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Monday, April 15, 2024

The Wild Spread of 'Drug Wars,' From Your Calculator to Your Phone

It is the late 1990s, sixth period. You are sitting in the back of the classroom, barely listening to a droning Algebra II lesson, as you fiddle with your school-issued TI-82 graphing calculator. The only math you are actually learning is that cocaine costs more than acid, and heroin can be quite profitable in Coney Island.

Before everyone had cell phones, millions of teens across the country discovered Drug Wars, a simple game about buying and selling drugs across New York City’s boroughs while evading Officer Hardass (yes, that’s his name) and his deputies, muggers, or anyone else who tried to keep you from supplying chemical contraband to hungry customers. You have 30 days to buy low and sell high to make as much cash as possible, or at least enough to pay off the loan shark.

Next year Drug Wars will be 40 years old. In that time it has evolved from a DOS game to a calculator game, a web browser game, and—more recently—a smartphone app, sometimes known as Dope Wars instead.

“The number of ports of the game still amazes me,” says John E. Dell, the game’s original author, in an interview with WIRED.


Dell wrote the very first version of Drug Wars on a TRS-80 for his sophomore computer class. He said that he had recently played a game at his friend’s house that involved buying and selling goods at fluctuating prices. Dell said he could not remember which game, but that it could have likely been Taipan. He decided to adapt that style of game to one where the products included ludes, speed, weed, acid, heroin, and cocaine.

Dell’s teacher begrudgingly gave him an A on the assignment.

“I can distinctly remember that he put a frowny face on the paper,” said Dell. “He didn’t like the subject matter.”

Dell would later rewrite the game in DOS and upload it to a bulletin board system (BBS), which was how computer users in the 1980s communicated, shared files, or played games online.

After high school, Dell forgot about the game and enrolled in the US Naval Academy, studying computer science as he began a military career.

Drug Wars continued to evolve as it was reprogrammed into an actual BBS game. It was also adapted to early Windows editions, but this was in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when computers were often reserved for the wealthy and/or nerdy.

Drug Wars truly went viral (at a time before that word was used to describe anything but pathogens) when it appeared on a TI-82 graphing calculator—the same device that could be found in any high school advanced math class throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

Jonathan Maier rewrote Drug Wars on his graphing calculator in 1993. Maier, then a high school sophomore, shared the game with his friends using a homemade cable that allowed him to connect his graphing calculator to his computer. From there it spread among his friends, and then throughout the whole school.

“I knew it was a hit when I walked by the math classroom and saw the teacher playing it alone on the contraption that displayed the calculator screen up on the overhead projector,” said Maier, in an email.

Maier explained that he was drawn to the game, like many of his peers, because of the forbidden nature of drug content at the time. It did not hurt that the game’s simplicity was easy to grasp for even the most casual players.

“All credit should go to the original programmer for conceiving the original brilliant game design in the DOS version,” said Maier, referencing Dell. “I ported a few other things and even made a few games of my own, but none became viral sensations.”

Maier was a mechanical engineering student at Georgia Tech when he learned that one of his former high school classmates had tweaked his original program, added his own name to it, and uploaded it to one of the primitive file-sharing sites that existed in the late 1990s.

“I was a little upset that he did all that without my permission. But from there it spread to schools around the country,” said Maier. “I found out about this after the fact.”

It was around this time, the mid-1990s, when Dell said his younger brother showed him people were still rewriting and sharing Drug Wars online.

“I couldn’t believe that people would still be doing that,” said Dell.

Even today, if they are not still playing the game, there are a lot of people that at least fondly remember it. Dope Wars Classic, a rendition of Drug Wars with a larger variety of drugs to sell, has 17,484 reviews at the Google Store. There are also several variations of the game available in the Apple App Store. A simple search on Twitter or Reddit for "drug wars" and "TI-82" will produce ample evidence that the game still has a cult following.

These days Dell helps operate Mutations Ltd., a business productivity software programming and consultancy company he cofounded in 2016. He said that at this point, he is rarely ever reminded of the crime game he masterminded—only about once every few years. It often comes from random inquiries from curious fans, such as when, a few years ago, a software company from Santa Barbara contacted him through LinkedIn to interview him.

Dell said that the recruiters had been planning to hire a new programmer, and one of them, in jest, suggested finding the guy who wrote Drug Wars. That idea went over well, and what started as a joke landed in Dell’s LinkedIn messages.

“It turned out they were looking for full time and not contractors,” said Dell. “It was still extremely flattering. I continue to be surprised. We have contract software developers and every now and then somebody will ask if I'm that dude who wrote the game.”

Maier is now a senior lecturer at Clemson University. Similar to Dell, he is also amused by how far this simple little crime simulator has traveled, somehow surviving decades of computer gaming innovation.

“I think my reaction could be described as one of guilty satisfaction,” said Maier. “I certainly don’t want to have led any high schoolers down a life of crime and drug abuse, scurrying from one borough of New York to another, having shootouts with Officer Hardass. But it is a great game. Perhaps it made high school and advanced math classes a little more bearable for my generation.”

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