29 - Utopia, and the teacher who made a game of its impossibility


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A screenshot of 1982 Intellivision game Utopia
When Don Daglow pitched management at Mattel on an Intellivision game about trying to build a perfect society, he thought he was just creating a "line filler" in their product calendar. Instead he made one of the most important games of all time.

  • Don wrote a book in 2018 about the business and design insights he's gained from his long career making video games (nearly 50 years if you include his mainframe games!). If you buy it on Amazon via my affiliate link, I get a small percentage of the sale price.
  • It's also worth noting, for anyone up for some further reading, that I've done in-depth genre histories for Ars Technica on two of the genres that Utopia influenced — city-building games and real-time strategy.
  • I'll also have more content from my two (so far!) interviews with Don in the coming weeks and months — probably a "soundbite" in mid-November and a full episode in 2021, plus maybe more of each of those.
  • The front cover of Intellivision game Utopia, courtesy of MobyGames
    Utopia is one of several Intellivision games slated for re-release on the upcoming Intellivision Amico console. In the meantime, you can grab a fan-made remake on Itch.io (Mac or Windows), track down a copy of the Intellivision Lives! collection from some years back, boot it up in an emulator, or just watch some videos of it on YouTube.
  • All music in this episode was my own, except selected clips from Santa Paravia, Astrosmash, Fascinating Fruit, and Utopia, and the IBM mainframe playing a song.
  • Thanks to my sponsor for this episode, Richard Bannister. You can find out more about his Retro Games for Mac collection at his website or by listening to my Indie Spotlight interview with him.
  • Thanks as always to my supporters on Patreon — especially my $10+ backers Carey Clanton, Rob Eberhardt, Simon Moss, Vivek Mohan, Wade Tregaskis, and Seth Robinson.

To support my work, so that I can uncover more untold stories from video game history, you can make a donation via
paypal.me/mossrc or subscribe to my Patreon. (I also accept commissions and the like over email, if you're after something specific.)

(Partial) Transcript

[Most episode transcripts/scripts are reserved for my Patreon supporters (at least for the time being), but I like to give you at least a taster here — or in this case, the first half of the episode.]

Welcome to the Life and Times of Video Games, a documentary audio series about video games and the video game industry, as they were in the past and how they've come to be the way they are today. I'm Richard Moss, and this is episode 29, Utopia, and the teacher who made a game of its impossibility.

We'll get going in just a moment.

*pre-roll ad spot*

***

Life is chaos. Disorder. Imperfection. Disharmony. And yet we cannot resist the temptation to imagine a perfect world, if only one could exist, and to ponder how we might attain it.

We call this utopia, a term plucked from the writings of Sir Thomas More, an Englishman who lived in the late-15th and early-16th-century. He was a statesman, lawyer, and philosopher, but today we know him best for a literary work of his called Utopia, a satirical account, told by a fictional character to More himself, of visiting a perfect island society. A place called Utopia, a place that, of course, was flawed in myriad ways, doomed to failure, and frankly much less perfect than our enthusiastic traveller would have you believe, all for reasons left to the reader to identify.

It was hardly the first time that somebody had imagined — or even satirised — an ideal society, but it captured the imagination in such a way that we named the concept after this fictional place. Utopia, a word meaning "nowhere", or "no place", thus now also means "the perfect place".

And it has occupied the minds of game designers just as completely over the five decades we've had this digital medium as it had architects, writers, philosophers, painters, and poets for millennia before that.

But not necessarily for the same reasons — for you see game designers, in the same vein, it seems, as Sir Thomas More, tend to think in systems — not ideals. They look at the interaction of these systems, and examine how the world works. They play with systems, and they create models and simulations with them — so that we may play with them too.

Thus emerged Utopia, the video game, an early 1982 release for Mattel's Intellivision home video game console. It was a bestseller, but more importantly it was a critical darling that proved so influential it would foreshadow the creation of two, maybe three major genres as well as one of the most influential games of all time.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before I tell you about Utopia's legacy, I want to share the story of its creation. And in order to do that, I need to lay out some background context.

***

So let's go back to the mid-1960s, probably around 1964, 17-18 years before Utopia's release. There's this kid, Don Daglow — he's the one who would go on to make Utopia, but at this point he's in sixth grade. He's been hearing for as long as he can remember, from his anthropologist-turned-accountant father, that one day computers are going to change the world. And now his teacher has taken him and a couple of his classmates on a field trip to San Francisco to see some computers up close.

This is at the time when computers are room-sized monstrosities operated in freezing cold conditions, and when they mainly used punch cards for input. And the operators of one such computer decided to show Don and his classmates a quirk in the design of the system that caused it to emit various electromagnetic frequencies as it operates — frequencies that could in turn be picked up by a portable radio to play sound.



Here's Don:
Don Daglow: And normally of course that was just kind of this little cacophony of random tunes, but some smart character in their team somewhere, or somewhere where it had been shared, had created a deck that would play a song. And so they'd put that deck in the card reader and play it through. And here's the card reader playing the song. I don't remember what it was. But we all thought that that was really, really cool.
(The music in the background just now was not my interpretation but rather an actual recording of one such song, by the way, that some Computer History Museum restorers made a decade ago.)

And so with an experience like that to think back on, you can probably understand why this next moment went down the way it did: flash forward to 1971. Don's finished high school and he's in his second year of a liberal arts degree at Pomona College in Southern California, which as it happens had just received a grant from the Sloan Foundation to put two computer terminals in a dormitory for all students to access.

Don Daglow: So one day in 1971, you know, some things you remember — when I'm telling this story, I always go, you know, some things you remember in infinite detail. And I remember this day in _great_ detail because it was such a change in my life at that moment. But I was walking down the hallway of the dormitory, just after I walked in, and I hear this clickety click, click, clack, clack, clickety click sound.

And I'm thinking, 'what the heck is that?' And it's coming from this little room with the open door. And this is the dorm I lived in. Just pure luck that that's where the terminal got put. You know, with so many of these things, luck plays such a huge role. And I walked in and here are these two terminals and there's a student and I said, wow, what's this? And she explained what was going on and she said, would you like to try playing a game on the computer?

And so I sat down at the keyboard and I think the first one that she brought up was a horse racing game where you picked a number between one and eight. And then you hit return and then you didn't do anything and just said, okay, a quarter of the way, number three is ahead. Then number two, then number eight. You would just get the order. And so of course it was a one through eight random number guessing game, a 1D8, but it had a narrative and told a story.

And so after I tried a couple of — Oh, and then she said, Oh, well would you like to have a conversation with a psychologist? And she brought up Eliza and I played with Eliza and I went, Oh dear, Oh this is so cool. Cause I was a playwriting major. I thought that my — you know, my grand dream was to, you know, change American theatrical literature as a playwright. You know, all the great dreams you had as a college kid. And I knew that the odds of that were one in 10 million, but it was still kind of my dream and I was willing to work hard at it.

And I thought, what the heck, I'm a good writer. I'll see what happens.


He realised that these games he was playing were like interactive theatre. He could write that. And so he did.
Don learnt how to write code in BASIC, which at the time was the standard language for getting into computer programming, and he started making programs. And he continued making programs, all through the three remaining years of his undergraduate studies as well as his two years of grad school.
Mostly he made games — like a Star Trek game that cast you as captain of the Enterprise and printed out a TV-style script as you made decisions. But there were all sorts of games, some of which I'll cover in more detail in a future episode, and a few of which gained a fair degree of notoriety, but let's keep the story going:

Don Daglow: I was training as a teacher because I knew that playwrights and writers starved. And so I was trained to be a teacher, which I enjoyed doing. And so that meant for — until I got my master's, for almost two more years, I got to keep my computer access. And three days after I got my master's degree, they hired me as an instructor in the teacher training program in the department of education.

And I taught there for four years, which gave me four more years of access in the computer system. So I had nine years in which I could be writing on a mainframe. So basically most of the 70s, I had mainframe access. Most people who had the same passion as me and were doing what I did, if they got a couple of years access, that was great. And I got nine years. And that's just nothing but pure luck. Right place at the right time.


That wouldn't be the end of Don's luck, either. There's a story he likes to tell for this next bit, so I'll just set the scene again:
It's 1980. Don has a wife and a baby, and a mortgage, and he's working three teaching jobs to pay the bills. And he's unhappy. He specialised in something called multicultural education, but he'd moved up into an administrative role in the school district and he was struggling to navigate what he remembers as a very political internal culture that ran increasingly counter to his own beliefs.

Don Daglow: And I was driving along one day in my car, just at the point where this was just coming to a head, that this was going to become a pretty hostile place with this new set of people who'd been voted in. And an ad comes on the radio, and the voice on the radio says, 'would you like to work in the exciting world of video games?'

Which now is this very new thing. And I'm driving along and I'm thinking, (laughs) yeah, yeah, I mean, I know how to do this. I know games. Would you like to help shape the future of this exciting new form of entertainment? And I'm going, Yeah. Yeah, I would. And the joke, which I admit I told 50 times over the years — I was driving a convertible, and it's _half_ true that I thought about, 'okay. Is this the radio talking to me or is it God?'.

Because I needed a job at this moment. It was talking about exactly what, you know, this (gestures small size with hand) many people in the world had experience doing. And I had experience doing. The voice says call Mattel Toys at 213-978-jobs. That's two one three nine seven eight jobs. I should try calling that number and see if it's still the Mattel jobs line.

So, you know, I called him — at that point that we didn't have car phones yet. So when I got home, I called him. Got an interview. They were looking for computer science majors. But once they heard I've been designing computer games for nine years, it was kind of like, 'oh, OK, no, this is going to be, yeah'. And they gave me an offer. And so I went to work for Mattel Toy. I didn't know at the time, but my first day was day one of the in-house Intellivision team.


A screenshot of Santa Paravia en Fiumaccio
The second half of the story covers how the Apple II version of this game, Santa Paravia en Fiumaccio (Atari ST port pictured), helped inspire Don with Utopia



(For more, including the tale of how Don came up with the idea for Utopia by leaning on his teaching experience and his old mainframe games, as well as some fascinating game design lessons and insights that are embedded in Utopia, you'll have to either just listen to the episode or sign up as a supporter on Patreon — everyone who pledges $3 or more a month gets access to full episode transcripts [amongst other things].)


   

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