Stephen Bell | computer graphics at The Slade 1977-79



Ever since I had learned that the stars we see and identify as constellations are not all the same distance from us I have been interested in the way that three-dimensional shapes may be seen as two-dimensional. I was interested in the three-dimensional arrangement of stars around the sun and at Bristol had made a model of the relationships between the sun and its nearest stellar neighbours. I really wanted to build up a sense of where the stars are in 3D.

The model didn't do the job, but while working with the computer I thought that it might be possible to build up a picture of the relative positions of the stars if they were used as locations in a game. The player might learn their relative positions incidentally while playing the game.

I had started working on a board game design whilst at Bristol, then at UCL I started to play Dungeons & Dragons. This led to some experiments with a rudimentary space exploration and adventure game. The plan was that people would play the game and when they had finished playing they would be presented with a print-out of a comic-style story of their adventures, automatically edited to show the highpoints of their game.

I had no idea of how complex it would be to program such a game but I made a start. You can see below how it might have been printed out. The spacecraft in these drawings automatically opened fire on each other when they were in range. Hence the 'whaaam!' type explosions.


An extract of what I wrote about it at the time:

"Each craft in the game will have a history of its own, which will be modified by interaction with other craft. In a very elementary way this is analogous to social interaction. I am hoping that once several craft are interacting 'they' may discover that an optimum tactic involves the formation of groups with mutual interests! The events will be displayed as sequential drawings evolving a sort of narrative. The nature of the interactions are to do with awareness of one's own position and that of other craft - their usefulness or otherwise governing one's actions towards them." (personal notes 1978)


When I was working on the spacegame in my second year at The Slade a student in the first year would occasionally join me in the studio in play-testing my board game and discussing how computer games might develop. He spent alot of time making his programs use the computer efficiently and evidently knew more about how they worked than I did. But he left the course to go and work in the computer games industry and I lost touch with him - can't even remember his name. I occasionally wonder whether he ended up developing a computer game that I have since played.

I also tried to do some animation but at the time, with my poor understanding of how computers work, several patient attempts by Chris Briscoe to explain double buffering to me just led to some rather startling results. The Tectronics display would draw one frame using vectors, then it was cleared using a technique that caused the whole screen to flash, then the next frame was displayed. Watching an animated sequence generated this way was like looking into a green stroboscope.

The core rules that I designed into the spacegame program later re-emerged in the Smallworld suite of programs that I began to develop as artist in residence at the computing laboratory of the University of Kent at Canterbury in 1984-85.


Part 6 | some further ranstak experiments

Part 4 | Helices and Brush Pens

Part 3 | making it more like drawing | the 'hatch' shape

Part 2 | background | folding sculptures

Part 1 | introduction | the ranstak algorithm