How when I was a kid I used Encarta 95 to sneak a gaming PC into my house

I can’t be the only kid who gave a presentation to their parents to sell the value of a home computer in the mid-’90s.

If you were a lucky kid in the mid-’90s, you’d love to try Encarta, the CD-based interactive encyclopedia from Microsoft. My son has learned how to research a topic (penguins, if you must know) that pushed this iconic piece of the ’90s into my thoughts, and there’s no doubt that a jewel thief might relive his past heists when teaching their kids how to make a plan. Encarta to me is more than an impressive archive of information. It’s part of a deceptive scheme that made me who I am today.

It cost a fortune. There was no way the average kid would ever get an Encarta CD, but then something magical happened: It bundled with a lot of new computers. I stuck to that fact in a big way when I was 12 years old. This was how I convinced my parents to get a computer that I could play games on. This is how I became a computer gamer.

This was the thing kids wanted in the mid-’90s.

If you weren’t around in the mid-’90s or were too young to function as a person, this was the pre-internet era – something that only became mainstream in the home in the late ’90s/early 2000s. If you need to do research on something, like science homework, you’ll need to read a book or hope a parent finds out all there is to know about electromagnets. Some families printed encyclopedias on a large bookshelf. I wasn’t interested in those because they didn’t fit into my grand plan.

I’ve seen Doom, Doom 2, Wing Commander, Heretic, System Shock, Magic Carpet, Syndicate, and more, and I really wanted to play it. Unlike game consoles, which weren’t cheap but also not entirely out of reach with extended savings and staying a few years behind the release schedule, the gaming PC seemed like an impossible dream. My boyfriend at the time was playing Roger Rabbit, which was a pretty cool look back, but it was an example of something I can’t play. FOMO was definitely around in the ’90s, although it was usually because of a cousin who had something you wanted, like SNES.

Encarta, a PC based encyclopedia I had used in school would be very useful, in all fairness to my 12 year old, but I was using my education just as a Trojan horse. I wanted (and it must be said, my brother) a computer to play games, so he started yard work.

Unfortunately, the handwritten and drawn presentation was long oversimplified, but included arguments such as “we will get better grades,” “you’ll save time by not taking us to the library,” “save money on books,” and “school computers.” Always busy.” I remember laying these paper sheets on my parents’ bed, and then calling them to listen to our presentation. I was thinking of slaughtering lambs. They will never be able to resist. They don’t, but at some cost.

Mindmaze in Encarta 95.
This is really how most children have used Encarta, even if it is very difficult.

I feel a little bad. Personal computers were, and still are, quite expensive. My parents used Radio Rentals (another leftover from a bygone era) to get a computer for a monthly fee. I used Encarta a lot, but to be honest, I mostly played Mindmaze (hello fellow Mindmaze fans!). We also seem to spend a disproportionate amount of time setting up the high and slow dot matrix printer required to get photos from Encarta and in my textbook. Guilt aside, this computer, which is probably less powerful these days than my kettle, put me on the path to PC gaming. And the PC gaming scene was a very exciting place to be involved at the time.

Even as game consoles like the PlayStation started pumping out 3D graphics, the PC’s lure and seemingly limitless potential power meant I was deep in the hiatus of upgrades and tweaks. Why play games at all when you can only tweak settings for hours? Why play games when you can circle promotions in Computer Shopping magazine? Thanks, Encarta. It inadvertently turned me into a PC geek, a scourge that I couldn’t shake off until 10 years later.