Over the past few months, some friends and I have done a full readthrough of the entirety of the book The Ultimate History of Video Games on Twitch. You can view the full playlist, though it’s about a 50 hour commitment in addition to putting up with us. I did this because the book turned 20 years old in 2021, corresponding with the release of what is being called the second volume by the original author Steven L Kent.
Kent is a journalist who entered the video game sphere in the early-to-mid 1990s and has continued to cover the space through mainstream and game focused publications ever since. Using his access and his interest in history, he spent several years creating a narrative history book which he originally published as The First Quarter in 2000, covering the vaguely 25-year period from Computer Space in 1971 to the console coverage in the late 90s. Knowing that this book was self-published reveals a lot about its contents, but in 2001 it was picked up by an imprint of Random House and became generally available. Ever since, it’s been a ubiquitous text in libraries and bookstores, being the de facto choice for people looking for non-fiction about video games.
Now before I get further into this, I want to make it clear that I don’t think poorly of Kent for putting together this book. His project was massive and the intention was very positive. You can actually see several articles in the late 90s issue of Next Generation magazine which he published as part of his research, bringing public attention to stories that had been buried in the mists of time. Some of those stories don’t even appear in the book, proving that he was also discerning in his coverage in terms of what he might vet. The fact that he felt The First Quarter needed to be published is sign enough that he wasn’t trying to act in bad faith. However – there’s always a however – I do feel that Kent was not always dutiful in his shaping of the history he presents which has distorted the views of many general audiences.
In the times before the widespread use of the internet, Kent relied on print media almost exclusively for things such as dates. This leads to a lot of errors by transmission or remembrance, and these would not be terribly bad in and of themselves. The issue is that when Kent had an opportunity to fix these for The Ultimate History of Video Games, he chose not to, and this presents a big problem in using it as an authoritative text. Many of these initial problems were noted by an enthusiast called Zube in the original printing, and he sent a list of corrections to Kent, so much so that he was thanked in the opening acknowledgements in the book. Not many of Zube’s corrections were taken though, and he posted an updated list after the mainstream publication.
During the course of our readthrough, my compatriots and I acted as the “Zube” of this generation, drawing upon the research which has been done post-Kent which wouldn’t have been readily accessible at the time. What we assembled was a 33 page document of complaints which I will make available on Archive.org after checking a few corrections. Many are nitpicky, but some very much aren’t. While we jokingly curse the name of Kent, there are a lot of very sloppy errors which make it difficult for us today to recommend The Ultimate History of Video Games for its narrative. It does not have the type of coverage that its title claims (though admittedly the title is not Kent’s fault).
Repeatedly throughout the text, Kent misunderstands things he takes from his own interviews. He clearly plays favorites with the big, famous executives and lets stories be told about others uncritically. One example of a clear bias coming through is his mention of Ray Kassar’s stock trading prior to Atari’s bad fourth quarter in 1982. While Kassar was quoted on this matter in the book denying the accusation, Kent repeatedly returns to this event as if it is settled fact that Kassar was fired over this action, despite being let go months later and returning the stock without explicit legal obligation. In other passages he speaks about how refined and correct Trip Hawkins is. Not to even mention the belief in the total righteousness of Nolan Bushnell.
While he has his own interviews with some of the larger players (mostly in the console space), he also draws plenty upon the earlier books of this ilk such as Hackers, Zap!: The Rise and Fall of Atari, and Game Over. When one reads these books, it’s clear to see that he takes many suppositions from them about both people and facts, but he is pretty awful about citations. There are technically citations in the book but they are more or less useless unless he is pulling a direct text out of a document. This book certainly would have never featured a large amount of citations, and yet there’s far too much cribbing of narrative to have left that entirely to the general Sources page.
He also often draws on interviews done both in the time around the original publishing of the book and those done several years earlier for Next Generation, creating an unsorted mish mash of context. This is worse in the later sections of the book where some executives are clearly speaking on the press junket, trying to hype up their products, not give an accurate history. Not having the ability to put these quotes in a time and place, readers may often find themselves believing in the truth of marketing statements rather than having them filtered through Kent’s understanding as he does in the rest of the book.
All these tiny errors are only to say that judging by the journalistic standards of his background, not going by the rigor of an academic historian, Kent made several failings during the development of the book’s narrative. It is impossible to come away from the book not impressed and intrigued by some of the things he managed to print, yet not all of it really helps create a solid picture of the video game industry. It’s also notably lacking in coverage outside of the United States, save for the few sources like Game Over where he could grab some readily translated material from Japan. Save for a developer or two, Europe basically doesn’t exist. Neither does PC gaming, nor any developments in the arcade after 1982 until Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat or after them.
In creating a mass market retelling of the story of video games, I do feel that these neglected areas are basically relegated to a bin of “does not matter”. Certainly there is a certain readership who will be intrigued to know what is not in this book, but the book does not push people to learn more. Despite the title not being the intention of Kent, it does feel as if it’s attempting to communicate that this history truly is ultimate. Final. All you actually need to know and anything else is superfluous to understanding the games you play today. Or at least in 2001.
I don’t intend to go on an extra long polemic about this book nor actively denigrate the author for what he accomplished. Today though, we have to ask the question of what is to be done within the “field” of video game history when we talk about this work. We cannot use it uncritically for really anything. Even the fabulous blockquotes which are more or less unadulterated lack the necessary time and place for firm evaluation.
What we can say about The Ultimate History of Video Games is that it presents a thesis of a journalist who was steeped within video games. Kent focuses a lot on public and press reaction to games, some of which is even accurate. The things he was personally involved in and the events he attended shine through in interesting detail, and his great desire to see video games grow economically is the broad focus of his writing. He values certain things which are particularly valuable for game critics and sees their opinions as the truly determinant factors of whether or not something can grow to be a success, at least in the era when he was personally involved. There is great reverence for game creators, plenty of trust given to marketers, and a hierarchical view of companies which views the top (American) executive as determinative in the success of that company.
The summary of Kent is accurate, more or less. He hits on most of the central stories that broke the news all the way from Spacewar! to Dreamcast that anybody would be remiss to leave out in an expansive telling of the medium. His own personal obsessions are not reflective of a larger public base or a historical consensus. Much of the reasoning he puts behind decisions is extraordinarily flawed, limited by the amount of information that he was able to collect during the project. It is, ultimately, not a good history text.
My recommendation to anybody wanting a single book solution for video game history has always been Replay: The History of Video Games by Tristan Donovan, which does a wonderful job in drawing attention to all sides of the game industry as well give better general context in and around video games. The Ultimate History of Video Games by Steven Kent is not a worthless book and it will remain important in our discourse so long as it remains popular. If you are attempting to understand video game history as a discipline, read it. If you are just looking for a good read on the subject, don’t.
(Note: This is not saying anything about Volume 2, which I have not completed but you can pick up without reading the first and is markedly better.)
This will not be my final word on the works of Kent. Despite having gone thoroughly through the research of the book in its entirety, I will be discussing more about some of the specific things that stood out to me on an upcoming episode of the Video Game Newsroom Time Machine. I’ll also be discussing how it was to read the book on a literary basis. Keep an eye out!
Thanks again to all the people who joined me during the reading: Alex Smith of They Create Worlds; Dylan Mansfield and Weiste van Bruggen of Gaming Alexandria; Nathaniel Lockhart of Memory Machine; Beka Hubbish, Bard Snagglebug, Dale Geddes, and J*Rod.