The Ghosts in the Machine by
(5 Stories)

Prompted By Technology

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I was never much of a gamer, but in the early ‘80s, when I got my first IBM PC, there were a couple of computer games that I played to “relax.” One was Microsoft Decathlon, in which you could emulate Bruce Jenner and “compete” in all ten Olympic events using only keys on the keyboard. In running events, for example, you simply pressed the 1 and 2 keys in rapid succession—a skill I was good at from years of practicing trills on the piano. Other events, like the discus and high jump, were more complex and involved more keys, first running and then timing the keypress that triggered the release or the jump.

I closed my eyes and saw ghosts running toward me. My fingers twitched on imaginary keys.

In those days, everything about computer games was primitive: the graphics, the interface, the slow response, even the packaging. (Young gamers, I scoff at your mouse, joystick, and game controller, which had not yet been introduced.) They came on a 5¼-inch floppy disk, which, in a primitive form of copy protection, had to be inserted in the drive to play.

My other favorite was Pac-Man, or maybe it was Ms. Pac-Man. (Who can tell?) It was a reasonable facsimile of the arcade game, controlled only by the arrow keys. I quickly became adept at the first few levels, racking up higher and higher scores. The deflating sound effect that signaled “game over” just became motivation to start again and do better. When my wife warned me that I might be addicted, I dismissed her complaint. I was just playing to relax, I said.

Then came the night when I got in bed, closed my eyes, and saw the Pac-Man ghosts running toward me. My fingers twitched on imaginary arrow keys as I tried to escape them. I had played too late in the evening, I reasoned. I promised myself I wouldn’t play before bedtime. I could limit my play. But Pac-Man started creeping into my workday, my evenings, even my social life. I found myself visualizing entire game levels in my head.

Finally, in a desperate moment of sanity, I took a scissors and cut that floppy disk in two. I never dreamed of Pac-Man again.

Profile photo of Reginald Reginald

Tags: Pac-Man, Microsoft Decathlon
Characterizations: funny, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    My husband bought Pong, back in the day…what a boring game! At least your games had a bit more vibrancy to them. But addiction is real (I’ve seen my youngster and his best friend unable to disengage), so I applaud the scissors move!

  2. digitalsmeg says:

    I use to have auditory hallucinations from playing Mr. Do on Colecovision. So I can totally relate to the ‘ghost’ phenomenon.

    While I too grew up and played games before mice were common I think it’s important to note that the most popular interface for PC gaming is still the keyboard. Also every next gen console still utilize inserted media as the first layer of copyright protection. Additionally, young gamers these days are totally amazing. Google ‘dark souls 3 bananas’. Someone played what is inarguably one of the hardest games to date while using bananas as his controller.

  3. John Zussman says:

    Yeah, I remember you were addicted to Yahtzee too.

  4. Suzy says:

    This is a fun story. I was into pinball myself, especially when I lived in Lowell House and there were machines in the basement. I never got into any of the computer games, although I did have a brief flirtation with Tetris when they put it on the computers in the AG’s Office, I think to help us learn how to use a mouse.

  5. Thanks for the reminder re: those early cyber-game days. Each new advance seemed remarkable! I lost the game urge early on, but I was addicted to Tetris! May your dreams be Pac Man free!

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