Before Adventure, Part 2: Mugwump, Hurkle, Snark (1973)   9 comments

Before leaving Project SOLO, I’m going to quote from an essay by Dr. Richard Bellman printed in one of their early newsletters, Number Four from October 16th, 1970.

We are citizens of a large and successful society. Consider, for example, the following statistics. We tolerate one-half million serious auto accidents a year plus 60,000 fatalities; we support an 80 billion dollar a year military establishment of our own in addition to subsidizing those of Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines, South Korea, South Vietnam and North Vietnam, (albeit involuntarily and indirectly), and others; we can allocate 40 billion dollars to a TV spectacular on the moon using a hand-held camera. This is impressive evidence of success.

The essay carries this same tone for 7 pages. This is kind of hardcore for an educational program partly funded by the National Science Foundation. However, it does give a good sense of the dread and optimism permeating this era: massive global strife cojoined with massive technical innovation.

I mention this because it helps explain the front page of the first issue of People’s Computer Company, October 1972.

Computers are mostly
used against people instead of for people
used to control people instead of to free them
time to change all that —
we need a …
People’s Computer Company

The People’s Computer Center (and the accompanying People’s Computer Company newspaper) was founded in 1972 by Bob Albrecht. At the time, the only feasible way to use a computer was either to be associated with a large institution like a university or have the good fortune to attend a K-12 school that had access. There were unfeasible ways, of course, but it’s safe to say computers were Not for the Public. (Personal computers also weren’t an option: the first wasn’t released until 1975.)

PEOPLE’S COMPUTER CENTER

is a place.

…a place to do the things the People’s Computer Company talks about.
…a place to play with computers — at modest prices.
…a place to learn how to use computers.

We have a small, friendly computer . . . an EduSystem 20 (see Page 14), a timesharing terminal that connects us to the world and a Textronix programmable calculator, and some small simple calculators and books to help you learn …

Most relevant to us is to remember that the People’s Computer Center was open enough that it consisted of young children all the way up through adults. Games might be targeted at one, neither, or both.

The folks at PCC somehow had gotten hold of Hide and Seek (aka Project SOLO Module #0201), because they mention it as the inspiration for a game called Mugwump, which itself was the inspiration for a game called Hurkle.

Via PCC, Feb. 1973.

A game called Snark appeared a few months later. All three games shared the idea of finding something hidden in a 10 by 10 grid. Unlike Hide and Seek, which had 4 “players” to find, each of the three games had only one.

I. Mugwump

I’m not going to spend too long on this one, as it was a direct adaption of Hide and Seek. The only changes were

1.) to reduce the number of “players” to 1

2.) to change the “player” to a “mugwump”

3.) throw grammar to the wind and write UNIT(S) as UNIT, leading to the possible phrase “YOU ARE 1 UNITS FROM THE MUGWUMP.”

4.) to modify the maximum number of guesses from 10 to 4. (The exact value is tweakable by a line in the source code.)

THE MUGWUMP IS HIDING. TRY TO FIND HIM.

WHAT IS YOUR GUESS
?0,0
YOU ARE 9 UNITS FROM THE MUGWUMP.

WHAT IS YOUR GUESS
?9,0
YOU ARE 1 UNITS FROM THE MUGWUMP.

WHAT IS YOUR GUESS
?8,0
YOU ARE 1.4 UNITS FROM THE MUGWUMP.

WHAT IS YOUR GUESS
?9,1
YOU FOUND HIM IN 4 GUESSES!!!

Note the rounding is still in effect: this is why I was told the mugwump was 9 units away at (0,0) even though (9,1) is a little more than 9 units away. I don’t mind the issue since it makes the game slightly less mechanical.

Also, while it’s not relevant enough for us to get too deep into, there were multiple versions of Mugwump within PCC itself. The first version (based on the February 1973 transcript) had a limit of 4 guesses, whereas a version printed in 1974 had unlimited guesses. Perhaps there was some interplay between “pedagogical tool” and “game”; as a game it’s (maybe?) better to have the ability to lose and add tension to a fourth guess, whereas when trying to teach the specific topic of distance on a coordinate grid it might be better not to cut the player’s calculations short. (Although again, maybe? … perhaps the tension would be more motivating to find a good method of winning, as opposed to trying repeatedly.)

II. Hurkle

Hurkle changed the thing hiding from a “mugwump” to a “hurkle”. Instead of giving a distance after making a guess, the game gave a direction of indicating which way where the hurkle was hiding relative to the last guess.

THE HURKLE IS HIDING. TRY TO FIND HIM.

WHAT IS YOUR GUESS
?5, 5
GO SOUTHWEST

WHAT IS YOUR GUESS
?3, 3
GO SOUTHWEST

WHAT IS YOUR GUESS
?1, 1
GO EAST

?2, 1
YOU FOUND HIM IN 4 GUESSES!

This essentially took a relatively complex mathematics exercise and turned into one for younger children. Again, the original game had a guessing limit (5) that was removed in a printed 1974 version.

Technically it’s possible to always win in 4 moves. Think of the first coordinate alone: it could be at any one of

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Pick 5 (guess #1), which is either correct, or cuts the list to 0 1 2 3 4 or 6 7 8 9. Suppose it is the longer of the two lists:

0 1 2 3 4

Now pick 2 (guess #2), which is either correct, or cuts the list to 0 1 or 3 4. Suppose it is 0 1:

0 1

Now pick either choice (guess #3), which if it is the right choice it means you have the right number for that coordinate, and if it is the wrong choice then there’s only one possibility left (which can be used for your guess #4).

The other coordinate can be treated independently with the same method.

In practice, this easier than I’m making this sound, which is why I said this game was for younger children; just go “halfway” in the right direction at each prompt and you’ll make it to the hurkle in time.)

III. Snark

Snark’s concept is somewhat a hybrid of Mugwump and Hurkle. You guess a position and a circle radius, and then the game tells you if the hurkle is inside, outside, or on the circle that you guess. To guess an exact spot, the radius should be 0.

SNARK IS HIDING … START GUESSING!

COORDINATES
?3,3
RADIUS
?3
THE SNARK IS INSIDE YOUR CIRCLE

COORDINATES
?3,2
RADIUS
?2
THE SNARK IS OUTSIDE YOUR CIRCLE

COORDINATES
?3,4
RADIUS
?2
THE SNARK IS INSIDE YOUR CIRCLE

COORDINATES
?2,4
RADIUS
?1
THE SNARK IS INSIDE YOUR CIRCLE

COORDINATES
?2,4
RADIUS
?0
YOU CAUGHT HIM IN 5 GUESSES!!!
GOOD SHOW!

This was the most complicated of the games to play, and I never ended up settling on an optimal strategy.

IV. Observations

These certainly came across more as math exercises than as games. The only reason I enjoyed playing them was the historical creation angle.

For one thing, you might expect that Hurkle (the easiest game) was made first, but since Mugwump was a direct adaption from elsewhere (including parts of the same source code) development happened in reverse: the next game added simplicity rather than complexity. Snark went both directions; aesthetically, simpler, since it’s just stating if a point is inside, outside, or on a circle; in gameplay practice, more complicated in that the best general algorithm for winning isn’t as obvious.

Additionally, two of the three games insert a slightly-ambiguous creature as the thing being sought after, whereas one is … a humorous political word?

Mugwump, as discussed by the Oxford English Dictionary blog:

The word mugquomp, meaning ‘war leader’ or ‘great chief’, appeared frequently in John Eliot’s 1663 translation of the Bible into the Massachusett language, where it was used as a gloss for ‘officer’, ‘captain’, and ‘duke’. By the early 1800s the form ‘mugwump’ had been adopted into English as a humorous term for an important person, leader, or boss.

One of the PCC publications admits directly that Hurkle comes from the short story The Hurkle is a Happy Beast by Theodore Sturgeon. As discussed in this science fiction blog:

In a “different universal plane,” there is a planet called Lirht. There, during a disaster, the door to a lab is carelessly left open, and a hurkle kitten wanders in. Hurkles are pets on this world. They’re small and cheerful and purr by emitting radiation.

Snark is from the most famous source, The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll, but no easier to visualize. Quoting directly from the poem:

They hunted till darkness came on, but they found
Not a button, or feather, or mark,
By which they could tell that they stood on the ground
Where the Baker had met with the Snark.

In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and suddenly vanished away—
For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.

This is “narrative by association”, so to speak, but it’s still a little stronger and more vivid than the “players” of Hide and Seek.

A picture of the “mugwump” from the book What To Do After You Hit Return. It looks like the mugwump was meant to be a fictional creature as well, although the only references I can find are like the Oxford one where it’s just a name for “leader”. Anyone know of a 1973-or-earlier story that uses the word in a different sense?

V. The Next Link

We need a little more of the chain for anything we’ve seen so far to link to adventure games.

For our next step, we’ll look into a game which was the first to bring game perspective to “first-person exploration”: in a cave, navigating via room numbers from place to place.

Those familiar with it may be thinking I’m talking about Hunt the Wumpus.

But: I’m talking about a different game that came before it, also at the PCC, that seems to have been entirely forgotten in the annals of computer game history.

Posted March 15, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

Tagged with , , ,

9 responses to “Before Adventure, Part 2: Mugwump, Hurkle, Snark (1973)

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  1. There’s a story MUGWUMP FOUR by Robert Silverberg from 1959: https://www.prosperosisle.org/spip.php?article211

    From the first few lines I remember reading this as a kid, and that’s probably where I know the word “Mugwump” from. Specifically I remember not really understanding the thing where the phone exchanges were a place name and a digit.

    I thought I might have recognized it from the dissident Republicans who supposedly threw the 1884 presidential election to Grover Cleveland (this wouldn’t have been completely impossible, because I wrote a report on Grover Cleveland sometime). Though I also think that I did at least some of these programs as type-ins.

    The People’s Computer Center illustrations have some very nice Kilroy-as-circuit-diagrams; I wonder if they got that from Thomas Pynchon’s V.

    • Nice spot on Kilroy. Pynchon reference seems likely.

      They put him everywhere in the newspaper.

      As far as mugwump goes I am starting to suspect they picked a word they pegged as nonsense that sounded like a monster. I’ll comb through again to see if anything makes sense as a Silverberg or political reference.

      • For what it’s worth both “The Hurkle Is A Happy Beast” and “Mugwump Four” appeared in anthologies/collections that were published in the late 60s/early 70s, so it wouldn’t have been too implausible for someone to have run across them not long before. Hurkle and Mugwump. (It was certainly Other Dimensions in which I read it, some years later–I remember “Stanley Toothbrush” and “Inside.” Apologies for turning the series of posts into my childhood memories of the 70s!)

  2. time to change all that

    Optimistic as their spiel is, and woke as they are in regards to contemporary US military adventurism, the Columbus imagery on the cover suggests that their analysis of the colonization of the new world was still pretty vestigial 8)

    (Ditto for any potential references to the landscape of early computing as a blank slate, terra nullius or a wild west. These terms have radically different meanings depending on which end of the stick you’re on.)

    My first exposure to the word “mugwump”, while not its origin, is William S. Burroughs’ 1959 work of post-spousal-murder experimental literature Naked Lunch, so I was a little shocked when I first saw it in early computer games.

    • A William S. Burroughs reference would be wild, but it seems possible! Not what I’d pick for an educational game, for sure. (As Matt points out, the electro-Kilroy might be a reference to Pychon’s V, which is in the same not-for-children category.)

  3. In addition, The Mugwumps were a 1960s folk rock band, based in New York City, that featured later members of the Mamas & the Papas and the Lovin’ Spoonful. They released one self-titled album in 1967 and two singles. This seems like the most proximate source.

  4. Pingback: Lazy Reading for 2019/03/24 – DragonFly BSD Digest

  5. Pingback: Before Adventure, Addendums | Renga in Blue

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