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Homework is boring; make stuff instead

Last updated on August 5, 2022

At some point in my childhood, an uncle gifted my family an old computer he no longer used. Probably one of the best gifts anyone could have received in the 90’s, even though nobody in my family knew much about how it worked, or was useful. Having a it was considered a Good Thing.

The computer was some kind of Digital, though I don’t recall which model. It had a floppy disk drive and a cd drive. When booted up, you where left with a blinking cursor in DOS. One had to type “WIN” to boot into Windows 3.1.1.

As a kid I didn’t know what I could do with computers, but I was fascinated by them. I curiously entered words into the DOS console to see what would happen. Having no information about what any commands were, I just tried typing things in to see what happened. Oops!
I managed to learn how to navigate directories, make files and run some utilities without breaking the computer. I was excited when I found something that worked. I came across EDIT and QBASIC. I don’t think I ever wrote down the commands on paper or anything, I just tried to remember them. I learned how to write simple programs, probably by using EDIT to look at other files. I messed about with QBASIC. I understood that you could make programs with it, maybe even games, but I didn’t really know what to do with it or where to start.

I eventually coded the tiniest text game about Pok√©mon, using the only instructions I could get my head around; PRINT text, read INPUT, and GOTO different parts of the file to fetch the next question. I never put it on a floppy or shared it with anyone, though I may have had a friend play it once. I wanted to learn more and do more, but that wasn’t really an available option – I didn’t really communicate that and my parents were happy enough that I’d use it at all. Eventually, another member of my extended family who was an it technician turn software developer learned that I was some way interested in computers and gifted me a bunch of game demo CD’s and floppy disks. I was hooked.

One of my favourite games was a Solar Winds demo – which was likely the game that initially formed my love of sci-fi and space games. There were vast distances in the game, and I remember setting my ship on course to some place of interest (which was maybe out the scope of the demo) and left it the computer as my ship traversed the empty void, maximum power to the engines. I probably returned to it every 5 minutes, feeling like it was taking hours.

The Solar Winds demo ended just as things started to get interesting, and displayed information on how you could purchase a copy through the mail. As a kid I was intimidated by the idea of such an interaction. The address of the developer was in America, which I knew was quite the distance away. Some American extended family members had visited Ireland once in my childhood memory, and it was a pretty big deal. I never tried to get the full version, I simply played the demo until I was bored. Then went outside and ate dirt or jumped into a swamp or something.

Growing up in an estate, I knew another two kids who had computers in their house. We shared games and even tried to make out own. The guy with the best computer got a copy of Click and Play, and soon after, The Games Factory.

We made a bunch of failed attempts at games. It was a lot of fun. I made the art and animations and my friend worked out the logic. We made our own platformer featuring a stickman that collected spinning bottles of cola, and a violent, top-down game in which you drove a ride-on-lawnmower over people, inspired by Grand Theft Auto. We called it Grand Theft Ride-On-Lawnmower 2. We didn’t know what Grand Theft Auto really meant, to us it was the name of a game, and clearly thought sequels were better than an original.

So it is clear that I fondly remember these projects and experiments from outside of school, in which I only had myself or my peers to rely on to figure things out. It gave me a sense of accomplishment, and a sense of learning. I would be have to try very hard to remember what lessons or homework I was given during this time, and I don’t think I ever completed homework with a sense of satisfaction or accomplishment. Only relief that I had no more homework left to perform. So for me at least, making stuff is better.

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