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Algebra, graphing calculators, and dying of dysentery

Oregon Trail on a TI-84 graphing calculator.
Phil Nickinson / Digital Trends

Of the many sorts of stories my children have to hear over and over, one of their favorites (in my mind, anyway), is what tech was like when I was their age. Computers were the sizes of filing cabinets. The internet was slow and very much in its infancy. Digital cameras were anything but ubiquitous.

But one thing that hasn’t changed all that much is the venerable graphing calculator. The ol’ TI. Texas Instruments. In our case, the . They’re maybe more slick than they used to be — mine certainly didn’t have a color screen — and I don’t recall there being quite so many buttons and functions.

But one thing that, gratefully, hasn’t changed? The ability to play something that’s not algebra. Games.

In my day, which wasn’t long past the advent of the Game Boy, it was Snake. So many hours were spent guiding that ever-growing glob of pixels around itself, within the confines of the grayscale screen. It wasn’t much. But it was better than math. (Anything was better than math.)

And so the first thing I did upon buying my new eighth-grader her first graphing calculator was to make it do anything other than math. It’s just the sort of responsible parenting I’ve come to expect from myself.

The non-infringing "Spaze Invaders" on a TI-84 graphing calculator.
The non-infringing “Spaze Invaders” on a TI-84 graphing calculator. Phil Nickinson / Digital Trends

It’s been 30 years or so since I’d even touched a graphing calculator, or done the sort of math that one requires. I had no idea what we’d have to do to get games on this thing. But I shouldn’t have been surprised at just just how easy it turned out to be. After an initial grimace at the sight of a mini-USB port on the side of the TI-84 — seriously, it’s 2023, and time to get everything on USB-C — a very quick search found exactly what we needed.

Instructions in hand, it took about five minutes to slip a few choice games in through the side door. Oregon Trail was a must, a decision that quickly proved wise.

“How did I die already?” she asked. I knew what my reply was going to be, even though I didn’t need to ask. “Dysentery? You have died of dysentery?”

“Yeah,” she replied.

This little project already was paying off, if only by tickling that part of the brain that craves nostalgia.

Also satisfying was learning that TI at one point closed the loophole in the software that allowed games to be sideloaded. Getting around that required one more quick upload via the official TI app. Getting games onto the calculator was a million times easier than any “hacking” I ever did on any Android phone. Far easier than jailbreaking iPhones used to be, back when that was a thing you would do to make it way more useful.

It's not Tetris — it's Tetric A on a TI-84 graphing calculator.
It’s not Tetris — it’s Tetric A on a TI-84 graphing calculator. Phil Nickinson / Digital Trends

Our first week with the games-enabled TI calculator was a fun one. It’s interesting to see a kid who owns an iPhone and all the apps and games that come with it use something with a low-resolution screen and physical buttons that in no way were designed to be used as a D-pad. (Half the time I can’t figure out how to exit out of one of these games.) Maybe it’s because it was new. Maybe it’s because it has games that were mostly left behind decades ago as the world moved to touchscreens.

The early winner? Spaze Invaders. (Not “Space Invaders,” almost certainly because someone doesn’t want lawyers coming for them. Understandable.) Oregon Trail always will be a favorite, though.

And, yeah, probably a few algebraic expressions and variables and graphs and stuff. You know, what we bought it for in the first place.

Phil Nickinson
Section Editor, Audio/Video
Phil spent the 2000s making newspapers with the Pensacola (Fla.) News Journal, the 2010s with Android Central and then the…
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