Get Lamp

Posted: July 28, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Ramblings
Tags: , ,

I watched a great documentary last night about a somewhat neglected page in the history of gaming: the text-based adventure game.

Get Lamp: The Text Adventure Documentary is a fantastic introduction to ye olde days of text-based adventure games (or “interactive fiction“) for those unfamiliar with it. Aside from being a great insight into the world of early PC gaming, it’s also a fascinating look at the people who pioneered it.

You can watch it (for free!) on youtube, complete with an intro by Jason Scott (my digital hoarder historian hero) at a Google Tech Talk. The doco itself starts around 07.30:

Get Lamp brought up some interesting points. For example, playing a text-based game relied on mental mapping in order to navigate through the game-world (although it was usually easier to draw a real map so you didn’t end up going around in circles). I loved the interviews with the blind people who were like ‘what do you mean you can’t map it out in your head? Noob geez’. As one interviewee notes, “for the blind it [was] really liberating” – the sightless could “explore a world with sight”.

This concept of mental mapping really caught my attention – compared to our visually rich modern games, text-based games demanded a level of imagination that would seem unfathomable to today’s gamers. As parents often asked their text-adventure playing kids, “Why not just read a book?”. And therein lies the element of novelty for interactive fiction, and video games in general. It’s the reason we read  “Choose Your Own Adventure” books – things aren’t necessarily laid out for you in a linear fashion. There’s an element of self-determinism to these fictional worlds – you become the architect of your own destiny to a certain extent, certainly more than the traditional book or film allows. You don’t always have one concrete path or perspective to follow, and as such, two people playing the same game can have different experiences.

Get Lamp features an interview with Mary Ann Buckles, an academic who wrote a thesis entitled “Interactive Fiction: The Computer Storygame ‘Adventure'” in 1985 (now credited as the first academic text to look seriously at video games). I found her ideas about the ways in which a game (even a text-based game) can create a “transformative experience” for the player to be fascinating. It’s disappointing that her work is only now beginning to receive recognition. While few people today would disagree that video games are capable of evoking immersive emotional and psychological experiences, it seems that when Buckles first brought up this idea it was completely ignored. She actually ended up throwing away her work, and becoming a massage therapist.

Image credit:

But what I found most interesting was a point Buckles raised towards the end about reading in the age of the internet – that the majority of people read more now on the internet than they did in the past. Sure, it may not be quality material they’re reading, but at the end of the day, the average person seems to read more text now, be it on an iPhone, a computer, or a tablet, than they did 10 years ago. We hear so many complaints that reading is becoming a lost art, that kids don’t read enough these days, etc. But it’s impossible to navigate the web without text – whether it’s typing a web-address, doing a Google search, or getting into a flame war on a forum.

As Buckles points out, the internet has revived the engagement with text in a rather unexpected way – and it could be argued that kids are reading more now in this age of “txt” than they were in previous years.  And kids didn’t exactly love reading in my day – or back in my parents day either, for that matter. The role of TV in people’s lives is rapidly being replaced by the internet – and just about everything on the internet requires reading in order to participate in the cyber world. We may not like what they’re reading, but at least people are still reading, perhaps more than ever.


Related Links:

Official website:

A great article about Mary Ann Buckles:

The game that started it all:


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