Algebra, Graphing Calculators, and Adventures in Gaming

Reliving the Tech of Yesteryears

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

One of my kids’ all-time favorite stories, in my humble opinion, revolves around the technological wonders of my childhood. Back then, computers were as big as filing cabinets, the internet was sluggish and still in its infancy, and digital cameras were far from ubiquitous.

But one timeless piece of technology that has remained relatively unchanged is the venerable graphing calculator—specifically, the old TI, or Texas Instruments. While they may be sleeker than their predecessors (mine certainly lacked a color screen), I don’t recall them being as feature-packed.

Thankfully, some things haven’t changed, and one of them is the ability to do something other than algebra on these devices. Games.

During my days, which weren’t too long after the advent of the Game Boy, Snake was all the rage. Countless hours were spent maneuvering that ever-growing pixelated blob within the confines of a grayscale screen. It may not have been much, but it was undoubtedly better than math (anything was better than math!).

So, naturally, the first thing I did when I bought my eighth-grader her very own graphing calculator was to make it do anything but math. It’s just the kind of responsible parenting I pride myself on.

The Joys of Gaming on a Graphing Calculator

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

It had been approximately three decades since I last laid hands on a graphing calculator or tackled the kind of math that requires one. I had no idea what it would take to load games onto this device. To my surprise, it turned out to be ridiculously easy. Well, except for the fact that in 2023, they still sported a mini-USB port instead of a more contemporary USB-C port. A quick search led us to the instructions we needed.

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Armed with those instructions, it took us about five minutes to sneak a few thrilling games through the calculator’s side door. One game that was an absolute must was Oregon Trail, a decision that proved wise rather swiftly.

“How did I die already?” she asked. I already had the answer in mind even before she finished her query. “Dysentery? You have died of dysentery?”

“Yeah,” she replied.

This little project was already paying off, taking us down memory lane and indulging our fondness for nostalgia.

Dodging Loopholes and Discovering Ease

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

Our first week with the games-enabled TI calculator was an absolute blast. It was fascinating to witness a child who owns an iPhone, with all its apps and games, embrace a device with a low-resolution screen and physical buttons that weren’t meant to function as directional pads. (Half the time, even I struggle to exit one of these games.) Perhaps it was the novelty factor, or maybe it was the allure of games that were left behind decades ago as the world shifted towards touchscreens.

The clear favorite was Spaze Invaders—probably to avoid any legal consequences associated with the name “Space Invaders.” Nevertheless, Oregon Trail will always hold a special place in our hearts.

Of course, the graphing calculator will also serve its original purpose, reminding us that there’s more to it than just games—algebraic expressions, variables, graphs, and such. After all, that’s what we initially bought it for.

So, if you ever find yourself longing for a trip down memory lane, reliving the joys of gaming on a graphing calculator might just be the perfect escape.

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OnSpec Electronic, Inc.

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