I feel like telling you all a story about how the asshole robot pictured above once haunted my nightmares and has now become an object of ridicule in my mind’s eye.
In 1988, Video Technology (known as VTECH today) released the Socrates Educational Video System. The console came with ninety built-in programs for young children with the purpose of teaching them math, spelling, grammar, music, and art. Several cartridges came out for the console with additional programs on logic, memory, geography, history, culture, and design.
Sometime in the early Nineties, my parents picked up a Socrates console for about $130 from an Ames department store. You might think that price is steep for an educational video game, but remember that in the Nineties, these systems were few and far between. My parents figured that instead of getting my siblings and I a Nintendo or Sega, they could plop us down in front of this machine and have us learn how to divide and multiply or all about the flags of the world circa 1989.
(Fun fact: The Socrates, which came out on the eve of the collapse of the Soviet Union, referred to many countries by their Soviet name. It became dated very quickly.)
I enjoyed playing the games; my grandmother, may her memory be a blessing, spent hours next to me helping me with the tougher math and word problems. The mascot of these games was, of course, Socrates the robot. Named after the Greek philosopher, he had a design like Johnny 5 from Short Circuit and – according to a backstory in one of the math games – came from space. In my earliest days of playing the games, I liked Socrates. He was my teacher, and he seemed non-threatening enough; I had no reason to fear him.
Then the bastard started rolling out of my closet.
You know kids who wake up in the dead of night and scream about monsters under their bed. Perhaps you were one of these kids. I’d wake up in a lucid dream and see a hazy red light bleeding out of my closet, and then watch in terror as Socrates in all of his small metallic glory dragged his wheels across my carpet towards me. His demeanor in these dreams wasn’t pedagogic or friendly. There was nothing but evil in his digital eyes. On his hard disk was stored only hatred. Though a smile appeared on his pixelated face, its superficiality couldn’t mask the darkness that coursed through every wire inside of him.
This fucker would write obscene graffiti with his laser fingers on my walls. He would growl threatening curses in garbled text-to-speech voices as I cowered under my covers. I would shout for my parents and they would not arrive, as my cries never reached beyond the imaginary plane. But when I wailed myself awake, my parents would appear at my bedside, showing me with all of the exhausted atience they could muster that Socrates wasn’t there, that he wasn’t real, that there was nothing to fear.
But I feared. The dreams got to the point where I wouldn’t go in my closet, or let down my guard while walking down my basement steps, or step into any room with a TV without doing a double take for fear that Socrates might appear on the screen and kill me somehow. I couldn’t explain why, either. But that’s what fear does. You may undergo some sort of trauma which can destroy your everyday life and cause you to never form a meaningful relationship or hate the smell of cheese. I took on such a complex due to these dreams, and those anxieties lasted for years.
I don’t know when I decided enough was enough. But I know that sometime later on in my childhood I was doodling as usual, and I drew the beginnings of the head of Socrates.
This started a trend of reclamation. I started going down into the basement, turning on the Socrates, and watching the console loading screen to see if it would cause any visceral reaction. You can watch it for yourself in the video below. It lasts about thirty seconds and features Socrates materializing out of thin air, turning his head around like he’s from the goddamned Exorcist, and inviting you to “learn and play together” in a voice that sounds like Robocop has a cold. (The system didn’t talk on its own; the owner of the system in the video below had a special voice cartridge which enabled the feature.)
At first I couldn’t last for more than a few seconds; the creepy music alone sent me running to unplug the TV. But after a while, I started to watch through the whole thing. I went on to reexplore some of the games, which by then had become far too easy for me. My doodles of Socrates became more advanced and creative; I had him shooting back into space or having a cup of coffee with his philosopher namesake or driving a car on Interstate 81. He became a character far removed from the demon that had formed in my head many years before. I had made him my own thing, a character of comedy born from inexplicable childhood trauma.
The dreams started to die down as well. I was able to fight back against Socrates; he became weaker and less of a presence as I focused all of my energy against him. Near the end, he was much like the image of him that I had formed in my head, a robotic know-it-all who was begging to get his antennae bent and his chassis shoved in a locker. But after a while, he stopped showing up in my dreams entirely. Against all odds, it seemed, I’d beaten one of my biggest fears.
Of course, Socrates still lives on. He’s the logo of this blog, my Twitter account, and quite a few other brands I’ve tried (and failed) to kickstart in my time. The machine still sits in my parents’ basement, and from time to time when I visit home I switch it on and try to get my nieces and nephews into playing the old games. They have no interest, of course, because they live in a time with Netflix and iPads and where they can scream at Alexa to play “It’s Raining Tacos”. Every once in a while, I doodle a little picture of Socrates in the margins of my work notebook.
It grounds me, to be honest. When things get tough or stressful, I can go about my day remembering that I looked at the face of a killer robot in my dreams and told him to fuck off. I know this kind of childhood trauma and victory over it pales in comparison to the other kinds of terror that kids have to face growing up. But a win’s a win in my book.
This is a quote from the real Socrates, at least according to Goodreads:
“We cannot live better than in seeking to become better.”Socrates, the philosopher (not the robot)
I’m pretty sure I got better. I can’t be sure, of course. Watch: In seventy years Socrates is going to burst out of my closet at the old folks’ home and kick me in my aged balls or something.