Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Strong Fellowship – Days 6-8

January 27, 2015

So…weekend is over! My best friend came in from New York City, so Saturday and Sunday were spent visiting the Strong and Rochester Science Museum. Checked out more of the arcade games in the Boardwalk exhibit – Donkey Kong 3 was swapped out (boo!). Dragon Spirit is WAY too hard to control (plus the monitor turned green). Space Harrier is fantastic, but started to go WAY too quickly to react. There’s a multigame machine though with Gallop Police and Dragon Breed, along with a lot of other titles – and it’s on free play! So something to do next weekend. There were animatronic dinosaurs at the Science Museum, but a lot of them were in pretty bad shape. More points of articulation means more expensive. Older parts means the rubber skin wears out. Clicking noises can be heard from some, voice boxes wore out in others. Wouldn’t be surprised if they were around in the ’80s…

Spent today in the archive – arrived early at 9. It’s a good 2 miles to the Strong, and it was bitter cold (this is where bringing thermal clothes and a bomber cap is important – thank LL Bean!). Since I had three rides last week, I’ve walked a total of 17 miles since last Monday and feeling great! I also found a path that’s been cleared so I’m not slipping on the ice and watching my footing – except for black ice – OUCH!

I finished checking Play Meter and RePlay, so that’s it for now for coin-op trade publications. I wish I’d finished them a bit earlier, but…it takes only so long to go through a single magazine.

Actually, I would have gone through even more issues, but had to cut things off at 1986, which was when the NES started to hit big. You’ve got to draw the line sometime.

Read over a little bit of what I copied onto my iPad (there are duplicates on the digital camera). It’s pretty clear Steve Kent relied heavily on RePlay when writing about coin-op – the David Rosen biography sounds pretty much identical to the account in Ultimate History of Video Games. All the more reason to replace it. I also found a Gallop Poll determining how many teenagers played videogames in 1983 and 1984. It was published in 1985, so you’d think the data would be more recent… But it gives nice evidence to debunk the theory that people ‘just stopped playing games for some reason after 1982′ since there were clearly a lot of people still buying discounted games and going to arcades – just not as many as in 1981.

There were also some fun discoveries from the ads. Midway made a comic book ad to go with Space Invaders Pinball – just as cheesy as you’d think, which means incredibly awesome. There was an ad for a sci-fi game with a woman dressed in a Star Trek uniform – and it was clearly not licensed (there was SO much copyright infringement in the 70s and early 80s). I also found an ad for this game called Triple Punch, which has a clone of Mario jumping around with a hammer! http://flyers.arcade-museum.com/?page=flyer&db=videodb&id=2649&image=1

Next up this week is to go through the toy industry journal Playthings. Hopefully I can clear that in a day or two. Then there’s a stack of catalogs, the Ralph Baer papers, the Atari Arcade collection…

Strong Fellowship – Day 5

January 23, 2015

My first week at the Strong has ended, and the thing I want most of all is to GET BACK THERE and DO MORE RESEARCH! I’ve enjoyed it so much that I rarely check Facebook or e-mail while there. That’s when you KNOW you are doing something you like. I’m not held back by any need to communicate.

This week was fairly successful, and I THINK I may still be on track. I went through several years of Play Meter – 1975-1987, and there are still a couple years left. This is an excellent trade publication, with good articles, in-depth interviews (including two with Nintendo’s old VP of Marketing for Coin-Op, Bill Cravens), reviews, performance charts, etc. The most valuable articles seem to be the Year in Review and State of the Industry for each particular year (in the November and December volumes). The news articles also give a detailed look at how the industry evolved – especially since for the most part, these were published bi-monthly.

I started going through RePlay, another coin-op trade publication, but this one isn’t nearly as good (even if it’s edited by Eddie Adlum, who you may remember from Steve Kent’s Ultimate History of Video Games). The magazine seems focused more on jukeboxes than pinball or video (hence the name), but I think that shift past 1980 (still early on).

They didn’t have another trade publication called Tilt, but I was introduced to a cool magazine by Marvel called Blip. Published in comic book format, it’s for younger kids and has no-holds-barred reviews of games (including searing critiques of ET and Pac-Man) as well as a comic of Donkey Kong and a comic of The Hulk trying to figure out how to work a Rubick’s Cube (don’t hold your breath for pics – I’m not allowed to share any b/c of the paperwork I signed). However, you might be able to Google it… August 1983 issue. The comic was produced by Stan Lee.

Next week I will be going through the rest of RePlay and Play Meter – probably RePlay at least through 1986 or 1987, Play Meter probably through 1989, since that was all they pulled – and then there are two shelves worth of Playthings magazine, a toy industry trade publication. HOPEFULLY I can finish the coin op mags by the end of Monday and get Playthings done by Wednesday… I have no idea how much is left to go through, but I do want to check the Atari coin op archives as well as the Ralph Baer papers, and there’s also a stack of catalogs to peruse. Hopefully I can finish all that in 10 days…

Oh yes – they also took my picture, which should be going up on their blog and Facebook soon…

Strong Fellowship – Day 4

January 23, 2015

It’s hard to believe that my first week in the museum is almost done. So far, I’ve checked one box of documents that didn’t prove too useful and gone through about three linear feet of Play Meter magazines. The good news is I’ve only got about a year’s worth of magazines to go through yet, which means I should be done with Play Meter by about lunchtime tomorrow. The bad news (or maybe good, since the research is enjoyable) is I still have to look through Playthings, Tilt, and Replay. I have no idea the size of the latter two, but Playthings takes up a couple good-sized shelves…

So far, I am making sure to get things such as the cover, index, and hardware performance lists. Beyond that, I check the news and any articles dealing with video arcade performance. The articles that discuss the impact of home console games in particular are interesting, as are those that talk about the ‘crash’ or ‘shakeout’ (vocabulary differs). The Year in Review are particularly useful, as are the yearly surveys. I also like the reviews since they give a detailed look at notable vids and pins of the time – will have to analyze in more detail.

JP told me Play Meter is something they’ve been collecting only over the past year or so, which explains why there are very few volumes, and what’s there is in fairly poor shape. Each year has several volumes missing – some years are missing entirely. Luckily, I’ve managed to speed up the search process. I’ve also duplicated a few promising articles on my iPad, but haven’t had time to read over them in any great detail. Again, multiple screens and multitasking would be nice on the iPad…but it’s not going to happen.

Also discovered the cafeteria closes at 3:00, which sucked since I wanted a pizza about 3:30. Speaking of, it was a real pain making dinner tonight, so I’m glad I’ll have leftovers for tomorrow. Also, the walk to and from the museum is getting better – my ankles don’t hurt as much, but I wish there was much less ice on the sidewalk.

I was also informed that my picture will e daken for a press release tomorrow. Pretty excited about that – they’re very professionally done.

Strong Fellowship – Day 3

January 22, 2015

Second day in the archives was spent going through more copies of Play Meter. I looked through all the issues prior to 1982 – there is a huge chunk missing between 1977 and 1980, and there are many issues from ’80 and ’81 missing. Thankfully, there are some very useful issues in the collection, such as the December 1984 one celebrating the 10th anniversary of the magazine, and the year in reviews along with the yearly surveys are also very useful, as they list performances for the entire year as well as the top 10 news events.

Coin operators were terribly spooked in 1982 about local and state legislation against coin-op games, a problem that plagued the industry since the 1930s when New York and LA banned pinballs. Due to their associations with organized crime and gambling, as well as the poor reputations of arcades, states often charge exhorbitant and unfair taxes on coin operated machines, too. So Play Meter saw this as the largest threat to the industry in 1982 – moreso than the glut of machines (particularly duplicates and clones) that caused coin op to take a serious hit in June 1982. These problems of anti-arcade legislation began around 1981 and seem to correlate with the dramatic increase in market power in that year.

I also really enjoy the yearly buyer’s guides, which list the models of pinball, video game, electromechanical, jukebox, and pool tables available for purchase – often from a span of 5 yars. Each model currently on the market is listed, along with the year it wand month it was released. So this is a fantastic picture of what was available at the time.

I also got to see the video transfer of the Tomorrow…Today! episode titled “Games Futurists Play”. I brought this to the attention of JP Dyson and the Strong staff. It’s a Walter Cronkite documentary. There are no videogames here, but it does cover several role-playing games (one to address the shock homeless people have upon returning to the workforce, one on running a city, and a third on communicating information and difficulty of sharing ideas). I feel it is a quite useful documentary for analyzing persuasive games and socially conscious games, as the players certainly took away useful lessons (although the “chronic homeless” game was terribly racially biased).

One other thing I realized is that using a digital camera was probably not the best way of recording things. My iPad may have far less storage, but the advantage here is that I can immediately see what I take pictures of when I use my iPad, including the quality of the image – how blurry it is. With the camera, I have to wait until I plug it into a computer (not really possible until I get home). For this reason, I will use my iPad to scan articles that seem far more important, such as the 10th anniversary article summarizing the past 10 years of the coin operated industry. The biggest problem I see with the iPad though is the interface – there is no button or series of button presses that will allow you to view other software currently running as a sort of ‘tabbed browsing’ to multitask or at least quickly switch between apps. Pressing the home button, then clicking on your desired app is twice as many actions as necessary since you’re going from looking at one app to looking at your desktop to looking at another app and back. I can imagine if Steve Jobs had wanted that, he would have yelled loudly and often enough until it was done.

Strong Fellowship – Day 2

January 21, 2015

Today was my first day in the archives. I received a Strong Fellow badge that gets me in through security and into the archive on the third floor. JP Dyson offered me a ride in, and I took the Magic: The Gathering books and Sumerian Game artifacts in for the collection (should hear back later if they want to keep all the books).

First order of business was to wheel out a cart packed with Play Meter magazines. This is one of the official coin op industry journals and covers not just video and pinball games, but also jukeboxes and ‘kiddie rides’. I started with 1982 and will be checking the collection up through the end of 1985.

Being an older magazine, the issues are in pretty bad shape, with pages peeling out – some issues, such as March(?) 1986, also had pages cut up! It was a little distressing to see these magazines falling apart as I flipped the pages…but on the other hand, if the pages lie perfectly flat, that makes it easier to photograph. On that note, there won’t be many more images for awhile since I’m not allowed to use images from these for anything other than research.

The first things I noticed was an awful lot of coverage on movements to either regulate or outright ban coin op videogames in many laces around the US. Regulation is a prolem that affected the coin-op industry long before videogames – pinball was banned in New York and LA in the 930s and 1940s as a reaction against organized crime and to prevent ‘corruption of te youth’ – in fact, many arcades received poor reputations as being considered warrens for drugs, prostitution, gambling, and other forms of corruption. Videogames often produced the same fears.

I am still unconvinced this played a major role in the collapse of arcade industry profits in 1982. The editors suggested it had more to do with purchasing large numbers of machines and thus oversaturating the market with not only duplicates of the same machine, but also clones and knockoffs. It’s kind of hard for your copy of Defender to make a profit when your competitor has two machines two blocks down the road. Sales of coin-op machines might have been up, but operator profits were down.

Other interesting concerns were theft of arcade machines. Still, the editor of Play Meter did suggest that threats of regulation and legal cases against arcades was a major problem and perhaps the largest threat the industry faced.

I am a bit concerned with the speed at which I go through these journals. In addition to finishing about eight issues of Play Meter, I also dug through a box of electronic games flyers, which wasn’t terribly useful, since they were from 1988-2000. JP Dyson informed me that most researchers end up rushing for the last few days to try and cram everything in. I have an incredible amunt of matrial to go through, so I can’t afford to read each article carefully and instead just photograph.

That said, in order to prepare for tomorrow, I will need to bring my battery charger, as my rechargeables almost ran out. Not too concerned with photo storage though since I have a 32GB flash card, a backup 8GB card, and a 16GB USB drive. However, I can’t read anything taken off the camera unless I plug it in to a computer. In this regard, my iPad is far more useful, but just doesn’t have the capacity.

Excited for what I’ll find tomorrow! Other cool findings included interviews with the presidents of Sega and Taito and Minoru Arakawa of Nintendo of America.

Strong Fellowship – Day 1

January 19, 2015

I received a fellowship at the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, NY. I will be here for the next three weeks researching the North American Game Industry Crash of 1983-1985. Below is my attempt to document the experience.  

Arrived in Rochester on Sunday. I feel it is best to arrive a day in advance of actually visiting the Strong since it gives you time to orient yourself around the city. I also think it’s good to have a free day before research so you can take a look around the museum.

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The first thing you’ll notice about the Strong is the architecture – it’s an odd mishmash of traditional and futuristic and playful – not exactly the most attractive building in the city, and probably constructed in several periods. Not quite sure what to make of it, coming from the Denver Art Museum.

The archives were closed for MLK Day, so I spent the entirety wandering around the exhibits. There are many fantastic interactive exhibits framing play in the context of games, toys, and exploration of the world.

The first floor contains dozens of interactive exhibits for children – small toy adventure worlds that kids can climb in and explored. Many of these warranted a chuckle, particularly the Sesame Street and Story Land sections, and the noise clearly demonstrates how popular these are – at least two busloads of children arrived today. It is interesting to see how dance and song are implemented to play, from sea chanteys to Sesame Street. Some spaces are too small for an adult to reach – at least comfortably – and thus spaces such as the interior of the whaling ship give children a space that is their own.

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The second floor is dedicated to toys and games, primarily from the US. Some of these toys are placed in historical context through plaquards (such as Malibu Barbie and the first GI Joe), but many are simply objects of reflection placed within a context of other objects – such as large collections of dolls. Collections and collecting seems just as important to adults’ relationships with toys and play as is the original use-context. I kind of reflect on this old worn-out doll I saw in a bar recently. Everybody shied away from it because it was ‘creepy’ – her hair was completely torn out, mustache and beard drawn on her face, along with tattoos, and the half-open lips in a crazy smile. While one might be repulsed by such an image, especially to find it sitting behind one’s shoulder, it struck me that someone must have once played with and cared for this doll – an unwritten history that is now lost in its current context. Such with these toys and action figures – removed both from the original play and historical context by virtue of display.

There is a large section here dedicated to videogames as well. There are dozens of arcade machines, including a few I had never played before. Tokens are 5 for $1 and feature the Strong Museum.

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The first game I played was Robotron 2084. The settings on this must be REALLY low, since I quickly broke my score of 848,000, then 1 million, then 2 million… I decided to aim for 9,990,000 or thereabouts. Getting a score that high takes about two hours of play. It’s incredibly tiring, and I can’t imagine someone playing that high on competition settings. It was also frustrating to get up that high, only to score a few too many points and roll over back to 0. Final level was something like 399, with something like 10,500,000 points (or rather 500,000 on the scoreboard). I always kind of imagined there would be some wonderful experience, but it was actually incredibly disappointing. I spent the next three minutes wasting my 87 stored lives.

Lunch was a burger from the 1950s style burger shop. The food here is pretty awful – I decided to get the BBQ burger, rootbeer float, and curly fries. I recommend NOT eating at the museum – you can pay about that much I suppose at Dinosaur BBQ, which is just a short walk from the Strong. My advice is to make the food better, but I guess like Chuck E. Cheeze, the quality food doesn’t matter.

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I checked out the rest of the toys and board games on the second floor and examined a few of the videogame exhibits. It was very emotional to see Brenda Romero’s Siochan Leat, along with Jerry Lawson’s badge and other artifacts. Some of these historical artifacts have plaquards describing the context, but others, such as an original Space Invaders cabinet from Midway, lack description. The games seem more aligned with one’s memories of play than with a historical description – why is this object here? What does it mean to the history of videogames, play, and pop culture? Does it really matter when you’re elbows-deep in Guitar Hero?

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I’ve pretty much spent my curiosity for the exhibits. I am sure I will ask JP Dyson and some of the other curators about this when I go to the archives tomorrow. Should be good to focus – I just wish I was a bit more invigorated, but after a good six hours in the museum on my feet (after an hour of walking from the house I’m staying at), I’m pretty exhausted.

Time to head back for some potluck!

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

September 23, 2012

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. (more…)

Medium Difficulty’s “Call of Apathy”

March 5, 2012

Game criticism website Medium Difficulty recently posted an article, “Call of Apathy” by “W”, an ex-Marine-turned-military-contractor who is concerned with the way soldiers are presented in war games. W states that the US military is 100% volunteer, and so (at least in the Marines and Special Forces), about 80% of the military is made up of people who like to kill things (i.e. sociopaths). Games, on the other hand, depict the modern-day version of the Hollywood hero, the stone-cold loner who can take on the world, but does everything for good old American values. As W states:

None of the stereotypes exist. They are put in place by a media and a military that hates the wars we fight but loves the men fighting in them.

While W is speaking from a particular perspective and basing his information on real-world experience from that perspective rather than systematic analysis, this raises an interesting point.

America is at war and has been for more than a decade now. The military is all-volunteer, with no draft, and there is no war tax, so the average American doesn’t have to give anything for it. This has resulted in a sharp division between the soldier and the civilian where the civilian has no clue of what the military actually does.

At the same time, support for the war in the Middle East has dwindled while the respect the average American has for the US serviceman continues to rise. Support the troops, not the war, appears to be the new slogan.

However, while we profess to hate war, our media is saturated with it. While part of it is there is a war going on, and whatever happens to be going on at the moment is whatever is picked up by the popular media, the other part is that while we say we hate war, we sure love to play it.

And this is the crux of the matter. The games we play tell us a lot about who we are as a society. What does it mean when modern American masculinity is partly defined through the vicariousness of simulated and TV soldiers (and football players)? What does it mean when a culture wants to end a war yet sells more copies of Modern Warfare 3 in a month than the Bible sold all of last year?*

War games may not be realistic, and W certainly gives us some idea of what a realistic war game would actually be like. However, if realism is defined as a quality of a good war game, but war itself is not fun, then at what point do we hedge the realism for the sake of entertainment? The term ‘realism’ ultimately ends up as another word to sell things.

*Note, if you doubt this, Google the sales figures. MW3 really did outsell the Bible.

Giant Tank Postmortem

February 29, 2012

Giant Tank Postmortem Four Years Later

Giant Tank was produced as part of my MFA thesis which was the research, critique, and design of antiwar games. In the game, a lone soldier with only a rifle is fighting an enormous tank. You are not the tank.

Antiwar games are games that critique the nature of war and conflict. They can be opposed to a particular war, such as an antiwar game about the Afghanistan War, about war prevention, such as a game protesting hawkish sentiments about a future war with Iran, or they can be a critique of war in general. I made Giant Tank as the latter because I didn’t want my game to be recognized as belonging to a particular movement in games, similar to how the Vietnam Antiwar Movement is often affiliated with hippies and flower power.

Giant Tank was part of a thesis project that consisted of three games and a lengthy essay on antiwar games. This was all bundled together in a single box. I have since shown Giant Tank in an art gallery and published a revised version of my writing. But I have not done a postmortem of it until now.

 

Things that went right.

1.      Scratch is fast, has limitations, but these can be overcome

Giant Tank was built in Scratch. Scratch at first glance looks well below the manliness of hardcore game development tools like Flash and C++, but that is because the tool is meant to show kids how to program. That is why it has a cartoony interface and a big, ugly cartoon cat in the main window.

At first I was very reluctant to use this tool. However, I quickly realized how powerful Scratch could be, primarily through its ease of use. With Scratch, you can get a character moving in about 30 seconds. If you don’t know anything about programming, it might take you five minutes. I don’t know of any other program where you can do that from the ground up. (more…)

Early(er) Computer Games: Babbage and Nimatron

May 18, 2010

Digging through an early book on computer games titled Game Playing with Computers (Donald D. Spencer, 1968) and discovered two early computer games that have so far been almost completely ignored in the literature (which is kind of odd, considering one of them is well documented in an oral interview – though Judd Ruggill published an article referring to it in the Spring 2009 issue of Cinema Journal).

The first of these is a little more light on the previously re-rediscovered Tic-Tac-Toe game by Charles Babbage (Spencer refers to it as well). The only additional information I have to add here is that Babbage wanted to design a Tic-Tac-Toe playing computer he could use to help fund his more serious project – he would charge gawkers a fee to play the game (making it the first computer game designed for a profit). However, the machine was never built. So according to Spencer, Babbage had more than simply a prefigure of the idea.

The second – and this is VERY surprising – is the Nimatron, designed by Edward U Condon in 1939 (displayed in 1940). Condon (apparently better known for his UFO studies) had the idea to build a machine that would play Nim at the New York World’s Fair to help enliven the Westinghouse booth, where it was enjoyed by over 50,000 people (more…)


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