By Dr Tom Christie

November 10th, 2014

Digital Interpretations of Dementia: The Sinclair ZX Spectrum and Mel Croucher’s iD

There has been much discussion in recent years of the way that dementia has been articulated in video games of various different genres.  From first-person shooters to mystery games, the condition is being explored in far-reaching and often inventive ways as never before thanks to a games industry that embraces both creativity and real-life issues in equal measure.  Because of the graphical sophistication and processing power of the latest gaming technology, detailed and sometimes disturbing depictions of dementia have been brought into the public eye over the past decade, and in ways which have challenged assumptions about the ability of video games to examine the disorder in a thought-provoking and sensitive manner.  However, a willingness to engage with mental health issues is actually far from a new development in computer games, and its origins can be traced back to the mid-1980s.

1980's home computer revolution

In Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, the home computer revolution was a major triumph for UK industry, and at the forefront of the movement was Cambridge’s famous Sinclair Research Ltd.  Founded by Clive Sinclair, later knighted for his services to British industry, the ZX Spectrum home computer would become the first introduction for many people to digital computing technology outside of the workplace.  By today’s standards, the ZX Spectrum seems a hopelessly primitive machine, loading its programs from a standard cassette tape and possessed of a limited bank of memory (the most popular model boasted 48Kb of total RAM; smaller than even the most modest of present-day e-mail messages).  Yet the modest Sinclair Spectrum was to play host to what can arguably be considered the world’s earliest computer simulation of dementia symptoms.

Ground-breaking thinking to redefine generic conventions

Providing a convincing psychological replication of a condition as complex as dementia would be a daunting prospect for even today’s advanced computing technology; in the eighties, the very concept seemed unthinkable.  But pioneering programmer Mel Croucher was never a man to let expectation curtail his ambitions.  Though his name is rarely heard today outside of the retro-gaming world, Croucher was a legend of the British 8-bit computing scene - a ground-breaking free thinker who effortlessly redefined generic conventions even in an industry noted for its creative flexibility.  Developing wildly eccentric games which inspired many later programmers, including PiMania (1982) and Deus Ex Machina (1984), Croucher’s games defied categorisation just as their sheer inventiveness left many consumers scratching their heads in bafflement.  However, by making many of his games available over radio broadcast - meaning that they could be recorded to cassette and then loaded onto the Spectrum - he ensured that his quirky style would soon reach a wide and dedicated audience.

A programmer ahead of his time, in 1986 Croucher was to create a game which many would herald as being amongst the most elaborate of all his projects: iD.  Collaborating with Colin Jones, a similarly ambitious and unconventional programmer who was perhaps best-known at the time for his interactive fiction, iD was the type of game that defied anything even approaching easy explanation.  A wholly text-based experience, stylistically similar - at face value - to the adventure games which were hugely popular at the time, iD soon proved to be no ordinary computing experience.  Published by the prominent CRL publishing house (under the Nu-Wave label), the game came with little in the way of user instructions, leaving the player largely on their own from the minute they load up the program.  Immediately they are presented with a one-to-one interaction between themselves and an artificial intelligence, who prompts them to ask - and respond to - various questions.  Is the purpose of the game to ascertain the identity of the intelligence who is replying to the user’s queries?  Or rather, is the player assisting that intelligence to determine their own personal identity?  Only one thing seemed to be certain: that no two people were ever to have the same experience when engaging with the game.

Connecting and exploring — the gaming environment and dementia issues

So how does iD present a gaming environment that connects us to, or explores, issues relating to dementia?  Certainly the program’s title alludes to a number of different aspects of its function.  Firstly, it refers most obviously to unique individual identity (or ID).  Then it is suggestive of the id, from Freud’s structural model of psychic apparatus.  And finally, there is an allusion to computer science, where an identifier (ID) uniquely identifies a specific record or object.  All three of these aspects come to play a part in the way that the game interprets the nature of individual psychology and explores what it means to be an autonomous individual.  Crucially, the artificial intelligence in the game seems unsure of its character, its personality and even its own unique characteristics.  It requires user input to help it string together fragmentary memories and past experiences in order to ascertain its basic nature.  The intelligence is also prone to mood swings, announcing that it feels - for instance - elated or depressed at any given time.  The way that it responds to the user’s questions is predicated upon the state of its mood, as well as its interpretation of the tone and content of the player’s line of enquiry.

iD does not explicitly refer to dementia, but - such is its enigmatic approach to its subject matter - it perhaps does not have to.  This is a game which puts at its centre the experience of conscious thought.  Confusion surrounding identity, and a need to recognise distinguishing personal characteristics though interaction with the contiguous environment, encourages consideration of all aspects of personal psychology and individual independence.  This concept would seem laudable enough today, when postmodern aspects of artificial intelligence development seem ever more relevant, but this was a game developed in the mid-eighties which took up less memory than would be required to display a website logo on a modern PC.  While the limitations of the technology clearly mean that iD’s artificial intelligence is in no danger of passing the much-discussed Turing Test, as a model for depicting complex psychology on a rather humble technological platform the game would influence many later coders and certainly laid the early groundwork for considerably more sophisticated depictions of dementia that we have come to recognise in modern video gaming.

The Mel Croucher legacy — experimentation and the cutting edge

Mel Croucher remains active in computer games programming today, as a journalist, software developer and sometime broadcaster.  An author who is as comfortable with writing technical textbooks as he is with comedy fiction, he has spoken in recent interviews of his excitement that the independent spirit of homebrew app development for today’s mobile devices has reignited something of the creative passion that characterised the early days of computing and helped to make that period so memorable.  Amongst his many pursuits has been the resurrection of some of his earlier work, reinterpreting these experimental programs for modern technological platforms, and thus it remains to be seen whether iD will be revisited in the years ahead.  Certainly it would be an intriguing prospect to witness Croucher’s ground-breaking program let loose on today’s PCs, and to see what kind of form such a remake may ultimately take.  But whatever may happen in the future, there is no doubting the game’s significance in its original eighties format, or the sweeping aspiration which helped it stand out from the crowd in a market that was saturated by literally thousands of competitors.