Book Review: Screen Play: The Story of Video Games (George Sullivan, 1983)

Published in 1983, George Sullivan’s Screen Play: The Story of Video Games is one of the earliest books about the medium and its history. Despite its age, Screen Play contains lots of useful information for game historians, including interviews with Ralph Baer, Dona Bailey, George Kiss (Director of Sofware Development at Atari), and Ronnie Lamm (early videogame opponent).

Screen Play is an 88-page book for children and young adults about the videogame industry, divided into eight chapters describing what games are, their history, how they are made, and their future. The book is written in a journalistic style, heavy with facts and information, but presented in a very readable fashion. Here is the example used for RAM:

RAM is like writing on a blackboard. What’s there can easily be erased once it’s been read. By contrast, ROM is something like a book of instructions. You can consult it anytime you wish and it never changes. (12)

The language used in explanation of technical concepts makes it also perfect for children, and is a style that author George Sullivan had mastered, having begun writing children’s history books in the 60s (he continues to write them today, including a book on Abraham Lincoln, and another on Joe Lewis).

The book also contains dozens of excellent photographs taken by Sullivan, including images of Baer in his workshop, Dona Bailey, and the building that housed Andy Capp’s Tavern, ca. 1983 (it was a run-down building at the time called the Country Store – today, it’s a ritzy comedy bar called Rooster T. Feathers).

The first two chapters define what a videogame is and how it works, and are presented in simple language that is easy to understand, while the next two chapters outline the history of videogames. Sullivan looks at all the consoles available at the time, including the Gamelink pay-to-play streaming service on the Atari VCS.

Chapter 3 contains interview information with Ralph Baer, with a detailed history of the origins of the Odyssey (including that important September 1, 1966 date). Baer also points out the limitations of the technology present in the Odyssey versus the microchip-based systems that came out later – how games could now display more than just a few rectangles. In contrast with later evaluations of the Odyssey’s performance, Sullivan states that the system sold well “[f]or a new product,” moving 85,000 units and 20,000 rifles in 1972 alone, but that performed poorly afterwards due to misleading advertising and the introduction of cost-effective microchips.

Baer also says that the success of the Odyssey allowed him more freedom at Sanders Associates, allowing him more time to work on new projects:

It gave me a lot of freedom. When it all began, I was working twelve to fourteen hours a day, supervising hundreds of engineers and support personnel. I was a technical administrator. But when the license money started coming in, it made a difference. Now I’m back in development work and I can come and go as I please. I like that. (27)

Chapter 4 on Nolan Bushnell, however, is a disaster, with dozens of factual errors – everything from an assertion that the PDP-1 “cost about $8 million” (29; the system sold for $100,000, and even IBM’s 7090 cost about $1 million) to Steve Jobs designing and building Breakout (33; the work was done by Steve Wozniak). It’s unclear where a lot of this information came from, as only one other book was available at the time (Video Invaders by Steve Bloom) and interviews with Nolan Bushnell in Electronic Games magazine.

Chapters 5 and 6 deal with how a game is developed, from concept to manufacturing. Most of the information comes from interviews with the developers, such as Don Osborne (VP of sales and marketing at Atari). This describes the famous “ideas manual” Atari’s developers used and how it is made. First, ideas come from all over the company, from secretaries and salesmen to the designers themselves. Next, groups of up to 15 or 20 are composed and the ideas are whittled down and refined before being given to the artists and graphic designers. Finally, there is a large multi-day planning session held in a casual environment like Pebble Beach where the best ideas are looked at from every angle by every department from design and engineering to marketing and sales. Everything from how the game should be marketed to the technology required for its development is then compiled and written down in a “thick manual…the source from which company designers draw when seeking ideas for new games”.

The designers then take ideas from the manual and produce a game, beginning with the basic gameplay, and polishing it through an iterative process, followed by weeks of debugging. A prototype of the game would then be produced, and given to focus groups to test. The players would be observed and their reactions to the game recorded. The game would be modified accordingly. If it was an arcade game, prototypes would be set up in test locations, the players interviewed later and money intake recorded.

Interviews with the designers, such as Imagic’s Pat Ransil, also describe how the limitations of the technology on different platforms lead to the creation of different types of games. For instance, the version of Demon Attack on the VCS took advantage of the system’s color pallette, but also was limited by the ease at which sprites move horizontally, so the enemies have more horizontal than vertical movement. In contrast, the Intellivision can move sprites vertically more quickly, but can display fewer colors per sprite, so the enemies have less detail but move more aggressively. This all sounds like an early version of Ian Bogost’s and Nick Monfort’s platform studies…

Also interesting is a short interview with Dona Bailey, where she describes how the mushrooms came about in Centipede. Bailey had placed filler graphics as a “visual reminder of where explosions occur on screen”, and when a coworker saw this, he exclaimed, “Hey, look at the maze gmae you’ve got there.” Bailey recalls, “He was right, of course, I had created a maze game with all of those little blocks, and I hadn’t even realized it. We decided to leave it as a maze game, but we changed the shape of the little blocks to mushrooms” (56).

Chapter 7 deals with the debate of violence in games, and is primarily a lengthy interview with Ronnie Lamm, a New England crusader against videogames who gained nationwide notoriety after successfully petitioning the local community of Brookhaven, New York, to regulate arcades. Lamm complains about the violent themes in games, the amount of time and money children spend on them, and the disruption it causes to the community. There’s a bit of stereotyping (“[k]ids in the honor society, the club people, and football players” don’t go to the arcades) among other nonsensical arguments, as well as the media effects argument. While Sullivan also interviews experts and other ordinary citizens about the subject, from both sides of the argument (including Chris Crawford, who compares games to comic books and candy – perhaps indicative of concerns about designing meaningful games), the opposing arguments only come at the end. The dialectic nature of the chapter allows the reader to come to their own conclusions, but about 75% of the chapter is from Lamm’s perspective, so the reader (who is probably very interested in games) has more exposure to her viewpoint, and is lead to perhaps at least consider it. Death Race is not mentioned. The chapter reads like a newspaper editorial in its structure and presentation, and its inclusion probably helped with publication.

In the final chapter, Sullivan discusses the future of the industry, including licensed games, immersion, and virtual reality. Sullivan points to Subroc 3-D by Sega as the first videogame with a 3D display (it alternated images for the left eye and right eye to create a 3D effect), as well as military simulators and the Simulation Tournament Center in San Diego. Unfortunately, Sullivan fails to identify the impending collapse of the American industry, stating simply, “The E.T. Game based on the movie was not a big success” (81).

In addition to the content, there are some interesting uses of vocabulary in this book. For one thing, Sullivan uses the definition of “arcade” from Play Meter magazine, which defines an arcade as a building where there are 10 or more machines – any location with fewer is a “street location”. Sullivan does not italicize titles of videogames, but does so for films. Even though the title of the book is written “video games”, it is written “video-game” throughought the text. Sullivan also points out that at this time, the difference between “designer” and “programmer” was only starting to occur – games made in the US were done primarily by a single person, but Japanese developers seemed to have clear divisions of labor. Finally, there is an interesting reference to “hardcore players” versus “casual players”. In the context, “hardcore” seems to be used to describe players who regularly and actively play games in an attempt to master them, while casual players just drop by the machine to play once in awhile.

Despite its errors, Screen Play is a solid first in game history books, presenting the concepts, history, and development of games in an intelligent, understandable, and thoughtful manner. The book contains some new information, and excellent photographs taken by the author, and should be useful as a reference for the study of early game history and perspectives on games from that time period. You can get used copies for about $10 on Amazon, with shipping. The book has been previously reviewed by Gameology regarding its depictions of the future of games.

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One Response to “Book Review: Screen Play: The Story of Video Games (George Sullivan, 1983)”

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