At the height of the hippie era, two fellows named Bob Albrecht and Leroy Finkel founded the publishing company Dymax in San Francisco to write books about BASIC. Yet Albrecht in particular had ambitions that went beyond merely selling books about computers. In those days computers were still the stuff of science fiction: huge, sinister machines that were always going haywire and causing Captain Kirk all sorts of problems. For this to change and for Albrecht’s dreams of computers as tools of fun and creativity to be realized, people needed access.
Albrecht, apparently a very charismatic and persuasive man, managed to wheedle a physical PDP-8 out of DEC and a remote terminal connection and an allotment of shared computing time out of HP. He soon turned Dymax’s Menlo Park offices into a sort of computing open house, where anyone could drop in and just play with the machines. By 1972 the for-profit publisher Dymax had spun off a very different institution Albrecht named The People’s Computer Company. PCC was not really a company at all — or at least not a company terribly interested in actually making money. Its name was in fact inspired by Big Brother and the Holding Company, the late-60s band that boasted one Janis Joplin as its singer, and this fact shows where its heart really lay. San Francisco was still largely living the hippie dream in 1972, even if some of the luster had begun to fade post-Altamont, and Albrecht and PCC fit right in with the counterculture there. Their mission was bring computers to the people, which they accomplished not only through their open house but also through a newsletter whose first issue appeared in October of 1972. Its banner read: “Computers are mostly used against people instead of for people. Used to control people instead of to free them. Time to change all that. We need a… People’s Computer Company.”
The atmosphere at the Menlo Park office was described in this way by Steven Levy in Hackers:
The air was usually filled with the clatter of terminals, one hooked to the PDP-8, another connected to the telephone lines, through which it could access a computer at Hewlett-Packard, which had donated free time to PCC. More likely than not, someone would be playing one of the games that the growing group of PCC hackers had written. Sometimes housewives would bring their kids in, try the computers themselves, and get hooked, programming so much that husbands worried that the local matriarchs were abandoning children and kitchen for the joys of BASIC. Some businessmen tried to program the computer to predict stock prices, and spent infinite amounts of time on that chimera. When you had a computer center with the doors wide open, anything could happen. Albrecht was quoted in the Saturday Review as saying, “We want to start friendly neighborhood computer centers, where people can walk in like they do in a bowling alley or penny arcade and find out how to have fun with computers.”
This was the environment that the 27-year-old Gregory Yob wandered into one day, probably around the time that that landmark first issue of PCC’s magazine was being published. At the time a certain collection of grid-based guessing games written by Albrecht himself was popular there. Hurkle was probably the first of the kind:
RUN HURKLE WANT THE RULES?Y A HURKLE IS HIDING IN A GRID, LIKE THE ONE BELOW. NORTH 9 . . . . . . . . . . 8 . . . . . . . . . . 7 . . . . . . . . . . 6 . . . . . . . . . . 5 . . . . . . . . . . WEST 4 . . . . . . . . . . EAST 3 . . . . . . . . . . 2 . . . . . . . . . . 1 . . . . . . . . . . 0 . . . . . . . . . . 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 SOUTH TRY TO GUESS WHERE THE HURKLE IS HIDING. YOU GUESS BY TELLING ME THE GRIDPOINT WHERE YOU THINK THAT THE HURKLE IS HIDING. HOMEBASE IS POINT 0,0 IN THE SOUTHWEST CORNER. YOUR GUESS SHOULD BE A PAIR OF WHOLE NUMBERS, SEPARATED BY A COMMA. THE FIRST NUMBER TELLS HOW FAR TO THE RIGHT OF HOMEBASE AND THE SECOND NUMBER TELLS HOW FAR ABOVE HOMEBASE YOU THINK THE HURKLE IS HIDING. FOR EXAMPLE, IF YOU THINK THE HURKLE IS 7 TO THE RIGHT AND 5 ABOVE HOMEBASE, YOU ENTER 7,5 AS YOUR GUESS AND THEN PRESS THE 'RETURN' KEY. AFTER EACH GUESS, I WILL TELL YOU THE APPROXIMATE DIRECTION TO GO FOR YOUR NEXT GUESS. GOOD LUCK! THE HURKLE IS HIDING - TRY TO FIND HIM! WHAT IS YOUR GUESS?5,5 GO NORTH WHAT IS YOUR GUESS?5,2 GO NORTH WHAT IS YOUR GUESS?5,1 GO NORTH WHAT IS YOUR GUESS?5,0 GO NORTH WHAT IS YOUR GUESS?5,8 YOU FOUND HIM IN 5 GUESSES!!! LET'S PLAY AGAIN.
Later variants made things a little more complicated: in Snark, one must enter the radius of a circle around a central gridpoint to be informed whether the snark is inside or outside, while Mugwump (the most difficult) tells only how far in a direct line the mugwump is hiding from each guess, leaving the player to puzzle out the direction for herself. In a sense, these are not really games at all; there is no way to really lose, only to end up with a lesser or greater total of guesses. One might imagine people competing against one another in the social atmosphere of PCC, but since each game is randomly generated it’s impossible to really know what two scores mean in relation to each other.
Yob’s reaction to these games was, in his own words:
“Eech!!” Each of these games was based on a 10X10 grid in Cartesian co-ordinates and three of them was too much for me. I started to think along the lines of: “There has to be a hide and seek computer game without that (exp. deleted) grid!!” In fact, why not a topological computer game — imagine a set of points connected in some way and the player moves about the set via the interconnections.
A “topological computer game” in which “the player moves about the set via the interconnections.” Starting to sound like something you recognize?