Gaming History [June 25-29, 2012]
by Alisa Perren — University of Texas at Austin
June 21, 2012 – 15:56
Monday, June 25, 2012 - Nicolas Ricketts (The Strong Museum of Play) presents: When Idle Hands Were the Devil’s Workshop: Did Early Game Manufacturers Overcome a Predjudice Against Gaming?
Tuesday, June 26, 2012 - Michael Z. Newman (University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee) presents: Atari Commercials and the Boy Culture of Video Games
Wednesday, June 27, 2012 - Carly Kocurek (Illinois Institute of Technology) presents: Putting Atari to Work
Thursday, June 28, 2012 - Steven Boyer (University of Glasgow) presents: TI Imposters: Clones, Innovation, and Iteration in Digital Games
Friday, June 29, 2012 - Shane Toepfer (Kennesaw State) presents: The Digital Evolution?: From Tabletop to Online Simulation
Theme week organized by Alisa Perren (Georgia State University).
Nearly everyone plays games today. But the earliest manufactured board and card games illustrate that our ancestors may have felt differently about gaming. Many games from the middle and later nineteenth century were didactic—they taught a subject either scholarly or religious. Maps comprise all the earliest children’s puzzles; these taught geography. The first American board games followed a map’s path as well. Children’s card games often taught Bible verses or the titles of authors’ works. And one of the best-known and earliest board games, Milton Bradley’s The Checkered Game of Life, followed courses paved with good deeds—move ahead—or slightly devilish setbacks. The winning player achieved the last space, literally Happy Old Age, with a combination of luck and accumulated points.
There was less time for play in the colonial agrarian economy, so time not spent working—often called idleness—was undesirable. But industrialization and increased urbanization, one hundred years later, changed habits and attitudes. As America grew and changed and manufacturing and capitalism gained footholds, people, and their children, had more time to play. But gaming itself carried a negative connotation from the past. Children had no disposable income of their own, so parents purchased their toys. Did they, as consumers, favor educational or moralistic games over simply playful versions? Or did the manufacturers discover that these games sold best and then promote them to increase profit? And finally, did educational or religious games help overcome a common belief of games and game playing as bad, evil, or a waste of time?
Video games and masculinity have been tightly wound together for as long as television displays and computer chips have been used for play. In particular, video games have been central to a culture of boys, and have addressed young males as ideal users. At 4:30 of this video compilation of vintage Atari TV commercials (all of which I recommend), the lyrics present the product to its target consumer, the son of a middle-class American family:
Did you play with a friend on a rainy day?
Did you play with your dad?
Did you show him the way?
Did you play with your sis?
Did your mom always miss?
Did you play a game from Atari?
Have you played Atari today?
The illustrations in the ad present family members in a scenario standard for the period: sociable family room play by participants of mixed gender and age. We think of gaming as historically masculinized — as high tech; as aggressive and competitive; as sport, war, space adventure, and fantasy role playing. Popular discourses representing gaming as a social activity masculinized the medium, making the young male into the central figure in the drama of electronic play. But this ad offers a contradictory rhetoric, masculinizing games as boy culture while setting the Atari within the dynamics of the home.
Although the young male is the identity addressed by the ad, his role is to mediate between games as an exciting new technology and the family room as a stable and comforting setting for play. A masculinist discourse is in tension with more feminized meanings associated with the domestic sphere where Atari consoles were located: the comfort and security of home, the togetherness of the family circle, the companionate relationships of parents and children and brothers and sisters. The boy addressed by the ad is an ambassador of gaming, teaching his father to play, making room for his sister on the couch when a friend isn’t around, laughing with his mother over her failure to master the device. The ideas about video games offered at this time in TV commercials (as well as news stories, movies, and a burgeoning fan culture) helped establish an identity for the medium. “Anyone can get hooked,” the ad concludes, even a woman. But the message is still clear that video games are especially — really — for boys.
Many early video games and game systems were produced by companies best known for products ranging from jukeboxes to televisions. However, startups, including Atari and Exidy among others, also characterized the early video game industry. Atari remains the most recognizable and arguably the most influential of these early game companies as the company’s coin-op Pong (1972) became the first hit video game. However, by the early 1980s, Atari was working hard to diversify its product line away from an increasingly crowded games market.
In the midst of the industry crash from 1983-1985, Atari hired Alan Alda as a spokesperson. Alda, then well-known for his role on the television series M*A*S*H, demonstrated Atari products such as phone systems and home computers. The computers were Atari’s greatest hope, as evidenced by the advertisement featured here. Unlike the Alda ads, which employ familiar, domestic settings and focus on utility, ease of use, and practicality of various Atari products, this spot relies on a futuristic ethos. Beginning with reference to Atari’s success in the coin-op game market, the advertisement quickly moves to the company’s success in the home game console market, and then transitions to the company’s home computer products. The rhythmic electronic music is intertwined with game and computer sound effects. Throughout, the camera lingers on the games’ and computers’ on-screen graphics. The computer is shown both as a business tool and as a home system, which is useful not only for games, but for creative pursuits such as music composition, and practical ones like managing finances.
For an advertisement that declares Atari as a gateway to “a world beyond your wildest dreams” and invites viewers to “discover how far you can go,” these practical and business applications seem almost out of place. The relative newness of home computing during this period offers a partial explanation, but the necessity of attracting new consumers is even more central. While an easier solution for compiling financial records may not be the stuff of the average consumer’s dreams, the average consumer using Atari computers to compile financial records was absolutely the stuff of Atari’s marketing dreams. Video game companies’ computer advertisements from this period reveal not only a past vision of computer-based technological novelty, but also an industry in flux with its best-known makers flailing.
One of my favorite childhood video games let me pilot an onscreen spaceship, firing upward at slowly descending, perfectly organized rows of pixelated aliens. For most people, this description invokes Taito’s iconic Space Invaders. For myself, however, it refers to TI Invaders, the TI-99/4A knock-off in the video above. My youth is filled with these types of clones, where instead of eating power pellets in Pac Man, I consumed the Texas Instruments logo in Munch Man.
“Cloning” is only way to view the games industry’s reliance on continual iteration, refinement, and experimentation of existing systems, resulting in convoluted game geneologies. Determing game originality is also legally complicated, as audiovisual elements fall under copyright while mechanics are covered by patents, if creators even bother. The classic Pong’s immense success, itself embroiled in patent litigation, triggered numerous imitators, but also internally inspired iteration on the bouncing ball and paddle concept to create Breakout, another hit that spawned its own clones.
In the late 1970s, the same aspects that led to the explosion of the games industry – stabilized hardware platforms, interchangeable cartridges/discs/tapes, insatiable consumer demand, easily understood game concepts with simple graphics – also created a prime environment for high levels of imitation. While this period of rapid iteration and experimentation led to extremely creative games, a market saturated with low quality copies was a major contributing factor to collapse of the American games industry in the early 1980s.
These conditions have returned today with the rise of smartphone and social gaming that thrive on simple concepts, quick and cheap development cycles, and constant iteration. This has brought about a new wave of game cloning controversies, exposing the economic and legal tensions between corporate and independent developers, along with familiar concerns that app store marketplaces are approaching saturation.
The continued relevance of cloning debates indicates the persistence of struggles over ownership of digital games, the lingering lack of regulatory solutions to decades-old questions, and the fundamental complications in simultaneously fostering creativity and innovation while protecting content creators from exploitation.
Produced by Filsinger Games, Champions of the Galaxy was released in 1986 as a tabletop card-and-dice game, offering gamers the opportunity to simulate their own wrestling federation set one-hundred years in the future. The accompanying video is an introduction to the game’s mythos and possibilities, and for almost thirty years the game has cultivated a small, dedicated fanbase that purchases expansion sets each year, attends annual conventions, and congregates on the company’s online message forum to discuss the game.
In 2007 Filsinger Games introduced COTGOnline, an online simulation of the tabletop format of the game. This conversion to an online format was heralded as an evolutionary step for the game, a natural progression from its primitive origins into a new digital era. Many fans indicated that this online version would allow for newer gamers to get into the game, assuming the tabletop format was an obstacle to those more comfortable with digital formats. In addition, many in the community espoused the “unlimited possibilities” the online format would offer for the game and its fans. In many ways, this moment was indicative of the utopian promise of digital culture, a metaphorical rebirth for the game in a new historical moment.
However, COTGOnline was not without its problems. Most significantly, the game’s foundational feature, the control the game provides individual players, was diminished in the online format. With the traditional tabletop version of the game, players could modify the stats of individual cards with a mere pen or pencil. Now, with COTGOnline, one needed significant levels of technological proficiency to modify the stats of individual characters within the digital game. COTGOnline also cuts down on the implementation of “house rules,” referring to the modifications in gameplay many make with their personal cards and dice. The corresponding video emphasizes the control one has with the game’s raw materials, but the digital version of the game actually limits that control rather than facilitates it.
Finally, the digital content within COTGOnline had an economic impact on the game’s fans. Players, in order to have access to the digital cards they already owned in tangible form, had to repurchase individual editions in digital formats. In this way, COTGOnline became an indicator of conspicuous consumption, an unnecessary luxury that only some fans could afford. Rather than ushering in a new era for the game, some members of the game’s existing fan community saw this digital evolution as an attempt to exploit the fanbase.
Thu, 21 Jun 2012 20:56:09 +0000