Stealth Gaming

James Parkinson
James Parkinson
Stealth Gaming

If you were a high school student in the 90s or early 2000s, you were likely required to have a graphing calculator for math class. It was probably made by Texas Instruments and your parents complained that it cost too much. But these calculators, like the TI-83 model, were capable of far more than equations and graphs. You could actually use them to play games, if you knew how to get ahold of them.

 TRANSCRIPT

JAMES PARKINSON: When I was in high school in the early 2000s there was this idea, this myth, that you could download a game for your calculator. Now, I’d never seen anyone playing a calculator game, and I had no idea how to get one. But it turns out it was possible, and it went far beyond my own school.

COLIN WIRTH: I had seen from a classmate, them kind of noodling around on their calculator quite a bit during class one time. And I'm like, “Well, you know, that doesn't look like they're doing calculations or whatever, because they're using kind of the D-pad an awful lot.” And after class, I'm like, “What were you doing?” And he shows me that he's got Tetris running on his calculator, and my eyes get really big, and I'm like, “No way, how do you - tell me more, how do you do this?”

JAMES PARKINSON: That’s Colin Wirth from the YouTube channel This Does Not Compute.

COLIN WIRTH: You know, and he kind of kind of explained, “Yeah, I mean, you can get games for these”, I guess. Like, he wasn't an expert in it, or anything, by any means. But he kind of showed me, “Yeah, you know, I got them from somebody else, and they sent the games over to my calculator, and now I can play them”. And it went from there. I tried to absorb as much knowledge as I could, at least from, kind of, a consumer standpoint, about, “What's this all about?”, like, “How do I get into this more?”, “Where do I find these games?”, “What are they capable of?”. And let me just say it made math class go by a lot faster for me.

JAMES PARKINSON: We’re talking about the graphing calculator, specifically the models made by Texas Instruments, which were a requirement in a lot of schools. And this experience of how people first learned about calculator games, and went on a mission to try and get them was a common story, because it was sort of an underground thing.

COLIN WIRTH: The TI-83, I think, was kind of the new, you know, hot model that everyone in school had at the time. At least here in the US, in high school, the vast majority of the time - and this was in the, kind of, mid to late 90s - it was all kind of a sneaker-net type of thing, right? Where you had just other people that you eventually learned, you know, “Oh, they've got games on their calculator”, and you'd use the little link cable to hook up to theirs, and then they could send them to you. And likewise, if you were talking about a game with someone else, and they didn't have it, you could send a copy that you had to them, just using that little cable. And that's kind of the way it was for me for at least the first couple years. I don't think anyone really knew where all of the new games were coming from.

JAMES PARKINSON: Many of these games were clones of existing titles. The kind of handheld games you’d typically find on the Nintendo Game Boy, like Tetris or Super Mario. But there were also entirely original games.

COLIN WIRTH: You would occasionally come across like a really cool, even just text-based adventure game that was completely original, you can tell someone had just sat down one day and decided to write it. And then there were other ones that were usually the more advanced style, you know, more graphics heavy, that sort of thing. And the level of skill that you would see, on a game-to-game basis, was really interesting as well. I mean, you can tell sometimes, games were ones that just barely worked, you know, someone was still learning how to write programs for the calculator, and they managed to get this thing put together, and it was a little rough around the edges, but it worked. And other times, it was amazing. In fact, to this day, my very favourite version of Tetris is actually a clone called Q for the TI-89. Just the way it works, it's very fluid, it was very efficient in the way that it was written. It's graphically rich, even though it's on a monochrome, you know, non-backlit screen, but it has got gravity effects, and the controls are just about perfect.

JAMES PARKINSON: These were the days of dial-up internet. Games on mobile phones were barely a thing, and most teenagers didn’t even have phones anyway. If you wanted to play games on a handheld device, your best option was a Game Boy - but good luck sneaking that into class. The height of calculator games was this brief moment in time, where their biggest audience were bored, rebellious school kids.

COLIN WIRTH: So with the calculator, it's that stealth-ness, right? You didn't know, unless you were looking at someone's screen, “Are they doing math, or are they playing a game?”. You didn't know. But if they're sitting in math or science class, well, you kind of flew under the radar, unless it was, you know, very obvious that you were heavy into some sort of action oriented game, and mashing the buttons a little bit more than you normally would just, you know, crunching numbers for math class. You know, so there was just that whole sense of kind of getting one over on the teacher, you know? Sitting in the back of class, you know, you got your chair leaned back, and you're sitting there playing Tetris or Mario or whatever, when you should be doing the quadratic formula or something.

JAMES PARKINSON: And for the people who made these games, the graphing calculator presented a challenge - getting these devices to do things they were never designed to do.

JAMES PARKINSON: I’m James Parkinson. From Lawson Media, this is Gameplay, stories about video games and the virtual worlds that power culture and community.

JAMES PARKINSON: During the mid to late 90s or early 2000s, Texas Instruments were the most common brand of calculators in classrooms, and in many cases, the only brand. Established in 1951, the company has long been a leader in the electronics industry. They manufactured the first commercially available transistor radio in 1954, and began producing scientific calculators in the 1970s.

BRANDON WILSON: Texas Instruments is a semiconductor company. So they are - it's a very, very large company. They deal with a lot of different types of electronic components and computers and other types of boards and devices. But their educational division is kind of a very small part of Texas Instruments themselves, although it's probably one of the most profitable because they can produce these graphing calculators, somewhere around $10 a piece, and sell them for, you know, ten, fifteen times that.

JAMES PARKINSON: This is Brandon Wilson, and if you want to know anything about calculators, he’s your guy.

BRANDON WILSON: I actually have one of the world's largest collections of calculators. I have every model, every hardware revision, colour variation, school property ones, various accessories, projector attachments, and so on, prototypes, engineering samples, almost everything, it's almost a museum.

JAMES PARKINSON: Since the introduction of their first graphing calculator in 1990, the TI-81, Texas Instruments embedded themselves into the education system in the United States.

BRANDON WILSON: So they have a lot of deals with educators and classrooms. So they can make these calculators part of their curriculum, and the schools kind of have to stick with that model. Not only that brand, but that particular model that they're working with. So Texas Instruments has a firm grasp on the educational community, I think. But it wasn't until they actually made a graphing calculator with a screen large enough to be able to do things with, instead of just displaying one or two lines of text, that it really took off from a programming and a gaming standpoint.

JAMES PARKINSON: TI calculators support two different programming languages, depending on the model, which is what makes writing games possible.

BRANDON WILSON: There are what are called Basic programs, which are written in a programming language that Texas Instruments came up with called TI-BASIC. It's very similar to BASIC on a computer. And then there are games that are written in a much lower level language, which are called Assembly language programs. And those are programs that operate at a much lower level, and they have more access to the hardware, which means it's possible to create faster, better games that are more capable than Basic ones. So Basic programs and Basic games tend to be more text based, whereas Assembly programs are the more fun games, games like Mario, Tetris.

JAMES PARKINSON: But of course, Texas Instruments never intended for people to make games for their calculators - most high school students probably wouldn’t even use the programming functions. But if you were interested enough in learning how, writing a program could certainly be helpful. Here’s Colin Wirth.

COLIN WIRTH: It was included, I think on TI’s part, really just as a way to maybe give you the ability to write something simple to help you do mathematical functions. Like if there was something that you needed to do repeatedly, that would take multiple steps to do by hand on the calculator, I think their intention was you could write a program that would do all of that for you in one shot. So a great example is actually a calculator program I wrote myself, back in high school, on my TI-83. In math class, we were going through some, like, trigonometry kind of stuff, and learning about the quadratic equation, and other formulas, where once you got it, like how the formula worked, it just became kind of monotonous to have to do it over and over again on the calculator. Like, the calculator definitely did the heavy lifting of some of the mathematical functions, but it was just a lot of typing. And what I realised was that I could leverage BASIC to do some of that for me, right? So I figured out how variables worked, you know, ask you, “okay, what do you want this side of the triangle to be, in terms of its length?”, and, “What's the length of the other side of the triangle?”. You type that number in, and then it can tell you what the length of a third side was, that sort of a thing. It was faster and easier to write a program to do that for me in the end, just because of how much time it would save me otherwise, having to type that formula in over and over.

JAMES PARKINSON: Okay, that’s enough maths - what about the games?!

COLIN WIRTH: So if you were, you know, in high school, you probably would have been writing a more basic program like, you know, one of those text adventure kind of games. And that really wouldn't take terribly long. And I remember doing that once. Just out of curiosity, I found a game online. It was like an adventure, kind of choose your own adventure text game. And you'd print it out like on paper, and you'd just sit there and read through and type it all in. [27:22] It took me a few hours to do it, and when I was done, you know, I saved it, and then I played it. And it was not very satisfying. And the reason is because I already knew how the game worked, right? You're literally typing the entire game out. It's a text based adventure game. So you know what all the possibilities are, that it was spoiled for me, just in the act of trying to get it on the calculator to begin with.

JAMES PARKINSON: So text-based games...not very exciting. But what about something like Tetris or Pokemon?

COLIN WIRTH: Where things got a lot more complicated was the other types of games, and those were ones written in Assembly. Assembly is a language where you're interfacing directly with the hardware of the calculator. You're not necessarily going through any sort of command interpreter, like you would be with BASIC. You are, more or less, telling the CPU itself directly. “This is what I want you to calculate, I want you to put this information in these places in memory, I want you to compute these algorithms, do these calculations, do all this kind of stuff directly”. It's obviously a lot more complicated of a language to learn, because you need to have knowledge of not just how to write programs in general, but also how the hardware you're writing that program against is laid out and how it works. So you need to have knowledge of, internally, like how the CPU functions, and where all the RAM registers are and that sort of thing.

BRANDON WILSON: Learning all that hardware kind of had to be done from scratch, there wasn't really any support from Texas Instruments. Once it was possible to write Assembly programs on the first calculator, which is the first calculator that supported it, which was the TI-85. We had to kind of reverse engineer the operating system and all of the hardware ourselves and learn everything about how to communicate with it, from the keyboard and directly reading inputs to outputting graphics of different types to the LCD, and so on. So all that had to be done. manually, it all had to be done ourselves, there was no SDK, or anything like that you might have seen in other communities - you kind of have to do it all yourself. So if you wanted to write games for calculators, you not only had to have the willingness to create games, but you also had to have a willingness to reverse engineer, you know, things that had nothing to do with games like the operating system itself, and all the all the the ways that it interacted with hardware and try to figure out how it was doing it. So it was definitely a lot of trial and error that was probably beyond most people, but the ones who stuck with it, they were the ones who really had the right mindset for not only game programming, but just programming in general and reverse engineering.

COLIN WIRTH: I have a feeling that the vast majority of those types of games were written, probably, by college or university students who are going through computer science programs. And you know, much like the, shall we say high school students, who didn't find math class very entertaining, like myself, who just wanted to get through class by doing things like playing games, I have a feeling these computer science students probably felt kind of the same way. Maybe they were the brighter ones who already knew some of what was being taught and just had to take the class as part of a requirement, or maybe they just found lectures boring or whatever. And so they spent the time instead writing games for their calculator instead of playing them.

JAMES PARKINSON: Brandon was one of those savvy students who actually made an original game of his own.

BRANDON WILSON: The one game, the one credit to my name, gaming-wise, is a game called Batcave. It's a very simple game. It's basically like Flappy Bird, except I'd never heard of that game at the time. So the idea was that you're a little bat in a cave that would constantly and randomly shift and change shape, so that you had to, you're kind of constantly gliding down unless you were holding a button. And then you would glide up, and there were obstacles in your path. And so you had to just try to last as long as possible in order to get a high score. And it's very similar to other games that existed on those calculators. One of my favourite games was a game called Fall Down. And you were just a little ball on a screen that was constantly scrolling up, and you had little breaks in the floor, and then you had to constantly rush to the left or the right side before the ball got to the top of the screen, otherwise you would die. So it was very similar to that. And I would say that a lot of games were like that. It was really just a test of endurance and trying to get the highest score. So you could play the game in class, and then pass it off to your friend who was sitting next to you, and you can see if he could last a little bit longer. So that was how I played games when I was younger and in school, and I found that to be a lot of fun, and I'm sure other students did the same.

JAMES PARKINSON: Although he wasn’t very experienced in making games, with his knowledge of Assembly, it took Brandon about a couple of weeks to create Batcave. And as simple as these kinds of games were, I sort of find them more impressive than something like a Super Mario clone, because those games have their limitations too.

COLIN WIRTH: The one thing that I did find interesting, and it probably speaks more to the amount of resources available hardware wise in a calculator, and the amount of skill that the people writing the games had. And that is I never found any true duplicates like I would have expected, maybe at some point for someone to write, you know, a game that was like the first level of Super Mario 1, you know, in its entirety. You could play it, it looks exactly the same. I've never found anything like that. These games were always a little bit different in one way or another. They had the same spirit, the controls may have worked the same, but the graphics are always a little off. And the level layout was always a little bit different. So you can tell there was still, even though they were kind of like aping the style of that game, there was still some creativity on the programmer’s part when they put that title together.

JAMES PARKINSON: Still, that didn’t matter so much if you were a teenager, just looking for a distraction in class and maybe a way to impress your friends with the games you could show off on your calculator. And for the programmers, the community around calculator gaming was far more important. That’s coming up after the break.

[AD BREAK]

JAMES PARKINSON: It’s obvious that games don’t need to be complicated in order to be fun, and keeping it simple in calculator gaming made things much easier, because of course, these devices weren’t made with games in mind.

COLIN WIRTH: Yeah, gaming on these calculators was definitely challenging, in some ways, for sure. The biggest thing I think that was always the challenge was the controls. There was a D-pad on those calculators, but it's on the right side, which is kind of the opposite of where most people would expect it. So your dexterity was always going to play a little bit because everyone's just so used - regardless of whether you're left or right handed, everyone used to having the D-pad on the left. And then the action buttons were going to be on the left side. But there were a whole bunch of buttons on the calculator. So like, which ones did you use? And you can tell that the better programmers had thought about that in advance, because they would often include the controls like right on the splash screen of the game, before you started, instead of leaving them as some sort of note that you had to read online, when you went to download the game. You know, they were kind of thinking ahead about exactly what environment they were writing their game for. And that the buttons themselves wouldn't necessarily be intuitive as to which action button is what. Eventually though, as you just kind of get into it, you'd figure it out. You know, Tetris actually was pretty easy to get into, because the movements don't necessarily have to be all that quick. Platformers were a little bit more of a challenge, especially the Mario style ones, where you have to run and jump at the same time in very specific timings. Generally, latency wasn't too big of a deal, if the game was written decently well, you know, they were all playable. But just kind of wrapping your head around the mirror image control scheme would sometimes send people for a bit of a loop.

JAMES PARKINSON: Another significant difference, compared to something like a Game Boy, is that calculators don’t have speakers, so none of these games have any sound. While you didn’t get that audible feedback, it was actually an advantage because if you were a high school student playing in class, you didn’t want to alert the teacher to the fact you were playing games. And for the programmers, it was one thing they didn’t have to worry about.

JAMES PARKINSON: The underground nature of calculator gaming meant that sharing among students was how most people got ahold of new games. But there were always one or two people who were perhaps more involved in the community and were able to access games at their source - specialist websites where programmers could upload their games for anyone to download to their device, as long as they had the right cable.

COLIN WIRTH: You would use this connection kit called the TI-Graphlink cable, and that would hook up between, like, the serial port on your computer and your calculator, and then you could just run special software on your computer to send and receive files back and forth.

BRANDON WILSON: This is the mid 90s. So the internet was just getting to be a thing. And I learned that there were websites out there that actually had programs that you could download and transfer them to your calculator, not only math and educational programs, but also games as well. And when I realised that, I immediately downloaded every game that existed for that particular model that I had, the TI-83 and played them all. And I was just fascinated by it.

COLIN WIRTH: And that's when I would say my horizons around calculator gaming really started to broaden. Because it wasn't just, you know, a high school kind of a thing, this was really kind of a worldwide thing. And there were people, you know in college, and university that were getting in on the action. And create these games, and they'd upload them to the internet. And there were several websites at the time that kind of archived them and had news about all the new titles that were available. And, you know, whenever Texas Instruments would release a new calculator, they would do a review on it and tell you all about it, “Oh, it's better in this way”, or whatever. And then they also had guides on how to get software on and off of your calculator. So at some point, I eventually realised, “Boy, there are a lot more games out on the internet that I'd be interested in playing”, than I would get in a timely manner just from, you know, friends and classmates at school. So I started kind of getting in on the action myself.

JAMES PARKINSON: One of the most popular sites at the time was ticalc.org. It’s actually still active today - it also still looks like a website from the late 90s. But it was more than just a free marketplace to download games and programs. It was a thriving community of calculator enthusiasts.

NIKKY SOUTHERLAND: Everyone kind of acknowledged it had the largest archives. For whatever reason it was a site that people decided that if you made a game or program or anything else for a TI calculator, you uploaded it there.

JAMES PARKINSON: This is Nikky Southerland, a software engineer and a volunteer archiver for ticalc.

NIKKY SOUTHERLAND: They didn't really have a forum. But they did have these news articles which allowed some commenting on. And they also had an ‘about’ section, about other places you could talk to people, and collaborate and cooperate. And one of those was this, Internet Relay Chat or IRC, which is a very early chat program. And it's where there's some chat rooms where you could just join and talk to people. I didn't know this when I joined, but this is where a lot of the programmers of the games and programs I was playing and using were on these channels. They were just hanging out, you know, existing in here and you could talk to them, and you could hear them kind of talk about their various concerns and programs, and what they're working on. And it’s a pretty novel idea to be around these kind of like-minded people who are interested in this intersection of gaming and technology. And we all, more or less, math nerds as well. And we all kind of were able to just exist without really being bothered. It was a space that was welcoming in a way that I hadn't really experienced before. It was a fun place to hang out and be yourself, in a world that was pretty confusing at the time.

BRANDON WILSON: I would say there was a very strong programming presence. A lot of the students who not only had the calculators, but had the knowledge to get a link cable and start transferring these programs back and forth, very quickly got into development. They were very enamoured with the idea of creating these programs and games themselves. They would take them apart, and they would - the games and the programs that they liked - and they would try to understand them, they would create their own. Tical.org was kind of the main hub of the community for a really long time. There were news articles on the front page, and if you were featured on the front page of ticalc.org, because of a program or a game that you made, you kinda knew that you'd made it, you're on top of the world. It's almost like being a celebrity. And it was a very interesting time. We were all, not competitive, but we were all very interested in, you know, our own little niche and our own little area. Some people had, I can't tell you the number of people who were so focused on creating a Zelda clone, you know, kind of a Game Boy Zelda-type game. And you know, fully featuring greyscale, and all sorts of maps. And that's a very complicated game to make on these models. And so it required a lot of knowledge, a lot of patience and understanding and motivation.

JAMES PARKINSON: But pushing the limits of the hardware was motivation enough. Just the challenge of, “could it be done?”.  

BRANDON WILSON: To come into a world, a whole environment, a whole ecosystem, that where nobody knows anything, and everybody's kind of learning from scratch, and it's a very, it's a very interesting way to go about game design and game programming and just learning programming in general.

NIKKY SOUTHERLAND: The sheer ubiquity of these devices meant that eventually, at some point, someone's going to figure out how to turn these things into gaming devices. And you saw from this that there's such a large user base out there, where everyone has the same platform and everyone has access to the same tools, and everyone can create their own programs off of that very easily. Whereas with something like a Game Boy, you know, a Game Boy is great and powerful and is made for gaming. But it's also pretty hard to start as, like, an amateur programmer, to program for the Game Boy.

COLIN WIRTH: The limitations on the hardware, and also in the software, I think really drove people, right? Like, they wanted to do it. It's kind of like how you've probably heard about all these random other technology devices. And when you think about hacking. You know, can you jailbreak the OS? Can you get the device, whatever it may be, to do something other than what it was intended to do by the manufacturer? The first thing a lot of people ask is, “can it play Doom?”. And I think the people who wrote calculator games were in that same mindset too. It's just, it was a challenge. And games just happened to be the thing that they were otherwise interested in, or would at least get them a wide enough audience for other people to be interested in their work. You know, if they wrote the most fantastic math program in the world that totally leveraged the hardware to its full capability, and just had just amazing programming quality, just really clever tricks, and all that kind of stuff, if it was a math program, I don't think many people would have cared. But because they wrote this, just incredible clone of Mortal Kombat, or whatever, for the TI-83, that got people's attention, right? There's a little bit of geek cred going on there, because of what they were able to do with such limited resources.

JAMES PARKINSON: Yes, people did make clones of Doom and Mortal Kombat for graphing calculators. Earlier models though, like the TI-85, only had native support for the BASIC programming language. For Assembly, it took some exploits to get around that limitation.

COLIN WIRTH: People figured out that there were holes or bugs in the operating system on the TI-85. And they realised ways to exploit those to get access directly to the hardware. And so they called those shells, you know, ultimately the programs that they would write that would take advantage of those bugs and allow you to launch any program that you wanted that was written in Assembly. Those Assembly programs is really where I think a lot of the creativity was shown because that totally opened up the capabilities, the full capabilities, of the hardware of the calculator.

JAMES PARKINSON: Assembly shells are essentially programs that run other programs, and they made the calculator much easier to use when programming and running games.

BRANDON WILSON: Another example would be the operating system doesn't allow running games and programs directly from the user archive or flash memory. And so they have to be copied into RAM first and then run. And the operating system doesn't support that natively. So the shells would do that for you. You would select the program or game you want it to run, it would copy it from FLASH into RAM, and it would run it from there. And then if it needed to, it would write it back to FLASH, in order to preserve high scores or whatever the program was doing. So the shells added a lot of functionality to the operating system that they wouldn't otherwise have.

JAMES PARKINSON: Texas Instruments have never really made public statements about calculator gaming, and in those early days it was unclear where the company stood on people using their hardware for purposes other than what they were intended for.

BRANDON WILSON: When we first started creating exploits, you know, we didn't know how Texas Instruments was going to react to that we didn't know if they were going to come after us legally and issue threats, or they were going to immediately patch and fix the bugs, or they didn't care, you know, we didn't know.

JAMES PARKINSON: But with the release of the TI-83 in 1996, it appeared their position was changing - or at least responding to the community.

COLIN WIRTH: They definitely had kind of a change of heart, you know, with originally only supporting programming in BASIC. They eventually went full on into supporting Assembly programming - not just allowing people to do it, but even making programming resources available online, like guides, “Here's how you do this on our calculators”, “Here are the specifications for the models”, and, “Here's how you know all the intricacies about it”, and that sort of thing, very low level programming kind of stuff. That said, I don't think they ever would officially sanction it. Obviously TI - and this kind of comes back to the whole story about why TI calculators, specifically, were so big in US schools. You know, they had a vested interest in being kind of the dominant power in selling those devices to schools.

BRANDON WILSON: Texas Instruments doesn't actually mind people playing games on their calculators, what they mind is, and it's also really what educators mind is they don't want people playing games, and taking notes, and so on, during tests or during certain activities in the classroom.

COLIN WIRTH: And speaking of cheating, I mean programming in and of itself, just because it's a basic, you know, basic text entry. A lot of times people just use that for cheating, you could type notes into a program in your calculator, it doesn't matter if the program actually works. But it was on the calculator, and that was a tool you were allowed to have on your test. So if you forgot that we know what the structure of a specific formula was, or how that would work, you could type it in on the calculator ahead of time, and refer back to it during the test, like it was just notes.

JAMES PARKINSON: Because of this, it was common practice for teachers to remove the batteries prior to a maths exam, in order to wipe any programs that students could use to cheat, and rightly so. But of course, that also meant you lost any games stored on your device too.

COLIN WIRTH: You know, ultimately, I think, probably more good than harm was done, at least from an educational perspective, by including programming capabilities in the calculators. Because I can't imagine if you're really nerdy enough to get into wanting to have programs on your calculators that weren't games, that you wouldn't be at least a little bit curious about how those programs worked.

JAMES PARKINSON: Whether it was writing a program to save time typing out equations or creating your own game from scratch, the graphing calculator was the platform that introduced a generation of people to programming, learning skills that influenced their path in life. These days, Brandon is a software developer and security consultant, and credits calculators for giving him his career. Equally, Nikky Southerland says the community played a big role in inspiring him to become a software engineer.

NIKKY SOUTHERLAND: It laid the seed that came to fruition years later. For me, it was definitely something I liked the community and I liked the idea of being able to play these games. I never felt I was really capable enough to make these more advanced programs, the assembly language programs, the more graphically intensive one so I kind of wandered off the idea of being able to do software professionally for a long time, I didn't pursue it in college. And I just needed some pushes in the right direction and I needed somebody to say, “you know, this is something you can teach yourself”.  And I think that's the most important part is this community around it saying you know, “here's something that we all have a shared interest in, these are things you can do with that interest, if you're interested in these things you might be able to do these other skills that are more relevant in life.”

JAMES PARKINSON: And for some people who have forged careers in game development, TI calculator games may have just been their entry point too.

COLIN WIRTH: I've got a little bit of evidence to kind of corroborate this, that a lot of the people who are doing indie gaming today, started learning how to program on a calculator. In that calculator video that I made I, towards the end, I just kind of said philosophically, you know, no doubt there are going to be at least some people who tinkered around programming on their calculator because they were bored in math class, or whatever, in high school, and realise that they liked it, that they liked programming, and they wanted to learn more about it. And they turned that into their career. And I actually got a significant number of people in the comments on that video saying, Yeah, that was me. That's exactly the way it was, I played a game for the first time on a calculator in high school, and I was hooked. And now I'm a software developer at, you know, some big company or whatever. And it's really interesting to see how it was this calculator that really kind of got their start, instead of the more traditional way of, “Well I’m going to learn how to write a simple program on a big computer”. It's this personal piece of tech that you can put in your pocket, hold in your hand. I do find that really interesting, just how the timing worked out of the people who were in high school back in the 90s. You know, at this point in their lives, the age they are now they could be, you know, pretty high up software developers at companies that are targeting mobile devices.

JAMES PARKINSON: Thanks so much to Colin Wirth, Brandon Wilson and Nikky Southerland. As always, there’s lots more we couldn’t fit into this story, so visit the episode page on our website, gameplay.co, for references and links to further reading.

JAMES PARKINSON: Colin’s YouTube channel is This Does Not Compute. Check it out for more on retro video games, computers and tech. And we have a direct link to that as well.

CREDITS

JAMES PARKINSON: Gameplay is a production of Lawson Media. This episode was written and produced by me, James Parkinson.

JAMES PARKINSON: The Gameplay theme was composed by Breakmaster Cylinder, and our artwork is by Keegan Sanford. Additional music from Epidemic Sound and Breakmaster Cylinder.

JAMES PARKINSON: You can follow the show on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook at ‘gameplaypodcast’. And you can join our community on Discord. As an independent podcast, we rely a lot on listener support and that includes reaching new listeners. So if you can take a moment to recommend Gameplay to a couple of your friends who you think would enjoy the show, I’d greatly appreciate it. You can find all the links, episode transcripts and further reading on our website, gameplay.co. Until next time, thanks for listening.


References:

The History of TI Graphing Calculator Gaming - This Does Not Compute

TICalc.org

This Does Not Compute on Twitter

The history of TI-83 calculator gaming - Polygon

The Wild Spread of Drug Wars, From Your Calculator to Your Phone

Among Us Player Ports The Game To A Graphing Calculator

The Five Most Awesome Games On a Graphing Calculator

Now You Can Play 'Super Smash Bros.' on a Graphing Calculator

Texas Instruments Adds Python to Its Latest Graphing Calculator



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