Monday, August 12, 2013

Unearthing another classic EA print ad

I spent a rare weekend away from all email and internet, and I'm back with a unique relic from an era that I've been thinking a lot about lately.  In my review of Austin Grossman's novel "You," I linked to an old print advertisement for Electronic Arts titled "Can a Computer Make You Cry?"  Grossman also talked about the impact this ad had on his characters, and it seems to have been rather pivotal in the computer game industry.

However, I had no idea there were other EA advertisements other than that one!  While paging through the November 1983 issue of Scientific American, I came upon this:

Click for bigger version

I searched for pieces of its text online, and could not find it anywhere.  Is it possible this intriguing follow-up ad is not archived anywhere on the net?  No worries, though, because the remainder of this post contains the full text, transcribed hopefully with no errors by yours truly.

First, disclaimers:

(1) I didn't want to put my old magazine through the hazards of a scanner, so the above cell-phone pic is as good as it gets for now.  I could attempt to snap higher resolution pics, but now that you know it's the Nov. '83 issue of SciAm, and that it's on pages 24B and 24C of said issue, you may be able to find it elsewhere.

(2) I presume the text below remains copyrighted by Electronic Arts, but I hope my transcription can be viewed as "fair use" since it is of clear historical interest, and it seems to exist nowhere else on the net (as of August 2013 anyway).

(3) There are some unintentionally chuckle-worthy moments in this text.  Maybe there's a bit too much of a halo erected around Budge, too.  Still, it's a fascinating slice of life from those heady early days.  Please comment away about the content.

(4) There may be other ads in this series, too.  If I find any more, as I go through my moldy stack of magazines, I could post them.  Is there interest in that?

- - - - - - -

[Header text:]

Bill Budge wants to write a program so human that turning it off would be an act of murder.

Are you sure you want to call this guy an artist?

[Main body text:]

In a bedroom in a frame house in Berkeley, California, a guy who looks like he might have stepped out of a TV family series is playing with some ideas that could change your life. They are ideas that are amusing, even charming. And they are ideas that are, quite frankly, a little scary.

His name is Bill Budge and he talks about things like how programming for a microcomputer is like writing a poem using a 600-word vocabulary. He talks about how the elements are so limited and how you have to make them mean so much. And he talks about how, if you do it right, you can make those elements suggest something more than aliens -- something that begins to make you believe it has a life of its own, something he calls "a software friend."

A software friend. It sinks in slowly.

To create a personality in the computer, you have to come to some decisions about what the personality is in the first place. We often think of it in nearly the same way we think of "habit" or "character traits" -- a way of describing continuity in our behavior from one moment to the next.  (F. Scott Fitzgerald called it "a series of consistent gestures.")

According to Budge, however, the essence of a software friend is quite the opposite. "Creating the illusion of personality," he says, "means creating an intelligence that's always changing. It reacts differently to different situations."

The idea is probably ten years away from actuality. But when it comes to working such a mojo on our home computers, well, Budge stands about as good a chance as anyone of pulling it off.

After all, look at PINBALL CONSTRUCTION SET. Everyone always knew Budge was good, but when he cranked out PINBALL, well, the switchboard lit up like a Christmas tree.

It was a program that changed the way people thought about personal computers. Instead of reacting to the machine, you were suddenly inside it, trafficking information this way and that, making things. It was like programming, but with familiar items -- you'd grab this bumper, move those flippers, change the colors, then shoot a ball through it all and wonder. Maybe for the first time in a popular program, you could feel the power of the computer.

Steve Wozniak called it "the best program ever written for an 8-bit machine." And suddenly, what-Budge-would-do-next was something you heard people talking about. To Budge himself, however, things weren't quite that simple.

"Sometimes I worry," he says. "I worry about the ability of software to absorb you, focus on you, steal you away from your family and friends. Because in its short-term excitement, it seems to be more interesting. Of course, it's not."

He leans on his hand. "Not yet."

[Upper-right inset text:]

Bill Budge's classic PINBALL CONSTRUCTION SET is just one of more than a dozen remarkable publications by a company called Electronic Arts. We're an association of software artists, united by a common goal: we want to realize the potential of the home computer. To do this, we're creating software worthy not only of the capabilities of these machines, but also of the minds that use them. If you'd like to know more about our company and its products, call ... or write us at ... [old contact info omitted]

- - - - - - -


  1. Jeez, those last two words made my skin curl. I mean it.

    'It was a program that changed the way people thought about personal computers. Instead of reacting to the machine, you were suddenly inside it, trafficking information this way and that, making things.'

    I think we get to these places in ways that we don't recognize. It's very much like the frog who eventually ends up in boiling water but his muscles have relaxed to the point of atrophy as the water warmed up by degrees.

    I've been packing mindlessly for more than a week and feel disgust somewhere inside. Not serious. Just the disgust of people who mostly live in their heads having to interact at that sustained pitch with 'things' about which, in the final analysis, they don't really care one way or another about save for their utility in service to the ones they love. My mind was really craving this encounter. Thanks.

    And, yes. More, please.

    1. It's been amazing to read these old SciAm magazines -- especially the "Computer Recreations" columns. One month there'd be something that is still pretty cool, even today (like the AI program Racter), and the next month they're hyping the next big thing -- like "turtle" graphics -- that went nowhere fast. :-) Perspective sneaks up on you, indeed!

      I'm also going through these magazines to figure out which ones I'll keep (hopefully not too many) and which ones will end up on the donation table at work. Where I work, these will be gobbled up quick. :-)

    2. Went down a rabbit hole with the turtle graphics link and ended up here:

      Learning can be fun, boys and girls!

  2. The end is a bit chilling, especially since we all know how immersive even the simplest video games can be.

    1. Yup -- when the next new game comes out, my blog roll is full of posts about lost weekends. (Although I'm not into many of the new action-oriented games, my son and I were quite addicted to Sim City Creator on the Wii a while ago!)

      Still, the "ten years away" line about the emergence of naturalistic AI blunts the chill a bit. Siri probably isn't quite the software friend they had in mind. :-)

  3. "Is that rain?" (How could they possibly think that commercial was a good idea?)

    Naturalistic AI - surely, you've read Caves of Steel? I think we're probably pretty far from Asimov's concept but I think the Three Laws would be a good idea going forward...

    1. Oh Zooey... she just doesn't seem to want to move beyond the manic pixie thing, does she?

      I haven't read Caves of Steel! Glance over to the right and you'll probably see that one of my most popular posts is about my one encounter with Asimov... so I should be ashamed! I know the three laws well, but those robot stories never interested me as much as his other stuff.

    2. My friend, you must give them a try! Very different from the Foundation series and highly compelling in their own way. Caves of Steel, especially, is wonderful for so many reasons. It's a mystery story - great stuff.

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  5. Did you know Jesse Schell talked about this idea exactly thirty years after this was ad published in a GDC panel about the future of videogame storytelling?

    1. Cool... thanks. I didn't even know who Jesse Schell is, actually. After revisiting this old post, I'm now kinda wondering what Bill Budge thinks about GTP-2!

    2. Wouldn't you know it, I once delivered a presentation on something similar to this technology. Imagine if neural networks could be implemented into word processing units to assist with writer's block. I've actually gotten a few decent sentences by applying prompts to use in my stories. It's a remarkable tool.

    3. Oh... that's an idea I hadn't thought of. I might give that a try, too!