Atari Computer Camp Documentary: ‘The Magic Room’, 1983

Exhibit / February 1, 2017

Object Name: The Magic Room
Maker and Year: Atari and Robert Elfstrom Productions, Inc., 1983
Object Type: Promotional film documentary
Video Source: Bob Kahn
Description: (K.E. Roberts)

The computer camp concept was pioneered in 1977 by Dr. Michael Zabinski, a physics and engineering professor at Connecticut’s Fairfield University. Zabinksi had received “several federal grants to train teachers at the University to integrate computers into their classrooms,” and wisely thought of merging summer camp and computer training to reach young people. The first National Computer Camp was held in 1978. The first Atari computer camps took place in the summer of 1982, coinciding with the release of upgraded versions of the Atari 400/800 series of home computers.

According to Bob Kahn, Director of Special Projects at Atari from 1982-1984, The Magic Room was filmed at the University of California, San Diego campus in 1982. (Other Atari camp locations included Lakeland College in Sheboygan, Wisconsin; East Stroudsberg State College in Pennsylvania; and Asheville School in Asheville, North Carolina.) Kahn “was responsible for the entire computer portion of the summer camp program—curriculum, staffing, equipment and materials, library, etc. for both Atari Computer Camps and the Atari-Club Med project in the summer of 1983.” Kahn’s brother Ted created the Atari Institute for Educational Action Research, “which awarded major grants of Atari home computer products and consulting services to individuals, schools, and non-profit organizations.”

The camps were incredibly expensive: $890 for two weeks, $1690 for four weeks, or $2950 for the full eight weeks (the Atari 400 retailed at $250 at the time—$622 in today’s dollars). The daily schedule balanced computer education with sports and other recreational activities, including a field trip to see Tron, which featured sound effects created by the Atari 800. It’s interesting to note the relative diversity of the campers and the number of girls present, with a young woman (Karen Okagaki) employed as one of the two instructors. Atari “very consciously tried to attract young girls” to computers and computer camp, featuring them prominently in ads and brochures. Unfortunately, the male computer whiz stereotype established in the early 1980s stuck, and the number of women majoring in computer science peaked in 1984 at about 37%, about twice what it is today.

Although some of the footage is clearly staged, overall The Magic Room is a spontaneous and charming portrait of kids at the brink of the computer age, and the pair of kind and dedicated teachers that helped guide them through it, if only for a few weeks. For anyone who was young and Atari-obsessed in the summer of 1982, the film is also a poignant reminder of the magic that hung in the air at a time when personal computers still promised poetry and exploration. “I tell the computer what to do,” says Enrique, one of the campers, “and that comes from me—from inside, I think it comes. What’s up on the screen—it’s me.” As head instructor Richard Pugh predicted at the end of the film, the experience would prove to be indelible:

I think that, if they look back upon this summer—10, 20, 30 years from now—they’re not going to remember all the commands, perhaps. Maybe this is the last time they even see a computer. But I bet you they never forget what they programmed.

Kahn also uploaded The Magic Room trailer, and his website contains promotional brochures and press clippings relating to the Atari camps and the Atari-Club Med Project.

13 thoughts on “Atari Computer Camp Documentary: ‘The Magic Room’, 1983

  1. Wow, thanks for sharing! You know anything Atari-related is a pure gem to me, so I’m looking forward to watching this. Btw, that last quote…epic and totally, totally true. For even someone like me, a copy-coder from Compute! magazine who dabbled in the wondrous possibilities of computer programming but never really latched on, I’ll never forget the sighs and signature eye-burn from focusing on both the endless lines of code and the computer screen.

    • You will love this thing, Greg. Let me know what you think when you get a chance to watch. It hit me pretty hard on an emotional level, watching all of these kids when they had a real investment in and power over that technology.

  2. Absolutely incredible, almost in tears. I loved the comments about using the computer for personal expression, and watching this reminded me that I wrote similar programs that moved text around and displayed pictures. I felt like I was sitting there with each of these kids, just as amazed as they were when they typed RUN.

    • My comments were originally longer because this little film made me so emotional. In general, I feel sort of betrayed that the computer world portrayed here (and extrapolated upon in Tron) became what we have now: app-delivery and ego-noodling. But I realize that I’m a cynic. As a programmer, how do you feel? Do kids still program like this?

      • I partly agree, since we have certainly lost the innocence and purity of programming in that era. Development techniques continue to evolve to the point where no one completely understands the “system”, because there are layers upon layers of technology designed to shield us programmers from the mundane. As a child programmer, I understood nearly all of what I was creating, and every line of code was mine (“It’s me”). Today I often struggle in my career to keep things simple, but programmers today constantly strive to make things more complex (in my opinion) for the sake of whatever new technique is currently popular.

        However, the fact that we’re typing these comments was the dream of many computing forefathers, so I think the utility of computing has fulfilled their hopes. Unfortunately the easier things become to use, the less we try to figure them out. I don’t think kids today have the same experience that you and I did. They may learn some HTML in school, but that’s so far removed from what we did with BASIC. I think the closest experience kids may have today is LEGO Mindstorms or Minecraft (I know kids who have created incredible things with these tools), and I think Swift Playgrounds is pretty amazing for teaching general concepts.

  3. Pingback: Sala Mágica — o ‘computer camp’ da Atari | Retrocomputaria

  4. I attended the Atari Camp in Pennsylvania for 2 years. It was a great experience. When I tell people I went to computer camp they think it’s the nerdiest thing ever, and in a way it was. But it was also a regular sleep-away camp with all the sports and outdoor activities. It was the first time I was away from home and it prepared me for the future. I never became a programmer but I’m sure the logic of programming has helped me in my career as advertising strategist.

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