The Historiography of Video Games: Part 1

(This post is the first in a series covering writings on video games. It will be exploring matters of perception, context, and facts in early writings about electronic amusements as well as critically examining their worth beyond historical interest.)


It’s strange to think that video games may be the last major new phenomenon whose relevance was captured first on paper. The early steps in digital technology could not be cataloged by digital technology, and because of how these games first emerged there was a relative level of obscurity to them which held back our knowledge for many years. As researchers are now starting to uncover every bit of contemporaneous media left available to future generations, I felt it might be interesting to perhaps look at how this understanding has evolved over time.

Historiography is a term which basically means “the history of history”, as in examining how people looked at history in earlier time periods. This series of podcasts and articles will be looking at history-related works pertaining to video games to see what we can learn from the hows and whys of their existence. I will be focusing largely on singular published works rather than trade publication articles or information released a piece at a time. While those tend to be more informative in terms of getting to the heart of a story, I wanted to see how prior authors have distilled those sources into something that a more general public would read (though as we’ll see many of the early histories were created for more particular audiences).

 

Games People Play (Summer 1973)

This documentary is proof positive that there’s always something new to find out there in the world. In the Summer of 1973, this documentary was shot around Stanford, mainly focusing on the impact of the game Spacewar! on various gaming developments in the area. Nolan Bushnell, Bill Pitts, and SAIL member Ralph Gorrin are interviewed about their interactions with the game and the new commercial affect it is having in the immediate vicinity.

The largest portion of this documentary focuses on Atari dba Syzygy, along with some beautiful views of Atari’s new manufacturing facility which is very rare to find for a pre-video explosion coin-op company at the time. There are also some rather excellent shots of Computer Space on location and the computer used to play the Galaxy Game.

While visuals from this time period excite me more than they probably should, the really remarkable thing about this documentary is how it frames the new phenomenon being led by Atari. The whole thing opens up with Nolan’s views on what the video game will bring to the coin-operated leisure industry, a view he was absolutely correct in (though not fully seen to fruition during his time with the company). The whole narrative arc constructs itself around the miniaturization of computer technology, giving a point of perspective at the end by contrasting the Galaxy Game, Computer Space, and the Magnavox Odyssey with a hopeful lens despite the simplistic nature of a lot of the technology.

The documentary also gets quite a few things right that it makes me wonder how much more we would have had time to focus on if this was our basis for the early history going way back. While certainly there are errors like Nolan claiming he invented (and programmed!) both of Syzygy’s games, there is stuff like not explicitly claiming that Spacewar was the first video game and stating that Computer Space sold over 1,500 units which shows a greater dedication to context than one would expect for the first retrospective look at video games.

Of course, the documentary does very much appear like a 70s student film effort. While some of the cinematography is really well done (even on filming the game screens), there’s not a whole lot of dynamism to it. I can see by the time somebody reaches the Stanford section that they would have felt the film was already going on a bit long, and the cutaway shots tend to really break the visual flow. It’s definitely not the sort of documentary which was made for television, instead a zeitgeist attempt to capture a new wave of interest and it definitely succeeds in that.

 

Gametronics Proceedings (1977)

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Gametronics was a little known but very significant conference held from January 18-20th 1977 at the Hyatt Hotel House in Burlingame, California. Essentially the first GDC, Gametronics was meant to be the first of an annual conference sponsored by Electronic Engineering Times. As far as I know, a second was never held, though the reasons are unknown. The editor of Electronic Engineering Times, Jerry Eimbinder, is still alive but I have never been able to reach him about this event.

Part of the reason for this event’s obscurity today is that I don’t believe that it was publicized very much. The publication which followed the event appears to be close to the only record of its existence, but what record it is. The book reprints the papers and speeches given during the three day conference, covering the whole spectrum of what we now consider ‘video games’. There are pictures of performances, awards, hardware like the Commodore PET and the Galaxy Game, scarcely mentioned individuals like David Chandler of later Intellivision fame, and so much more.

Most interesting for our purposes though are the first official retellings of video game history. Ralph Baer takes the stage to explain the origins of the Odyssey and Jerry Eimbinder writes up a more wide-spanning chronicle under the chapters “TV Game Background” and “Trends in TV Games”. Certainly some of these details were dug up through the recent Magnavox court cases, especially Baer’s account which has more similarities to his 1975 deposition than his later autobiographical book, but this was the first time that the info had been translated to a comprehensive reading format.

Baer’s account overall largely never changed even over thirty years of telling it. He still backtalks Bill Rusch, he still gives Atari begrudging credit, he still blames Magnavox for ineffective marketing, he still rambles on forever (the article included in the book looks like it was written after the fact rather than what he wrote up for a speech). One can hardly blame him when he’s largely accurate, though he did keep himself from being too harsh. His primary purpose at the event seemed to be more focused on hawking his interactive TV idea which never quite caught hold.

Things get far more interesting when we examine Eimbinder’s article. Spacewar! is the set-up, just like most accounts of video game history since then, with a simplistic but mostly accurate blurb about the origins of the program and its impact. From there he mixes up the dates a bit as he interweaves the stories of Galaxy Game, Computer Space, and Pong (the latter two of which he claims were both “Atari”). This marks an early appearance of the “coin box” story, probably inaccurately claiming that Bushnell was the one who saw it (though a man named Satish Bhutani did relate to me that a later incident of this may have occurred).

After another rather standard account of the Odyssey, the chapter starts to become more and more focused – like the rest of the book – on the commercial and technical angle of video games. The rest of the history is framed through the eyes of focusing in on the boom. The tale of First Dimension is presented as a cautionary story of missing the technology boat, which was delivered by General Instrument. The introduction of the AY-8500 chip (the history of which is described a bit more in a subsequent chapter) is viewed rather uncritically, primarily due to Coleco’s lucky success, and the projections remain incredibly optimistic.

In leading to the next article, there’s an immediate understanding that the microprocessor was going to become important. Fairchild, RCA, and Commodore are positioned as leaders in the field, though none would ultimately be a big player in games in this early period. Eimbinder weaves a thread about the advances in electronics being comparable to prior trends in TVs and radios, though he seems to miss the big point of many of the cheaper consumer electronics having a period of rapid decline due to the number of manufacturers. While he does admit that long term predictions are overly optimistic and that the number of companies was overwhelming, there still seems to be the air of excitement rather than worriment at this growth rate.

Rounding off the chapter are a series of very useful (if not ultimately exciting) tables of information. Projections, sales figures, manufacturer names, and some games listings as well. Most interesting (and probably most inaccurate) is Table 7 which claims not only that Universal Research was the best selling manufacturer of 1976, but that Atari was the bottom out of the eight manufacturers surveyed.

What’s made clear by the end of this book is that this conference mainly existed for the benefit of the business people involved. I wouldn’t go as far to say it was just a bunch of sales pitches despite the prominence of companies like Molex pressing their wares, but I think even the technical exhibits exist for the sake of the executives to know what technologies were on the horizon.

It’s honestly quite surprising there was so much technical info shared when the arcade companies particularly were very secretive about what their engineers did. Though I have no way of proving this, I think this conference may have been the leaping off point for the cartridge format as well. The Fairchild VES had been put to market the prior November (not August as the book claims) but this would be the first chance for the assembled engineers to get a real understanding of it. Both the Atari staff and Dr. David Chandler would subsequently implement cartridge formats into game consoles very soon after the conference was in the past.

Gametronics remains a perplexing and interesting relic from the very beginnings of video games. The cultural impact was only felt on the level of their immediate wallet-grabbing attention, not of anything regarding the games’ splendor or the adoption of technology by users. The book really has nothing enjoyable to offer a general audience, but still intrigues me with just how much obscure information has been packed in even as I skim through it the dozenth time.

 

The History of Video Games (1977)

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Concise title, Mr. Bristow! Yes, Steve Bristow, legendary Atari engineer, wrote a piece for the IEEE Transactions on Consumer Electronics publication in their February of 1977 issue. Don’t get too excited however, as being part of an engineering magazine the biggest portion of the text goes to explaining the very basics of how Pong (a game everyone had figured out by this point) works.

Still, that doesn’t mean it’s devoid of some interesting perspective. Bristow makes a point in the paper about the wide array of pricepoints and technologies available to companies. While he very much understands the prohibitive nature of full computers and vector displays, there seems to be an implicit realization in this text that both will become in reach in a very short amount of time. He also demonstrates a very good, if brief, grasp on the coin-operated industry before he himself got involved.

His background on Computer Space is understandably accurate and also interesting. Giving the modest due to Spacewar beforehand, he adds in some facts which provide some better understanding of the technology pricepoint. He says the game only started production in 1972 and lists an approximate price of $1,850, which seems quite precise and could be a memory from his time with Nutting.

I also find some of Bristow’s technical language interesting from a modern view. Rather than saying “TTL” hardware, he says “T^2”. Instead of “Silicon Valley”, it’s still “Silicon Gulch”. He also provides some insight into Atari’s legendary durability for their cabinets, something which has helped them remain in use up to today.

Bristow really is coming from a more enlightened perspective when he proclaims “What can be done on a TV Game? Literally anything can be done.” While straightforward in a technical approach, the author really does show his love for games in a way that a different audience than the IEEE may not care about so much. In some sense, this paper is more of a historical record of the late Steve Bristow than it is of video games generally.

 

Video Games (1977)

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This book is a bit of a cheat because the historical aspect is very light, but as the first mainstream book covering the video games phenomenon I thought it was important to include for context. Video Games by Len Buckwalter is largely a consumer guide to home video games, with small spatterings of the impact of games on society with amusements like Death Race taking the fore. Since it is largely a home console book though, it gives a brief overview of largely date-based information before moving on to the products themselves.

It’s kind of funny to think that describing largely dedicated consoles could constitute 160 pages, and certainly one cannot avoid the repetition when it comes to the technical details. There are plenty of pictures, which is nice, but they don’t always describe which consoles are being shown, which would be a real headache for someone using this as a buying catalog. Some of the pictures are also pretty incongruous, if still interesting, like several photos of not-for-sale development pieces for the Fairchild VES.

Still, aside from the troubleshooting, the book is a fairly brisk read for those wanting to get a sense of how home video games were being viewed  right at their first peak. There’s not a whole lot of formative language to look at or even perspectives on games which are largely the same up until the present. There’s also some value for collectors today in the back of the book to view what early dedicated consoles were worth back in the day.


That wraps us up for the 1970s. Obviously there’s not a whole lot to speak about when there’s so little history to discuss, and no way that many people were going to be able to dig into areas where they didn’t have experience. It would take the rise of the video game magazine to kickstart a real interest in the story behind video games and a means to get that information out to the public.

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