First posted on 01 February 2013. Last updated on 01 February 2013.
|Kevin Savetz is a retrogaming nerd and the author of Terrible Nerd.|
Released in November 2012, Terrible Nerd is a memoir written by Kevin Savetz about the coming of age when surrounded by geek culture. Filled with many funny but also deeply personal anecdotes, the book describes how growing up as a bona fide nerd and gamer has shaped him today as a successful book author and web entrepreneur. Adventure game fans will readily identify with Savetz as he recounts his fond memories from his youth playing classic text and graphical adventure games.
For more information, visit Terrible Nerd.
Kevin Savetz is a nerd—a confession which he is not afraid to make in his book Terrible Nerd. As a former tech journalist and current web publisher, Savetz is the poster child of a generation growing up with computers. Savetz is also an avid gamer as well as a self-professed retrogaming fanatic, having developed an early fondness for text adventure games from Infocom and graphical adventure games from Sierra. He is the founder of AtariMagazines.com and AtariArchives.org as well as an accomplished book author (MBone: Multicating Tomorrow's Internet, Your Internet Consultant - The FAQs of Life Online). His early life, as described in Terrible Nerd, is the story about a boy coming of age in the early era of home computing and growing up as a nerd and a geek in the 1980s. Adventure game fans growing up from the same era will readily identify with Savetz.
We are privileged to have an opportunity to interview Kevin Savetz. In the interview, Savetz speaks about his life growing up as a nerd, his inspiration for writing Terrible Nerd, his love of classic adventure games, and how living life in the geek culture has shaped him today as a successful author and entrepreneur.
- What is the difference, if any, in your view between a nerd and a geek? Why do you call yourself a "terrible nerd"?
- I don't think there's a difference between geek and nerd. I mean, if a person has nerdy-geeky tendencies, they can call themselves whatever they want. I tend to prefer the word nerd, but I use the two words pretty much interchangeably in the book. (Ha, that question reminds me of the old Saturday Night Live game show skit "Geek, Dweeb, or Spaz?")
The title Terrible Nerd is meant to have multiple meanings — on one hand, it simply means I'm a very nerdy person. On another hand, sometimes I don't fit the canonical definition of a nerd: for instance, I'm not really interested in Star Wars, and I suffered through math classes. On the third hand, I tell a couple of stories in the book in which I did things that I'm not proud of — like stealing my first computer (from a church no less) — so there's another meaning of terrible.
- To what extent is your book a story about growing up in the geek culture?
- It is definitely about growing up in the geek culture, how I made my way as part of the first generation of home computer geeks. For me, the geek culture that I grew up with was transmitted by a small group of nerdy friends, computer magazines, books, and eventually BBSes. Geek culture has changed significantly since then. It seems like it's almost cool to be a nerdy kid now — or, even if it isn't quite cool, it certainly seems easier now. Back then, a lot of nerds felt like they were the only fish of their species in the ocean. Today, even if there's no one in your community who is into whatever it is you're nerdy about (computers or comic books or movies or anything) you can find a kinship of fellow nerds online. Before the Internet, the world seemed a lot smaller.
- As a self-professed retrogaming nerd, what were your first gaming memories?
- When I was four or so, my dad moved into an apartment, and there was a Pong machine in the apartment sales office — a big coffee table with a glass top looking down into Pong's CRT. For some reason, they didn't want the game anymore so Dad bought it from them. He had that game for years. He and I would play it endlessly. There was also a one-player mode. If you won against the machine, it would give you a free game. But if you came close to winning a second time, the game fudged the score so that you'd always lose the second round.
- What was the first text adventure game (or interactive fiction) you played? Which Infocom game was your favorite? Compared to games from other genres, why did adventure games appeal to you in particular?
- I can't say for sure what the first interactive fiction game that I ever saw was . . . but the first one that I really got to spend some time with, and dig into, was Xenos on the TRS-80. I also liked Zork, but my favorite was probably Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: it was funny and challenging. It also helped that I was really into Hitchhiker's in general — I had read the books and the radio scripts. I liked adventure games because I loved to read; I loved that there was a sense of place within a computer game, and the challenge of solving the problems.
The most recent adventure game that I've played is also an Infocom — I bought Lost Treasures of Infocom on my iPhone and am finally playing Planetfall, which I'd wanted to play when it was originally released. So far, I've finished the game but haven't achieved the optimal ending yet.
- As a youth, you dabbled on writing your own text adventure game but never finished it. What was the name of this unfinished game? What was the game about? How long did you work on the game? Why did you eventually abandon the project?
- I wrote, and finished, a text adventure game in BASIC on the Atari 800 called Scavenge, which was available to play on a BBS called Weird City. It had a lame little storyline about having to find certain items for a scavenger hunt. It had rooms and items, but it only allowed one-letter commands for directions and actions. It didn't have a real parser, so I was dissatisfied with it. Later, when I got an Apple IIc, I started writing an adventure game where the goal was to set up a number of rides at a traveling carnival. I don't remember the title; it was probably something clever like "Carnival." Again, this was in BASIC: this time I wrote a decent little parser, you could move around the map from place to place, taking items — but when it came to planning and creating the puzzles, I think I got bored and/or frustrated and/or lost interest, and put the project aside. I think that having done what I felt was the hard part — writing the parser — I has succeeded and could move on to something else.
I still have a lot of the files and art and things that I created on the Atari, but the Carnival game and the other projects I created with the Apple IIc are lost forever.
- In your book, you described a humorous anecdote about winning an Infocom contest. What contest did you win? What rewards did you receive for winning the contest?
- Infocom held a "Design A Better Envelope" contest — they asked for Infocom-inspired art, and they were planning to put the best one on the envelopes that they sent the Infocom newsletter in. I couldn't draw a straight line, but my stepfather was a professional artist: he drew a characterture of Arthur Dent from Hitchhiker's Guide for me, and signed my name to it. Infocom ended up picking several winners, including "my" drawing, and each winner got to pick the Infocom game of his choice as a prize. I picked A Mind Forever Voyaging.
- You were also a fan of graphical adventure games. Which were your favorite adventure games? Why?
- When King's Quest came out, I was wowed. I didn't have a PC at the time so I couldn't really spend a lot of time playing it, but I got to dabble with it on friends' computers. I remember just walking the guy around the tree, it was kind of amazing that the game understood three dimensional space.
When I got a PC XT of my own, I was addicted to Starflight for a while, and Police Quest, and Leisure Suit Larry. But for my money: text adventures were where it was at.
- Adventure games have declined in popularity in recent years. From the perspective of both a fan and a critic, how must the adventure game genre evolve to adapt to the changing tastes of gamers? What lies in the future for the genre?
- I think that the heyday of the text adventure game is past and will never return. I certainly think it will remain an interesting and viable genre, but a niche genre. The way people play video games has fundamentally changed, with a tendency towards games that can be played in a moment of two, on small screens, and without a keyboard. Casual games. Apps on a phone. I don't want to imply that that's a bad thing — it's just different, and that type of gameplay on that type of device doesn't lend itself to long-form interactive fiction. Most gamers don't want to concentrate on a puzzle or draw a map of a dungeon.
But there's still a future for adventure games with a segment of the gaming population. Games are like television channels: once upon a time, Infocom used to have several titles on the top 10 software sales lists. And there were three television networks, each of which also had a big chunk of the viewing audience. Today there are hundreds of TV stations to choose from, and tens of thousands of games to choose from. Segmentation happens, but there's still a market for all of those TV stations, and for all of those types of games, adventures included.
- You are the founder of AtariMagazines.com and AtariArchives.org. Beyond a diehard retrocomputing hobbyist, to what extent do you also consider yourself a computer historian?
- I'm no historian — an archivist, maybe. I just like to make information about retro computing available on the Internet. I was one of the first to do this in big way, but I'm by no means the only one. The folks at Bitsavers to an amazing job, and Jason Scott (who really is a computer historian), and many others. My current project is digitizing Creative Computing magazine and getting them saved at Archive.org.
- In your book, it appears that you have expressed ambivalence about software piracy in computer games. Many of the once pirated games are now available as "abandonware" to a new generation of gamers, who otherwise will never be exposed to these classic games. To what extent do you share the same ambivalence about "abandonware"? To what extent do you believe that there is a duty for the rights holders of these classic games to release them into public domain so that they may be preserved for prosperity?
- I'm not ambivalent about abandonware at all: I think copyright holders should either actively use their properties or dedicate them to the public domain. Of course, that's easier said than done — most corporations just don't think that way, and even when they do, sometimes they just don't know what they own: the contracts are long gone, or the copyright owner is unclear. I've spent a good deal of time getting permission to share old computer-related texts and software on AtariMagazines.com and AtariArchives.org, and failing to get permission, too. It's a complicated issue.
- Terrible Nerd is a book about coming of age as much as about geek culture. Who will be most interested in reading the book? What messages do you want your readers get after reading the book?
- I've gotten a lot of positive feedback and reviews from other nerds who grow up in the '70s and '80s, who grew up with Ataris and C64s and arcades and modems. Several people have told me they wanted their significant others to read it, so they would better understand them. So I think I struck a chord.
About sending a message with the book: I felt I had some interesting stories to tell about my nerdy life. I wasn't trying to send a message, but if I was, it would be: don't steal computers from a church.
- Looking back, to what extent has living life as a geek (or nerd) made you a better person as a whole? Why?
- You might as well ask me "to what extent has having ten toes made you a better person?" I don't know, the nerdiness is (as the toes are) part of me, they have always been and it's hard to imagine things any other way.