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Introduction: Game History and the Local

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Part of the Palgrave Games in Context book series (PAGCON)

Abstract

Locality has largely been left out of game history. That many histories have been written by journalists and ‘insiders’, largely accepting the game industry’s ‘global’ rhetoric, has no doubt contributed to this situation. An appreciation of socio-cultural and geographic specificity is important to develop if other histories are to be told. But the local also needs to be critically situated if it is not to simply become a new orthodoxy, celebrated for its own sake. This chapter critiques game history’s silence with respect to locality, poses questions about the critical potential of locality for game history, and surveys the different figures of locality that are brought together in the anthology.

Locality has largely been left out of game history, at least until recently. The orthodoxy that the U.S. and Japan constituted the ‘centres’ at the outset of the video game industry has enjoyed such legitimacy that many accounts do not bother to mention the where that their material or statistics pertain to. That many histories have been written by journalists, collectors, and other ‘insiders’—comprising what Erkki Huhtamo famously calls the “chronicle era” of game history (Huhtamo 2005, 4)—largely accepting the game industry’s ‘global’ rhetoric, has no doubt contributed to this situation. I largely agree with Henry Lowood and Raiford Guins who, reflecting on such chronicles, write, “This is a mode of writing history consumed with the ‘when’ and ‘what’ to the detriment of the ‘why’ and ‘how’” (Lowood and Guins 2016, xiii); however, to their formulation of what is missing, I would add consideration of the ‘where’.

In general, location has been a massive blind spot in game history. At least until relatively recently, histories of digital games have been written from North American, Japanese, and—to a lesser extent—U.K. perspectives. Geography has usually been ignored, with the implication being that games and their reception were the same everywhere. Two examples illustrate this tendency. Historian of computing Martin Campbell-Kelly writes in his software history From Airline Reservations to Sonic the Hedgehog: “Games accounted for about 60 per cent of home computer software sales” (2003, p. 276). Campbell-Kelly apparently sees no need to provide the provenance of these figures, nor mention the where that they pertain to. Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost’s Racing the Beam similarly assumes an unproblematic evenness of distribution and penetration. They write of “The popularity of the Atari VCS – which was the dominant system for years and remained widely used for more than a decade …” (Montfort and Bogost 2009, 4). Dominant system where? Widely used by whom? They continue: “Although several companies fielded consoles, by 1981 the Atari VCS accounted for 75 percent of home videogame system sales.” Further on, they write: “Indeed, the generic term for a videogame system in the early 1980s was ‘an Atari’.” These facts and figures are taken to be so self-evident that they don’t require any qualification. Failing to locate them demonstrates just how unconscious the operative U.S.-, U.K.-, and/or Northern hemisphere-centrism is. The assumption is that the experiences of making, selling, and playing games in this era were the same everywhere. This is not only factually wrong; it begs the question about the gaps in existing historical knowledge.

A second, related problem has been the centrality popular game history has accorded the ‘great men’ of the games industry and their deeds (e.g. Ralph Baer and Nolan Bushnell), to the exclusion of other perspectives and approaches. Alongside this, the adoption of a range of foundational stories—the shortage of 100-yen coins following the Japanese release of ‘Space Invaders’, the dumping of ‘E.T.’ cartridges in the desert, and ‘the’ video game crash of 1983—effectively function as grand narratives, establishing major turning points in ‘the’ industry (as if this were singular). The iconic status of such stories—which always seem to centre the U.S. and Japan—implies that nothing of significance can have happened elsewhere.

Some nuancing has been taking place. Tristan Donovan’s Replay: The history of video games, for instance, might be considered a title somewhere inbetween a ‘chronicle’ and more scholarly accounts, also reflecting the time of its publication (2010). Donovan aspires to tell game history as a history of software rather than hardware. Whilst still a journalistic account which tries to tell the whole history of games (as per his subtitle), Donovan acknowledges that the history of games is a global rather than solely a North American history (Chap. 9 covers game development for the Sinclair computers in 1980s Britain, Spain, and Australia, for instance). Acknowledging that other contexts exist—including using microcomputers to write and play games in the U.S.!—and allowing that there might be gaps in what mainstream histories have covered to date are welcome developments.

Game History and the Local responds to the need to continue moving beyond game historical orthodoxies. Game history did not unfold uniformly and the particularities of space and place matter. Given the great historic diversity of games and contexts for their play, an appreciation of socio-cultural and geographic specificity is important to develop, particularly if other histories are to be told, for instance, from the ‘periphery’ rather than the ‘centre’. But as important as divergent contexts and specificity are, this book emerges from the conviction that local historical case studies are not in and of themselves adequate. As such, this volume collects essays that bring the local, locality, and locatedness into critical focus, encouraging reflection on the local rather than celebration of the local for its own sake. What is the significance of the local framework for game history? By collecting responses to this provocation, the anthology seeks to fill a gap in the history of the medium, bringing together empirically grounded and theoretically informed essays on game history and historiography. Each chapter critically considers some aspect of ‘the local’, reflecting on its significance. For if locality functions as one corrective to a crudely universalising history—as seems to be the case—then it is important to ask what comes after the very necessary attention to local specificity. Apart from critiquing game history’s silence with respect to locality, this introductory chapter covers some of the key literature, surveys developments in the game history and cognate fields, before surveying the different figures of locality that are examined in the chapters that follow.

There is a burgeoning interest in discussing game history with respect to different locales, and in the next few paragraphs, I will summarise some of the recent scholarly contributions. Several authors have observed and attempted to summarise the trend; others have collected diverse histories, sometimes of a region or taking a more encyclopaedic approach to game history.Footnote 1 In 2014, Gerard Alberts and Ruth Oldenziel’s anthology Hacking Europe: From computer cultures to demoscenes was published. Although the remit of their book extends beyond game histories per se, many of the chapters are written by European scholars invested in the field of game history. In their “Introduction”, the editors helpfully establish that “In geographical terms, the global influence of computers beyond the US borders has been wide and deep … [with] the rapid appropriation of personal computers on both sides of the Iron Curtain” (Alberts and Oldenziel 2014, 4). They argue that hacking—which they define by reference to “users’ unconventional, playful mastery and unique, outsider expertise”—suffers by claiming to be a U.S. story that claims universality. The emphasis on U.S. computing dominance, which the editors reference repeatedly, strikes me as important yet curious. The editors are clearly talking about both European Cold War contexts and hacking culture, yet the link to computing might seem tenuous to some American game history enthusiasts, given how arcade- and console-heavy mainstream game histories have been and how little scholarly work has been done on microcomputing in the U.S.Footnote 2 The pressing question is clearly what other options there are for telling these alternate histories, if the inherited wisdom is so inadequate? Gathering lesser-known histories of different national and regional contexts together so they may be better known—as in the edited volume—is clearly a part answer to this question.

In 2015, Mark J.P. Wolf’s anthology Video Games Around the World (2015) explicitly addressed location and the variant game histories that a consideration of locale delivers, helpfully noting that many countries’ video game histories remain to be researched and written, or where these have been researched, are not widely known beyond their borders. Wolf mostly talks about “national video game histories” (2015, 6) and uses these as the structuring principle for the book (despite chapters on Africa, the Arab World, and Scandinavia). Whilst Wolf acknowledges that even the most thorough chapters in this title “can only touch upon all the various aspects of a national history of video games and suggest an outline of their contours” (3), the anthology constituted an important marker, demonstrating an interest in the publishing market for more detailed and divergent histories of games.

Scholarly literature on game histories was scant when I began researching the history of games in New Zealand in 2004, and it wasn’t until 2012 that the first Game History track was held at a games conference (Nordic DiGRA in Tampere), with the First International Games History conference held in 2013, in Montreal. But several book-length monographs on local game histories have appeared just since Video Games Around the World was published (Wade 2016; Kirkpatrick 2015; Švelch 2018; Lean 2016; Gazzard 2016; Melanie Swalwell 2021). These add to the scholarship already published in book chapter and journal article form. Happily, the literature is now sizeable enough to be divided by region (and my list is bound to be incomplete): on Europe (Kirkpatrick 2007, 2012, 2014; Gazzard 2013, 2014; Švelch 2013a, b; Wasiak 2014; Sandqvist 2012; Fassone 2017; Veraart 2011, 2014; Saarikoski and Suominen 2009; Saarikoski et al. 2017; Garda 2021), Asia (Tinn 2011; Jo 2020) and Australasia (Stuckey 2014, 2016; Melanie Swalwell 2008, 2010, 2012, 2015; Melanie Swalwell and Davidson 2016). Alongside these sit several thematic collections (Alberts and Oldenziel 2014; Melanie Swalwell et al. 2017) and special issues of journals, edited by Alex Wade and Nick Webber (Cogent Arts & Humanities [2016]); Bennett Foddy and Clara Fernandez-Vara (Well Played [2017]); and Gleb Albert (WideScreen [2020]). It must be stressed that these references are only the scholarship available in English, which is a significant caveat. Clearly, game history is a very young field, with the vast majority of scholarship having been published post-2012. Moreover, amongst the numerous museums around the world now including some permanent exhibition of game histories (including the Strong Museum of Play, the Computer History Museum, Living Computers Museum, and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image), there are some dedicating a sizeable focus to local game histories, including the Finnish Museum of Games, the UK’s National Videogame Arcade, and the Berlin Computerspiele Museum’s interactive featuring historical information from several nations.

Defining Local

What do we mean by the local in game history? I try to avoid using the phrase ‘local game history’ (or else write ‘local’ in scare quotes) because it connotes, of course, local history, usually understood as history “focusing on a particular town, district, or other limited area” (OED), which usually has no need to connect the local with broader contexts. That is not what is meant within game history. My position—and the rationale for the title of this book—is that local has emerged as a shorthand to reference historical work that is concerned with locality—or locale or locatedness—in some way. I am aware that some colleagues—including contributors to this book—hold the view that ‘local’ is a misnomer and that research in the area is more correctly termed ‘regional’ or ‘national’ game history; that is fine, if conveying scale is all that is intended.Footnote 3 I am aiming at something more conceptual, a sort of collective term for the concern with location. Many levels of locality can be included under the umbrella of the local: hyper-local, regional, national, transnational, global, and the multi- or trans-local. Local might refer to place of production, reception, or distribution but is not limited to this. Locations can be multiple, which is important in allowing for the potential of comparative histories. Local has other advantages too, particularly if it refuses a ranked scale. It avoids any equation with national identity (Webber 2020; Parker and Jenson 2017) and helpfully sidesteps questions about the legacy of national cinemas discourse, which would be invoked if we were to adopt Wolf’s “national” moniker. As Nick Webber notes, the national cinemas discourse somewhat problematically “encompasses medium, venue and canon in one” (137). Local also leaves the possible relation with the other implied term in this scale, namely the ‘global’, an open question. What ‘global’ means is also a pertinent question for a game history concerned with locality. While avoiding the elision of local specificity under the sign of the global is key, tensions between the local and global are absolutely in scope. The point is not to pin down any singular significance of locality in game history, but to use the term as a provocation, attending to the questions and the contexts in which it is raised in scholarly work, and from there to raise yet more questions.

Unsurprisingly for such a young field, game historians are often endebted to, and inspired by, our colleagues in cognate fields, including geography and global media studies, who ponder some similar issues. For instance, Ben Aslinger and Nina Huntemann’s Gaming Globally: Production, play, and place aims to expand attention to globalisation in game studies, considering local, national, regional, transnational, and trans-local perspectives, and “touch[ing] upon nations not usually examined by game studies” (Huntemann and Aslinger 2013, 2). In their volume, Tan and Mitgutsch’s short essay “Heterogeneity in Game Histories” makes the valuable point that the lab in which the authors work (Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab) is an “assemblage of international scholars and practitioners from vastly different domains, cultures, age groups, and game experiences”. Their tracking of individuals’ personal biographies with video games (what they term “playographies”) challenges readers to think beyond any “assumed monolithic history of games, identifying richness, disconnects, and commonalities across decades, countries, and platforms” (Tan and Mitgutsch 2013, 91). Meanwhile, Germaine Halegoua and Ben Aslinger’s Locating Emerging Media takes emerging media rather than games as its focus, featuring essays that are concerned in some way to locate their very diverse digital media objects geographically, exemplifying that considering locality and locatedness in Media Studies and Game Studies more generally is a current concern (Halegoua and Aslinger 2016).

Readers will detect a dialogue with Globalisation Studies in some of the chapters in this volume. As Webber sees it, “The field of local game studies seeks to unpick globalised narratives of game culture” (143). Such an “unpicking” can be productive. For instance, Aphra Kerr describes relations between game developers and publishers, just before the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) radically changed the industry:

For decades now, the digital games industry has operated internationally and major companies have established subsidiaries outside their home markets. The trend was driven by Japanese companies like Sega and Nintendo who sold their products into the American market in the 1980s. However, with the entry of major global conglomerates like Sony and Microsoft into the industry in the 1990s we see increasing pressure on independent publishers to consolidate and organise their production and distribution networks on a global scale. (Kerr 2006, 76–77)

Some game historians will be aware that complex and often unlikely interactions between different locales were a feature of supply chains and distribution deals well before the 1990s, and will be in a position to historicise this so-called global moment. Meanwhile, Hiro Izushi and Yuko Aoyama’s classic study—though primarily concerned with industry development across different geographic territories rather than game history per se—offers an early model by which comparative analyses might be approached (Izushi and Aoyama 2006).

Figures of Locality

I have requested of each author that they go beyond the charting of local case studies to critically reflect on ‘the local’, articulating the wider significance or role being accorded locale/location/locatedness. This means that we have eleven substantive contributions to a discourse on the significance of locality in game history, and the implications for game history as a field.

We begin with Jaroslav Švelch’s discussion of homebrew games whose very content was intimately connected to the places where their authors lived and worked, in the Czechoslovakia of the 1980s–1990s. Švelch terms these ‘hyper-local’ games, reading them in terms of Michel de Certeau’s concept of spatial tactics and the Situationist practice of derive , drawing attention to the significance of power relations and participation of the Czechoslovak youth who created them. This chapter constitutes a companion piece to his monograph, Gaming the Iron Curtain (Švelch 2018).

Local conditions can make for some extreme variations, and the point is made well in Maria B. Garda and Paweł Grabarczyk’s search for the last game published on tape cassette in Poland. Eschewing the concern with origins and firstness, they elegantly demonstrate the extent to which local structural factors make a difference in the case of Polish software published on tape. They use data scraped from Mobygames to generate a chart which shows that while cassette tape usage peaks worldwide in the 1980s, the 8-bit tape era doesn’t reach its peak in Poland until around 1993. Inspired by this data, Garda and Grabarczyk instead go in search of the ‘last’ cassette. They find that “most probably the last 8-bit game to be published on cassette was Tekblast” (Sikor Soft 1998). While their interest is in the first commercial lifecycle of tape, they observe that this overlaps with the ascent of retrogaming internationally.

Ulf Sandqvist’s contribution is a twenty-year longitudinal study of the development of the Swedish game industry, between 1990 and 2010. Using the dataset collected by Statistics Sweden and supplementing these with developer interviews, he paints a picture of those working in the industry. The quantitative approach paints a fascinating picture of the development of the industry and its change over time, while the interviews reveal the humble beginnings of the industry in the microcomputing period and demoscene, and its increasing professionalisation.

As a part of a wider Finnish gaming memories project, Jaakko Suominen and Anna Sivula provide an analysis of memories of playing Nintendo consoles, with an emphasis on place. Drawing on the idea of personal media histories or ‘technobiographies’ (Kennedy), they argue that memories are not only attached to social networks, artefacts, and time, but also attached to particular places. They take us through people’s responses to where they played and theorise the significance of these spaces, including vividly remembered spaces for play–from domestic spaces, players’ own or friends or family–to non-domestic spaces including places of purchase and public spaces, such as the play rooms on ferries between Finland and Sweden. Their chapter shows that it is possible to think of locality in game history in ways other than in reference to specific geographical regions or states. As they argue, “When we talk about ‘local game histories,’ we have to critically examine the concept of place itself as well as the meanings attached to given places”.

Whilst the game history of the U.S. has often been treated as a default, many U.S. scholars have been working to complexify game history, ensuring their findings have specificity and acknowledging the situatedness of their research. Laine Nooney has been conducting very located research in Oakhurst, California, where the game development company Sierra Online set up in the 1980s. Nooney pushes back against the mainstream universalising game history, embracing the local and regional in her research and noting that all game historians benefit by awakening sensitivity to how geography and location inflect the mechanics of game history.

Nooney presents a personal case study on the issue of the local in video game history, travelling to conduct interviews for the Sierra On-Line project, and offering the concept of regionalism as a tool with which to frame and think the local in U.S. game history.

While the rise of a local emphasis in game history has often been marked by a focus on specific places and reception, Michael Borthwick and Melanie Swalwell’s chapter shows that the local need not be understood as sharply contrasting with the non-local. Though user groups are usually taken to be the epitome of locality, the newsletters of groups dedicated to the Exidy Sorcerer demonstrate that the footprints of some went well beyond the local. Thanks to a remarkable archive of newsletters that Borthwick has assembled, the chapter charts how membership lists connected local users and enabled them to reach a global audience. The chapter not only documents the many trans-local connections that existed in the early microcomputer period; the newsletter archive also supports some ‘cross-local’ observations as to the reception of this specific early microcomputer by hobbyists.

The next three chapters are explicitly concerned with debates about the local and global. John Vanderhoef is not undertaking historical work per se, but his work usefully speaks to historical work, and vice versa. Though game production always happens somewhere, the game product need not reflect the culture of the location(s) in which it was developed, as Vanderhoef remind us in his study of the erasure of national markers in indie games made in Poland. Vanderhoef draws on scholarship in national cinemas as well as extending Felan Parker and Jennifer Jenson’s conception of “transnational game identities” (Parker and Jenson 2017) as identities that swivel between identification with the hyper-local and the global, through an examination of Polish indie games and their developers since the Polish industry’s formalisation in the 1990s. The Polish developers he’s interviewed position their games as global rather than local products, as “cultural[ly] placeless”. Examining the ways the Polish video game industry navigated between locally specific tastes and a transnational appeal over the course of its emergence as a formal node in the global games industry illustrates the ongoing tension between the local and the trans-local, the national and the transnational.

From Vanderhoef’s argument that “The discourse on the national has always been in conversation with the discourse on the transnational”, we pivot to another chapter where local and non-local are in tension, Stephen Mandiberg’s analysis of video game localisation, provocatively titled “Video Games Have Never Been Global”. Despite industry rhetoric which sees games as global and localisation as just a minor thing that helps games along in different markets, Mandiberg argues that “localization is first and foremost about making something local into something that can be global, not the other way around”. Bringing insights from translation studies to consider the history of game localisation, Mandiberg deploys this history to present a different view on the contemporary games industry. He argues that the global video game industry of the 2010s, which sells games over borders and between languages as ‘globally’ playable products, exists through industry practices of localisation.

From there, Graeme Kirkpatrick’s contribution continues the line of argument he’s been making about the mid-1980s constituting a watershed in game history in the U.K. (Kirkpatrick 2012, 2014, 2015, 2017). In this chapter, Kirkpatrick draws on the work of philosophers and sociologists Bruno Latour, Henri Lefebvre, and Alain Badiou, to craft an argument attending to the localness and globalness of digital games. He argues that while it was meaningful to speak of computer gaming culture as local in the early period—the localness of ads, high score claims, where players hailed from, and even themes and storylines—this changed in the mid-1980s. Kirkpatrick calls the games and gaming devices of the 1970s and early 1980s ‘proto-games’, in that they existed in a technical and entertainment milieu in which they were a local, limited, and disparate phenomena. For Kirkpatrick, it wasn’t until the mid-part of the decade that games properly came into being, doing something new. Then there was an ‘evental transformation’ and a new ‘spatialising practice’ that coincided with a new discourse around gameplay, in which—he claims—games transcended the local.

Chapters up to this point have dealt with games past and the present state of the industry, assessing where a game history concerned with the local stands at the present moment. Swalwell’s chapter takes off in a different direction, reflecting both on where game history has come from and eyeing the future. Functioning as a coda of sorts and arguing that the local needs to be critically situated, Swalwell poses several questions key for ‘local’ game history: how should the localness of game history be conceived? What might the critical potential of locality be for computer and game histories? And what comes after the very necessary attention to local specificity? She draws on debates about microhistory to suggest joining micro and macro perspectives into more connected histories, and points to specific studies where game historians are beginning to do just this, creating more connected histories. Swalwell argues that such game histories are heterodox, in that they not only counter orthodox game history but also disturb what we thought we knew about the ‘centre’.

Game history is one of the most vital and exciting fields in Game Studies at present. It is time to develop a rigorous and critical discussion about what the significance of a local framework is for game history and to map out future directions. This anthology is intended to open such a dialogue and to contribute to the further maturation of the field.

Notes

  1. 1.

    Bjarke Liboriussen and Paul Martin also note the recent emergence of a “regional game studies” which “enriches the field with new perspectives drawn from regional cultural contexts” (Liboriussen and Martin 2016). Though their essay does not engage with game historical work in any depth—the authors are mostly focused on “the challenges of globalization, internationalization, and postcolonialism” (about which more later)—and they demonstrate a lack of awareness of the work that has been undertaken in non-Western European and North American contexts for much longer than just the “last few years” (Hjorth and Chan 2009), their recognition of diverse contexts for game development and scholarship is welcome.

  2. 2.

    I discuss the question of why there has been so little attention to histories of microcomputing in the U.S. at some length in my book (Melanie Swalwell 2021).

  3. 3.

    The reverse could be said for ‘global’, when what is meant is ‘regional’ or ‘non local’.

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Swalwell, M. (2021). Introduction: Game History and the Local. In: Swalwell, M. (eds) Game History and the Local. Palgrave Games in Context. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-66422-0_1

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