The Medium headline calls Colossal Cave Adventure “one of the first the video games,” but it’s a stretch to use “video” to describe the modality of a command line text parser game. The former Patricia Crowther was very helpful to me when I interviewed her by telephone for my DHQ article. I could have written quite a lot more about her as a technologist, rather than mostly as a caver, but I wasn’t writing a book.
I enjoyed reading this article by Claire L. Evans, an excerpt from her 2018 book, Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet. This passage does an excellent job capturing the value of studying computer code as a human artifact:
I’m telling you the story of the Mammoth Cave, of Stephen Bishop and Patricia Crowther and her husband Will, heartbroken as he memorialized their adventures in code, as a way of reminding you that every technological object, be it a map or a computer game, is also a human artifact. Its archaeology is always its anthropology. In fact, the most famous archaeologist to study Mammoth, Patty Jo Watson, inferred an entire agricultural economy from the grains digested by the corpses preserved in the cave’s constant temperature and humidity. To under-stand a people, we must know how they ate. To understand a program, we must know its makers — not only how they coded but for whom and why.
I wouldn’t have phrased this as “her cave maps” since a mapping expedition is a communal process.
I also found this passage notable:
The ﬁrst academic to seriously consider Adventure was a woman, Mary Ann Buckles, who compared the game with folktales, chivalric literature, and the earliest uses of ﬁlm, arguing that the growing cultural importance of computer technology that Adventure represented would lead to a democratization of computer use “analogous to the democratization of reading that characterized the spread of printing.” The literary critic Espen Aarseth, writing about the genre of forking digital literature that Adventure catalyzed, called it “a mythological urtext, located everywhere and nowhere.” Adventure spawned a genre of adventure games, which mutated from text interfaces to visual ones while retaining Crowther’s strange and compelling interplay of second-person description (There is a shiny brass lamp nearby) and imperative command (Get lamp). This developed into a textual physics used in virtual spaces all over the early internet. In time, even people with no knowledge of cave adventures came to talk this talk.
Adventure has been remembered, celebrated, canonized, satirized. Crowther, who never made another game, is now considered interactive ﬁction’s J. D. Salinger. But the domestic context from which Adventure emerged bears exploring, too: Will Crowther wrote the code after divorcing the woman with whom he’d mapped the cave Adventure emulates. It was playtested by his sister, for whom he invented the game’s “magic word.” It was created for the daughters he saw only on weekends and holidays and because he missed Patricia, or at the very least because she had instilled in him a love of the enveloping darkness. —Medium