In the early 80s, the industry was quite populated by women game developers, while not as many as their male counterparts, there were probably more than one might think today. Her names can be easily found in several of the magazines that, in the early 80s, would publish games sent in by programmers. Most of these names seem to have disappeared for good, but there is one in particular that seemed to stick around, that of Katharine Higby and her company, Magic Carpet Software. Today, the company is unfortunately mostly remembered for Stroker, that infamous “masturbation” game. But before that, let us take a look at the history of Magic Carpet software.
This is an effort in piercing together all of the clues I have been able to find about a very specific moment of gaming history, so the history will be mostly fractured and incomplete.
NSFW warning: some pixelated nudity towards the end of the article.
Look up to the sky: it's Magic Carpet
The name “Magic Carpet software” identifies a company in Phoenix, Arizona, which was developing and selling games for the Commodore PET, the VIC-20 and the 64. We know for sure that it employed only two programmers, Bob Carr and Katharine Higby. Unfortunately, those are pretty much the few facts about the company: the actual history of the software house itself is shrouded in mystery. This is the case also for several others American companies that were releasing software, in the early 80s, for the home computer. While I used the term companies, let us keep in mind that those were hardly professional endeavors. Most of them were minuscule companies with one person, or two, developing games in their homes and selling them around the country on tapes or floppies sent in zip-loc bags, not unlike what On-line systems (later, Sierra) was doing in those same years.
Robert Carr [who would sometimes credit himself as “Crab Terror”, anagram of his name] is the developer of 1982’s Weather War II, probably among the very first turn based deathmatch title to be released on the Commodore 64. It is a battle where two players take turns against one another, with the sole objective that of destroying the other player’s fortress, attacking with several weather related powers: thunder, snow, hail, etc. Wind, which is calculated for each turn, has to be factored in, since all attacks come from a single cloud randomly positioned in the sky for each turn. Every once in a while, a random act of nature shall also strike which will give an unfair advantage to one of the players. The first player to topple the other’s fortress wins.
So, while we may be pretty confident that Bob Carr developed Weather War II, what about its predecessor?
The origins of Magic Carpet Software: Ouranos!
The predecessor to Carr’s game was never released under the name “Weather War”. The sequel is a more advanced version (or Commodore 64 remake, if you will) of Ouranos!, a title which came out in 1980 for the Commodore Pet, originally published in the July issue of Cursor magazine. The magazine would feature games, that were sent in by developers, on cassette, while basically playing the role of a publisher. They would even go as far as change names of the programs, if they did not fit their needs.
Indeed, that is what happened in this case: Cursor had already published in a previous issue a software called Weather, so they explained to the readers that the original name Weather War had to be changed, as it might have been confusing. After they did “a bit of research”, they apparently ended up choosing the name of the ancient Greek god of the Heavens, Ouranos. Which can be easily translated to “Uranus”, but I’m sure they were completely unaware of that rather obvious joke when they made that choice. The game is credited to Kate Higby.
While Weather War II might have been midly impressive for a Commodore 64 user in 1982, two years before on the PET Ouranos! was quite the notable title. Entirely programmed in BASIC, except for an assembly routine which makes the screen flash when a lightning bolt is summoned. The name of Katie Higby, as mentioned, is one that is very closely linked to the history of the company Magic Carpet Sofware. In fact, all evidence points to Katharine actually creating the company herself, probably before Bob Carr even started working with her. That is if we accept the fact that she would have created it around 1981 but anyway, even after married, she was still the main point of contact for the company. So, I guess it would be safe to say that Magic Carpet software might be among the first software houses created and managed by a woman, at least in its early years.
Unfortunately, as it happens, history favored the version of Weather War II on the Commodore 64, obscuring Kate’s original PET creation which has mostly been forgotten. Both games are mentioned by Matt Barton in his study on weather in games, as one of the very first games to use it as an actual gameplay feature. Make no mistake here, Carr did little except porting the game to Commodore 64, thus adapting its graphics to the PETSCII on the more powerful computer, which makes the “II” in title quite pointless. The two games are so similar that the 64 version even keeps a slight wind calculation bug in the code.
Magic Carpet software appears regularly on the pages of COMPUTE! magazines throughout 1982, advertising different games, with Frog being a particularly prominent one. A simple game – with Aerosol being basically a clone – where the player catches flies using the frog’s tongue and adding to the “calories” count which slowly goes down while standing still. The game had originally appeared in 1980 on Cursor magazine for the Commodore PET. But, this time, the game was credited to Bob Carr. Among the few other games available by Magic Carpet, Vortex was a simple Commodore 64 shooter: try to defeat the ufo hiding in the barriers, before you get shot down. Little more than a simplified Space Invaders clone.
Carr & Higby: the union of two developers
Indeed from 1980 both Bob Carr and Katie Higby would appear several times in Cursor, with their games and software for the Commodore Pet. The two were credited on 40 column PET games the likes of Dance, Lawn and Frog. But what was the relationship between the two developers? Well, taking a look at the REM in his programs in 1980 Bob Carr was apparently still living in California, while Kathy Higby lived in Arizona, in Phoenix where Magic Carpet software seems to be based around that time.
While there is indeed evidence that the two married, I have no further clues as to when it happened, one would surely think after 1980. But this does coincide with the two developers’ habit of converting Commodore PET games to the 64 and VIC-20 and, then, swapping the credits around. So, a PET title previously credited to Katie would be released on the Commodore 64 credited to Bob and viceversa. Unfortunately, while the ads did indeed mention VIC-20 games by Magic Carpet, I was unable to find any clues that they were ever physically released. Still, it is safe to think they would be the same games as the PET and 64 ones.
If there is some sort of common ground to be found for most Magic Carpet releases of the time, well, it would have to be humour. For example, let us look at Commodore 64 title The Medicine Man from 1982, which appeared in its original form on the PET, again published in Cursor magazine issue 21 as “Dance“. Credited again to Bob Carr, the game sees the player controlling the god of Energy (a human version of the god Ouranos…?), Copecoee [sic], invoked by a Native American tribe to solve the problem with the heavy rains that threaten to drown all of the wise ancients. While the controls seem to work quite at random, the mechanics are again pretty simple: catch the rain falling down and try to not get hit by the snake on the ground.
So, why did Midnite Software Gazette describe the game, titled Rain Dance (it is most likely the same game as The Medicine Man), referencing mostly its “cartoon”? Well, at the start of the game, the player gets a choice of watching a short animated sequence before starting. Today we’d refer to it as the intro video or a cutscene, but back in 1982 those were, indeed, “cartoons”. The sequence sees a Native American doing a rain dance (for what feels like an eternity), only to be struck by lightning and clapped by the other members of the tribe as he lies there, dead.
Some of the games developed by Magic Carpet software, among them surely Weather War II and The Medicine Man, were also published in Australia by a company called South Pacific Software from Chippendale, New South Wales. How did the games by a small company from Phoenix, Arizona reach so far across the world, while still missing Europe entirely, is a question I was unfortunately unable to answer.
Auf Wiedersehen, Bob Carr
But, there are indeed other games released by Carr for the Commodore 64 that also feature humorous cartoons as the “intro”. Beyond those, another feature that is quite common in Magic Carpet’ games seem to be pages of instructions. I guess this choice should makes us conclude that they, apparently, did not send any kind of manual with the games they were selling. Anyway, we will find both humour and pages of instructions in another Commodore 64 game often credited to Bob Carr. This is probably his most famous commercial title, or probably infamous, as it is often referred to as one of the worst games ever published on the computer: Auf Wiedersehen Pet.
This was one of those weird licensed game ideas from the early 80s, based on the ITV network comedy-drama series about British bricklayers trying to find work in Germany. The gameplay is spread around three simple minigames, vaguely inspired by scenes from the series, that the player does not even need to complete, since they are just played for highscores. Also, in order to skip from one minigame to the other, the player actually needs to lose. Very simple gameplay mechanics and also graphics: still, as far as I know, this is the one Bob Carr game that doesn’t only use PETSCII characters as graphics.
But, let us backtrack a minute.
Auf Wiedersehen, Pet was a strictly British series and Tynesoft was an English company, based in Newcastle. So, if we assume that they were doing the logical thing, namely looking for programmers in the UK, why did they go out of their way to work with someone that, at the time, was living in Arizona? We can be sure that Robert Carr was not a particularly talented programmer or, well, that he was famous in the UK. Magic Carpet software surely did never advertise their games outside the US. Perhaps Carr was originally from the UK? Or maybe, he was living abroad in 1984?
It is fairly easy to speculate, but there is one more important fact to consider. All the other versions of the game, the ZX Spectrum, Acorn Electron and BBC Micro, of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet are credited to Bob Carr on several websites, as well as on the games themselves. That is indeed very strange, since it would mean that Carr by 1984 had suddenly developed such incredible skills to be able to program on three different computers. All of these weird facts lead me to conclude that the Bob Carr who developed Auf Wiedersehen, Pet is not the same person from Magic Carpet Software. Despite the level of graphical skills and the year somehow matching up with our story.
There is also one big difference in the game compared to the Magic Carpet released we have observed so far: the “BREAK” button is disabled. We’ll get to this later.
Mowing the lawn with Kate
While quite active on the Commodore PET, there do not seem to be a whole lot of Commodore 64 games developed by Magic Carpet Software and credited to Katie Higby. Lawn is the one exception that I was able to track down: another very simple game from the days of the Commodore PET (the original version was credited to Bob Carr and published by The Code Works), developed in BASIC with PETSCII graphics. The player just mows the lawn, with no real obstacles of any kind, trying to use fuel as efficiently as possible before it runs out, with random events like “caught a stone!” that interrupt the gameplay. Still, the game was published by The Code Works, with the REM dating June of 1983, so it never appeared in Magic Software’s catalogue, even though its original form was – again – on the PET, appearing in Cursor issue 26.
Kate seemed to be more at home with the PET, so much so that when Robert Carr decided to re-release Ouranos! in its sort of updated version, he made no references whatsoever to the previous game (well, except for the II in the title) nor to the work of Higby as the original developer. But we can be sure that the game is very much the same since, as mentioned, it also includes that wind calculation bug. Still, seeing how the two developers were husband and wife, working on the same games and having an habit of swapping the credits around, it is easy to think that Kate would work together with her husband on games with no credits that mention her name.
After 1984, news on both the company and the two programmers start becoming quite scarce, with the last reference appearing in Midnite Software Gazette issue 31, with the company apparently still active in 1986. With the Magic Carpet story ending in 1984, it is not a wild speculation to assume that Kate Higby was the one in charge. Granted, until Higby or Carr decide to come back and tell the whole story, we will never be completely sure. Still, if we assume – as all evidence seems to point out – that Magic Carpet was created and managed by Katharine Higby, then it is also reasonable to think she – at the very least – was well aware of their 1983 infamous title: Stroker for the Commodore 64.
This is quite the interesting chapter in the history of Magic Carpet, but even before describing how the game works the first thing that needs to be clarified about Stroker (or Stroker64 as the code identifies it) is that its origins seems to be, at this point, completely lost to time. While most online databases attribute the game to Magic Carpet, it does not seem to fit together with the rest of its software library. As we have seen, the company mostly released serious titles, a couple of its humorous “cartoon” games were even clearly aimed at a young audience.
Stroker: Magic Carpet final hurrah
Considering how we have seen how most Magic Carpet software releases were the result of Bob & Kate working together, it would be easy to assume that Stroker could be the first ever sex simulation game, at least, co-developed by a woman. But again, that’s little more than the result of putting together the few news I was able to find, plus that tiny pinch of speculation. Stroker might be indeed defined as a “sex” game, even though the more correct definition would be a “simulation of a sex act”. Its inherent gameplay mechanics seems to, somehow, balance the strictly simulatory aspect and that of the challenge typical of an early 80s game.
Still, Stroker makes little sense for a company that was very much intent on selling their games as much as possible. The early 80s scene for home computers was quite wild at the time, especially in the US, but there did not seem to be a whole lot of sexual games outside of the usual pretty safe Strip Poker variants, which were clearly aimed at men. And even in that tiny niche, there were very few Commodore programmers actually brave enough to try and develop a naked woman in BASIC with PETSCII graphics, for sure.
Stroker is not really aimed at men, or well, women for that matter. It is not aimed at anyone in particular, I think. It is a game where the player moves a hand up and down a penis, trying to not go too fast or too slow, before the time runs out. Another title entirely written in BASIC, using only PETSCII graphics, which – again – does tie-in with what both developers had been doing up to that point. But, there is something peculiar about it: as opposed to all other Magic Carpet releases, instead of displaying the name of the developer – Bob Carr – on the front screen, it is hidden in the code. The screen just references the copyright to Magic Carpet Software.
What today would be a potentially effective measure of concealing one’s name, at the time it was not. Carr was apparently not aware of the POKE command that disabled the BREAK key on the Commodore 64: all of his games can be easily hacked into. Seeing the code is just a matter of pressing a button and inputing a LIST command. I am sure he was aware of this. Still, considering this is his only game where his name does not appear on the title screen, we might deduce that either he was ashamed of having worked on Stroker – even though I cannot imagine a scenario where someone forced him to put his name on it – or the game was not actually developed by him, but perhaps by someone else trying to imitate Magic Carpet’ style. Which was rather easy to do, I should add.
This might lead us to a different alternate universe scenario altogether: perhaps someone was trying get back at Robert Carr by slapping his name on a product which was somewhat shameful? An interesting theory, especially because there does not seem to be any clues that the company ever actually sold or promote that game. Maybe it was developed by Kate and she was ashamed to put her name on it? Enough speculation, if we want to recognize Bob Carr’s paternity of Stroker, which almost forty years later seems like the most important of things to confirm, let us look at the clues contained within the code itself.
All of the Magic Carpet software titles I had the “pleasure” of playing for the sake of researching this article, were developed in BASIC and use PETSCII characters, so this checks out. The title screens are quite different though. Stroker has an enticing red title, developed with simple graphics, and also comes with a rather weird self-rating of “R”. Instead, all of the other Magic Carpet games display simple titles on the main screen, no graphics of any kind. But still, Stroker features a whole page of vaguely humorous instructions, which does tie-in with Magic Carpet’s love for the feature.
The REM features in the Magic Carpet software games are all over the place, while all of them in Bob Carr’s games seem to feature his name in the first three lines, there really is no overall consistency. One thing is sure: Stroker, if it was really developed by Carr, then we can easily define it as his most accomplished game overall. Unfortunately, all of these clues don’t really add up to much, but they don’t really disprove that Stroker might be indeed a joke game, credited to Carr just to mess with him.
Stroker, for 1983 sex games standards (i.e none), is actually mildly impressive for what it tries to simulate. While most sex games of the time were barely content in aping simple (and often much better) games, slapping some kind of naked sprites or rude content into the mix (as Mystique were doing for their Atari porn library), Stroker does its own thing, really. The player’s attention is drawn to the hand and penis on the screen, encouraged to “manipulate the organ to ejaculation.”. But careful, because satisfaction is never easy: stroke too hard and it might be a quick inefficient orgasm, go too slow and risk losing “the patient” entirely.
On screen there is a face, entirely made with PETSCII symbols, which might be used as a way of controlling the level of excitement. The face seems to be quite similiar to those used in a 1980 title called Bets, probably a sign of “quick coding” which does tie-in with the whole “credited to Carr” narrative. The more the player is able to work the stroking in the right way and the more the organ will grow in length and the end result (or “Peter Meter”) will be satisfactory. All of this does not really mean much in terms of the gameplay, but I guess it speaks to that virile pride of an average Commodore 64 user in 1983. A terrible SID tune plays while the player tries to find satisfaction, or rather, try to maintain their composure while playing such a steamy piece of virtual simulation. This was also a first, as previous Magic Carpet games did not feature any kind of soundtrack during gameplay (or at all).
The man in Stroker is also apparently dressed in a shirt, which makes me all the more suspect about the whole masturbation bit taking place in an office. Some have even speculated that the act is actually being performed on someone else, because of the different colors of the skin between the face and the “peter”. All of this does paint an incredibly sad picture of this puffy middle-aged man, closed in the bathroom of his office, just jacking (off) away the hours, not even looking at anything remotely interesting sexually.
Was Stroker ever commercially released? My conclusion is no. It never appeared in any of the Magic Carpet software ads, it was never reviewed by any magazines and its origins on the internet seem to also be shrouded in mystery. Where did the game come from? Was it Carr himself who uploaded it on the internet? Still, even if Carr himself developed it as a joke, for a quick laugh among friends, why would he go to the trouble of putting the “Magic Carpet” name in it? Whoever dumped it must have at least some answers to these questions, since I do not really believe it comes from Bob Carr selling out his old tapes or someone finding it in the trash. For all intents and purpose, I think the answer is that Stroker was made by someone else other than him. A developer made a quick terrible masturbation joke in PETSCII and slapped the Magic Carpet credits on there. But, again, mere speculation.
The story of Magic Carpet Software – despite all of the theories and speculation – reminds us of a simpler time, where programmers were selling their simple games out of their garages, tiny zip-loc bags with simple games for all Commodore users to enjoy. While this article began in trying to find the origins of Stroker, it evolved into trying to clarify and reveal the history of Katharine Higby. While hers might not be a name as recognized as Roberta Williams or Anne Westfall, and perhaps not as talented, she was one of the pioneers among women game developers. But sadly, her story is so obscure that she might not ever be mentioned alongside Carole Shaw in the “Forgotten Women” column on Stylist.
Ouranos! released more than forty years ago, remains quite the accomplished title: the very interesting result of very early bedroom coding. Kate was working in a time when she had no easy access to any kind of information on programming and there was no real home computer gaming industry to speak of. Also, despite few clues, she also was running (or co-managing either way) a company in the early 80s, releasing titles for VIC-20, Commodore 64 and PET. Her story will, sadly, not ever be completely made clear, but her accomplishments are still worthy of being remembered.