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On Footwork: Finding the Local in American Video Game History

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

Abstract

U.S. video game history is often conducted with little reference to geography. The history of a game company, however, cannot be separated from the histories of the region where it is located and the people who work there. Paying attention to this regional dimension can reveal a wider purview for U.S. video game history—one that encompasses more than video games. The only way to achieve this regional perspective is through footwork: by showing up and doing local research using methods such as oral history. This chapter offers a personal case study on doing U.S. video game history from a regionalist perspective, focusing on the author’s fieldwork in Oakhurst, California, compiling source material for a research project on the computer game company Sierra On-Line.

Keywords

  • Oral history
  • Regionalism
  • Sierra On-Line
  • Game history

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Fig. 6.1
Fig. 6.2

Notes

  1. 1.

    At the time of Levy’s arrival, Sierra On-Line was known as On-Line Systems, a name Levy (1994[1984], 299) described as a “holdover from Ken’s vision of selling the respectable kind of business software for the Apple.” The company’s name changed in the fall of 1982.

  2. 2.

    The Williamses’ first ad for their software products was published in the May 1980 issue of MICRO: The 6502 Journal on the last page of the issue before the back cover.

  3. 3.

    Early on, other family members were drafted into the business. Roberta’s father, John Heuer, was reported as On-Line’s northern California distributor in 1981. Ken’s brother John Williams sometimes refers to himself variously either Sierra’s first or second employee; John Williams distributed company software out of his car in 1980, and later worked in Sierra’s marketing department (Tommervik 1981, 4–5; Williams 1987, 8–9).

  4. 4.

    Like the majority of towns in Madera County, Oakhurst and Coarsegold are unincorporated, census designated locations, meaning they have no civic elected offices and run under the jurisdiction of the county.

  5. 5.

    Of the fourteen coastal California companies that advertised in Softalk, eight were in the Greater Los Angeles Area, three in the San Francisco–Silicon Valley region and one in San Diego.

  6. 6.

    The Williamses redwood hot tub at their Mudge Ranch Road home famously made an appearance in the advertisement for On-Line System’s Softporn, the first commercially released erotic computer game.

  7. 7.

    For a deeper reading of the Ken and Roberta Williams Collection, see Nooney (2015).

  8. 8.

    While often used interchangeably, “oral history” has a distinct function compared to the more generic term “interview.” As Donald A. Ritchie (2003, 24) writes, “An interview becomes an oral history only when it has been recorded, processed in some way, made available in an archive, library, or other repository, or reproduced in relatively verbatim form for publication. Availability for general research, reinterpretation, and verification defines oral history.”

  9. 9.

    While I considered phone interviews and have used them when other modes of interviewing were not possible, I felt strongly about meeting in person and in the company’s historic location.

  10. 10.

    Natalie Scheidler, whom I had met during my Master’s work at Kansas State University, was a doctoral student at Montana State-Bozeman at the time. I arranged for her to meet me in Fresno and we drove up to Oakhurst together. Scheidler assisted me in sorting inquires over email and phone, organizing my schedule and helping with setup for the Heritage Days booth. Scheidler also conducted an oral history when I became double booked, and provided much-needed emotional support during the long days of interviews.

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Nooney, L. (2021). On Footwork: Finding the Local in American Video Game History. 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_6

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