I have a degree in modern history from Pembroke College, Oxford. History - mainly military and art history - continues to be a hobby and I have given several lectures on the history of computer games. This is a transcript of a speech I gave on the history of computer games at the Game Developers Conference Europe in the summer of 2001.

History of Computer Games

You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here.
In early 1977, Adventure swept the ARPAnet. Willie Crowther was the original author, but Don Woods greatly expanded the game and unleashed it on an unsuspecting network. When Adventure arrived at MIT, the reaction was typical: after everybody spent a lot of time doing nothing but solving the game (it’s estimated that Adventure set the entire computer industry back two weeks), the true lunatics began to think about how they could do it better.

David Lebling, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels and Tim Anderson set to work on their first text adventure. Dungeon was completed in June 1977. Infocom was started and in 1980, Zork: The Great Underground Empire Parts I and II were released. These first two Zork games were an instant hit and sold 1m units across all platforms.

I had read about Zork in Byte magazine and I played a later Infocom adventure, Planetfall, from start to finish. Came with all kinds of little doodads in the box – postcards from outer space and a Stellar Patrol ID card (which I still have somewhere).

As with other games here, this is something that came out of academia.

Used emotion, character, humour – I remember being very moved when Floyd sacrificed himself to save me in Planetfall.

A simple UI (complex underneath)

But failed when expectations grew – e.g. Shogun in 1986 (which I also played from start to finish) was the last true Infocom game and hadn’t really developed at all in terms of technology.

The original Zork games used a novelist’s techniques of storytelling and imagination. They translated pretty well to a text-only game. When Return to Zork was released by Activision many years after the original as an “interactive movie” it showed how badly the techniques of film and TV translated to computers.


All the old Infocom games are now available to play in Java – click here and there are walkthroughs of some of the games here.