I played a computer game in the 1960s. Now we are the game

Net Results: A fun game of hangman in my youth now seems an eerie premonition

My first direct interaction with a computer came about when I was a child. No big deal, you might well think, in this age when children are fiddling with devices as toddlers, and digital natives are the norm.

But this was the 1960s. To most people, computers meant either that one on the Enterprise, in the TV series Star Trek – which had just been cancelled after three seasons – or the one in the recent film 2001: A Space Odyssey. I hadn’t seen the film, but I sometimes watched Star Trek, so I figured I knew a bit about computers.

The one I encountered, housed in the secretive Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, was therefore deeply disappointing. I expected a wall of flashing lights, screens, buttons to push and voice commands. What I got was a keyboard and a daisy wheel printer on a table in a small, empty room, because the high-security facility wouldn't allow me in the same room as the actual computer.

The invisible computer that I interacted with, a legendary, wardrobe-sized, surprisingly elegant machine called the Johnniac, is now in the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley.


What I recall from that long ago June day is the ludicrous ease with which I waltzed in and played hangman with a computer. I knew the rules. It knew the rules. The keyboard was nothing alien. It won each time, but I figured those were the breaks when you hung out with a real computer.

Several years later, I had another encounter with a computer. In my Silicon Valley school's maths class, we had a microcomputer donated by the Stanford Research Institute. I wasn't remotely interested in it, though years later, I'd realise how privileged we were to get access to technology like this, at our age, in that era.

Boxy hulk

To me, it was just a boxy hulk sitting on the floor in the back of the room, and was soon to make my life a misery. Our teacher assigned us a programming task, but my mind deflated when confronted with this logic challenge. I just could not understand how to write a programme. It was one of the only times in school that an assignment left me in anxious despair.

What it did impress on me was that programming required a certain way of thinking, and then, putting that thinking into a structured form. It was mysterious, and it was hard.

I didn’t want to have to think about the programming bit of computers. I much preferred the easy, natural interaction side. The fun stuff like playing hangman, where I had no need to know how the computer played, or why it played, or even what it looked like. The game, the smooth interaction, was beguiling and seductive.

These twin tales could be seen as the difference between a good, intuitive, if basic user interface for engaging in what is actually very complex behaviour (a computer that had in its time been one of the smartest devices on the planet, playing hangman with a human) and the more obscure human-computer interface of a programming language, requiring precise commands and an understanding of computing logic.

But I’d offer it as something else: a very early preview of where we would end up in our exciting, yet increasingly troubling relationship with digital and online life. That contrast between the alluring, self-rewarding interaction with a device, and the hidden complexity and intention of the programming behind it. The algorithms we do not understand. The enticement of the easy, entertaining interchange, which tells us to look over here, at the cool stuff, not worry our heads about what lies behind it.

The fun side

It’s the structure of our daily digital relationships now, built around so many services – our social media, our apps, the free games, the online productivity tools such as email and writing programmes and calendars. We see the front end, the fun, the features, the free. Behind it, the algorithms take in our data collected in unseen ways, parse it, package us for advertisers, sell our data, or sell access to us as defined by the data gathered through our many digital inputs, in interactions that appear to us as anything but a monetisable (for others) data exchange.

All these years later, I’m still amazed I had that unique opportunity to sit and play a game with the Johnniac. But for me, that brief engagement has gradually changed in meaning and implication.

Now it seems an eerie premonition of how deliberately incorporated digital entertainment, gamification, gratification, would evolve to become central to so many of our basic computing interactions, a key element of how we are exploited in invisibly intrusive, data devouring ways.

How ridiculous, how unlikely it would have seemed. So unlikely that, even decades later, we still are only beginning to understand how we are stealthily drawn into such seemingly light and rewarding exchanges, and still struggle to understand, at what ultimate cost?