ARC: The Adelaide Retro-Computing Group

Today almost everyone will use a computer, or some form of computer controlled hardware to do their job. When they get home they might play games on their PC or Mac, or use social media to speak to friends. As the next piece of sexy new hardware becomes available they will upgrade it with the promise of an easier life. The latest MacBook Pro has a thumbprint reader and a small screen on the keyboard that gives different operations depending on the software you are using at the time. Many laptops can now double as tablets. These devices are sold by manufacturers on the promise of making our lives easier. The real question is, are they really?

The average TV will usually have several devices connected to it at any one time. You can buy a refrigerator that can connect to the internet and order more food or let you know when something is about to expire. Even washing machines now come with WIFI as an optional extra, just incase you need to schedule your laundry and keep an eye on it as it is happening. It seems that for each new way of making our lives easier, they become slightly more complicated.

With this influx of new technology there are pockets of people who yearn for the good old days. They enjoy the simplicity of technology from the last century, and damned be anyone who claims that their lives were harder back then. The irony is that many of these people find each other on social media or forums, using their internet enabled tablets and computers.

George Foumakis wanted to take these online gatherings into RL (or, as the cool kids call it, Real Life). George is one of those rare individuals who does not have a Facebook account, nor does he have the time to invest in keeping up with a rapidly changing ‘friends list’. He wanted to recreate the computer user groups of the 80s and 90s, many of whom had died off due to a lack of interest or time. If you browse through an old issue of Australian Computer User or The Amstrad User you will find lists of user groups around the country. Magazine from other countries would also often contain similar lists, where fellow enthusiasts could gather and share their love of computing. This is what George wanted to bring back:

“I wanted to meet up with other retro Amiga users… So I basically put a word out on, I even put the word out on other forums. I think Lemon64 (and) a few IRC channels and said, ‘look, I’ve booked this area here, let’s meet up. Bring your systems in, let’s have a chat, see what happens… I was hearing people saying ‘I’m looking for things to do in Adelaide, but we’re not sure what to do’, and I got to the stage where I thought, ‘well look! I’m going to create something I want to do, that’s going to excite me and maybe there are other people who want to do the same thing, so let’s all get together”.

Thus, the Adelaide Retro Computer Group (ARC) was born.

The first gathering comprised of passionate Amiga users who were keen to share knowledge of the system variants, the modern Amiga operating systems and, of course, the many games that were released for the platform. During the third gathering George was put in contact with a staff member from the Flinders University Computer Science Division. Through these contacts George found his high school IT teacher, who was helping to run a retro gaming website. His teacher used the website to help bring attention to the fledgling group, which helped to get the word out. According to George:

“That’s how it officially started, then from there we got a base that was active and looking at our site. We got our own social media page, our own blog space, had a lot of support from a number of people”.

From the gatherings came a core group of regular attendees, some of whom started to take a role in organising the meetings. Contacts from interstate and overseas would help to promote the group and retro enthusiasts who visited Adelaide would often time their trips to coincide with the next meeting. At this time the group was purely interested in Amiga computers, though George notes that this was about to change:

“Then we got the idea that… Amigas aren’t the only thing that people are interested in. How about we start incorporating some other retro items in there? We had the idea of doing maybe an Atari night or just old retro systems and people just bought in all sorts of different things. From there we said ‘right, we’ve got to categorise this and have themes and other genres that people can attach themselves to and bring systems along and be focused on those particular things”.

The core group deduced that the monthly gatherings may begin to wane without some variety, hence the idea of themed nights. Rather than bring the same computer or system every month, the themes were designed to promote the many different aspects of retro computing. Many of the ideas revolve around music and graphics, with new hardware being showcased at the events, and users bringing in systems that match the theme rather than the same items every month.

As the group expanded, notable guest speakers from the IT industry, both old and new, came along to discuss projects they had worked on. A representative from A-EON Technologies and Jonathon Potter, the author of Directory Opus are among two of the more notable speakers. George also encourages attendees to come forward and discuss the piece of hardware they bought along:

“We’re always looking for new people to give talks and we’re always scouting around, asking for suggestions, putting the word out to people who have got some history behind the systems or who are currently developing something modern that’s relevant to the systems”.

Like any regular social gathering, people come and go. Eventually it came time for two of the three original core members to go their separate ways. George explains that he and those who continued to run the group with him made a decision about the future of the gatherings:

“We started off just as a normal, catch up, get together group and because we’ve become a little more formal, having to hire out halls and serve coffee and tea and so on it was only in our best interests and everyone’s best interests to turn it into an incorporated association”.

This means that the Adelaide Retro Computing Group is now an official body recognised by the South Australian Government. One of the members who became a part of the association is Nicolas Tiago, a keen retro fan with a large collection of systems and games. A friend of his shared the monthly gathering on Facebook and Nick asked if he could tag along. As he explains, Nick immediately found himself in his element:

“I bought along too much stuff, (though) everyone was amazed at how big my collection was… Because I got such a good vibe the first time around I kept coming… In December of last year the old committee said they were shutting down… I didn’t want this to go away because it was getting me out of the house”.

Nicolas suffers from cerebral palsy, a condition which keeps him housebound and unable to work, so the social interaction of the group meant a great deal to him. He had just found a group of people who shared his passion, who he could connect with on what felt like an even playing field. He did not want this to end so shortly after it had begun for him. He became the first chairperson of the new committee, and though it is often draining for him he attends every meeting possible to keep the spirit of the group alive. Though the group has continued to flourish under the new committee, Nick is rather humble about his contribution:

“I judge my success on what everybody else thinks, so because everybody is happy I think I’ve done a pretty good job. If people weren’t happy then I’d evaluate what I was doing wrong. What I like to do is pull aside random members of the group every month and ask how I’m going, and so far so good!”

The new committee decided to shift the meetings to a new location at the Unley Library, and though this had caused a decrease in attendance, new retro enthusiasts are always finding their way to the group. The themed nights also became bi-monthly, as opposed to at random, providing the group with a consistency that Nick feels was missing from its earlier incarnation.

Nick’s house mate Dan McInnes is not really a retro gaming fan, though he likens the collecting of retro computers to a modern form of archaeology. With that said, he has embedded himself into the group and he told me that he finds the people interesting:

“It’s interesting because of the amount of different types of people, different types of retro computing, the stories become fascinating… It’s people that are passionate enough to actually put a lot of money and a lot of time into getting these systems, developing them, making things with them and then having a history with the machine”.

A university student in the mid 90s, he can remember the computer lab at his uni, filled to the brim with Apple Macintosh computers. He didn’t actually own a gaming system until he reached adulthood, though he was surrounded by games:

“The PS2 was my first console, I actually won one as a contestant on Big Brother (Dan was in the 2003 series) and I worked in a games arcade… Intencity”.

Real life can often get in the way of gaming, so many find the group as a dedicated place where they can spend quality time with their computers, and others who share their passion. A passionate Amiga fan, ARC blogger Daniel McPhalrin rarely spends much time with his computers at home:

“So… every 5 – 8 years I will pull them out of the cupboard and have a little play with them and usually I end up… I think ‘I’ll just have a play with it and put it back again.’ But usually I get completely hooked and I’ll start pulling old games out and getting back into it again”.

As Dan mentioned earlier, the stories are what makes the social aspect of the group fascinating, and Daniel eagerly tells of how he always wanted an Amiga 1000, and has now ended up with three of them! He finds the monthly meetings to be educational as well as fun:

“There’s certainly gaps in my knowledge. I’d like to know more about soldering, 68000 and assembler programming, all sorts of things I missed out back in the day, I’d actually like to learn more about now”.

Alexis Kotlowy has mastered one of the skills Daniel mentioned, as he explains when asked about his favourite aspect of retro collecting:

“Mostly the electronics side of it… I’ve always had an interest in electronics, it’s always been with me ever since I was a kid”.

One of the technical gurus in the group, he often finds himself as acting as a doctor to 20+ year old systems. A man of few words, Alexis enjoys the social aspect of the meetings and discussing retro hardware with like minded individuals.

While the computer group is a male dominated event, women are more than welcome. Some will even accompany their partners to the group and find themselves absorbed in the world of retro gaming. Semi-regular Nicole Cutufia explains how she became involved in the group:

“So my boyfriend comes to the group because he collects retro video games of a wide variety, mainly from his childhood, and it’s a chance for us to hang out together… and then I realised it was kinda fun seeing cool things… I’m really bad at playing games but it’s nice to hang around and see people”.

Nicole’s first night saw her playing a JAMMA multi board on a SuperGun, where she was able to beat a game, much to her delight. She admits that the infinite credits may have had something to do with her victory, though refuses to elaborate. She does make one confession, however:

“I’ve always been really interested in reading, books and literature. I don’t enjoy playing video games and it’s never been a pastime of mine, but there’s something about the vibe and the people, and seeing people passionate about their things”.

With that said, Nicole insists that she is not just a girlfriend who gets dragged along to the group by her boyfriend. She has integrated herself into the business side of the organisation, even helping Nick to organise the upcoming Christmas quiz night. Beyond that the group have some exciting plans for 2019! In the words of Dan:

“It’s an interesting time with the ARC retro group now, just the way that it’s evolving, because we’re changing locations, changing leadership, so I think it’s a really exciting time for a lot of different trajectories, things that are possible… I’m really enjoying being around that kind of energy”.

George adds: “We’re an open group to anyone, you can bring your friends along. You don’t have to be interested in this stuff. I think it’s more of a social get together more than anything. Something to do on a Friday evening”.

The Adelaide Retro Computing Group can be found on Facebook and at Events are usually held on the second Friday of each month at the Unley Library and admission is $4.

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