The Problems with PLATO

The PLATO system was the internet before the internet.

It’s more complicated than that, but the Illinois-based timesharing project introduced much of what the world values in the environment of the World Wide Web. This – naturally – includes games, but the PLATO project presents many of the same problems as documenting early internet culture and creation where preservation took a backseat to expansion and creation. There’s also the added difficult of a further 20 years into the past from much of the early web, further shrouding the development of many significant games.

Most enthusiasts who have discovered PLATO on their own probably did so in recognition of the system hosting the earliest computer RPGS, both single and multi-player. While many of those games are available to play on the emulator platform Cyber1, attempting to approach these games from their current state of preservation presents some issues. Namely, PLATO games – like modern internet ecosystems – were patched and updated to add new features. Sometimes these could be radical changes to the point of constituting a wholly different genre. How then are we to understand what the games were like in their original state when placed on the network?

PLATO computer lab.

Testimony for revising and alteration is attested to be almost every PLATO author. John Daleske on his website documents the many phases of the seminal PLATO game Empire. The original program was far divorced from the team deathmatch it would eventually become, though thankfully both versions are preserved in some form. That can’t be said for the Spasim – the earliest known 3D game in existence – which was deliberately deleted and rebuilt by its author Jim Bowery. Any knowledge of how the game could have been different – for better or worse – is now unknowable. The online RPG Moria was also a game which evolved over time, though it’s unclear if the early versions of the program which lacked a first person perspective were ever even uploaded publicly to the network.

Even putting aside the question of whether these games had fully formed mechanics even in their earliest iterations, dating PLATO programs is equally fraught. A wide array of dates can be found in books and on the internet, but no references verify any given guess. There’s only one generally available source of contemporaneous info about these games, which are the NOTES files – essentially an early message board for PLATO users which began in 1972. While NOTES does trace some interesting stories such as the beginnings of Empire and the initial reception of The Dungeon (pedit5), the archive has some major gaps in 1973 and 1974, as well as stopping in mid 1976 which appears to have been the point of real growth for games on the system. Couple this with increasing restriction on game-related activities in this time period, and there’s a dearth of information on some of the most important games on the system from contemporaneous accounts.

Two students playing PLATO games. Source: 1977-10-19 Evening Star

There are a few alternative sources outside of PLATO’s ecosystem which can be turned to for help in this. Much like other mainframe games, PLATO programs would be remarked upon in fanzines and other publications though since they were restricted a single platform they did not spread as widely. One description can be found reprinted at the end of Jon Peterson’s book Playing at the World, describing what appears to be an early version of The Dungeon. This passage not only helps to nail down features such as an online high score table – implemented years before arcade games took it seriously – but also helps more confidently dating the program as premiering in August of 1975. Not all first-hand testimony is as valuable as that particular detailed letter, but historians can find value in even the briefest of mentions of a game.

There also exists at least one catalog of PLATO programs from July of 1974 which lists all programs – games included – created to that date. It doesn’t give a date of creation for the programs, but it’s a start. This was a one off though, as by the following year all non-educational games were expelled from listings in the catalog which corroborates a crackdown in the 1975 period. A few sparing mentions of games can be found in newspapers of the era such as the above one showcasing Empire and Orthanc Labyrinth, but as with basically any mainframe game reported these tend to be after the programs gain significant followings.

Empire printout, signed by Gene Rodenberry.

Evidence beyond specific published works have to exist in the form of saved printouts which were printed off the computer back in the day. John Daleske saved an Empire printout, as did Dirk Pellet of the dnd program, even capturing some preliminary versions which helps substantiate the timeframe of release. A screen print-out (not code) is also said to exist for the enigmatic RPG m199h. No other first hand documentation is known to exist at this time, though this is in part a symptom of game creators not being contacted through several decades of absence from their achievements. It’s likely they did keep documentation for at least a few years, though the sentimentality of such far flung creations can ware off. Such is the plight of the archivist.

What can be observed about PLATO is the way that it touched the lives of those lucky enough to experience it. While its influences are many, the most important aspect of the system was how it primed the world for a wider gaming landscape of remote play and the many interactions therein. The games themselves are fabrics gently woven into that wider tapestry, and untangling one thread is a delicate process that only seems to come with the wear of time. I encourage anyone interested in PLATO to try and seek out new information frontiers; this is just a report as things stand right now. I hope one day we can make a real timeline of PLATO games, but right now it’s simply not possible.

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