Video Game Historiography and the Archives of New Media: A Research Report

by Michael Z. Newman

In which: Atari, Ms. Pac-Man, TV Fun, early cinema, my seven year-old son, George Plimpton, Urban Outfitters, Lynn Spigel, International Center for the History of Electronic Games, Computer Lib/Dream Machine, Blip, Pilgrim in the Microworld, the Internet Archive, J.C. Penney, home economics, Harvard, the Business Periodicals Index, an orange Odyssey 100, Benjaminian aura, Vectrex, YouTube, nostalgia, Parks & Recreation (the magazine), Thinking Man’s Football, Rochester, NY, Milton-Bradley, Milwaukee Public Library, Tom Gunning, Scott Baio, and me playing tennis against myself, not in that order.

I began my current research project, a book about early video game history, with a handful of motives and enough ignorance to fill several arcades. I wanted to study something that had not been studied very much before. After two projects that were fairly contemporary, I wanted to do historical research on a period far enough in the past that no new developments could change the landscape very radically. I wanted a project that would allow me to read lots of old magazines, which I thought would be fun (it is, though ILL scans make it hard to appreciate ads and context, and fiche and film reproduce vivid color pages in blotchy black and white). I wanted to make up for my childhood deprivation of home console games like Atari. Perhaps most importantly, I wanted to continue to do research in an area I began to become interested in with my work on Legitimating Television at the intersection of television, technology, new media, and gender.

One of my first insights came from the discovery — it was new to me — that in the 1970s, video games were often called TV games or tele-games. One console from the mid-70s was called a “TV Fun.”

I looked to see if television historians have said much about the development of game devices that used the TV set as a display (and as a source of sound). With the exception of one book chapter, I have not found anything published on this topic by a television scholar. Yet the emergence of games in the home beginning in 1972 was seen at the time as a development that would have a significant effect on television and its viewers. Popular press accounts of TV games often made reference to the impact of games on the value of the television set (e.g., now you can do more than just watch) and the potential of the new technology to ameliorate TV’s putative deficits. No longer a distraction for passive viewers, the TV set connected to a TV game console would be made active and purposeful. The gender implications of this discourse are consistent with the discussion of newer technologies of agency that Elana and I discuss in chapter 7 of our book, including remote control devices, VCRs, DVDs, DVRs, and web and mobile video services. TV games would masculinize a technology associated from its emergence as a mass medium with domesticity and femininity. Studying video game history would offer an opportunity to learn about the gendering of video games from their beginnings in the home, the better to understand the development of video game culture. Cinema and television studies have established the early years of each medium as an important area of concern for scholars. Without the contributions of scholars such as Tom Gunning in film studies and Lynn Spigel in TV studies, these fields would look a fair bit different, and much less robust. I don’t think video games have a similar body of work yet.

(Before the Crash, a not-yet-published essay collection edited by Mark J.P. Wolf might be the beginning of what I’m talking about. The first entry in the MIT Platform Studies series, Racing the Beam, about the Atari VCS, is another example of recent scholarship on the period I’m considering.)

I initiated this historical research by searching for secondary sources. Academic game studies is a burgeoning multidisciplinary field, but rather little of it is historical. What has been written about the history of electronic games, which is no small literature, is seldom scholarly. Journalists and enthusiasts have written about the history of games as technology and industry. Even the best of the non-academic history suffers in some respects from having been based on journalistic rather than scholarly methods — using interviews where documents would be more reliable, making storytelling more central than analysis. There is undoubtedly an excess of nostalgia and great-man-ism in this work, but there is also a wealth of facts and lore, and we can learn a lot from it.

For more than a year I have been collecting primary sources to use in writing my history. My approach is to collect as much as possible, to exhaust the potential of primary research. Using a number of bound indexes including the Reader’s Guide and the Business Periodicals Index, I have been tracking down every item about electronics games in the popular, business, and trade press I can find. These sources run the gamut from Time and Newsweek to Advertising Age and Business Week to Popular Mechanics and Popular Electronics to Merchandising and Stores. I have articles from Esquire and Smithsonian, and from Hotel and Motel Management and Parks and Recreation. I have a hundred items from the Wall Street Journal. I have also been collecting contemporaneous academic or intellectual writing, such as social-scientific studies, ethnographies, and first-person accounts. I have famous books like Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib/Dream Machine and David Sudnow’s Pilgrim in the Microworld, and obscure dissertations in fields like home economics. There was a conference on games at Harvard in 1983, and I have the proceedings and the reports in the popular press. Scholastic published a book called TV Today in 1983 and put Pac-Man on the cover along with Scott Baio and Lisa Welchel, and I have that too. My focus has also widened to include some of the literature on the history of personal computers, which is considerable.

There are plenty of other sources on my list that I haven’t tracked down yet. I am going to look through department store catalogs and watch films depicting video games (like Tron and War Games). I have collected some advertisements and some game catalogs and other promotional or marketing images but will get more. I have some items like a Mad magazine with a Space Invaders cover and issues of Blip and Computer Gaming World. I’d love to find more of this kind of stuff. The incredible Internet Archive has some of it, which is a boon to my research.

All of this material is accessible to me in some fashion from Milwaukee: the library at UWM has the indexes and many of the periodicals, bound in volumes or on microforms. For some sources I have gone to the Milwaukee Public Library, but I also request a lot through ILL. For the sources freely accessible online, from the Internet Archive or fan sites, one needs only to be connected to the web. With videos and PDF files easily found online, the archives of today flow through the ether of the network. But to actually play old games, to have an experience of them first hand, you can’t go to the library or the web browser.

Playing games, trying to learn from playing them about their representations and gameplay, about how they might have been used and understood in the past, is the biggest historiographic challenge I now face. I recently travelled to the International Center for the History of Electronic Games (ICHEG) at The Strong museum in Rochester, NY, where I spent three and a half days playing old games, including Magnavox Odysseys 1 and 2, many variations on Pong, Intellivision, and Vectrex. While there I also looked at print materials in their archive, such as Mattel, Milton-Bradley, and Coleco catalogs for retailers and price lists from the late 70s. I looked at the papers of Ralph Baer, who is among those identified as the inventors of video games.

Researching this kind of history presents a number of challenges when considering the constraints of time and money a researcher like me faces, and the availability of various materials in different forms and venues, online and offline. In undertaking my travel to Rochester I was constantly wondering if it was going to be worth the time and money, and if I was going to find my time there to be sufficiently productive and useful. To some degree I still don’t know. When the book is written I might be able to look back and say how much of the research was important and how much of it was not that useful, even if interesting at the time. For now I don’t care. I had a great few days and learned a lot. Some of what I learned falls into the “unknown unknowns” category of things I wasn’t seeking but was glad to discover, which is exciting. Some of what I learned came not from the official research but from conversations with JP Dyson, the archive director, and from connections I made while touring the institution’s storage areas. But some of what I found there might have just as easily been learned from home, searching the web. It’s hard these days to know what merits travel to an archive and what can be accomplished with a network-connected PC.

For instance, after returning home I discovered that one of the game catalogs I reproduced from the collection at ICHEG is available as jpg files online. (The topic of finding out that archival holdings are available online is considered in this post at the Into the Archives blog, which I recommend to anyone doing historical research these days.) I could have stayed home and accessed that material more easily. But should I regard this time as wasted? I found materials and made copies of them, and learned about the materials. Even if you can access some of the same things from home that you can access at an archive, once you’re there you might as well get what you came for. This is my big issue about the archival work we can do with games, which I imagine applies with many other forms of media history: where is the balance between finding things on your own and going to the archive to access materials? And how important is the archive when so much is online?

A number of the more interesting practical questions facing a historian of video games have to do with engagement with the game text as historical artifact and as cultural work. The game text, as I am using the term, includes not only the “play” aspect but also the artifactuality of the console, controller, packaging, etc. I would say it includes the representations of the game on the cartridge and box, especially with such abstract old games as are typical for the 2600. Where and how do we access the game text?

Let’s say I want to study Intellivision Major League Baseball, which is of historical importance because Mattel promoted their product as superior to Atari’s, famously in the ad campaign featuring George Plimpton made to appeal to the adult, sophisticated market Mattel was after.

Intellivision games are played using a more complicated keypad controller than the Atari joystick or paddle. Each controller has four buttons on the sides (two left and two right), twelve keys in a 3×4 grid as on a push-button phone on which a cartridge-specific plastic overlay indicates the various keys’s functions, and a disk-shaped direction controller on the bottom somewhat similar to a joystick. (The joystick, familiar from aviation and military usage and easily mastered, was the most successful direction controller of the classic era of games, though there were many others, in part I believe because it was easy for anyone to figure it out quickly.)

To play Intellivision Baseball as a novice, it helps to spend a few minutes with the instructions booklet packaged with the game before getting started. This is true of many of the early games that are more complex than Pong: like a board game, one needs to read directions before starting to play. Even having read the manual, one should expect to spend some time becoming oriented with the interface. The player controls many aspects of play – not just swinging at pitches but selecting fastballs or curveballs, throwing at the right base, etc. If like me you have made time and found funding to spend three and a half days in an archive filled with games, how much time should Intellivision Baseball command? Is it better to be a little confused by dozens of games played for little more than a few moments each, or really get to know a handful of games well after playing them for hours?

Now here are some complicating factors. The internet is filled with videos of people playing games. The people who post videos of themselves playing are generally really good. How long would it take me to get to be really good at Intellivision Baseball? Way, way longer than I have during my research trip. Just figuring out how to hold the controller and which fingers to press where takes a couple of minutes. As it happens, I own an Intellivision console, a bequest from my mother-in-law’s basement. I have not gotten it to work yet but I’m hopeful. Even then, should I be struggling to master every game I want to discuss? How much will I get in return from this expense of time and effort? How much will I want to write about the details of play, the specific game mechanics and possibilities? Impossible for me to know at this time.

I have often learned as much from watching others play as from playing myself. The spectatorial aspect of gaming sometimes seems undervalued. If I’m trying to get a sense of how dozens and dozens of games worked, what kinds of representations and play experiences they offered, what is my best strategy? If I can access videos of play, how typical should I consider them? If I can access the videos but not the artifacts, how much have I missed? If I could afford to, should I hire assistants to play for or with me?

The solitude of this kind of research can quickly get frustrating. A scholar in the archive is an archetype of solitary intellectual adventurer, on a quest for knowledge undertaken by one mind. But video games are often a social experience. Of course people have always played them alone, but the interpersonal aspect is hugely significant. The games I play well that I really love are games I experienced in social settings. I know how to clear five boards on Ms. Pac-Man because of all those afternoons in the neighborhood variety store spent standing off to the side of the older kids, observing their strategies and overhearing their advice to one another. I stopped dying after ten seconds in Super Mario Bros. 3 when a friend came to visit who really knows these games, and her example showed me the way. And in two-player games, the competitive and instructive back-and-forth dynamic is also essential. Some games can only be played by two players — Pong and similar games are meant to be played by pairs.

As a researcher playing these games I often wished I had brought along a friend (or my seven year-old son, who would have loved the place, though probably not for three and a half days), or had the use of player from the museum’s staff, a kind of play guru/ assistant. At ICHEG, I played Odyssey tennis against myself (above), controlling right and left at the same time. I would love to be guided by good gamers in this research, because I can figure these games out alone but it would be much more productive to be schooled by my betters. Is there a tradition of research in the humanities that has any model for this kind of interactive and interpersonal method?

Another thing I wondered at various times in my visit to the archive was whether I might have done just as well to stay home and have the games come to me. If you have poked around eBay lately you might be wondering why I did not acquire the games instead and play them without such constraints of time and expense of travel.

As it happens, some games are harder to find than others. If I had bought all of the games I played at ICHEG, all of the consoles and the cartridges (assuming they could be found for sale, which they can’t), it would have cost more than twice the plane and hotel expenses, and there is never any guarantee that these old second-hand items will work. A 1972 Magnavox Odyssey can be had on eBay but the price is steep — generally more than $300, though someone is asking $4000 for one. The 1972 Odyssey I played at ICHEG seemed very lightly used and contained all of the original components. Even if you can get one for $300, that’s more than a plane ticket from Milwaukee to Rochester costs, and it’s only one game console.

But let’s say that I could have bought all of the games I wanted to play for the exact same price as the trip cost. What then?

There is no question: I would choose the trip. For one thing, my university was willing to fund $500 of research travel expenses (it offers this as a research travel grant, for which any faculty member can apply). Would the university have given me the same $500 to buy forty year-old electronics off eBay? Not as easily, though I haven’t tried asking. Having been granted this funding, my department was willing to make up the remainder of the expense, which meant the trip wouldn’t cost me anything. Again, a good deal. It might have been more of a challenge to get my department to buy me old video games, though perhaps they would. But in general, the availability of funding for research travel, to archives and conferences, is standardized while funding for more unusual expenditures is not.

Another reason I would rather go there, though, is that they offer me a number of additional services and experiences. Staff had tested all of the games before I arrived to make sure they are functional. Someone was available to help me connect and disconnect the games using the various adapters and connectors they have on hand, and to show me how they work. The staff of the institution are experts on electronic games and offered me tips and suggestions, ideas of books to consider reading, helping me generate new ideas. The museum’s storage holdings, which I was allowed to tour, contain a number of artifacts that got me thinking. For example, their collection of sports-themed board games reminded me a lot of Magnavox Odyssey’s football game, which is played with a cardboard field in addition to the onscreen one. It made me think about sports video games like the Intellivision one as remediations of older forms of simulated sports play, games like Thinking Man’s Football and statistically-based baseball games like APBA. I don’t know if I would have seen this connection without having played the video game and seen the board game archives in the same afternoon.

Even if I couldn’t access all of the same games from home as I played at the archive, what about playing the emulator versions and online recreations — Pac-Man in flash animation, Intellivision Lives! software, Missile Command on a tablet device? A huge number of Atari games in particular are available to play in a variety of formats, like the Greatest Hits app sold by Apple. What’s the difference between the original and the recreation?

The classic-age artifacts, despite having been mass produced and distributed, despite their status as commodities, as toys once sold in department stores like Sears and J.C. Penney, have a strong component of Benjaminian aura. To play Breakout on an Atari 2600 is not the same thing as to play the same game using a “plug-and-play” device for sale at Urban Outfitters, or in an iPad app. Watching my own batter get a hit in Intellivision Baseball is not the same as watching someone else’s batter get the same hit on YouTube. What the difference is exactly I cannot fully explain. It’s more than the difference between using a joystick and the cursor keys of a QWERTY keyboard or an index finger pressing on a touchscreen. It is a difference and it won’t go away. To be in the archive and play the consoles offers something that mediated representations of the same experience does not offer. The things have their thing-ness. There is some tactile and existential feeling one has, and who knows if this will somehow be represented in my writing about these representations and artifacts. Maybe what I really get is bragging rights: I’ve played an RCA Studio II, an orange Odyssey 100, a Vectrex, a Heathkit paddle game that came with instructions for assembly of parts. I’m not above boasting of such things!

Most of all, though, the great benefit that the archive experience gave me was three days of dedicated time, where my only work was play. I had gone there for the games and all I was going to do, once I was done looking at the print materials, was play as many different games as I could. Even if I had a big collection of old games at home, it would be a huge challenge to carve out three days in a row in which no responsibilities or obligations or fun things I might rather do would get in the way of my playing them — no errands, no emails, no course preps, no daycare pickups, no writing deadlines, no meetings, no episodes of favorite shows accumulating on the DVR… In this way, I imagine archival research is not so different for digital media as it is for other forms of media, and not so different today as it was yesterday. The site of the archive remains not only a storehouse of knowledge but, perhaps just as important, a place dedicated to encounters between scholars and their evidence.

Piece originally posted at Zigzigger | Creative Commons License