

Full Show Notes: https://www.thejaymo.net/2022/06/25/301-2225-navigation-styles/

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Evenly Distributed

William Gibson first said โ€œThe future is already here โ€“ itโ€™s just not evenly distributedโ€ in 2003.

During my 20โ€™s, I arrogantly thought that phrase was about me. Living in the west meant living in the future. Owning a smartphone. Or sending and spending Bitcoin in 2012. But the more I learn about the history of computing (see episode 22-23) I realise how wrong I was.

The future is already here. But by the time it gets distributed, itโ€™s coming from the past.

Have a think, as weโ€™ll come back to this. When did you first play an online multiplayer game?

I spent June reading about mainframe computers and old operating systems.

Did you know that in the 1960โ€™s IBM spent more money on its System 360 project than the US government spent on the Manhattan project during the second world war?

This effort produced the first suite of computers to run microcode. Or rather, the computers that made the distinction between operating system and architecture. Half a century ago it cost IBM a staggering amount of money to get us to the computing paradigm we have today. 

But it’s the PLATO mainframe system I want to talk about today. 

P-L-A-T-O

  • Programmed 
  • Logic for
  • Automatic 
  • Teaching 
  • Operations

It began life in the early 1960โ€™s. Under the guidance of electrical engineer Donald Bitzer at the University of Illinois. Bitzer believed in collaborative production and recruited a team of so-called โ€˜creative eccentricsโ€™ to help write the software. The team included university professors and high school students. Together they built a future still being unevenly distributed to us today. 

I should also mention Bitzer, in addition to being the godfather of the PLATO mainframe. Invented the plasma screen flat panel display AND the Touchscreen. 

Both technologies were integrated into PLATO systems from 1964.

PLATO TERMINAL

Star Trek the original series – a contemporary of PLATO – meanwhile still imagined computers with cathode ray monitors and analogue push buttons.

Star Trek TOS

Mainframes are interesting computing environments. You share a computer and connect via a terminal. Sort of like the relationship between web browser and cloud application (or the blockchain) we have today. 

By the mid 70’s PLATO was able to support 1000โ€™s of concurrent users. 1000โ€™s of people sharing the same code space, or dare I say, the same world. 

Here are some of the social features that users of the PLATO enjoyed:

A General-purpose message board
Electronic mail
Notes files (a system very similar to BBS or news groups)
Real time 1:1 text chat using a program called Termchat. Any user could message any other user active on the system directly.

There was also a program called Talkomatic.

The first multi-user chat room system. Up to 5 people could communicate in  real time.. In 1973, at launch it supported up to 6 rooms with 5 people per room. According to David R. Woolley writing in 1994, Talkomatic logged over 40 hours of use per day immediately at launch.

PLATO also had screen sharing software called Monitor Mode. A user could share their screen and chat to a viewer or viewers via text chat. 

In the mid 70โ€™s anonymity mode was also introduced to the newsgroups as an experiment. Users could leave notes on a public message board with their ID marked as โ€˜Anonymousโ€™. Those people were legion then too I suppose.

Celebrities, characters and influencers emerged in this environment welcoming identity play. 

An undergraduate student at the University of Delaware became the PLATO humorist Dr. Graper. You can find a complete archive of his surrealistic writings at grapenotes.com. His first post from July 1977 includes these lines:

I love exposure. I need attention. Show me how to get both and you’ll get my love Grapenote

Which sums up social media pretty well doesn’t it?

In the 1970โ€™s PLATO users were participating in what we would today call an โ€˜Online Communityโ€™. People from across the country were meeting in Talkomatic, and then carrying on romances via ‘term-talk’ and email etc.

This was of course just the educational part of the system. It also had games! 

Let me tell you about the games. 

dnd

In 1974, mere months after the release of the first dungeons and dragons ruleset. Gary Whisenhunt and Ray Wood, then students at the university of Illinois released dnd.

Which, you guessed it, is a top down dungeon crawl roguelike game where you explore a dungeon based on the d&d ruleset. The very first game to also feature a boss fight.

Spasim

The same year, Jim Bowery developed Spasim. A 32-player networked space flight simulation game and 3D first-person space shooter. Yes, that’s right. In 1974 there was a 32-player 3D networked first person space flight simulation game. Teams of 8 players could fly spaceships around 4 planetary systems.

By 1977 things had evolved even further….

Avatar

Avatar was a 2.5-D graphical interactive role playing dungeon that supported up to 60 concurrent players. It was so difficult that one person could not play it alone. To survive, players had to run in groups. Avatar had in-game chat to facilitate this.

Like any virtual world, a community sprung up inside the game. Over 600,000 in game hours were spent in that world. Staggering numbers. 

By 1985 however, the PLATO system was made obsolete. Mainframes aged out in favour of the personal computer revolution. Individuals sitting at their own computing machines. It would be another 10 years until networks connected individual users together again. 

The 1960โ€™s collaborative code space future PLATO envisioned is still being rebuilt and distributed to us today. 

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The script above is the original script written for the episode. It may differ from what ended up in the edit.

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