We separated into three factions. While we had influence over which faction we joined, the decision was ultimately up to our parents, who were footing the bill, and who had our educations and future well-being in mind. They were prepared to invest a lot of money in that future, often several thousand dollars, and the prospect of failing to make that investment threatened to leave their children behind in a rapidly-changing world.
No, this wasn’t the Hunger Games. This was the computer platform wars of the early ‘80s.
I had the great fortune to be part of a public school system that was oversaturated with money, the result of a not-yet-operational nuclear plant located nearby that pumped the school district full of PILOT payments. You would have been challenged to find another public school that invested more in its students at the time, and much of that investment was in the form of cutting-edge tech, including computers.
Starting in elementary school, Shoreham-Wading River Central School District started identifying the kids who were good at math, yanking them out of class, and bussing them over to the high school to learn how to program on its Digital Equipment Corp mainframe. There, I learned BASIC programming and later took classes when I was in high school that taught me FORTRAN and Pascal. At the time, it wasn’t uncommon to be sitting in the high school computer lab, working on a program that predicted when Easter Sunday would fall in a given year, and be sitting next to a scientist from Brookhaven National Laboratory who was there as part of an arrangement to rent mainframe time to further a research project.
Computer clubs sprung up throughout my elementary and middle school years. As I advanced through the school system and put a few years’ worth of programming experience under my belt, I started to get exposed to platforms other than the DEC mainframe – Commodore PETs, Apple IIes and later, IBM PCs.
This rich new environment that surrounded me with emerging technology was terrific and provided excellent opportunities to learn. Many of the parents in the community began to see their kids learning about computers and wanted to help prompt additional learning growth at home, and they responded well to the then-emerging home computer market. And that’s where the factions came in.
If you wanted a home computer at that point, your choices were Apple, Atari and Commodore. Anything else was considered either an electronics project or an office machine. I had been exposed to TRS-80s and Kaypro machines through my Dad’s business, but these were generally thought of as tools solely for use in the office and not in the home.
The emerging home computer market promised much more than databases of customers and spreadsheets for business finances. Not only could you use home computers to learn word processing software for typing and printing school assignments, but you could also program on them, and you could play games.
But in order to do so, you had to make an expensive and life-altering choice from which there was no turning back. You had to pick Apple, Atari or Commodore – three platforms that had zero compatibility between them. You couldn’t share software, their particular flavors of the BASIC programming language were quirkily different and they couldn’t even read one another’s file formats.
Most of our block growing up was part of the Commodore faction. The few kids who had families who had gone Apple or Atari had almost nothing to talk about with us when it came to home computers. Nothing was interchangeable.
Our parents had made investments in the Commodore 64 with the best of intentions. And they certainly didn’t want these computers to turn into expensive gaming systems. They wanted us to learn on them. They wanted us to program. They wanted us to use the software they bought to expand our creative horizons. We weren’t opposed to that, but we really wanted games, too.
Games on these new computer systems were vastly superior to the games on our cartridge-based consoles like the Atari 2600, Intellivision or Colecovision. The games loaded from tape drives or floppy disc drives that took 5.25” discs. They took up more memory and had much better graphics and sound.
When my family first got its Commodore 64, my parents went whole hog. They bought the computer, a CRT monitor, a 1541 5.25” disc drive, an Okidata color printer and something called a Koala Pad, some word processing software and some other programs. Altogether, this represented an investment of over $1,500 in 1983, which would have been like dropping almost four grand today. On a teacher’s salary, that was a big deal – a VERY. BIG. DEAL.
My Dad had very little idea of how computers worked, but he liked the idea of having a home computer and he wanted me to figure out how to make it do useful things. He’d often see me writing BASIC programs and tease me about why I couldn’t get it to give him the winning lottery numbers. He’d sometimes type into the computer:
GIVE ME THE WINNING LOTTERY NUMBERS <RETURN>
To which the C64 would respond:
I did eventually create a program that would let him pick Lotto numbers, but he was confused by my explanations of what I needed to do in order to get the computer to do that.
“See, first we need to generate six random numbers between one and forty-eight. Then we need to stick those numbers into a data structure called an array, so we can sort them from smallest to largest. Then we need to make sure none of the numbers are repeats, and if they are, replace them with a new random number between one and forty-eight, then re-sort the array…”
He didn’t want to hear any of that shit. He just wanted to win the lottery.
For the first several months after its debut in our family, the Commodore 64 was used for education and creativity. The Koala Pad was a drawing and graphics tool that I liked to mess with, 1983’s version of an expensive Mac with Adobe Illustrator and a graphics tablet, but my artistic talents were more musical in nature. Truth be told, I couldn’t draw to save my life. So the graphics programs that came with the Koala Pad got old really quickly. It was nice to be able to draw something and then print it out on the color printer, but color printer ribbon was expensive, it took a short eternity to print something out, and I couldn’t draw for shit. Still, I was happy to apply a lot of the programming skills I learned in school.
And then everything changed one day. My friend Ed from down the block brought over a floppy disk. It had a bunch of games on it, including Pole Position, Pitstop and a few others. We plugged one of my old Atari 2600 Joysticks into the Commodore – the controllers were compatible – and happily played auto racing games for a bit.
The disk wasn’t something Ed had bought. In fact, he told me that he had copied the disk from his cousins Mike and Mark. And they had a whole collection of games that they hadn’t bought from a store, but had copied from other people.
Later, I would learn a ton from Ed and from his cousins about the thriving pirate market for Commodore 64 games. Actually, referring to it as a “market” is a bit of a misnomer, because nobody paid for anything other than blank disks.
Ed had to leave to go back home, but I wanted to continue to play Pole Position – a racing game that was popular in arcades and had a great port to the Commodore 64.
“Lemme try something,” I told Ed.
In Commodore parlance, pull Pole Position off the disc drive and put it in the C64’s memory.
After the disc drive whirred and clicked for about 30 seconds, the computer responded:
I swapped in a blank diskette.
In other words, take the Pole Position game I just loaded into memory and save it to the disk drive.
Surprisingly, this worked. I now had my own copy of Pole Position I could play any time. Other than the cost of the disk I put it on, getting Pole Position didn’t cost me anything other than time.
I tried copying the other games on the disc in the same way, and found that although the games seemingly copied over to a new disc, they didn’t work. Pole Position did, though. I had just pirated my first game.
I was intrigued by all of this. Why was I able to easily copy Pole Position but not the other games? How many other games were out there that I could easily copy? Where did other kids like Ed’s cousins get their games if not from Electronics Boutique or any of the other computer stores?
Over the next few years, I would learn a lot about disk utilities, copy protection, and who to talk to about getting my hands on new games. We learned hacks like how to turn a single-sided disk into a double-sided one with a hole puncher, or how to stack drives so that we could copy disks without having to constantly swap them in and out of a single disk drive.
In time, we would discover that one of the ways the black market thrived was through little parties we’d have in our basements, which were similar to tape-trading parties you might have when you wanted to raid your friends’ music collections during the analog age. Though, instead of copying REO Speedwagon and Aerosmith tapes on a double-deck boombox, we were copying games on cheap diskettes and propagating those copies person-to-person. In many ways, this was like a pre-Internet filesharing network.
It didn’t occur to us that we were doing anything wrong. We were simply pre-teen kids trying to get the most out of our computer systems. If people didn’t want us to copy games, why did they make it so easy? And why did they make disc copying utilities in the first place? Anybody who might have suggested that what we were doing was wrong would have been ridiculed, but nobody ever suggested that in those early years.
At one point during this journey, I added a 300-baud Automodem to my C64 rig, which allowed me to dial into the original CompuServe bulletin boards and learn more about copy protection on games. I may or may not have even broken that protection on retail copies of a popular game or two.
The other two factions were doing it, too. We’d have sleepover parties at my buddy Mike’s house in middle school, and we’d spend hours playing games on his Atari 800 setup. Mike had countless 5.25” floppy disks littering his basement, with thousands of games. We’d call them up on his computer, and compare them to the Commodore 64 versions we had copied from friends.
But I couldn’t trade games with Mike. His system and mine were worlds apart and the two couldn’t talk to one another. So Mike had his own network of people he traded games with, and I had my own. All because our parents had made platform decisions a bit differently when home computers hit the market.
At that time in the early- to mid-1980s, the home computer market supported three distinct platforms that could be used for gaming. And each of them gave rise to their own distinct person-to-person networks for pirating games. Each of these networks had their own anonymous personalities – people with hacker handles that would pride themselves on being the first to crack the copy protection on a new game release. Once they did, they would plaster their hacker handle all over the game, including on its load screens, and then get the game into as many hands as they could.
While I never remembered money changing hands when we were copying games, this notion of being first among your friends to possess a cracked copy of a popular game became its own currency. While I’m sure we could have charged for early copies of certain games, such a thing never really happened. Instead, we would happily display our wares for the taking, in exchange for being able to look through someone else’s collection and copy whatever we wanted.
In time, we started to receive messages from game developers – ad pages in our favorite computer magazines, pamphlets and other material – about piracy, how it deprived developers of revenue, and how the FBI would raid our houses if we engaged in it. The FBI never came knocking, but by the time the threat loomed, we were already on to bigger and better systems than our Commodore 64s, Atari 800s and Apple IIs. But in those blissful first few years, we played a lot of great games for free.