PLATO and early computer games

The Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture (Brian Dear 2017; Pantheon) exhaustively chronicles the first popular multiplayer computer games.

From a software engineering point of view, the PLATO shared mainframe wasn’t that different from Amazon’s game servers today. The client (terminal)had a lot less capability than today’s PC or Web browser, but the basic idea of a central shared memory holding the state of the game hasn’t changed.

PLATO was the first system that gathered up a lot of simultaneous users on terminals with reasonable graphics capability (512×512 resolution in the early 1970s!) and allowed them to burn up precious computer time. The PLATO terminals also had a touch screen with 16×16 resolution.

John Daleske wrote a hugely popular game inspired by Star Trek:

The first version of Empire was primitive: one screen containing one “universe” consisting of eight planets. It only supported eight people at a time, but that was six more than any other game of the era. (Indeed, this first version of Empire may be the first graphical, interactive multiplayer computer game anywhere that supported more than two players simultaneously.) If you weren’t one of the lucky eight players, you had to settle for “lurking,” standing in line, watching the game from the outside.

“In the first version of Empire,” Warner says, “eight players could play against each other. They were not allied in any way.” No Klingons, Feds, Romulans, or Orions— all that would come later. “Just players, one to a planet. They were in fact controllers of each planet.” Like later versions of Empire, the first version of the game had little icons representing the spaceships. But instead of piloting the spaceships, players would simply direct the spaceship to go from one planet to another, and when a ship arrived at another planet, a player could trade with that planet, or fight with that planet, or drop bombs, and so forth. Spaceship combat was automatic: if two spaceships got within a certain distance you would either have the choice of passing or fighting. If they fought, the battle was automatic. “That version of Empire was actually continued after the second version, under the name Conquest,” Silas recalls. His version evolved to support six universes, each a sort of separate level of the game, where you could jump from one to the other. “Usually, universe 1 was always full,” Warner recalls. “Universe 2 was sort of halfway there, and there might be a pickup, an arranged game, in universe 4.”

It didn’t work out too well when an actual Star Trek hero arrived on the scene:

Spock without his Vulcan ears. A few days’ start on a beard. Smelling like booze.

It was Tuesday, May 7, 1974. Actor Leonard Nimoy was in town, on a press junket, meeting with reporters, grabbing a bite in the back room of a local restaurant (where Nimoy, more interested in talking about his serious acting, grew aloof at reporters’ incessant Star Trek questions— didn’t they realize the Trek series had ended five years earlier?), …

(when it was PLATO demo time) to the shock and dismay of the gathered onlookers, the ultra-logical Spock in real life knew nothing about chess. “I didn’t expect Nimoy to actually compete with the computer,” says Frankel, “but I figured he’d move a few pawns around and be amused that the computer could interpret his actions and respond. Plus our graphics were pretty sweet— most chess programs at the time were purely alphanumeric.” Nimoy’s Vulcan counterpart was celebrated as not only an expert at playing chess, but an expert at 3D chess. To discover that in real life the actor didn’t know chess at all was devastating to the gathered Trek fans.

PLATO offered the first mass-market flight simulation game:

Brand Fortner, located right at CERL, had already written Airfight, which seemed destined from the very start to be an insanely popular game. There had been nothing like it before. It was another PLATO first, in the long, long line of PLATO firsts: a first-person-perspective, multiplayer, shoot-’ em-right-out-of-the-sky flight simulator. And until Empire came along, it had ruled the PLATO gaming world. Fortner had stumbled upon a simple PLATO game called Air Ace, where you could type in some parameters, press NEXT, and “about ten seconds later,” says Fortner, “it would redraw line graphics of the cockpit and you would see outside of the plane. And I thought, Well, that is an interesting idea, but gee, wouldn’t it be nice if you could fly a lot faster and shoot down other people?” By today’s standards, Airfight’s graphics and realism, like every other PLATO game, are hopelessly primitive. But in the 1970s Airfight was simply unbelievable. These rooms full of PLATO terminals weren’t “PLATO classrooms,” they were PLATO arcades, and they were free.

You’d hit “9” to set the throttle at maximum, “a” for afterburners, “w” a few times to pull the stick back (using those PLATO arrow keys again), and then NEXT NEXT NEXT NEXT NEXT NEXT NEXT to update the screen as you rolled down the runway, lifted off, and shot up into the sky to join the fight. It might be seconds or minutes, depending on how far away the enemy airplanes were, before you saw dots in the sky, dots that as you flew closer and closer turned into little circles and triangles.

Bruce Artwick, another University of Illinois graduate student, used PLATO terminal parts to make a more realistic flight simulator in the mid-1970s. He stuck with this area and eventually licensed his work to become Microsoft Flight Simulator.

Everything bad that people say today about computer games and computer games they said in the 1970s about PLATO games and PLATO gamers. Addicts stayed up all night to play games, got bad grades, dropped out of school, withdrew from face-to-face socializing.

There was another unexpected outcome. At some point, a point that varied depending on the person, PLATO became more than a novelty in the lives of its more obsessed users. These users would cross an invisible line beyond which being on PLATO became one’s life. There were countless examples of this. One was Mark Eastom, says Bruce Maggs, one of the authors of Avatar. Maggs roomed with Eastom during one of his undergraduate years, and Eastom became one of Avatar’s operators, contributing by managing the monster data. “He was a real character,” says Maggs. “PLATO was his life, he was one of these guys for whom this was it. This was all they had in their lives: their PLATO programming and PLATO game playing and PLATO friendships. There were a lot of people like that.” Living the PLATO life could turn into an addiction, a dangerous path to take. A PLATO-addicted college student risked grades suffering, possibly delaying graduation, or, worse, expulsion or dropping out. All of these outcomes were, sadly, commonplace.

Many UI students from the 1970s and 1980s would in time confess to the havoc PLATO wreaked on their college careers. Michael Schwager was one. “I first saw Plato in 1977,” he says. “I got accepted to the U of I in 1978 and became addicted to it, playing Empire till 6 a.m. In 1979 I flunked out of school, but I got good at PLATO.” David Sides, one of the coauthors of Avatar, stared into the abyss, grade-wise, a few times thanks to overdoing it on PLATO. “I know I got into a lot of trouble sophomore year, because I was ending up too long at the computer lab, I was there until three or four in the morning, and I had real grade problems that first semester of my sophomore year because of it. I didn’t flunk out of anything, but I got a D in a midterm in chemistry, and that made a real major impression on me, and it was a real problem.”

There was, for instance, a notesfile called = addict =, dedicated to PLATO addiction. In it, users could offer true confessions of their predicament: how PLATO felt to them, how being away from PLATO felt, and how getting back online felt. One user in 1981 described his PLATO experience this way: “When I do get on… blooie…. End of sanity. End to sense of proportion. End to perspective on what is important in life. When I first got on in 1975, I used to lay awake at night thinking, ‘Gee, I can’t wait until I get on tomorrow,’ and getting an author signon was the greatest ambition I had.” Another user expressed his PLATO predicament this way: “The orange dots are more personal to me than face-to-face encounters with people I don’t know. This may be because when you leave a note with your signon attached, it is there for a long time, much longer than a spoken word is around, and therefore tends to be more thought out. Those who say computers are impersonal have never used a computer. They are far more personal than most people. P.S. Computer games are better than sex.”

Like most other users of mainframes, PLATO programmers generally failed to see the appeal of microcomputers. What is interesting about a machine with limited CPU and memory and no communications capability? Nonetheless, a few PLATO alumni become the authors of popular PC games. Silas Warner developed Castle Wolfenstein, for example. Brodie Lockard, paralyzed after a gymnastics accident at Stanford, used a mouth stick to program Shanghai.

This part of the book is interesting because we think that we are living in a new age, and maybe we are if we look at the number of people who spend a lot of their time gaming, but in reality it seems that there isn’t much new except lower prices and better graphics.

More: Read The Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture


5 thoughts on “PLATO and early computer games

  1. Separately on the topic of why some men play video games instead of getting married or having serious relationships: see your previous post.

  2. The chart I recently saw showed that the TV hours are about 6 times the amount of computer gaming time. It’s weird why we focus so much on gaming versus TV. Both are not exactly working.

  3. A year later Nimoy released his autobiography, entitled I Am Not Spock. 21 years later he had a change of heart, so he released his second autobiography, entitled I Am Spock.

    Nimoy was so well regarded that in the cold open to the 2011 Emmy Awards, he played the “President of Television”, with Jane Lynch as host.

  4. I got a chance to play this in 77 or 78 when I went to work with my step-father at Brooks in San Antonio (microwave radiation research/civil service). May have been my first introduction to video games or close to it. We played a lot of video games at the laundry mat next to Mr. M’s (?) just outside the gates on Medina. Hard to believe they cost a quarter back then. How much is that in today’s $$? Got to see monkeys learning how to fly using electric shocks. Got to wear a radiation badge too. Fun times! If I had to take one blogger with me on a desert island it would be Phil. Thanks for posting Phil.

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