Thirty years ago today I turned sixteen. I was anything but sweet. It was 1984 and although the world wasn’t the exact dystopian future George Orwell had imagined for us, it felt pretty close at times. Nearing the end of my academic career (a process I had been thoroughly annoyed and often confused by) I struggled to stay out of trouble at an all-girls school in suburban Hertfordshire, a million miles away from the miner’s strikes happening further north.
My school was a comprehensive but had recently been converted from a grammar school, so still had the faculty and countenance of a stuffy, old-fashioned institution harking back to the days when young ladies were expected to leave school with good manners and an arsenal of domestic skills at their disposal. We had excellently-equipped cookery and needlework labs where I learned to bake a Swiss roll and embroider my name on an apron (presumably in case I ever forgot who it belonged to).
My brother - two-years older than me and coincidentally also born on 22 May - went to a mixed comprehensive where he got to study technical drawing and woodwork, although I am reliably informed he could have chosen cookery and needlework if he’d wanted. The point was he got to choose. There was no choice for me. He also got to experience computers, as the school had one (yes, one between the entire school) BBC Micro and a computer hooked up to the Hatfield Polytechnic.
To this day I’m not really sure what that means; what the mysterious Hatfield Polytechnic’s mainframe had that needed to be hooked up to, but my brother was pretty impressed as you can see from this clip of us on a TV game show a few years earlier. While I languished in endless detentions because I refused to accept that learning to iron was a valid use of my time, he began learning to code. He showed such passion and flair for it that my parents splashed out on a hugely expensive BBC Microcomputer for our home.
1984 was also an important year for tech as it was arguably the year home-gaming was born. Elite was a space trading game with simple wire-frame 3D graphics that ran originally on the BBC Micro. I say ‘simple wire-frame’, but at the time the game was pretty revolutionary in every sense. Until then all you could play at home were rip-offs of arcade titles with gameplay strongly motivated by the coin-drop - in other words getting you to pump more money into the machine to keep on playing.
They were all about chasing a high-score with a number of lives; the average game lasting around ten minutes, fifteen if you were really good. In contrast Elite was an open-ended game, with no score, no levels and no bosses. It had a vast playing area of eight galaxies you could explore in any way you fancied, picking up missions and earning cash and notoriety as quickly and as honestly (or dishonestly) as you wanted. They’re known as sandbox games today; Grand Theft Auto is a good example.
I remember seeing my brother travel around endless space inside this magical box on the kitchen table, or type in a few commands and have the whole screen fill will the words “Matthew rules, OK!!” over and over again (despite the fact it clearly wasn’t true!), and thinking it must be some kind of witch-craft. I wanted to know how it did it. I wanted to know what else it could do. But more than anything I wanted to play that game, and possibly even get better at it than my brother.
At sixteen I had discovered my passion. Despite the fact the world still wasn’t quite ready for a girl to win at computer games (a notion I took much glee in helping squash during my time writing for games magazines in the mid to late nineties), I was lucky enough to have the freedom to nurture and expand that passion in my own time at home. I have my brother and his love of technology to thank for that. I know video games get a lot of bad press - Grand Theft Auto is also a good example in this context - but for me they opened my mind. It was the first time I felt I had real choice.
I truly believe we learn more if we care about what we’re doing. Video games are magical and amazing and enthralling and entertaining. Find the right one for you and it will be the taste that leads to a craving for more. There need to be limits of course - everything in moderation (including moderation as Oscar Wilde once said) - but playing games should never be discounted as simply a waste of time.
Today I read articles and statistics about the lack of women studying and working in technology and I just can’t understand it. It does not compute comes to mind as the most appropriate description of the way it makes me feel. If you want to learn to love computers I suggest you pick up a game - as it happens the latest incarnation of Elite is released this year having gained crowd funding of over £1.5 million. Don’t worry if you’re rubbish; EVERYONE is rubbish to begin with. Just let yourself have a little fun. That’s how it started for me. If I could have one wish for this month it would be that everybody reading this diary entry learns to play a new game. Just don’t get better at it than me.
Kate Russell has been writing about technology, gaming and the Internet since 1995 and now appears weekly on BBC2 and BBC World News, reporting for technology programme Click. A regular expert on the sofa at ITV’s Daybreak and various other TV and radio stations, she also writes columns for National Geographic Traveller magazine and Web User magazine.
Her first book ‘Working the Cloud’ contains a collection of tips, tricks and resources for small businesses, start-ups and entrepreneurs who want to get ahead online.
In addition to her prolific writing and TV career Kate speaks regularly at technology events and conferences and in schools and Universities inspiring the next generation of female technologists. She also gets involved in UK and global policy meetings to help shape the way the Internet is governed.
In 2012 she was crowd funded more than 400% of her target to write a science fiction novel, Elite: Mostly Harmless, published by Fantastic Books. She also spends (by her own admission) far too much time on Twitter coming up with a web recommendation for every occasion - earning her the nickname Kate ‘I’ve got an app for that’ Russell among friends and colleagues.