Sitting in a dimly lit room, four teenagers sit, eyes glued to a screen, hot, sweaty, praying, waiting in anticipation… will that last jumper change allow us to get that damn bit of coax that is plugged into the back of this computer to talk to that other damn bit of coax plugged into that other computer. Welcome to my teenage nightmare.
“It worked!” one of them cries, as we get IPX (thats right before TCP was a thing) working across the network. Next step- damn, the jumper change gave me an IRQ conflict with my sound card. Rinse, repeat, start again.
Today it makes me wonder, is the PC Master Race and being a PC “Gamer” a thing of the past? I mean of course we have video games, we have them coming out of every crevice, but are those who play them really “gamers” anymore, or just consumers?
I mean: Do we call those who listen to the radio, “radioers”? Are those who watch TV called “televisioners”? What about those who like to spend time in the garden – are they “gardeners”…? (Yeah OK, that one still happens, but my point stands.)
Let me put my old man hat on and get my walking cane out for a bit. Firstly: Get the hell off my lawn! What is that racket you are listening to? Back in our day they just made music with a piece of string and an onion, and games came in retail boxes, and you had to go to the store to buy them, and you got more than 10 hours gameplay. I’ve gone off topic…
My first PC (not the XT my parents had) was a 486 DX2-66. Ran at 66mhz – a beast! It had a massive 20MB hdd, and all the bells and whistles a VGA monitor could handle. But oh my god was it temperamental. It was like a cat. It would run, you would hug it, love it, call it your own, then bang! it would turn around and bite you on the hand.
Here’s the thing, though: I learned a lot about computers from that machine. I upgraded it. Firstly to a DX4-100 (Whoa), then I added sound cards, network adapters, upgraded graphics cards, more memory, and even got a new case. That computer became the base of a gaming machine I had for many, many years – with all the pain, hell and love that went with it.
So what is different now? Well, computers have become much easier to use. Once upon a time, we needed to worry about things like IRQs. You needed to manually set these, otherwise hardware devices wouldn’t work – and that in itself was an art form. You just never had enough. Making the network card (10Base-T) work with an 8bit sound card and a monitor all at the same time? You deserved a beer for that.
The first Hard Drive controller I had, you could overclock. It was a SideJR Pro. You could tweak the timings to make the HDD faster, all the way up to 16MB/s. Back then there wasn’t 3D, so we used a video playback software to benchmark. For getting an extra 5fps, you would almost throw a party.
And then there was getting games to work.
You remember me talking about IRQs? Well to get your audio working, you needed to tell the game what the IRQ was for the sound card, otherwise no noise. In some cases, you had to tell the computer what and where your video card was too, and your network address, and even what type of mouse you had. (Anyone remember mouse.com?)
Being a PC gamer was an artform. Something to be proud of. Not just because games are cool, but because you needed an in-depth understanding of how a computer worked just to get it going. If you asked someone what brand, model and version number their sound card was today, in most cases you’ll get a blank look and a “Who cares?”, but once upon a time, you needed to know what it was, and select it from the game menu – otherwise, no sound for you!
Today, everything is handed to us. You click a button, hand over money. Some program downloads the game, keeps it updated, selects the optimium settings, and you play. This is a long stretch from the days of old. Back then you would get up, go to a software store, come home, put in your floppy disk (or CD-ROM if you were fancy), start installing. That was normally a menu driven program. Run a second setup program, select your sound card and video card, and (before plug and play existed), pick the IRQ and memory of your sound card and tell the computer what type of mouse you were using, including how many buttons (no really).
You would then pray to whichever god you like. Then, run the game, discover you put in the wrong model of sound card (a simple mistake – you had choices like “SoundBlaster”, “SoundBlaster 2.0”, “Sound Blaster 16”, and so on). Go back into setup, fix that, and then – if you were lucky and the God you prayed for was in a good mood (and you remembered to put the terminator on the coax t-junction), your game would run.
That is what I remember being “a gamer” was. Back then you would be proud to call yourself a gamer, because of that knowledge, because of the tinkering, because of that nice feeling of getting those extra frames out of the game. I have to admit I miss those days, when being “a gamer” just meant so much more. Yes it did have a stigma, no I didn’t care what people thought, and Mum it so wasn’t a waste of time. Gaming was fun, it was an adventure and wow did it teach you a lot about computers. The bleeding edge was the bleeding edge, overclocking gave you massive improvements, getting the right combination of gear was like a ray of sunlight coming through the clouds, and having a better video card or CPU than your mates gave you massive bragging points. All things that just don’t seem to happen on the same scale today.
So I ask: Is being a gamer – and in particular a PC Gamer – still a thing, or do we all just play games? If we have never brought up the advanced menu that took you out of the game in an old school Unreal game, if we have never had to manually select what type of sound card is installed… if we have never thrown a beer at that dude who unplugged the coax terminator after rage-quitting an hours-long multiplayer game… or if we never got excited about (finally) finding a working download link for the new Half life patch in the days before Steam… can you really take the title “Gamer”? Has gaming become such a norm that we are all just people, a group of people who just like playing games, like we like watching TV and listening to music?