Learning to Code in a “Retro” Programming Environment

Could the Commodore make a comeback in education?

Young Coder
Apr 12, 2019 · 5 min read
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“How is it that teenagers were able to become professional computer game developers through self-education?”

In today’s world, this would be considered an amazing accomplishment. So is there something we can learn from the history behind Bandersnatch as we work to empower the next generation in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)?

Commodore and the 8-bit generation

Looking back at my own personal history, I started programming at age 7. My mother had bought one of the remaining Commodore 16 machines from a supermarket chain in Germany, hoping to use it to do accounting for her business. As it turned out, the Commodore 16 wasn’t much good for that. But I, a curious boy, started to develop an interest for the idle magic box in the basement. The rest is history.

The more interesting questions is: “What was this machine actually made for?”

Commodore’s mission in the 1980s was to bring “Computers for the masses, not the classes.” Indeed, PCs weren’t popular yet and they were very expensive, so the only access to computers was using terminals connected to a mainframe in either a university or a large company. This created a niche for a computer that was better than a pocket calculator but not as powerful as a mainframe. Adding an entertainment component (such as interesting sound, color graphics, and the ability to connect to a standard TV) made these 1980s home computers appealing to the masses.

Commodore’s C64 was the most-sold single-piece computer until Apple’s iPhone came out.

However, the C64 had the worst version of BASIC. The home computers with better BASIC, the Plus/4, the C16, the C128, or the ZX Spectrum (featured in Bandersnatch) were also popular but didn’t have the same impact. Nevertheless, this generation of computers — the 8-bit home computers — shaped a generation of programmers. In fact, we often refer to ourselves as the 8-bit generation.

How the 8-bit generation learned to code

Before they became game programmers, the 8-bit generation had to learn programming. And they had to learn by teaching themselves autonomously, because there was nobody else to teach them. This provides strong evidence that these early home computer systems were very successful at being educational.

  • The same environment allows beginners to work with the system in three straightforward ways. You can ‘doodle’ using the keyboard (which had extra non-ASCII symbols for drawing). You can interact calculator-style, using direct commands like PRINT SIN(3.1415/2). Or, you can write a complete program in BASIC and run it.
  • The BASIC language is a simple-to-learn programming language that has access to the entire system without having to load libraries for sound, graphics, math, and so on.
  • The focus of the programming language is on efficiency. One command does one thing immediately (for example, COLOR 0,6 turns the screen green). I challenge the reader to implement this function in Python!

For an elementary school kid who is just learning to read and write, the sensation of causing an action simply by typing a word is priceless.

At the same time, their motor skills aren’t ready for extensive mouse drag and drop yet. Finally, I don’t know about you, but I am too much of a helicopter parent to give my 8-year old unattended access to the Internet so that she can use one of the web-based programming education portals.


Young Coder

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