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Heterodoxy in Game History: Towards More ‘Connected Histories’

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

Abstract

Drawing on the author’s research into fragmented, heterogeneous ‘local’ contexts, this chapter explores analogies between local/global game histories and micro and macro (or global) approaches to history, to imagine a heterodox game historiography, conceived as one which undermines old orthodoxies whilst refusing new ones.

Microhistorians have been compared to truffle hunters in contrast to those who, like parachutists, survey wide vistas.

Francesca Trivellato

I want to begin by returning to the earliest research I conducted on digital game history in 1980s New Zealand. I had learnt of a significant amount of New Zealand-made game hardware and locally written software that was little known outside the country (or inside, for that matter (Brown 2003)). Two things were immediately clear to me. First, that the history I was helping to surface contradicted the established wisdom—the then orthodoxy—of game history, that pretty much everything of note was either North American or Japanese. Second, that much of the material history of digital gaming in New Zealand was hybrid, having thoroughly mixed origins. This last fact is explained by the trade policies New Zealand had in place until the mid-1980s, to keep large quantities of imported goods out. Despite this, the game artefacts I was researching spoke of constant contact with the ‘outside’ world. Local content was not ‘100% pure’—as the nation’s tourist marketing slogan goes. The ‘local’ was already in the 1980s a pan- or trans-local. Imported arcade boards would be housed in locally built cabinets and the Sportronic console utilised the popular General Instruments AY-3-8500 chip. Even Kitronix’s ‘Malzak’ (1980)—a wholly New Zealand-made arcade game, with locally made cabinet, artwork, buttons, and joysticks, coded from the ground up on an Apple II—is a ‘clone’ of the international hit, ‘Scramble’ (Swalwell and Davidson 2016; Swalwell 2015).

These dual realisations lead me to simultaneously focus on the specificities of the New Zealand situation—where it accorded with and where it departed from extant histories—and to problematise the ‘localness’ of the case study. I noted that while it might be tempting to treat the local New Zealand game production scene as if it grew up separately from production elsewhere in the world, such an unproblematic ‘local’ approach was unable to adequately account for the complexity of factors that contributed to the industry in the 1970s and 1980s. The New Zealand case study provides a very clear example of the interaction between local structural factors, wider non-local conditions, and imported componentry combined with local opportunism.

My earliest foray into the game history subfield thus saw me asking how the localness of game history ought to be conceived (M. Swalwell 2005). It’s a good question, one that we should continue to ask. Some fifteen years later, I want to look back and ask—and try to offer an answer to the question that was often demanded of me—what is the critical potential of locality for computer and game histories? I suspect that an answer lies in another question that I desperately wanted to be able to work on, namely how the New Zealand case study compared to other nations, but this was a question that wasn’t really possible to answer in 2004. I was able to compare the New Zealand case to what I could read or glean about the USASeeSeeNorth America, Japan, and occasional other elsewheres—such as in Jaro Gielens’ compendium about handhelds, Electronic Plastic (2000), and shortly thereafter Graeme Kirkpatrick’s article on Meritums in Poland (Kirkpatrick 2007)—but there wasn’t enough in-depth scholarly research to allow me to satisfactorily answer this question. Hopeful, I applied for funding for a multi-national project, but of course no one was prepared to finance such a project in the 2000s. But the landscape has changed, and so we should be prepared to heed this and challenge ourselves to answer these questions about game history’s critical potential, now.

As I see it, the ‘local’ game history project—if we can call it thatFootnote 1—is an attempted corrective to some of the problems with the first draft of game history, which had many limitations and omissions. In this chapter, I conceive of the emergence of a game history concerned with the local as being in transition: from something resembling micro-histories to more ‘connected histories’. I want to use the discussion about microhistory that’s been had for some decades to challenge game historians to ask, what comes next? What comes after local case studies? Taking inspiration from Carlo Ginzburg’s classic study, I argue that ‘local’ game history is heterodox: often focusing on the outlier examples from the ‘periphery’, it undermines orthodoxies. Heterodoxy has the potential not just to throw up divergent accounts, but to also throw into question what we thought we knew about the ‘centre’. However, the two sets of concerns need to be brought together somehow. In this essay, I briefly introduce microhistory and its debates, before asking, after historians Peter Burke and Francesca Trivellato what it might mean to move towards more ‘connected histories’ (Sanjay Subrahmanyam in Trivellato 2011)? My concern is not so much with whether game histories concerned with the local are microhistories as with what can be gleaned from the debate as it has played out over the decades. Ultimately, my aim is to ask what comes after the very necessary attention to local specificity?

Debates on Microhistory

The epithet above is apparently a riff on Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s characterisation of historians as either truffle hunters or parachutists: microhistorians are compared to truffle hunters, contrasted with the global historian-parachutists, surveying supposedly wider vistas (Trivellato 2011). Debates over the local in game history bear some resemblance to debates about microhistory (‘micro’ indicating the scale of analysis). ‘Local’ game history involves undertaking research that is located in a specific time and place, as indeed does all historical research, but perhaps defined somewhat more specifically. ‘Local’ game history might be analogous to the truffle hunter side of Le Roy Ladurie’s dyad, but it would be too simplistic to see these as mutually exclusive positions.

Carlo Ginzburg’s famous microhistorical study The Cheese & the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller provides one of the best known examples of microhistory, and it is useful also for troubling the implied binary of the characterisation between truffle-hunters and parachutists. The book is written around the inquisition of a seventeenth-century Italian miller, Domenico Scandella, also called Menocchio, who is tried by the Catholic Church for heresy, tortured, and burned at the stake (Ginzburg 1992, xiii). Detailed court records exist because the Church required that a transcript be made. Menocchio—a self-taught but intellectually voracious reader—developed “his own startlingly eccentric cosmology”, at odds with Church doctrine. ‘Microhistory’ speaks to the scale of Ginzburg’s analysis, though in Menocchio’s case it also speaks to the detailed study of an individual’s life.

Over the past several decades, there has been a debate over micro and macro (or global) approaches to history. Glossing this debate, Trivellato writes of microhistory: “It digs out details [usually about the lives of individuals] that are significant enough to undermine the foundations of grand narratives, but struggles to replace them with new ones” (Trivellato 2011). It is slightly confusing for a non-expert in this area that micro and macro are presented as if they are opposing sides in a battle. What is clear is that the disappointment being voiced with microhistory is separate from the admiration for scholarship such as The Cheese and the Worms; the criticisms are clearly directed at different projects, that don’t manage to pull off this blend of micro and macro. Ginzburg’s thesis is clearly substantial (Burke calls it “eye-opening” (Burke in Levi 2001, 115)). From his in-depth investigation centred on one man, Ginzburg goes on to develop “a general hypothesis on the popular culture ([or] more precise[ly], peasant culture) of preindustrial Europe, in the age marked by the spread of printing and the Protestant Reformation—and by the repression of the latter in Catholic countries” (Ginzburg 1992, Preface to the English edition, p. xii). Such an approach clearly marries the proverbial ‘truffle hunting’ with more panoramic insights. But for the purposes of a chapter on game history, there’s no need to get too bogged down.

Thankfully, beyond the somewhat confusing characterisation of the micro as obsessed with minutiae lies some more nuanced positions. Historians Burke and Trivellato have separately discussed some of the criticisms and limitations of microhistory, and pondered the ways forward. Specifically they ask whether the micro and macro, the local and the global, can helpfully be connected? In 2001, Burke asked “whether the law of diminishing returns” had set in, that is, whether “more than a quarter of a century after the [microhistory] pioneers, [it might] be time to stop?” (Burke in Levi 2001, 115). He noted that the appropriate response was probably “it depends”, and went on to observe a major historical problem that is illuminated by microhistorical techniques, namely, “the possibility that events viewed under the historical microscope, rather than the naked eye, appear to take place for different reasons” (116). Burke flags the possibility that historians need to learn to live with complementary but incompatible concepts and approaches—the microhistorians coexisting with macrohistorians.

Whether or not this will happen, we ought at least to be asking ourselves, as some historians, sociologists, and anthropologists have been doing, whether or not it is possible to link the microsocial with the macrosocial, experiences with structures, face-to-face relationship with the social systems or the local with the global. If this question is not taken seriously, microhistory might become a kind of escapism, an acceptance of a fragmented world rather than an attempt to make sense of it. (Burke in Levi 2001, 116–17)

Possible solutions Burke offers for “linking the local to the global might be to give more attention to the different kinds of ‘broker’ or ‘gatekeeper’ between communities and the outside world. Another might be to move backwards and forwards between the two levels…” (116–117). These solutions will sound familiar to many game historians.

Francesca Trivellato, a historian of early modern Europe and the Mediterranean, has written a nice survey article on debates between micro and macro perspectives. Trivellato argues that a microhistorical approach has significant potential for global history, but that this remains underexploited. She says that whilst Italian microhistorians repeatedly grappled with the challenge of how to conceive of the relationship between micro- and macro-scales of analysis, they never outlined a coherent theory. Trivellato also observes that “The persistent friction between micro- and macro-analyses raises questions about the degree of generalization that can be drawn from single case-studies…” (Trivellato 2011). She sets out to review some of the ways that microhistory and global history can intersect, or more correctly how global history can borrow and adapt from microhistory (as she says she has done in a study of Jewish merchants in a Tuscan port city and their far reaching networks in the early eighteenth century), arguing that microhistory has considerable potential for global history. She also cites Giovanni Levi, the Italian microhistorian, who:

argued that ‘historians should not generalize their answers; the real definition of history is that of a discipline that generalizes its questions, that is, a discipline that poses questions which have a general significance and yet recognizes that infinite answers are possible, depending on the local context’. (Cited in Trivellato 2011)

Provocations for Game History

To bring this back to game history, several points are salient. The micro/macro debate is not an exact fit for game history, but there are some insights we can consider as provocations. Levi’s observation about generalising questions rather than answers seems apposite. And the single case study issue is worth acknowledging as a challenge. In what remains, I want to expand the discussion a little to draw on a perspective from the cognate area of computer history, before turning to some exemplars from current work that suggest ways in which ‘local’ game history might be able to move towards more connected histories.

First, the micro/macro question: in hindsight, I realise that I have—almost intuitively—been searching for larger contexts in which to situate my New Zealand research for many years. As already mentioned, I have long held that it is not particularly helpful to treat the entry of specific variant locales in game history—or digitality, more generally—as just a phenomenon of the local. But this is to state the matter negatively. We need to turn the proposition around: to state positively what divergent case studies concerned with locality make possible to think and theorise in game history, generalising our questions—after Levi.

The issue of getting beyond single case studies is one on which Corinna Schlombs has previously reflected in relation to the historiography of digital computing, which faces some similar challenges to game history. In computer history, Schlombs writes, there is a default North American perspective which is perceived as the standard that all other national histories follow. In her 2006 Think Piece, ‘Toward International Computing History’, Schlombs writes that there are ‘formidable barriers’ which make international historical research expensive and time consuming (Schlombs 2006). For Schlombs, the main ones are “language differences, access to archival and other sources, and the demands of mastering multiple national histories” (108). She recognises that it is too hard for one scholar to be across everything, and her three suggestions for ways forward include: (1) writing local histories of computing in countries other than the USA; (2) undertaking comparative studies (helpful for “derail[ing] technological or economic determinist arguments by demonstrating how social, political, and cultural factors shape technology”); and (3) studying interactions between countries. This, she notes, has still tended to rely on the nation state as the unit of analysis, but it need not be the case. “By adjusting the scale of analysis, historians can ask new questions about the social, economic, and cultural context of computing” (Schlombs 2006, 107).

Getting beyond single case studies in game history presents a similar difficulty. Yet despite the challenge, I sense that it is something that many historians concerned with locality are already doing, at least to an extent. I have been deliberating for some time as to whether doing ‘local’ game history actually means ‘comparative game history’. The answer must be a definitive ‘yes’. A game historian with a local focus is expected to articulate how their local case study compares to historical accounts from the USA, UK, or Japan to make the significance clear to non-local audiences, a burden not demanded of scholars from the ‘centre’. I have been fortunate to be able to immerse myself in two surprisingly different local game history contexts (Australia and New Zealand), placing these in international context. However, I accept that this is relatively straightforward—at least as regards the USA and UK—given no extra language skills are required. Whilst recognising that this expectation of comparative competence is not evenly shared at present, I agree with Wolf that a comparative dimension is likely to be important in the next phase of game historiography (2015, 12).

One strategy that Schlombs surprisingly doesn’t mention for getting beyond the single case studies problem—and around the language challenge—is collaboration. For instance, I am engaged in a collaboration with Letícia Perani to examine the operation in New Zealand and Brazil of Taito, the company behind that most iconic ‘Japanese’ game, ‘Space Invaders’. This was prompted by an ex-Taito-tronics programmer telling me:

Taito Brazil had a large number of “Galaxian” boards, so pretty much the next phase up from “Space Invaders”, and what we did in the R&D department in Taito New Zealand was to convert—to rewrite a couple of the classics of the time—to run on “Galaxian” hardware, because again, at the time pretty much every new game came out with a new set of PCBs.

The programmer’s recollection suggests that there are whole unexplored histories that the New Zealand material provides a way into. A 1975 advertisement Perani discovered in Cash Box indicates that Taito had offices in several locations around the world besides Tokyo (Chicago, Antwerp, Sao Paulo, Sydney), in the pre-digital era when it sold and leased a range of coin-op machines (Taito 1975). While this could be considered in terms of an early instance of a global company, at the moment we are focusing on the trans-local connections between New Zealand and Brazil. Co-authoring with Perani means that the product of our research will be shaped by our respective intimate knowledges of the local social and cultural contexts, as well as circumventing the challenges each would face undertaking research in another country (in my case, in Portuguese). Collaboration is thus another strategy for dealing with the single case study problem.

To extend on this point, I am impressed by the network of European scholars who are managing to effectively pool their knowledge through engagement with each other’s research: the existence of several researchers working on Central and Eastern European game histories—helped by a conference series, the Central and Eastern European Game Studies (CEEGS) conference—is building a rich set of interrelations and knowledge that enhances everyone’s work, a sort of a collaboration by stealth. While it is hard to periodise accurately (without knowing how much research exists in languages other than English), with roughly fifteen years of critical game historical work behind us, generalisations—beyond single case studies—are starting to become possible in some regions. With a critical mass of game historians interested in the local—distributed around the globe and networkedFootnote 2—the barriers to developing more connected histories are lower than they ever have been.

Drawing another example from computer history, Petri Paju and Thomas Haigh’s recent article on IBM in Finland (2018) further illustrates the point. “The history of IBM”—they argue—“is the sum of a set of intertwined narratives taking place on national, regional, and international levels” (5). Paju and Haigh note that while the story of a particular international subsidiary might usually be assumed to be of primarily local interest—as a footnote to the American experience—they aim to demonstrate to business historians the usefulness of approaching the stories of a large multinational corporation from its peripheries (4, 26). The Finnish account is rich with detail not only about IBM’s interrelation with Finnish national history, but also the involvement of the local office in pan-European activities, sales to the Soviet Union, and exchange with IBM’s ‘international’ culture of sales, management, and research. Paju and Haigh suggest their account demonstrates the value of “studying the development of intermediate levels of exchange and identity, between national subsidiary and global corporation” (27).

The questions some game history scholars are asking also seem to be heading towards convergence—as Levi suggests—particularly in research related to users across multiple local sites (Borthwick and Swalwell, this volume) and tracking software distribution (Wasiak 2014; Albert 2020). Asking similar questions will make it simpler to relate the idiosyncratic histories of various elsewheres to other locales and better known histories. Some are researching multiple locations by stealth. While user group newsletters and magazines have long been recognised as rich historical sources, Borthwick’s archive of Sorcerer user group newsletters from three continents and five countries makes possible a different set of research questions than do such sources from a single place, which have more usually been studied. Gleb Albert is also conducting what is effectively multi-site research in relation to ‘crackers’ and informal software distribution. As he summarises, a range of developments in microcomputer reception:

have been researched in case studies over the last decade. However, in order to analyse how these developments influenced each other, it might be productive to do it in a case study that takes a focus on transnational entanglements. After all, home computerisation did not take place simultaneously all over the globe, but rather it was a process that developed (and, on a global scale, is still developing) for several decades, and its manifestations in particular countries were always bound to developments and events occurring outside the respective countries’ borders, as the triumphant march of the home computer took place against the backdrop both of a new wave of economical globalisation and massive changes in world politics. (Albert 2020)

Albert writes that the cracking scene “acted transnationally from the beginning. However, it was not ‘global’ in any meaningful sense”. He sets out to undertake an examination of the contacts between the ‘centre’—which he designates as those countries which constituted core regions in the cracking scene (USA, Canada, Scandinavia, Finland the Benelux state, Great Britain, West Germany, France, Austria, and Switzerland) —and the ‘peripheries’—defined as a range of regions which lacked either technical know how or the access to international software distribution, to get their hands on new software. ‘Transnational entanglements’ is a wonderfully rich concept, and Albert’s investigations are even more appreciated because of his “bias towards the developments in Eastern Europe due to the availability of sources and my knowledge of languages”, though he also “strives to employ sources from other parts of the world, particularly Latin America and the Middle East, insofar as they are available” (Albert 2020). On the question of sources’ availability, Albert’s initiative to gather the material traces of the demoscene in the online archive ‘Got Papers?’ is also significant here. Crowd-sourcing the remains of the culture of physically posting disks around the world and hosting this in a repository available online mean that the potential extent of the coverage is considerable, evidenced by the fact that a scholar from Switzerland (with a bias to Eastern Europe) can point to historic correspondence received from Adelaide—a city in Australia—and suggest a collaboration. The ‘Got Papers?’ archive offers a way of locating informants in a particular country who may be difficult to find (many are not open about belonging to the scene because of the questionable legal status of some of its activities). Ultimately, the archive will make it possible to get a much clearer picture of just how entangled users were, transnationally, in the point-to-point snail mail era (Albert n.d.). These are analyses on a simultaneously micro and macro scale. We have barely scratched the surface of the inter-relations between different locales, but such analyses provide encouraging evidence that game history is now moving beyond just the granular, micro scale to more connected histories.

Heterodox Histories

The ‘local’ game history project has been one corrective to an early stage history that had a number of deficiencies. Game historians have now documented many other histories away from the ‘centres’, de-centring (or otherwise complicating) the histories of those nations that were previously placed at the centre. This was a necessary first step. In this chapter, I have argued that debates in which accommodations are attempted between microhistory and global history are helpful for thinking about how ‘local’ game history scholarship might move towards more connected histories, which would be the next step in this journey. To conclude, I want to offer an answer to the question I raised about what the critical potential is of ‘local’ game history.

Scholarship concerned with the local has helped the field of game history get out from under the weight of received wisdom, the orthodoxy that was inherited. I drew on Ginzburg’s microhistorical study because it brought microhistory together with heterodoxy, a concept that I find particularly resonant for game history. Ginzburg describes Menocchio’s views as ‘heterodox’ in both general and precise ways. Generally, Menocchio’s views differed from the then accepted cosmology (19), but Ginzburg’s second use is more precise: Menocchio’s ‘heterodox opinions’ go against the Church’s orthodoxy (21), and it is this which leads to his conviction as a heretic. What do we mean then, by saying that a game history concerned with the local might present knowledge that is heterodox when compared with mainstream history? What difference does an account of Taito told from the perspectives of Brazil and New Zealand make? Such histories would be heterodox in that the new perspectives they generate are not only counter to orthodox (or mainstream) game history, but because they also disturb what we thought we knew about the ‘centre’, revealing—in some cases—that histories are not quite as certain or stable as they may have been made out to be. Local histories provide alternate perspectives, but joined up, connected histories highlight absences far more effectively. For instance, Patryk Wasiak’s study of grassroots software exchange between Europe and the USA revealed some surprises for me about the culture of software in the USA (Wasiak 2014). And my study of homebrew game development in 1980s Australia and New Zealand asks where the game history research on microcomputing is in the USA (Melanie Swalwell 2021)? The point is not to replace one set of grand narratives, orthodoxies, or heroes with another. Rather, when we are attentive to specificity, different histories become possible, including of the ‘centres’. The move towards more connected histories is a sign, I suggest, of the maturation of game historical scholarship. It is good to be beyond the chronicle stage.

Notes

  1. 1.

    We have a list of 100+ subscribers and have been hosting panels at conferences for at least 15 years, so I think it is credible to talk of this as a project, though affiliation is loose. There is no agreed set of terms, nor any unified positions. The fact that game history scholars have independently arrived at similar approaches to research objects yet not undertaken any steps to formalise association suggests that this may well be a common project.

  2. 2.

    I started the Localgamehist listserv with Jaroslav Svelch in 2014. With more than 100 members, the listserv is a network where one might find collaborators. The listserv is also acting as a collaborative knowledge pool and resource where new types of questions can be asked, allowing for greater contextualising of local phenomena. For instance, Jaroslav Svelch asked about ‘Hacker’ games; games with real-life contests. Maria Garda asked about the oldest known use of the ‘indie’ term in relation to games and so on. Svelch also started to tap the combined linguistic resources of the list to ask how much literature on local game history there is in languages other than English and how much we may be missing because of the language barrier. See https://lists.flinders.edu.au/mailman/listinfo/localgamehist

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Swalwell, M. (2021). Heterodoxy in Game History: Towards More ‘Connected Histories’. 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_12

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