Daily Tedium

Shanghai's Untold Story

Behind one of the ‘80s most popular computer games is an impressive story about how an early computer helped a man overcome adversity.

By Ernie Smith

It’s hard to track the history of mahjong solitaire, a Chinese game that came to America sometime in the 1920s, but one thing is for sure: More than 30 years ago, an electronic version of the game quietly took the computing world by storm.

Less known is the truly impressive feat that game represented. Originally built on the PLATO computing platform by Brodie Lockard in 1981, the computer game was groundbreaking both on a technical basis—the educational platform PLATO, as I wrote recently for Motherboard, inspired a lot broken ground—but also a personal one for Lockard.

As author Brian Dear writes in his new book The Friendly Orange Glow, Lockard, a Stanford University student, developed his digital version of mahjong just two years after a serious gymnastics accident nearly took his life and left him paralyzed from the neck down. Unable to even breathe on his own after the accident without an artificial apparatus, let alone use his hands to type on a keyboard, Lockard made a special request during his long recovery in the hospital: He wanted a PLATO terminal.

“He probably would never walk or move his arms or legs again, which meant no typing at a keyboard, but he still could think, he still had ambitions, he was still burning with ideas,” Dear wrote in the book. “On PLATO his disabilities would not matter. PLATO was a meeting of minds, pure and simple, and Brodie’s mind was fine.”

It took time, but access to that machine—provided by an employee of Control Data Corporation, the main vendor of the platform—helped Lockard create a path forward after a major accident. Despite having to type on the machine with the use of a mouth stick, he had become adept at programming for the early platform. On top of that, his stay at the hospital made him aware of something that would eventually bring him great success: mahjong solitaire, a popular game at the hospital.

The combination of these two things helped spark inspiration on his part, leading him to create a digital version of mahjong that would eventually show up on dozens of other types of computers—but first, of course, on PLATO. (Control Data even commercialized an early version of the game.)

Starting in 1986, Lockard’s game, renamed Shanghai and reprogrammed for more modern platforms (such as the Amiga, Macintosh, and Atari ST), became a massive hit, with the game selling roughly 10 million copies. Due to his contract with Activision, Lockard didn’t immediately receive royalties from what he created—but when he did, they were sizable. (In case you’d like to try the game, the Internet Archive has a playable MS-DOS version; Activision’s Brad Fregger, who helped Lockard bring the game to the masses, has even more backstory on his website.)

Dear, in an recent interview with me, noted that Lockard’s success over adversity highlighted just how impressive the PLATO platform truly was—and how Lockard's ability to use the system during his recovery helped enable him to not only survive his accident, but to excel creatively and financially.

“He made a successful and comfortable life for himself. And he did very well off financially, as well, using all the creative capabilities he had and all the talents he had—given severe constraints and limitations, he overcame them,” Dear said of Lockard, who he met and interviewed for the book.

In the many years since Lockard programmed Shanghai, accessibility in technology has become a much more fundamental focus of the systems we use. The iPhone, in particular, has become famed for this functionality.

Lockard’s story, which started years before tech companies built specifically for accessibility needs, nonetheless highlights something truly fundamental: Given the right tools and the right spark, we can do anything. Take that, adversity.

(Above: A screenshot of the Macintosh version of Shanghai, which Lockard programmed himself. He also designed the game's many ports.)

Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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