I sent out my first request for an interview for a person in the games industry in March of 2015. Since then I have collected the stories of over 100 people, some well known names and others scarcely mentioned in any source. It has been a very fulfilling enterprise and it’s the first step in the matter of preservation. Without contacts, without knowledge, you can’t know what is out there to find.
There are two main barriers to those in the community to helping gather stories with developers, business folk, and others within the industry. The first is that many in the gaming community are rather shy and insular, myself included. That one is conquered with time and effort, embracing the imperfect nature of your work. The second is far more important, the fact that you can’t go anywhere to learn about oral history. If you try to Google “How to interview”, it’s always with the assumption that you’re on the other side of the table and the end goal is getting a job. In terms of gaining information in a non-aggressive way (I.E. interrogation) there’s no common resource to learn the basics or train yourself before doing the real thing.
I cannot claim to have a well-educated answer to the question of interviews. I have no training in this department nor am I really a historian in an academic sense. What I can share with you though are my experiences and suggestions for conducting oral histories within the field of video games. This won’t be how to reach people (you can email me directly if you’re curious) but instead how to prepare and execute a successful interview. I will be focusing on oral histories I’ve conducted over the telephone as opposed to email or in-person because it can apply more widely to the rest.
It can be difficult sometimes to remember you’re dealing with actual people after you’ve spoken with dozens of them on the same tract. You often feel like a machine, simply gathering information, scheduling interviews, then processing it all on the other side. However, always keep in mind that your subjects have lives of their own beyond whatever you’re speaking to them about. Every personality must be taken into account, even if only for that brief moment of contact.
I’ve spoken with people who are very forward and those who are very reserved. You must work around both and be mindful of their limits. For example, if you ask the question “So then you went to work for [X]?” you may get “Yes” with no further comment. It’s your job to follow up on that, even if it’s not an area of your express interest. Ask how they got involved at that company, what they did there. It’s a part of their life they are likely more than willing to talk about.
There are of course some things that people do not want to discuss and you have to be careful around those boundaries. This does not mean you can’t ask, but the goal of a historian is not to be writing and exposé and this should be clear to the subject from the start. One would assume that you respect and understand the person’s role as well as are open to their failings. I have run into a few people who are unwilling to speak about certain bad experiences with people or legal issues. I’ve also spoken with people who say they wouldn’t like to speak about something, then within a few sentences double back and talk about what they were supposedly going to bottle up. I think that with me, many people understand that their grievances will be heard rather than taken as defamation.
With these cautions though, it’s extremely important to note that people in the game industry are generally awesome. In terms of outright denials for interviews, I’ve only been rebuffed by about ten people out of hundreds. Sure, many simply don’t get back to you, but those that do are generally receptive. The best interviews tend to be those who are incredibly eager to speak because they have a lot to say and few people have listened to them. My interviews with David Warhol and Jamie Fenton have been particular highlights in this regard.
The main reason that I stress being respectful is that, especially in this day and age, you can leverage a good relationship to ask follow-up questions or do multiple rounds of interviews. If you have somebody’s email and you forgot to ask something the first time around, you can check with them to see what they remember. I also like to, when possible, send people photos I have of them or their colleagues after the interview. It may trigger memories or otherwise just make them happy to look at their younger selves. Maintaining a relationship can be worth dividends in the long run and opens the door for other interviewers to get an audience.
Perhaps this goes without saying, but never doubt the importance of extra research when it comes to interviewing somebody. Read every other available interview, look in the trades, talk to others about their interactions, and try to form a greater picture about who the person is and what you want to ask. Even if you’re planning to ask about only a very limited window of things, it’s best to get as informed as possible about the surrounding issues for context.
My first phone interview was with Brøderbund co-founder Doug Carlston about his relationships with two people: Nasir Gebelli and Don Daglow. The former had more details in his book, Software People, and in talking to me he leaned on the relationships he had in the games industry then which I wouldn’t have known about if I only knew about Nasir specifically. On the latter, he spoke about Daglow in terms of the production system they implemented at Brøderbund. Without knowing what a producer was or how Brøderbund was different than the game industry norm, that context would be lost on me.
It’s okay to not know everything. Interviews are about learning and you should be able to take any information presented to you into account when asking further questions. One instance of this is working out timelines. People may say things on their Linkedin as to when they were at a company, but if you ask enough questions an approximate year can usually be determined. This was the case with my good friend Alex Smith interviewing Carol Kantor of Atari. Her recollection is that she came to the company in 1973, but she was hired by Gene Lipkin who wasn’t there at Atari until 1974 and not head of coin-op until 1976. Plus, her hiring was announced in the coin-op trade publications. These sorts of errors are natural in terms of the human mind, especially over decades.
Being personable is one f the best ways to pull out buried recollections. While it may be hard to get someone to remember one product out of a thousand they marketed, it’s easier to get them to remember people. When I first interviewed Chuck Arnold, he had no recollection of working at the firm Ramtek even though he had done so for about two years. However when I mentioned the head of the company, Chuck McEwan, he suddenly had tons of stories. People, not properties, are what tend to stick in the minds of those in the middle of a phenomenon. The more names you can associate with an event or a product, the better chance you will have in finding the information you seek (and that which you don’t).
A natural tendency emerges that if you were able to speak to someone, their specific word carries more weight than the counterpoint who you’ve not spoken to. When you’re able to hear the emotion in someone’s voice and buy into their story, it’s easy to believe their story above all others. Of course, this is one of the many reasons we research and cross-reference oral histories where possible, but it’s also important to keep in mind the matter of perspective. History is rarely ever stacked with ‘truths’ and everything must be viewed from a lens. The way that a game player, a developer, and a salesman will reflect on an event like the 1983 North American Video Game Crash all have valid views.
One such person for me was Steve Wright, who worked in the consumer division of Atari. When I asked him about the Activision defection, I was expecting to hear something similar to the story that David Crane tells (especially since they’ve been on panels together in the past). Instead, rather than disavowing corporate oversight, he said that the Activision people had a different priority set in regards to the games they wanted to make. Wright felt that the reason they felt stymied was because they felt emphasizing graphics on VCS games would net them a lot more money as opposed to straight gameplay. This is a valid perspective. However, when taking into account other programmers there at the time, it seems further from the literal truth than the usual account.
Do not dismiss these sorts of comments, especially not to the interview subject to tell them that they’re wrong. This is for historical evaluation and it’s best to not feed a narrative to the person you’re talking to lest you poison the well further down the line. Inform, but don’t force. With the above statement, I followed up by asking if Wright knew that the Activision people had talked to Ray Kassar about pay, which is vaguer than laying out the entire royalty plan they said they established. Wright had no knowledge of that, which shows clearly enough that it was outside of his direct insight. Again, not at all useless in terms of forming a greater picture. He was there, he made a semi-successful game (Soccer), and he wasn’t embroiled in the same conflict as the Furious Four were.
As mentioned before, if you’ve maintained a good relationship with the interviewee you can always evaluate things after the fact. Talk about the interview with other people, listen to it again, question what you think you know. If you have an audio interview, always be sure to note somebody’s tone when they say something particularly perplexing. Most of the time this is an intentional lead-in to a greater topic that they may or may not ever get to depending on the pace of the interview. People talking about what they love, hate, or are indifferent to can open up many different modes of understanding a particular event or project.
Also let the totality of their experience be present in your mind as you look back over your notes. If they got fired and sued by a company they used to work for, they may still hold a bit of a grudge even if they say “I’ve forgiven them”. Rod Geiman of Nutting Associates had a view of Nolan Bushnell very much colored by his later defection and involvement in a lawsuit, though that doesn’t discredit his view. Frank Fogleman, co-founder of Gremlin Industries, had his company terminated by Gulf and Western but he still greatly admired the leadership of both Sega and the over company. All of these views should be respected and examined for what they are.
I hope that this look into my process for collecting stories will help you to do the same. There are tons of passionate people out there who I know would be more than willing to do the same if they just knew where to start. Here’s your start then.
If you have any further questions about the oral history process that you’d like to have answered, feel free to reach me via the Contact Page or on Twitter. I love helping to further the passion for this history and the remembrance of games industry luminaries.