Shift Happens newsletter

#8: Four hands on one keyboard

This is a newsletter for Shift happens, an upcoming book about keyboards.

It was four of us, four teenage boys sitting down to a computer to spend hours playing a videogame known to no one else.

It was four of us because the little corner of a room in a small panelák apartment, partitioned away to be “Marcin’s area,” could hardly fit more people. It was four of us because dividing the 14-inch computer screen into even more pieces would make them unreadable. But primarily, it was four of us because it was hard to fit more than four hands on one keyboard.

My corner of the room, replete with Pet Shop Boys posters, cassette tapes, a dot-matrix printer, and a creepy lamp

We played a game I myself wrote. It was inspired by “light cycles,” a sci-fi sport made sci-fi popular by 1982’s movie Tron. My rendition had a very unimaginative name: Lines. It was the version number — 4.2 — that suggested all the creativity went elsewhere.

The base rules of the game were simple: each one of us was in command of a Snake-like line that would incessantly keep growing in one of four cardinal directions… but could never shrink. The way to lose was to hit something: a wall, a barrier, or — most unnervingly — the opponent’s line. The way to win? Be the last boy standing.

There are parallels here to modern games like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds or Fortnite. We started in the corners of a shared playfield, but within seconds we’d converge in the middle. This is when the fun began. You could chase after someone. You could collaborate with someone to trap another person. You could make precision movements down to a pixel, impressing the hard-to-impress crowd — or you could just goof around, tempt fate, or be an agent of chaos all around. You could also try to wait things out, although that would only work for a while; with each passing second, more and more of the field was covered with ever-growing lines, including your very own.

Lines 4.2 wasn’t 4.2 for nothing. By then, in 1996, I’ve worked on it for years. 4.2 had teleports. 4.2 had turbo zones. 4.2 had doublers — places where your line would twin itself, confusing the opponent. 4.2 was a later edition with many refined details, and many bad ideas excised after testing proved them wrong.

4.2 felt good. It was only good because we spent months playing and adjusting it. We used it so often we had our vocabulary and conventions. After your teammate died, you would draw a cross with your line to commemorate him (and, sometimes, collide with yourself in the process). If you were trapped, you could try a technique called “kaloryfer Wicharego” — Wichary’s radiator — to try to survive just a touch longer than your enemies. And so on, and so on.

This was happening without a Nintendo or a Sega. All of the battles inside Lines transpired on a boring beige desk PC with a boring beige 101-key keyboard — the very same business keyboard shaped by IBM into distinctive parts devoted to different aspects of serious work. But we divided it another way, into sixteen virtual arrow keys for four players:

I cherish those experiences, not just for the obvious aspect of having fun with nerdy friends I liked. I also learned so much from them. It’s entirely possible that my appreciation of design details blossomed right there, during the six years I oversaw Lines 1.0 maturing into 4.2. When I worked on Google Pac-Man in 2010, I added a Pac-Man + Ms. Pac-Man mode for two hands just because I remembered how much fun we had back then (we got in some trouble for that, but this is a story for a future newsletter). And, I wonder how much playing and evolving Lines then led to me writing the very book I’m writing today.

In my research, I learned so much about specialized keyboards and keyboards as instruments, as canvases, as means of artistic expression. But it was this time in the 1990s where it all started to me, when I first saw the keyboard created to type office correspondence hijacked to serve two such different purposes. One was four boys steering their imaginary sci-fi ships into a deathly battle. The second one? Me typing in some code in Borland Pascal to create the very universe that made those battles possible.

It’s comforting to succumb to nostalgia like this. Nostalgia comforts. But nostalgia also corrupts. Finding the proper balance between these two has been an interesting part of writing; I don’t want my book to be an exercise in they-don’t-make-them-like-they-used-to-ism — but I also don’t want to forget that most of the readers likely will be nostalgic for some keyboards.

One of the tricks to keep me honest? Putting nostalgia to work. To record the animations above without three of my old pals, I wrote a special tool to record my keystrokes — and had to confront my awful Pascal code from mid-1990s.

I also did something you can now do: I took Lines and put it up online on Internet Archive. Wherever you are, today in 2018, you can grab a friend — or three — and use your internet browser to enmesh yourself in the game I made for four boys in a little corner of Poland, over twenty years ago.

What’s going on with the book

A flurry of activity and excitement. Conversations with editors and publishers are being had, I’m learning a lot about paper and printing, a few people started reading the finished second draft. And recently, I think I arrived at the exact way this book will present itself. Here are some mock-ups:

I am so happy about them. Sure, they’re all digital, but the text and photos are real, the layout comes from InDesign (exactly as it will be for printing), and what I don’t yet know to make all of this happen, I have plans to learn very soon.

There are still some bigger questions lingering, but the project is slowly entering the phase that I love the most: the phase of focus on details, and taking it all from 1.0 all the way to 4.2.

(In much less time than six years, though!)

My voice is my passport

I was recently on an excellent podcast called Hobby Horse, talking about my career and where the book is right now.

A big thank you this time to…

Brian “Fitz” Fitzpatrick (the #1 Tron fan!) for his support, Indra Kupferschmid for an informative conversation about DIN standards, and Glenn Fleishman for all the printing advice and inspiration.

What am I typing this on

Around the same time the four of us commandeered our ships in Poland, gamers in South Korea also discovered the value of keyboards for gaming. It was a slightly different story. Their games — StarCraft, League of Legends, WarCraft III — were networked, so the keyboard only needed to accommodate one hand, with the other holding a mouse. Since it was usually a left hand on the keyboard, the gamers standardized on WASD keys for movement, an almost key-for-key symmetry with WAXD we’ve come up with for Lines.

Early on, Korean gamers used regular cheap office keyboards. Their counterparts in other parts of the world did, too. But soon the manufacturers caught on to the trend. Soon, there would be keyboards for gamers, with macho trappings, neon lights, and Battlestar Galactica fonts. And then it went further. Since pro gamers only needed some of the keys, and sometimes did this…

…then perhaps a half keyboard would be all they’d want?

And so, gaming half-keyboards were born, and curious reversal took place. When once you’d choose to plug in an aspirational keyboard to a gaming machine to pretend it was something better than it was, today there is a half-keyboard for your PlayStation made solely to let you game moar.

And I’m typing on one of those right now, a cheap gaming “speedpad” I picked up during my trip to Japan:

There were typing half-keyboards before — two split halves for better ergonomics, keyboards for one-handed people, extra-shifted keyboards freeing your other hand to use the office phone or some other desk accessory:

Combimouse, Matias, and Maltron

But mine doesn’t pretend it’s about typing at all. It’s soft and reacts to my fingers too quickly. It’s missing many of the keys; others are rearranged from the sacred QWERTY order. All this makes doing what I’m doing an absolute nightmare: I’m making a heavy use of autocomplete, and my right hand is on the trackpad, painstakingly clicking the missing keys on an onscreen keyboard.

This is not how you’d want to write. And yet, it feels great to me, indulging in this historical full circle, one of many this book allowed me to notice and experience. Where once me and my friends used an office keyboard for gaming, twenty-plus years later I can have my revenge and use a gaming keyboard for writing.


PS at least the spacebar looks pretty cool. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves…

This was newsletter №8 for Shift happens, an upcoming book about keyboards. Read previous issues · Check out all the secret documents · Visit the secret store

Written by

Designer/typographer · Writing a book on the history of keyboards:

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