Tristan Donovan’s Replay: The History of Video Games is an exhaustively researched account of the fledgling but extremely popular medium. From its origins in World War-II era research labs to its domination of living rooms, Donovan uncovers the creative and imaginative roots of gaming and game development. The book, he says, is an attempt to move away from a “hardware-centric” conception of games—one which “suggests that games are nothing more than some by-product of hardware engineers and business decisions.”
In an email interview, the UK-based writer told us about game design culture, writing games history, and what non-gamers can learn from a video game or two. Edited excerpts:
As a gamer, did delving into the medium’s history change your opinion of it significantly?
A little bit—I grew up with video games, they were always part of my life just like books and television, and so a lot of the research just reinforced what I knew. But there were some surprises. One was that not all game makers play games. Seems obvious in hindsight but it did surprise me that a significant minority of game developers—including many great ones—don’t play video games.
The biggest discovery for me, however, was how influential games were on the adoption of home computers. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, people didn’t know what to do with a home computer. They used to talk about storing family recipes or cataloguing stamp collections on them. Even the boss of Atari, which used to make computers, admitted in public he didn’t know what the point of them was.
Back then games were the primary reason for owning a computer—although people were reluctant to say it. Without them it’s doubtful computers would have sold in the numbers they did and without those sales it would have taken longer for the price of computers to fall. I’ve no doubt that the mass adoption of computers worldwide would have happened anyway, but I do think it happened that bit earlier thanks to the popularity of video games.
Is an increased awareness of this early history something you’d recommend to everyone who’s encountered a video game?
I think most avid game players would enjoy learning about the history of the medium. Games by their very nature require more investment from their audience than a movie, which most people could watch fairly effortlessly. Because of this, game players tend to be more personally invested in the medium and more passionate about it. So I think they would find it enjoyable to learn just how far games have come in a few decades. There’s also something exciting about knowing you are a witness to the birth of a new form of entertainment.
What do you think non-gamers would take away from your book?
I would hope non-gamers would come away with a new understanding and appreciation for the creativity that lies behind video games even if they have no intention of playing them ever. For example, I don’t like poetry, but I would never ever argue that it is not art or it is to be looked down upon because I understand it has something about it that connects with many, many people. I hope Replay could bring non-gamers to a similar viewpoint, where they understand that games are not just vacant silly diversions (although they can be that too) but an emerging art form worthy of respect.
I think the focus on the technology of video games has done the medium harm. In the UK, games are still included in the technology sections of newspapers, not in the arts, entertainment or culture sections. That’s a mistake. It’s like looking at a painting and only seeing the types of paint used rather than the actual picture that paint has produced.
How well documented is the early history of the medium? Did the fact that games are a true “digital” medium make uncovering their history easier?
Prior to the 1980s, the information is quite patchy. Games only became commercially available at the start of the 1970s and the games were simple—mostly copies of the bat and ball game Pong. It must have been hard in 1975 to imagine that games could evolve into the medium we see today when your experience of video games has been knocking a ball back and forth on a black and white TV screen for hours on end. So people thought it was a novelty or fad and wasn’t worth much attention.
In the past 15 years, there has been a real effort by historians, particular amateur historians, to save the information that existed at that time from rubbish bins. A lot has been lost, including some historically significant games that were deleted from computers because people thought it was just a waste of memory space and details about the arcade games being made in the Soviet Union during the 1980s. But these people did make the job of tracking down information much, much easier and I owe them a debt.
That said, there were many gaps. There was little information available on the first coin-operated video game, Galaxy Game, for example. As a result, a lot of people have ended up believing that a game co-created by Atari founder Nolan Bushnell called Computer Space was the first.
Other gaps included information on the early years of the video-game industry in Europe, especially outside the UK. France, for example, had a distinctive game-design culture of its own in the 1980s but it took a lot of digging to find out anything about it in French, let alone in English.
What was helpful in finding some of this missing information is that video games are still relatively new. Many of the early pioneers are still alive and it was possible to track them down and get information first-hand from them. That’s one of the reasons I think it was important to do this book now.
Do you think there’s a peculiar combination of circumstances that create a vibrant game-design culture? India, for example, has a huge number of gamers but little local game development.
The lack of game development in India is surprising. India already has many of the ingredients. It clearly has the creative talent and technological expertise needed, as demonstrated by its film and IT industries. It also has a large domestic audience with access to platforms needed to play games.
One of India’s big problems is the high levels of piracy, but it isn’t insurmountable. South Korean game designers, for example, tackled their country’s piracy problem by focusing on making online multiplayer games. Since pirates would need a server to run these games, there’s little incentive to copy them. On top of that, many of these games are free to play and companies make their money from advertising or selling in-game items that enhance the experience to loyal players. It’s a model that has worked well, and since it emerged in the late 1990s it has spread throughout the world.
Bonus question: Would ‘Replay’ work as a video game?
That’s an interesting idea! I don’t think games are great for getting across factual information in a linear way; players need choices to make or an ability to influence what is happening in order to enjoy the experience. If you are just trying to tell them a series of facts, it’s hard to give them that choice or influence. But what might work is to have a game where you ran a game company and had to try and keep it going throughout the history of games. That way the player would have influence but you might be able to get across some of the key ideas and moments from game history as you went along