Friday, May 11, 2018

The Oregon Trail Generation

My sons and I were trying to remember the name of a game we had played on our old 386 computer. It turned out to be Darkspyre, which came out in '90 or '91. Discussing this with friends this evening, we talked about the change our children's generation lived through.  They could all remember a time of no personal computers, and watched computers build in to the culture step by step.  They were most aware of the games of course.  One of mine insists that all this discussion of Gen X and Gen Y and Millennials is ridiculous, because everyone has different beginning and end dates. He calls his own the Oregon Trail Generation, which can immediately self-identify from the name alone.  You know if you're in or out, and it captures a point in computer game development and popularity. It was a cultural universal.

We of the older generation, in discussing our own children, remembered how difficult it was for them to encounter the unforgiving nature of the computer.  Your character died, and there was no point arguing with it. I still recall son #2 yelling repeatedly at the screen "I DID TOO HIT THE BUTTON IN TIME!" (He gets that from me. I still argue with computers, particularly at work.) Yet the machine was brutal, unchanging - there was no one to appeal its decision to.

So it is also with programming, coding, and many other interactions with a computer. Leave out a single letter and nothing works anymore. Learn the hard way to save your work.

How then, I wondered, did the generation only a bit younger, who grew up with these brutal, heartless machines, turn out so many snowflakes? Shouldn't they be used to the harsh edge of reality at this point?

First, there may not be more snowflakes now.  My generation of Boomers certainly had 'em, as did the Greatest Generation and every other cohort. The rising generation has that reputation, but I don't know how you'd measure that. The reputation is largely based on the behavior of college students with an activist bent.  I'm thinking that's not a representative sample.

Yet even if it's true, it may be that only a minority of this generation encounters that unforgiving edge of the computer.  Game designers learned to give you extra lives, resurrections, ability to return to saved games and the like, or abilities to survive explosions and poisons with proper preparation. As interface became simpler point-and-click, as people trying to sell you things developed ways to keep you on the screen rather than cast you into outer darkness, as software gave you more reminders and fewer blue screens of death, the computer became friendly.  So friendly that it is now dangerous because we trust it too much.

If there are more snowflakes, they may have learned softness from the machines - or rather, from the programmers and designers behind them.


james said...

I do not argue with computers much, but am often tempted to invoke St. Barbara when servers are particularly idiotic.
I know the concept of catharsis is over-rated, but is there some small chance that there's some psychological benefit to hauling a recalcitrant server or router to a range and letting fly with an RPG?

(OTOH, someone said "Debugging is like a detective story where you are the murderer.")

WRT "one small error:" I had a electricity and magnetism textbook in which the author dropped a factor of 2 Pi after one equation and didn't retrieve it until about 18 pages later. You can maybe get away with that in a textbook, if you don't mind getting laughed at, but not when building a transmitter.

Grim said...

The Zork Generation!

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I played Zork, all the way through, including that area you couldn't map because it randomised every time you left a square. Irritating, not funny. My boys played it just a bit. Maybe only the older one.

Grim said...

I loved Zork up until you killed the troll. After that, some of it really dragged. But it was a formative experience, perhaps more than the Oregon Trail (which I played in school on an Apple ][ computer, I think). It required a lot of patience and dedication to finish.