Digital historian Jason Scott has an eclectic portfolio. At Textfiles.com, he collects files and related materials from the era of dial-up bulletin-board systems. That work led him to create BBS: The Documentary, an eight-episode miniseries about the early history of online culture. His second documentary, Get Lamp, set to debut this week, examines text adventure games through interviews with developers, designers and players. Even if you've never heard of Scott, you might have heard of his cat: Sockington, the most-followed animal on Sockington Twitter, has more than 1.5 million followers.
How would you describe text adventures?
I think of a text adventure as a computer game with a text interface that describes a location and asks you to type in what you should do next. If someone reads it to you, can you still [understand what's going on]? If you can, it's a text adventure. If you can't, then it's a graphic video game.
Text adventures are no longer a financially viable form of entertainment. What caused them to fade into history?
The idea of exploring a world, trying to figure out the meaning of that world, pull out answers from it and solve a quest was readily taken over by graphic adventures. These companies didn't ask how they could improve text adventures, so they lost money and got bought out.
Where can we find influences of text adventures today?
Everything in which you are presented with a quest and must figure out - through skill, wit or luck - what you are there for, what you need to do and how to do it is a descendant of text adventures.
A lot of what we consider "sandbox" games, like Grand Theft Auto, are good examples. If you look at text adventure contemporaries, you find games in which you can turn in four directions and shoot at a ship. Compare that to one that gives you a description, asks you what you want to do next, and you can type anything. That's what made them so innovative for their time. It was a completely foreign and mythical idea.
Your website, Textfiles.com, preserves and publishes historical content. How do you balance respecting copyrights and preserving history?
I generally violate the copyrights of obscure material whose pedigree is lost or which obviously was never part of a money-making entity. The core of a lot of my stuff comes from an era when it was impossible to track back the origin.
In the case of "abandonware," there are three layers: duplicating it for your own use, duplicating it to sell it and duplicating it to distribute it widely. I have very little problem with the first, I flip out over the second, and I go back and forth on the third. That's why Textfiles.com has no ads.
You recently purchased a physical storage unit, dubbed the "Information Cube," to house historical software, magazines and the like. Yet in this digital age, access to physical data is limited. What's your plan for this cube?
The hardest thing for someone to do with history is be there when it happens, so I'm trying to be the guy from the future who travels back to the past, grabbing journals and magazines. There's a lot of data that we don't know needs to be saved. The only reason this stuff isn't already in a museum is because museums haven't expanded for them yet -- but all indications are that they're going to.
My goal is to digitise [the contents] or give it to a more appropriate archive. Right now, it's relatively trivial for me [to store the materials]. And to get what I have online, I need the original hardware -- and even that is getting easier: It wasn't until February 2010 that a USB 5.25-in. floppy controller card came out. We never know what's going to come along.
In late 2009, you successfully used the online funding tool KickStarter to raise $20,000 to make digital history your full-time job. How do you intend to make your vocation self-sustaining beyond that initial investment?
I've tried to be aware of what people were paying me to do, and I've tried to be careful not to be either wasteful or nonproductive -- but the problem is that a lot of my stuff was slow-simmering and is now coming to a boil. Once Get Lamp is a sold product, I expect it to support me for the next year or so.
Facebook, Wikipedia and even Apple's iPad have recently gotten some bad press for being centralised services under the control of a single entity. Where is all this headed?
People think Facebook is an unstoppable juggernaut and we have to fight, because if we don't, it'll always be like this. But something better will come. It's really bad to flip out, as if this were life and death. At the same time that there was the Altair and the Atari 800 and the Apple II, we still had the Atari 2600 and the NES - two completely closed systems that worked dependably. We lived with it, it was fine, and now they're gone and there are other things.
So yeah, Facebook is pretty terrible with privacy, and I'm bothered by the number of people who happily defend ease over freedom. But Facebook won't survive more than another five years in its current form. Look at MySpace or Friendster or Orkut. There's a lot of space in the ecosystem.
Is your tweeting as Sockington a parody of Twitter?
The constantly updating format allows him to make cultural references that are clichés on Facebook or Twitter, but that comes from doing three jokes a day for three years.