PLATO’s Cave: How the Educational Computer System Created RPGs and Online Multiplayer

plato

When you hear the words ‘video game device’, you might think of many different machines: there are arcade cabinets, personal computers, consoles that you plug into your TV, handhelds, maybe even smartphones. What probably doesn’t come to mind is one of those giant mainframes that handled all the serious calculations for big business and universities back in the day—yet these are the computers on which some big parts of gaming history started. Today we’ll take a look at gaming on PLATO, a distributed, mainframe-based, worldwide educational system and the place of origin of some of the earliest computer role-playing games.

A brief history of PLATO

The earliest version of PLATO was created in 1960 and it ran on ILLIAC 1, a five-ton collossus built by the University of Illinois. The mainframe itself was built before transistor-based computing was even a thing—it was made of vacuum tubes and memory drums.

Over the years, the system became larger and the computers on which it ran changed. The second version of PLATO allowed two users to run lessons on it simultaneously and the third one increased that number up to twenty and gave rise to the system’s distributed, terminal-based nature. The National Science Foundation and Control Data Corporation became involved (PLATO III and IV used CDC mainframes) with the project in the late 1960s and early 1970s, expanding it worldwide and developing its technology even further.

The 1970s were the time of PLATO’s greatest popularity—helped by both the huge advancements in computer technology and the fact that it was a part of an ambitious and idealistic vision William Norris, then-CEO of CDC, had for computers, business and society. PLATO IV, released in 1972, consisted of many terminals placed all around the world and gave its users access to thousands of hours of courseware, ranging from elementary school learning applications to scientific simulations for university students. This system was where the early games were created and it was also an early online community, pioneering things like message boards and instant messaging long before BBSes, Usenet and the Internet.

In the 1980s, PLATO slowly declined and even the attempts at porting its software to the emerging personal computers couldn’t have saved it. After Norris stepped down as CEO of CDC, the company focused on less expensive projects and the system as it was known has largely died, although many pieces of its courseware remained in use, ported to different systems. All was not lost, however, as the PLATO system as an online community and a museum of some of the earliest computer games was resurrected in the 21st century as Cyber1 thanks to PTERM—the PLATO Terminal Emulator.

Title screen of empire
The title screen of Empire

The hidden gaming scene and 1970s nerd culture

PLATO was not a system for games. It was for education only—and things that didn’t have educational value were deleted. As a result, some of the earliest games were either deleted (the fate of an RPG known as m199h) or disguised as utility tools and given names like pedit5. Early PLATO game programming was a bit like being a virtual graffiti artist—going against the authority, trying not to get spotted and persistently recreating his work after its inevitable destruction. Fortunately, it didn’t stay that way forever as the games became popular among the system’s users and after some time it was not uncommon for the gamers to become administrators or for administrators to become gamers. In fact, probably the only reason for the continued existence of DnD (also known as The Game of Dungeons) is that one of the people who developed it was tasked with managing a terminal.

While PLATO games might have lost a bit of their counter-cultural appeal when they became accepted as a part of the system, one of the things they’ve never lost is their geekiness. Gaming was a nerdy thing from the beginning and those early computer games were often inspired by some of the most quintessential staples of nerd culture. PLATO’s science fiction titles like Empire and Spasim, while never calling themselves Star Trek games, featured spaceship designs straight from the TV series. Games that used fantasy setting were quite obviously inspired by Tolkien’s books—they even had titles like Orthanc and Moria (no, that’s not the same game as roguelike Moria from the 1980s).

Probably the most interesting is the relationship between the early computer RPGs and the tabletop Dungeons & Dragons game. Now, it’s nothing unusual that video games borrow mechanics from D&D. What makes PLATO games special in this regard is just how quickly they’ve managed to do it: the original rulebooks by Gary Gygax were first released in 1974. The first version of DnD was released just a few months later—and that wasn’t even the first game to be inspired by Dungeons & Dragons, as it was preceded by the aforementioned pedit5. It’s interesting to see how great and immediate was the impact of this tabletop RPG on video gaming and nerd culture as a whole.

pedit5 gameplay
pedit5 gameplay

PLATO games and modern games, PLATO games and you

The things that will probably be the most interesting to the modern gamer are how PLATO games influenced gaming in the later years, and whether the forefathers are worth playing—after all, people in the 1970s might have played them simply because they didn’t have any alternative.

PLATO science fiction games were a diverse bunch. Action/strategy game Empire is a rather unique title that hasn’t appeared to influence modern gaming. It might be an early ‘multiplayer arena shooter’, as some people call it, but it doesn’t really play like anything else (the controls, for example, include having to manually type degrees in order to turn your spaceship around). Still, it looks like a lot of fun in multiplayer. The other major title, Spasim, was definitely more influential as it gave rise to the wireframe spaceship games with vector graphics, like the Star Wars arcade game from 1983, and is one of the earliest examples of a first-person shooter (but not the first, however—it was preceded by Maze War on the PDS-1 computer). Like Empire, it is both an action and a strategy game, although it started as a shooter and had resource management, bases and planets added later during the development (it was the other way for Empire).

The most important of the PLATO games are definitely the RPGs and this is because there were simply no computer role-playing games before PLATO. The earliest known title, pedit5, is a simplistic game in which you enter a dungeon, fight monsters and escape the dungeon—but it pioneered the D&D-inspired gameplay with stats and experience levels. Unfortunately, there’s just not much to it (no plot, no bosses, even no objective other than surviving and getting a high score) and how far the player progresses depends very much on luck. Its spiritual successor, DnD, was similar but introduced a simple plot in which the player’s character ventures into the dungeon in search for a macguffin called The Orb. It was also the first game to feature a boss monster.

Later PLATO RPGs like Moria and Avatar introduced turn-based first-person gameplay and wireframe dungeons, which would become the staple of subgenre dungeon crawlers like the famous Wizardry series. While those games also didn’t put a lot of thought into their storylines (it took quite a long time before RPGs became a narrative-focused genre), their gameplay was surprisingly complex. One of the last PLATO games—the 1979 title Avatar—featured a persistent world shared among many players, guilds, quests, traps, status effects and even an option to recruit monsters into your team.

Mainframes before and after PLATO

While the importance of the PLATO system (especially in relation to role-playing computer games and online multiplayer) cannot be overstated, it’s not the only mainframe-based computer system with its place in the history of gaming. In fact, it was the older mainframes for which the very first video games (a certain definition of a ‘video game’, that is: implementations of Nim and and noughts and crosses) were programmed.

It’s also worth noting that mainframe gaming didn’t end with PLATO’s decline. University mainframes once again revolutionized role-playing games in the early 1980s with text-based, randomly generated games for the Unix system. Those games, known as roguelikes (after Rogue which, despite not being the first of its kind, greatly popularized the genre), are another important part of both gaming history and early online communities (this time with Usenet newsgroups instead of PLATO’s communication capabilities).

Further reading

Maciej Miszczyk

About

I play games (I have a preference for old, weird and difficult ones but that's not the rule) and write articles about them that are sometimes a bit too long. Sometimes I also do things other than gaming, I swear.