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If you think videogame history is in its infancy, just get a load of videogame historiography. Stick to the stuff in English and it makes for a mighty short bookshelf: Scott Cohen’s Zap! The Rise and Fall of Atari follows the industry pioneer into the murk of the 1983-1984 cartridge-system crash. David Sheff’s well-reviewed Game Over: How Nintendo Zapped an American Industry, Captured Your Dollars, and Enslaved Your Children offers an alarmist and jingoistic magazine-speak account of the Mario years. Leonard Herman’s Phoenix: The Fall & Rise of Videogames is a thoroughly researched vanity publication that reads like a workbench spec list. J.C. Herz’s glib Joystick Nation: How Videogames Ate Our Quarters, Won Our Hearts, and Rewired Our Minds did succeed in raising the bar, daring at least to approach the topic of videogames’ aesthetic appeal. But only last year did we see the publication of Steven Poole’s Trigger Happy: Videogames and the Entertainment Revolution, the first book to take videogames seriously as an art form, as opposed to merely a fun form.
And that’s about it. Though gamers have, almost since the initial commercial exploitation of the technology, numbered in the millions, ink-and-paper publishers have otherwise assumed that cheat guides and walk-throughs were all that could interest those of us who play games but don’t program them. In the early ’80s, an author as esteemed as Martin Amis may have been contracted to produce a book about the joystick scene, but Invasion of the Space Invaders: An Addict’s Guide to Battle Tactics, Big Scores and the Best Machines is little more than a rather literary compendium of playing tips, or so it’s reported. (I’m unwilling to part with the hundreds of dollars it would require to verify any assessment of this rarity.)
So it was with no small anticipation that I awaited Supercade: A Visual History of the Videogame Age, 1971-1984; I staked my claim to it with my editor months ago. The titleand the MIT Press imprimatursuggested a tough-minded book that would parse the visual phenomena of gaming and view the broader culture through the prism of public play. Well, a raster-blasting Homo Ludens it ain’t.
“Van Burnham is a videogame junkie,” we are told on the back flap, as if the flowering of the Great American Fanzine hadn’t disabused us of the notion that enthusiasm is an unimpeachable credential. She’s also a journalist, primarily for Wired, as well as a designer whose work owes a great debt to the same magazine. She has glued countless arty pix together with choppy text from her own hard drive and those of roughly two dozen guest scribes to make a big, shiny book sure to attract and frustrate an underserved readership, one that deserves better than grainy blowups from console ads and promo brochures and badly copy-edited capsule accounts covering the action in Donkey Kong Junior and the enduring popularity of Dig Dug’s Pooka. The bulk of the book consists of a semichronological, annotated photographic survey of games and platforms, but it doesn’t profit by Burnham’s organizational instincts. It might make sense to group games alphabetically within each year once the ball got rolling and many companies were releasing games at the same timethe flood of product rendering the issue of precedence both less important and harder to pin downbut to do so in the sparse early days, when every game was more or less the first of its kind, makes for a confounding progression: Atari’s fourth arcade entry, Gotcha, appears several pages before its third, Space Race.
As for the academic-press flag fluttering on the spine, it will go only so far with an author whose profuse thanks list includes “dexadrine” [sic], Coconut Jelly Bellys, and Aldo Nova. What could have played in a thinkier book as a disarming gambit advocating the embrace of all culture great and small comes across as a gratuitous reminder that you’re in Barbie’s room now. I suspect the real reason the MIT Press picked up this title, aside from the fact that Burnham took design and production off its hands, is that Supercade’s most substantial historical narrative not improperly places MIT itself at its center.
Although Burnham writes a one-page discussion of Willy Higinbotham’s Tennis for Two, a game whose 1958 unveiling at Brookhaven National Laboratory marked the first appearance of the Pong meme, the accounts of the development of Spacewar! at MIT in the early ’60s are all provided by other contributors, foremost among them J.M. Graetz, who helped design the game and who, as the auteur of the hyperspace button, merits our boundless thanks. Reprinted in slightly altered form from the August 1981 issue of Creative Computing, his memoir of the larceny-fueled metamorphosis of a model railroading club into a back-of-the-lab game studio is an enlightening romp, the best of Supercade’s several first-person accounts of the genesis of games such as Tempest and Q*bert, but it also smacks of the kind of smug, labored nuttiness that makes me back across the room whenever a hippie tries to buttonhole me with an amusing tale from his glory days.
As soon as Burnham kicks off 1971, with a cluttered, boxy Wired-style timeline, the tone shifts, and not for the better, growing shallower and more breathless as she plows from Computer Space to TX-1 through a blizzard of screen shots that appear to have been retouched until they have all the on-screen vibe of cartridge-box illos. (For some reason, wherever Supercade’s grabs of pixellated images aren’t fuzzed into nostalgic semilegibility, they look as though the originals were ink drawings rather than mosaics of light.)
Most of Burnham’s guest writers follow her lightweight lead, at times with risible results (Marc Saltzman doesn’t seem to realize that a Don Bluth film can’t be both a “hit” and a “commercial failure”; Damon Claussen describes his appearance on the Starcade quiz show as though he were writing a report for his ESL class). In terms of interpreting Golden Age gaming, rather than merely elbowing us into recalling all the good times, only design and architecture critic Tom Vanderbilt’s brief, poetic evocation of the Zen of Asteroids taunts us with a glimpse of what the book might have been.
One is a lonely number in a book that stretches more than 400 pages. Too much of Burnham’s own handiwork reads like the labors of an irrepressible flack. Steve Jobs’ inspiration for the Macintosh came when he “was searching for the next insanely great idea to push Apple to new levels of success for the future.” The PlayStation version of Lode Runner, which falls more than a decade outside the book’s avowed 1971-1984 purview, is “a surefire winner for classic Lode Runner fans.” Microsoft “will change the face of videogaming with the introduction of the Xbox,” a platform whose release, never mind its public reception, lay in the future when Burnham wrote those words. After running through a tally of Nintendo sequels, she sagely concludes, “Fortunately, there appears to be no end in sight for the ever-expanding Mario universe.” And in case you hadn’t heard, “A new generation of arcade classics are [sic] only one click away at Amazon.com.” If this is what passes for history, I can’t wait till I get my next history of home furnishings in the mail from Pottery Barn. One can only assume Burnham is getting her house in order before helming the launch of Super, an electronic-entertainment glossy that targets the 18-to-35 demo.
Supercade arrives this holiday season with a little competition. John Sellers’ Arcade Fever: The Fan’s Guide to the Golden Age of Video Games is a snarky, slim, but at least cleanly illustrated nostalgia fest. And Supercade contributor Steven L. Kent’s The Ultimate History of Video Games: From Pong to Pokémon and BeyondThe Story Behind the Craze That Touched Our Lives and Changed the World is a hefty, minimally illustrated business history. Though together the two cost less than Burnham’s book, many copies of Supercade are still likely to change hands come Christmas; it’s the only one of the bunch that really looks like a present.
And if the coffee table in your special someone’s living room has coin slots and fire buttons and beeps a lot, maybe your generosity won’t go entirely unappreciated. But if you can’t part with the 50 bucks and still want to score your geek pal a Supercade-style experience, just drop a few hints that the new Metal Gear might be waiting under the treethen tie a bright, red ribbon around your old copy of Reel Fishing II. CP