For much of my adolescence and childhood, computers were what other people had. They were increasingly popular, but had not yet become the ubiquitous appliances they are now, when even the youngest juggle laptops, desktops, tablets, and smart phones. As immersed as I now am in this cycle of monitors and touch screens, I was once an outsider to the digital revolution. Not by choice, mind you. My parent had simply not invested in it. But this only bolstered my fascination with computers, as if they belonged to a secret cult, speaking in tongues of code. Whenever we visited family friends with desktops, I would investigate all the strange icons and programs, many of these profoundly enigmatic. The Netscape logo whispered in a patois of international connectivity, barely audible but dreamlike and fantastical, an uppercase N stepping over the globe, darkening sky behind it, evoking all sorts of science-fictional ideas.
I remember the first time I felt curious about computers. For whatever reason, students in my kindergarten class in Argentina were given an educational VHS program entitled Multimedia, which we could take home to watch. This must have been 1992. I begged my parents to see it with me after dinner, and they complied. I hardly remember it now, but I conserve an impression of what it must have been like. A young man gestured enthusiastically in front of a badly rendered backdrop of abstract shapes slashed by sliding photos of a utopian computerized society, closely resembling our current one but far happier, while chunky key words floated on-screen or traced diagonal, vertical, and horizontal paths. The young man spoke in the hopped-up jabber of techno-optimism, tempered by the didactic requirements of educational videos. My dad was nonplussed, which is why he proceeded to not buy a computer. I had become a believer, though.
Every so often, the desktops I had access to included video games. At my aunt’s house, in what was supposed to be a vestibule between garage and lobby, converted into a chaotic office space for fugitive documents, I died hundreds of times in Prince of Persia, squinting at my accident-prone avatar in the dark before being called to dinner. At my parents’ workplace, on a lonely and unloved desktop tucked into a forgotten nook, I found Commander Keen and The Incredible Machine. At a friend’s place, while our parents discussed grown-up matters downstairs, we chortled and guffawed our way through Duke Nukem 3D, snickering at the pixilated nudity and garbled moaning, wasting digital dollars on cubist strippers with figurative breasts, wondering what all of it meant as we stood at the dawn of puberty.
Finally, the day came that my parents bought a desktop, in 1999. We lived in Bakersfield, California, in a walled apartment community. Our neighbors, an eccentric Australian couple, were returning to their home country and had to dispose of their junk. So they offered to us their ancient rig, packed with a version of Windows lost to memory and two video games, an early installment of Flight Simulator and the text adventure A Mind Forever Voyaging. The former was quite boring. I analyzed the extensive manual until I almost felt ready to fly the real thing, but my virtual incursions invariably ended with nosedives into ugly continents of color. The latter, however, was a revelation. I could explore a futuristic city, roam streets and shopping malls, visit stores and churches, watch day turn into night. I could stand at a city intersection, perceive the changing weather, hear the chattering tumult of pedestrians, or perhaps walk into a restaurant and order a meal. Text adventures typically had puzzles, as I would later learn, but not A Mind Forever Voyaging.
Long before free-roaming exploration and sandbox games had become cliché, this Infocom classic was providing similar pleasures in a believable urban context. Unfortunately, our eccentric Australian neighbors had misplaced important quest objects. In order to increase immersion, Infocom titles came boxed with “feelies,” physical items like maps and code wheels that were necessary to advance the plot. The first code had been jotted down by our neighbors on a piece of paper, but further codes were necessary and I had no way of unlocking them. So ended my initiation as a computer game owner, no longer dependent on strangers’ desktops. It foreshadowed my slow and eventual fall into a world removed from consoles, finally crystallized in 2008 when I downloaded Deus Ex from Direct2Drive.
On the same ancient rig, I also became familiar with the Internet, provided to us by Prodigy, a once-relevant company then on the verge of collapse. At around that time, on Valentine’s Day, I sent flowers to a girl I liked at school, presenting myself as her secret admirer. I asked her to contact me through my hip e-mail [email protected] Unfortunately, the combination of French literature, doomed online service, and seductive lines like, “I followed you home to know which address to send the flowers to,” proved to be too much for the young girl, who promptly stopped answering my messages. At any rate, I recall that computer fondly. Shortly before our eccentric Australian neighbors left Bakersfield, our parents and I stumbled into them in a cinema aisle. They were hopping from screen to screen, watching three or four movies for the price of one across the length of an afternoon. We greeted them, exchanged film recommendations, and then parted. They were in a hurry. “We’re off to see another one,” they said. I hope it was to their liking. I will be forever in their debt, or would have been, had they not lost those “feelies.”