In 1982, a technology straight out of contemporary science fiction was on track to be the world’s first Twitter. Living and dying in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the cable service teletext brought 24/7, on-demand news directly to a television. Much like Twitter, teletext offered a stream of live, bite-sized information, but in a blocky, neon font. One titanic news corporation unlocked its true potential: as an early video game streaming service.
Teletext was not developed for video games. Users could access updating stock quotes, restaurant menus and news headlines at any time. Excited about the promising, new technology, Time Inc., dumped $25 million into its Teletext project before it fizzled out not even three years later. (A fun detail: my mom and dad met working for TIME Video Information Services, where TIME Teletext was born.) Time Inc.’s experimental teletext project took technological leaps that outlets like the BBC or CBS wouldn’t risk. Early video games were one of them, and, as it turned out, they were its most popular asset. (I recently wrote about them for VICE Motherboard).
Here’s a sample:
After a TIME subsidiary launched HBO, technologists there realized that its satellite channels could max out teletext’s technology in ways that were previously untapped. Teletext’s information existed on digital “pages.” A box on top of a teletext-enabled television would grab whichever page a user requested and project it onto the screen. They cycled like a “Rolodex in the sky,” according to one report. With HBO’s satellite channel, Time could broadcast thousands more pages than the typical cable channel’s 150. And, they realized, those “pages” could function as “frames” for a video game.
In TIME Teletext’s Outer Space Zoo, players chose animal companions, visited each other’s houses and solved puzzles. Each animal had its own home in the pastel, psychedelic world. Graphic designers poked out worms, crocodiles and hippos in pixel art. An elaborate tube system connected various animals’ habitats and space busses transported them through the sky. Players navigated the world with their remotes’ right and left arrows. Its world was serial, so its developers over in New York could progressively add new buildings and characters that, the experiment’s testers across the U.S. could explore moments later.
“The Outer Space Zoo came out because of the perception that little boys like outer space and little girls like zoo animals,” former TIME Teletext graphic designer Gary Zamchick told me. To plan it out, Zamchick and other games-tangential TIME Teletext employees built a plexiglas model of the Outer Space Zoo’s world in an upstate New York home. Zamchick says it’s the first video game he’d ever played.
More like the MUDs and text adventures of the 1980s, TIME Teletext’s Dire Straits was a bit more time-appropriate. It was an art deco murder mystery set on a cruise liner—a text adventure with illustrated rooms. In the first-class dining salon, or by the captain’s table, players would unearth clues or solve riddles. “It was technically a database,” Bob Spielvogel, who edited TIME Teletext’s Learning and Games section, told me. “If you solved the clue, you’d go to a different point of the ship. There were riddles, word puzzles. Most of them were little crossword puzzles, something a family could sit around and do together.”
TIME Teletext’s quiz games and sci-fi-inspired RPGs, like Lunatic, were a bit more straightforward. To get ideas, TIME’s Teletext employees frequented Times Square arcades. Once, they took off an afternoon to see Tron.
At one point, TIME considered partnering with Atari, given the popularity of the 2600 home console. But in 1983, Atari made a famous misstep, which cost them a treacherous $500 million: they bought too many 8k cartridges. Over 14 truckloads were dumped into a New Mexico landfill. TIME Teletext’s president swears that, if that hadn’t happened, TIME Teletext would have moved into the gaming business instead of dying out with a $25 million whimper. Others who worked there were a little more cynical, describing TIME’s teletext experiment as a technology without an audience. And, in any case, video games were considered a “fad,” according to McCarthy.
A little ironically, TIME Teletext’s users didn’t think so. After user surveys came back from California and Florida, it became clear that TIME’s news wasn’t appealing to users, but the video games were. On average, users gamed for 23 minutes a day, 14 more than they read headlines.
“We thought it was going to be a news thing,” two former TIME Teletext employees admitted in TIME Teletext’s post-mortem report, “The Future is Here, and It Isn’t Teletext.” “It turns that all they wanted to do was play Lunatic.”