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Gamephemera: SCRAM (Atari 400/800)

November 7, 2006 By Glenn Turner

Gamephemera is an intermittent look at the documentation, paperwork and sundry other bits that were lovingly crafted to accompany the publishing of a video game.

1979: A partial-core meltdown occurs at a nuclear power plant located on Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, panicking the public and instilling distrust concerning our ability to keep nuclear power in check.

1980: Gaming luminary Chris Crawford starts molding a game out of a nuclear power plant simulator to illuminate and educate people concerning nuclear power safety. This game is entitled SCRAM, after the inaugural nuclear reactor 'safe-word' coined at the University of Chicago in 1942. It stands for "Start Cutting Right Away, Man" and refers to cutting a reactor's control rods loose, halting the nuclear reaction process. Crawford's SCRAM recreates the Three Mile Island Unit 2 nuclear reactor, and even allows you to put into action the events that took place there in 1979.

Apart from being one of the first nuclear power plant simulators for a home computer (a simulator for the Apple II called Three Mile Island was released roughly at the same time), SCRAM isn't all that notable – even Crawford himself calls it "a stupid game devoid of entertainment value." Regardless, I can't help but applaud the effort, even if it's been largely forgotten, and a good deal of my respect for it comes from the quality of the game's manual.

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Compared to the prior manuals we've focused on, SCRAM's is a hefty tome, and a surprisingly detailed one at that. An intimidating 55 pages long (counting the cover, notes pages and bibliography), it's obvious that SCRAM would be unnavigable and unplayable without it. It's more than just a cursory primer for the game, it's a mock-nuclear power plant operator training walkthrough, going as far as to include a brief lesson on thermodynamics. It also explains the individual parts of the reactor and, instead of dealing only in conclusive goals and objectives like most standard manuals would, the documentation spells out exactly why each part functions they way it does. Although SCRAM's manual is very intensive, it goes through the plant's operational process in an extraordinarily straight-forward manner, one that's easy enough to follow along with even if you don't have the game booted up in front of you. In fact, even the game's loading instructions are similarly vast, although to be fair, a good deal of the 18-step loading process is due to the game's cassette-based nature.

Of course, this column is about video game ephemera and SCRAM does include a game, even if it's just tacked onto the end of the simulation. The game portion, referred to as "The SCRAM game", is to be completed by the player once they're comfortable enough overseeing the plant's operations and entails troubleshooting a reactor as its constantly pummeled and damaged by earthquakes. When an earthquake occurs, you have to isolate the problem and send in plant employees to make repairs. Point these workers towards a functioning section of the plant and you've just wasted time, resources, and power. Send them to the right section and they'll fix the problem, re-igniting the plant's ability to function properly and pump out substantial amounts of power, at least until the next earthquake strikes. These events continue until you're out of resources and are unable to keep the plant working. When it gets to that point, it's up to you to safely shut it down. You're judged by the net megawatt hours your plant is able to output during this emergency: output enough and you're deemed good enough to be employed as plant operator!

If the game's situation sounds vaguely unrealistic and like fodder worthy of a SciFi Saturday night film, you're right on both accounts (the film's called Nature Unleashed: Earthquake and I highly recommend you avoid it). Crawford devotes a section of the manual describing the game's inaccuracies, several of which were compromises made to keep the 'game' portion fast-paced and entertaining, while many of the inaccuracies are intentional oversights that allow the user 'full control' over the plant itself. What fun is letting safety devices do all the work for you?

Last, but not least, there's the matter of the strikingly solemn cover. A contemplative thinker, possibly intensely concentrating on overseeing the power plant's controls, or perhaps mulling over the pros and cons of nuclear power. The plant's venting towers loom over the composition, casting an intimidating silhouette against the overcast sky. Plant workers are deeply immersed in their consoles, not unlike those manning their helms on the Missile Command Atari 400/800 cover. It's an exquisitely crafted piece for the subject material – it's tasteful, but still manages to impact the viewer with the seriousness of the nuclear issue.

Chris Crawford said that, if he could do SCRAM all over again he'd start by asking himself "What is fun and interesting about nuclear power plants?" and, to which he'd answer "not much", and then he'd scrap SCRAM outright. While he may have disowned his simulation experiment, the manual still lives on, managing to spread its educational intent independent of its source material.

If you'd like to take a gander at the entire SCRAM manual, you can download it here (PDF - 17.4MB).

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11 comments for ‘Gamephemera: SCRAM (Atari 400/800)’

#1 R. LeFeuvre Nov 9, 2006 04:23am

This wallpaper goes exceptionally well with the Missile Command one and I've setup my dual widescreen monitors up to take full advantage of this discovery! I changed the bottom of the SCRAM wallpaper to match the brilliant red of the Missile Command one, but other than that they just match perfectly. Serendipity!

Sometimes I just don't want to work because then my wonderful desktop image is obscured. I'm holding you personally responsible, Mr Turner, if my work schedule it begins to slip!

#2 Soup Nov 9, 2006 09:35am

I'd personally tint the SCRAM some red shades to make it fit even better, and reverse them, so that the guys are staring menacingly at each other!

man, a nuclear reacter sim. that thing rivals the flight sims in dryness (apologies to those who like realistic flight sims). still, it seems to intrigue me, if only to get a cague sense of how actual civil engineering software worked back then.

and to gleefully send repair workers to their death! For the greater good, they must contract radiation poisoning to save the island!

#3 Glenn Turner Nov 9, 2006 11:29am

I want a second monitor just so I can do the same! Maybe then have a third one so I can put a Defcon background on that one (fun fact: initially, these articles were intended to be in anticipation of Defcon's release but ... I obviously didn't get them out the door fast enough).

I'm terribly jealous!

#4 jt-3d Nov 9, 2006 02:45pm

While the author of this game seems to hate it, it still sounds more interesting than Chernobyl on the 64.

#5 w3a2 Nov 10, 2006 01:51am

While i never saw Chernobyl on the 64, two games come to mind that may out-do this in dullility (or dullness, if you prefer 'real' words) that i recall playing on the c64:

Kennedy Approach (it even had speech in it - "United Flight 352 Clear for landing"..."Roger")

And one, i can't remember the name of, but it was a space station building sim - i spent hours on it...

#6 jt-3d Nov 10, 2006 02:19pm

Dullness? Kennedy Approach? Wow, you must have never played it on the higher levels. It's hardly dull trying to keep those bozos from conflicting and trying to stop the snowball effect from one mistake. At least I liked it.

#7 w3a2 Nov 12, 2006 08:43pm

i was like 10yo. the only fun i had was trying to make them crash

#8 Simon Apr 23, 2008 11:15am

I have to agree with you - Kennedy Approach on the higher levels was one of the most frantic games I've ever played.

I recently re-played it on an emulator and it's still got a certain something.

#9 proto Jun 25, 2008 05:23pm

I had a lot of fun with SCRAM and Kennedy Approach and Eastern Front 1941 in the 80's. Even showed this game to a friend who worked in a plant in Texas. He noted several inaccuracies as well, that didn't stop me from having fun with it.

#10 daniel Sep 15, 2008 03:42pm

I loved this game. I contacted Chris Crawford a few years ago, trying to obtain a copy. Good times.

#11 jtaylor Jan 28, 2009 02:32pm

Scram in my book was a great little game, I miss it and wish someone would come up with another version for Windows.
I've seen this other simulator, no graphics...

Kennedy Approach was another all time great.... I'd love to play them again.