A Boot Camp for Booting Up: Education and Games at the Internet Archive

Greetings to everyone getting by at home, especially those looking to teach remotely, entertain your family, or find connections to your own past that used to live in programs from the 1980s and 1990s.

Perhaps, locked at home with your computer, you’ve finally got enough time to try out our collections of games for classic Sega and Atari consoles for the very first time. Or you find yourself longing for a simpler time in your history, when Prince of Persia, Pac Man and SimCity could make your troubles disappear, if only for a few hours. Or more likely, your kids have been assigned to set off on the Oregon Trail, but you can’t figure out how to begin that “long, difficult journey…that often resulted in failure and death.”

For all of you video game first time explorers, here’s a little boot camp for booting up Oregon Trail, and much, much more!

Jason Scott (aka “Textfiles”) is the Free Range Archivist at the Internet Archive.

I’m Jason Scott, software curator at the Internet Archive, and I want to help introduce (or re-introduce) you to one of our more unique features—the ability to boot computers in your browser!

What Is Emulation in The Browser?

For more than five years, the ability to boot software, including video game consoles, computers and even handheld plastic games has brought millions through the Internet Archive’s doors. It’s been so extensive and even routine that it hardly gets mentioned now – it’s just something that happens. But for many who suddenly find themselves online a lot more than they used to be, this feature may not be something you’re aware of.

In the same way that music can be listened to inside your web browser and movies can be watched or books read, it is possible at the Internet Archive to “start” up a computer inside your browser that is running software, and that computer can be something completely different than what you’re running.

Imagine an Apple II (1980s) or a Windows 3.1 (1990s) or any of a number of long-gone systems, and the software they used to run that can’t be found or easily used anymore, coming back very quickly and easily, simply by clicking on a screenshot of the program and then playing it. That’s what people do by the thousands every day at the Archive.

Bringing back hundreds of thousands of old software packages brings multiple advantages—the games are generally simpler and extremely clear in goals and play, and have very little connection to later phenomenons like free-to-play, advertising or social media; they’re self-contained worlds, which is ideal for setting up games for children and education.


How to Use Emulation at the Archive

Any software item that can be activated will have a “Play” icon over the screenshot at the top. It looks kind of like a big power button – it’s green and transparent. This means that emulation is available for that program, and you just have to click in the general area of the button for the system to start “booting up” in the browser.

Try it out now! Visit this URL: https://archive.org/details/a2_Childrens_Carrousel_1982_Dynacomp_PD using a desktop or laptop computer (mobile devices will work, but there’s no keyboard to do anything). Click on the icon as it appears above, and watch as the system starts up an Apple II computer running a simple educational program called Children’s Carrousel from 1982.

There are a number of messages being shown while the system is booting, meant to indicate if something has gone wrong or how long it will take for data to be loaded to your browser. If you see red error messages, or the loading seems to stop, don’t worry—move onto other titles or contact me for tech support.

Where to Start Finding Software?

The hardest part of bringing materials to your students or family is finding appropriate or useful software packages out of a field of potential titles that can range from outdated or broken to simply difficult to use.

There are over 150,000 software at the Archive that can theoretically run in the browser, and naturally the collection runs from timeless classics to best-forgotten past experiments.

To help, I’ve assembled a collection called the Software Kids Zone: https://archive.org/details/softwarelibrary_kids – which has a bunch of chosen software packages that I have found are generally easy to use, self-explanatory, fun to play and in some way educational.

Things to Keep in Mind

Here are some tips and advice to bringing your classes or family into programs at the Archive:

  • Always test the software yourself, clicking on items or using keyboard commands, to make sure everything works like you expect it to. There’s always a chance a program has issues past “it runs”, and taking a quick tour beforehand helps remove a lot of chance and issues later.
  • Try to find several versions of software you want to share, or have a list that can be switched to, in case the first doesn’t work. Being able to go from one geography game to another quickly is much better than having to start another search from scratch.
  • The best games and programs feel contemporary, even when 20 years old – it means they weren’t chasing graphics or trends and were trying to build something from the ground up. If you find a program hard to use or not intuitive, skip it, and move on.
  • If you are working with a collection of kids or families, have videos they can watch or music they can listen to instead of using these programs, in case they run into technical issues.

And speaking of technical issues:

Some Common Problems with Emuation in the Browser and Potential Solutions

The most common issues related to emulation in the browser is that it requires a more recent desktop or laptop – the older the machine, the more likely to run into slowdowns, crackling in audio, and other issues.

Another issue is that some software is just not intuitive or needs a lengthy introduction to get working, which is not what kids or really anyone is looking for. The simpler the program, the better it generally is, so don’t hesitate to switch to other titles if playing a game or package is not enjoyable or easy. There’s many, many to choose from!

As above, if you need support or information or even want to ask some general questions, I’m available via e-mail at jscott@archive.org.

Some Suggested Titles

Finally, here are some programs at the Archive that are really fun and easy, and which can tell you if this great feature is right for your purposes.

Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess is an educational chess program that can not just play the game of chess, but teach all the rules about it and give historical information. It’s perfect for a family to learn the game utterly from a true master. It’s located here.

MathOSaurus is a dinosaur-themed mathematics educational game that quizzes you on a range of math concepts with a colorful and fun cartoon dinosaur theme. Originally for the Apple II and with great thematic elements and easy. It’s located here.

The Oregon Trail is still our most popular emulated title on the Archive, and with good reason—it’s well designed, a challenging and interesting experience, and kids love it. I suggest The Oregon Trail Deluxe, which has a more engaging graphical style while maintaining all the fun of the original works, which date back to the 1970s. You can find it here.

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  1. Pingback: The Internet Archive, a trove of amazing things | Library Blog - Indiana University East

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