I started going through Playthings, the trade journal of the toy industry. Videogames weren’t considered a separate thing back in the ’70s and ’80s but ended up being attached to whatever industry felt most logical – like the toy industry. Playthings’s editors did consider that maybe videogames were separate though since they didn’t count them in national toy sales data and had a section for ‘Electronic games industry’, but for the most part, since toy dealers carried the products, that’s what they were considered part of.
So far, I’ve gone through 1982-1984, and the data is quite interesting. 1982 focused a lot on Pac-Man, particularly licenses, although there were lengthy sections discussing the games industry. 1983 has a lot of articles questioning the performance of videogames, with many retailers saying they won’t order product. There are some specific numbers – somewhere in the range of only about 25% were still ordering, although if that included JC Penny or Montgomery Ward I don’t know. 1984 was quite dead as far as game news – although there were some mentions of Coleco systems selling for $99. I won’t be able to go over the data in more detail until after I get back, but I saved copies of the most promising articles to my iPad for analysis. Again, I think for the researcher who wants to photocopy, using a tablet is definitely the way to go since it has a large enough screen that you can immediately review your work – just need a good way of organizing everything.
I also have to keep in mind the importance of context. For instance, Pac-Man’s licensing is part of a larger ecology of licensed products and counterfeit products (mostly coming from China). Likewise, ET isn’t just a videogame, but part of a much larger licensing market for the film that suffered from product shortages. So the information is pointing to large sales related to the demand for ET and how big that actually was. (Again, 1.4 million sold is pretty huge – and it’s not like there are reports of customers returning product because they were dissatisfied – it’s the dealers, rather, since they couldn’t move what they ordered). There is also the occasional interesting tidbit, such as the reason ColecoVision only sold 500,000 units in 1982 was because that was all they manufactured by August – they were conservative. Interestingly, this same conservativism hurt their Cabbage Patch Kids line – there’s even an editorial stating that they woefully underestimated the demand! Although perhaps the toy wouldn’t have sold as much if it was more readily available…?
Hopefully tomorrow I can get through 1985 and 1986, then start going backwards from 1981. I’ve also asked Tara to pull a bunch of JC Penny, Montgomery Ward, and Sears catalogs to track videogame sales. In addition to the articles specifically about videogames, Playthings DOES have reports of what’s selling from different regions of the US. These are particularly valuable, even if they don’t always talk about Atari or Coleco since it gives a pretty detailed look at what’s happening on the ground each month.
Oh yeah! My photo went up on the ICHEG blog today! They also linked to this blog, so that should increase the audience outside of Facebook friends.