The history of video games is only beginning to be written, making this an enviable time to be a student of the medium. In what follows, we suggest points of entry into the ever-growing tale. Accompanying each capsule review, we throw out a few ideas to help you go further with original work of your own.
Recently Corey recommended the High Score documentary, so I decided to give it a look. Six hours later, here we are. Clearly pitched to a wide audience, if skewing nostalgic at times, the short series provides an inviting starting-point for our tour of history and historiography. Each of the episodes focuses on a particular topic, from arcades to consoles, RPGs to fighting games, and features interviews with a wide range of developers and makers of history. While not pretending to offer a comprehensive or critical dive into the history of games, the series nevertheless shines a light on some overlooked figures and populations in the industry. Engaging personalities, quality sound, and lively visuals make for an enjoyable watch.
- Trace the history of one or more of gaming’s unsung heroes in more detail: listen to The Nod’s episode on Jerry Lawson, Retronauts’ interview with Rebecca Heineman, or find your own long-lost copy of GayBlade to get started.
- Along the same lines, trace the roots of one or more marginalized groups featuring prominently in game history further back than the documentary reaches: Alan Turing and Ada Lovelace would be exemplary figures to include in the larger history of computers, without which video games would never have existed.
- To flip the process around, find an example of an artist or designer today whose work is informed by influences from video games. For instance, the NY Times podcast Still Processing is currently highlighting Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, by Cathy Park Hong, a poet whose earlier collection is intriguingly titled Dance Dance Revolution.
Replay: The History of Video Games, by Tristan Donovan provides a far more informative overview than High Score, while still being aimed at a wide audience. It’s the closest thing I’ve found to a comprehensive, book-length account of video game history. My own biases and the narrative I’m most familiar with, the sort of Nintendo-centric history told for example in Game Over, by David Sheff, is challenged throughout Replay, decentered and filled in by chapters telling the compelling and largely unknown (to me, anyway) history of games in countries other than the US and Japan.
- Choose one of the countries whose video game history comes into the book, and follow up using the sources provided in the notes and bibliography to learn more about it.
- Again, pick up where the book leaves off, writing your best imitation of the style and format which embraces the recent work of a single developer, indie or otherwise, not substantively included in Replay.
Donovan has published a history of board games as well, but in the interest of moving us into more scholarly territory, let’s turn next to Playing at the World, by Jon Peterson. The epithets “nerdy” or “obsessive” had occurred to me, too, but the painstaking research and judicious analysis packed into this volume can in fairness only be called “scholarly” at the end of the day. Taking on the history of role-playing games, with their connections back to table-top war games on the one hand and to fantasy fiction on the other, Peterson weaves together a complex and fascinating backstory for video game RPGs.
- As the book leaves off with only a glance towards RPGs in their video game iteration, continue the story with a case study of the development and impact of one of the major game series, such as Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest.