Participatory Historians in Digital Cultural Heritage Process: Monumentalization of the First Finnish Commercial Computer Game – Jaakko Suominen & Anna Sivula

Abstract: The paper deals with the question of how digital games become cultural heritage. By using examples of changing conceptualisations of the first commercial Finnish computer game, the paper illuminates the amateur and professional historicising of computer games. The general theoretical contribution of the paper is in the explanation of cultural heritage processes where contemporary cultural phenomena are historicised and in the illustration of the role of production of monuments in the historicising.

 

Introduction

Laurajane Smith argues that heritage is not only something material, which merely relates with the past. Rather, it is a process of engagement of contemporaries. According to Smith, heritage is an act of communication, and an act of creating meaning in, and for, the present. At the same time, it signifies cultural identity work, a cultural and social process, which engages with acts of remembering, hence creating ways of understanding the present (Smith 1–2.). The process of defining cultural heritage occurs within game cultures as well. Academically, and in hobbyist communities, and partially within the game industry, cultural heritage debate has roused demands such as that certain digital games have to be saved and preserved ”before it is too late” (e.g. Lowood et al.). In the sense of Laurajane Smith’s ideas, the reason for the preservation is the shared conceptualization that digital games are meaningful and they should be able to pass on to new generations. Digital games are not – yet – in the World Heritage List by UNESCO, but there are already game canons, lists of significant, important, and revolutionary games; collected and conducted by hobbyist communities and semi-officially nominated committees.[1] Even though those debates about the heritage value of game cultures circle around material issues and, in many cases, specific items – digital and non-digital – the debates are part of the process of engagement and communicative identity work described by Smith.

Recognized heritage ought to be preserved, and scholars, as well as game hobbyists, have examined various possibilities for digital game preservation. They have approached that from the perspectives on creation of (museum) collections and archives, documenting and emulation and migration of game software code and so forth, which all can be perceived as ‘heritage work’ or ‘heritage management’ (Smith 2006) for ensuring that valuable items could be transferred for new generations. (See e.g. Swalwell; Heinonen & Reunanen; Guttenbrunner et al.; Barwick et al.. For a critical overview, see Newman.)[2] The discussion of digital game preservation is significant, but it, primarily, lacks serious contemplation regarding one of the key questions that is the focus of this paper: how the game cultural elements are recognized and selected as being worthy of preservation, of becoming elevated to the status of cultural heritage?  Obviously, one simple answer to the question is that particular games and devices have received wide recognition and impact as novelties in their contemporary contexts and therefore their value is somehow self-evident. We argue that there are other reasons to consider: more local and marginal means and, especially, historicized value of something to be the first of its kind. These canonical items of cultural heritage, we call here monuments.

Our primary theoretical concepts in this paper are the above mentioned (cultural) heritage process and monument. The cultural heritage process is observed in light of a case of early Finnish commercial computer games. Instead of being particularly interested in what digital game actually was the earliest production in Finland, we will merely deal with the question of public discourse of firstness and its connections with the cultural heritage process. The emergence of such discourse, representing the past of Finnish game cultures in a precise manner, we argue, is a sign of a particular phase of a cultural heritage process where specific actors have a motivation to discover origins of national game cultures and industry. Thus, we ask here, who is historicizing Finnish commercial computer games? When did the question of the first game emerge? How is the debate related to the process in which digital games become cultural heritage?  The case provides answers to the primary research question: how are certain items selected and transformed to the cultural heritage of digital game culture, particularly in the role of a monument? This article provides a model for comparison on other case examples in different contexts.

The article consists of the following sections: we will begin with an introduction to our essential theoretical concepts based on contemporary academic discussion on cultural heritage. Then, we will illustrate our case and describe public debate about the first, Finnish commercial computer game. In conclusion, we will return to theoretical conceptualizations of historicizing “firsts.”

Cultural heritage, community and monuments

Raiford Guins (108–109) has described the remnants of arcade game machines, such as Pac-Man or Pole Position cabinets, as unintentional monuments. Leaning on Austrian art historian Alois Riegl’s definition (1903), Guins states that even though the machines were monumental in their own age, they were not intended “for deliberate commemoration.” According to Guins, their monument status is new — or what we would contend: newly historicized.

Monuments are the vital elements in the production of cultural heritage.[3] The topical question is how and when an average digital game object is transformed from an ordinary artefact or a commodity to a realm of memory (Nora 626), or, as we prefer, a monument of digital culture.

A monument is a historical artefact that has a specific symbolic value to a certain cultural heritage community, i.e. a group of people who share an understanding of their common history.[4] In the cultural history of games, for instance, the famous and somehow special game devices and games, such as the first coin-op games or home consoles, now presented in museums and private collections, can become monuments to game culture. Such monuments are able to commodified as new products such as retrogames.[5]

Figure 1. Commodore 64 has unintentionally become a monument of the 1980s home computer culture in Finland, as well as in other places. Here is a C-64 advertisement “Liberator” from the first issue of MikroBitti home computer magazine (1/1984) referring to an internationally recognized deliberate monument, the Statue of Liberty. Later on, C-64 was also advertised as “the Computer of the Republic” with e.g. references to Finnish national flag and national romantic famous paintings, due to C-64’s popularity and market dominance.

Figure 1. Commodore 64 has unintentionally become a monument of the 1980s home computer culture in Finland, as well as in other places. Here is a C-64 advertisement “Liberator” from the first issue of MikroBitti home computer magazine (1/1984) referring to an internationally recognized deliberate monument, the Statue of Liberty. Later on, C-64 was also advertised as “the Computer of the Republic” with e.g. references to Finnish national flag and national romantic famous paintings, due to C-64’s popularity and market dominance.

A monument is an active element in a dynamic network of cultural heritage processes. A monument derives its cultural value and meaning from historical interpretations. A monument, a particular gaming artefact for example, is a link between the different elements of the production of social memories. Things, places, events, and stories are comprised in a monument. (Aronsson 197.)

The monument is historical by nature. The making of a monument requires a historical antecedent. When elements of cultural heritage are selected and thus, cultural heritage produced, the argumentation is grounded on histories. History, in this context, is a representation of the past, based on research and traceable source materials. The value of particular game devices, games and game related practices, is built on the historical representations of them, but the research conducted by professional, trained historians is not the sole source of these representations. Therefore, it is important to ask; who writes the history? The one, who conveys the history and conducts the process of cultural heritage?

As mentioned above, cultural heritage as a concept does not only refer to material or immaterial objects, but to a dynamic process (Smith 44–45; Bortolotto 21–22).  In this circular process, cultural heritage is produced, used, and reproduced. Instead of only consisting of objects, cultural heritage is merely an experience of historical continuum and social participation (Smith 45 and 49–50). Cultural heritage is also an instrument of various sorts of group-identity work, which has several transnational, national and local levels. (Sivula 2015; Sivula & Siro 2015.)

There are several groups, as well as individuals, who are developing their historical identity with digital games: game developers, players, journalists, and collectors, to name a few. On the other hand, there is not any indigenous group of digital culture, who possesses an exclusive right to the cultural heritage of digital games. A heritage community experiences the possession of cultural heritage and thus uses it in identity work and maintains its symbolic value. (Sivula 2010, 29.) According to Pierre Nora, the realms of memory are remnants or symbols of the past, “where [cultural] memory crystallizes and secretes itself” (Nora 1989, 7).

Cultural heritage is an instrument of identity work with the symbols and traces of the past, experience of participation, and shared historical experience. (Sivula 2015.) The identity work is performed by a cultural heritage community, as seen below.

 

Figure 2. This basic pattern illustrates the three types of identity work of a cultural heritage community. The heritage community shares and is aware of a common history, which values certain traces of the past as historical symbols and/or historical evidence, and experiences participation in a mutual, historical project. (Sivula 2015, 66.)

Figure 2. This basic pattern illustrates the three types of identity work of a cultural heritage community. The heritage community shares and is aware of a common history, which values certain traces of the past as historical symbols and/or historical evidence, and experiences participation in a mutual, historical project. (Sivula 2015, 66.)

The researching and interpretation of the past keeps the cultural heritage process active. Further, the practice of researching, interpreting and representing the past can be observed as the three phases of historiographical operation. According to Paul Ricoeur, the three phases are: 1) documentation, 2) explaining and understanding the past and 3) the historical representation of the past. (Ricoeur 169–170, 182–184 and 234–235; Sivula 2006, 44–45). The cultural heritage process begins with an attempt at historicizing the past, selected by a heritage community. A historian, either amateur or a professional, steps through all the three phases of historical operation, until the past is documented, explained and understood, and further represented in the form of a history.

Monuments – tangible or intangible – are the traces of the past, used in the identity work of a cultural heritage community both as documentary, historical evidence, and meaningful, historical symbols. The symbolic and/or evidential value of a monument, as a realm of social memory, is based on history. Written or oral histories are acting as, and used as frame stories, establishing the meaning of cultural heritage. However, when digital game culture is concerned, one is able to find these histories, for example, in game magazines and online forums consisting of feature articles on (developments of) particular games, genre, developers, and devices; or personal memoirs or one’s personal gaming histories. A tangible or intangible monument, in its turn, serves as evidence and thus solidifies the plot and content of heritage communities’ historical self-comprehension. (Sivula 2015, 64–67.)

Histories are, during the cultural heritage process, used in order to highlight some important moments and attach some remnants of the past i.e., monuments, to these highlighted moments of shared history. (Sivula 2015, 66.) Monuments are usually attached to the beginning of the historical story, or to the turning points of the historiographically described process. Monuments are, therefore, often attached to historically important turning points, or to the instance in which a progressive series of events starts to unfold. In Finland, for instance, the Commodore 64, the most popular home computer of the 1980s, is that sort of monument, which signifies the turn towards home computer gaming and the micro computing age and, which, functions as a media technological symbol for a certain generation of people. In Japan, the Nintendo Famicom console has the similar role, and we are able to find a plethora of examples from other countries.

Figure 3. Pelaa! (Play!) Exhibition in Salo Art Museum in Finland in 2009 is an example of how to give new meanings for game cultural objects. Here in the above picture, for example, is the Nokia mobile phone Snake game, and both Nokia cell phone and its Snake game are key objects of Finnish national technology historical frame stories. Photo: Petri Saarikoski.

Figure 3. Pelaa! (Play!) Exhibition in Salo Art Museum in Finland in 2009 is an example of how to give new meanings for game cultural objects. Here in the above picture, for example, is the Nokia mobile phone Snake game, and both Nokia cell phone and its Snake game are key objects of Finnish national technology historical frame stories. Photo: Petri Saarikoski.

In the monumentalisation process, the meaning of the object obviously transmutes from its original significance. J. C. Herz (61–62), for instance, richly describes the change in the videogaming context in her famous popular book on videogame history, Joystick Nation. In her work she portrays an early coin-op videogame exhibition at the American Museum of the Moving Images, where game cabinets’ new displacement has illuminated and underlined their novel contextualization. The machines were not situated as close to each other as they would have been in arcades, where their placement catalysed an aesthetic elevation in the author’s mind: “They are privileged with space, like statues or really expensive clothing, and thus become Design Objects. And this is when you realize, for the first time, that these cabinets, apart from containing your favourite videogames, are really just goddam beautiful.”

There is plethora of games that are not actively played anymore. Some of them have already been forgotten, but some of them, nonetheless, have the potential to become monuments of digital culture. The cultural heritage potential of a game appears, most often, to be rested on the argument of being “the first” or being a “historical turning point.”

Figure 4. “Now it’s time to put the Finlandia hymn [composed by “the greatest composer of Finland” (Wikipedia) Jean Sibelius] on a record player, because the first, Finnish game has conquered the world”. Niko Nirvi's review of Sanxion (programmed by Stavros Fasoulas, published by Thalamus in 1986) in MikroBitti 12/1986, 72, illustrates how contemporaries are able to historicize games in a way that affects later historical writing.

Figure 4. “Now it’s time to put the Finlandia hymn [composed by “the greatest composer of Finland” (Wikipedia) Jean Sibelius] on a record player, because the first, Finnish game has conquered the world”. Niko Nirvi’s review of Sanxion (programmed by Stavros Fasoulas, published by Thalamus in 1986) in MikroBitti 12/1986, 72, illustrates how contemporaries are able to historicize games in a way that affects later historical writing.

We have noticed that the frame stories of the cultural heritage process of computer games are not global (though in many cases globalized), but are rather national histories. In Finland, there are already some popular histories available, and there is a vivid, ongoing discussion on the beginnings and turning points of digital gaming in Finland. The symbolic monuments are not yet largely selected, but they are under historical construction (see e. g. figures 1, 3, 4). The usability of these selected items of cultural heritage depends on their historical value. Selected items can be used, for example, as unique celebrated artefacts in museums, and/or as commodified, copied, varied, and reproduced elements in retro- and heritage industrial contexts. On the other hand, monuments are able to be based on shared experiences: they are not curiosities, they are unique items or have particular cult status as rarities but merely popular and international items such as above mentioned Commodore 64 computer or specific popular game products. However, in this case, we focus on a rarity as a potential monument. The next section of the paper will deal with the case of the first commercial computer game in Finland.

Debate on the first Finnish commercial computer game

There are never ending debates in different fields regarding what was the first of a particular type of invention, technology, media form, or something else. This debate has already been recognized earlier, for example, by computer historians. The history of computer games and videogames is not an exception. The debate on what is the first video game or computer game has mainly been international – or essentially, US oriented. One is able to find variations of this discussion from almost every videogame history book or textbook of game studies, which repeat stories and report new findings related to American Tennis for Two, Spacewar!, Pong and so on.  When the national and local digital game historical representations of the past have begun to emerge, the similar debate has achieved domestic dimensions and bloomed as national versions. This has happened in Finland as well, mainly within computer and game hobbyist communities and in online discussion forums and publications.

Computer scientist and historian John A. N. Lee (57) provides several reasons for the “common desire to be associated with firsts” within the history of computing. On the one hand, it is certainly desirable to become recognized in history as an inventor or a founder or discoverer of some sort of historical origins of the important phenomenon. On the other hand, other reasons can be economic: “Unique firsts do have a place in the identification of the owners of intellectual property rights with respect claims on patents, copyrights, and such.” Lee notes critically that in many cases, it is difficult to define something as being the first and continues further: “Everyone likes firsts but the attraction is for fame and fortune rather than downstream usefulness—firsts are better left to the Guinness Book of Records than being the subject of endless, meaningless arguments in scholarly journals.” (See also Haigh)

Overall, the discussion about the first digital game in Finland has primarily dealt with the issue of the first Finnish commercial computer game publication and not the very first Finnish (digital) game ever produced, perhaps because the publication is less difficult to master: before commercial publications there was a quite uncertain phase of non-commercial amateur game projects, a period of producing and playing of games with mainframe and mini computers (Saarikoski 264). Some studies dealing with earlier developments, at least partially, have appeared (see e.g. Saarikoski; Paju; Saarikoski & Suominen), as well as studies pondering questions of the earliest computers and microcomputers in Finland (e.g. Suominen 2003; Saarikoski 2004; Paju).

Even though the question of the earliest Finnish commercial computer game release seems rather straightforward from the first sight, it is much more complicated than that. Basically, we can challenge all of the elements of the question: what does “Finnish” mean? And what do we signify with “a computer” game’ or with a “commercial?”

Let’s now trace the tracks and marks regarding the online debate of the first commercial computer game in Finland using Google search as a helper. It appears that there are only a few hits with the keywords “first Finnish computer game” or “first Finnish video game” (during the process of writing first manuscript of the paper in Spring 2014). However, for example, the Dome.fi-site, which has focused on forms of popular culture, such as television, cinema and games; consists of various articles and discussions about the issue. Jukka O. Kauppinen, a pioneering game journalist and one of the key persons researching the historicisation of digital gaming in Finland (Suominen 2011; Suominen et al. 2015), published, along with with Miikka Lehtonen and Teemu Viemerö, an article about the early years of the Finnish game industry and the “first Finnish games” on the 1st of December 2013. The authors opened their article with a summary introduction and referred to an antecedent text handling the 30-year anniversary exhibition about the Finnish game industry. The exhibition had been had been organized for the DigiExpo2013 fair by the association of Finnish game importers, FIGMA. Game distributer firms trace their history from the establishment of Petri Lehmuskoski’s company, Toptronics, in 1983. In the article, Kauppinen and his colleagues stated that not only importing, but also the production of the first commercial games began in Finland 30 years before prior (Viemerö et al. 1.12.2013.).

The above-mentioned writers noted that the company Amersoft was probably the first game publisher in Finland. They looked through the company’s different phases by introducing its, as well as some other publishers’ early releases. They discussed the following games: Joe the Whizz Kid (1985), RahaRuhtinas (1984, Amersoft), Sanxion (1986), Uuno Turhapuro muuttaa maalle (1986, Amersoft), Painterboy (1986), Delta (1987), Quedex (1987), Octapolis (1987), and Netherworld (1988). About Amersoft, they wrote:

The book publisher Amersoft was probably the first Finnish game publisher whose contribution to domestic game field was very significant. The best knowledge available suggests that that the first domestic commercially published game was RahaRuhtinas [“Money Prince”], which came out in 1984 which was a pseudo-3D graphic implemented adventure. Little information remains about the game’s aims or storyline for future generations, however, the Finnish adventure game was, according to some recollections, quite functional and entertaining (Viemerö et al. 1.11.2013).

Figure 5. Raharuhtinas represented in the Dome online magazine article 1st of December 2013.

Figure 5. Raharuhtinas represented in the Dome online magazine article 1st of December 2013.

Quite obvious sources in tracing popular knowledge of game cultural histories are main social media platforms, particularly Wikipedia and also game historical vlogs on YouTube. In the winter 2013–2014, Finnish Wikipedia’s chronological list of Finnish games stated that RahaRuhtinas was the first game (Wikipedia: Suomen videopelialan historia 30.11.2013).  Wikipedia referred to another of Jukka O. Kauppinen’s articles, published on June 27, 2011. The article was titled “Is this the first Finnish game ever” There, Kauppinen noted that “who knows how long the search for the first Finnish commercial computer game has lasted, and there has not been a definitive answer to the question so far. Although there are several good candidates.” Kauppinen first mentioned the Yleisurheilu (Track and field sports) game for Commodore 64, released in 1985 by Amersoft and stated that RahaRuhtinas had an even earlier release date. He continued: “According to some claims, there are some older Vic-20 games as well, but it seems that one cannot find quite now very exact evidence about them” (Kauppinen 27.6.2011.) In his article, Kauppinen also referred to a discussion that occurred in April 2011, in MuroBBS online discussion forum. However, Raharuhtinas was not actually mentioned there, only more recent commercial games and older non-commercial games (MuroBBS 14.4.2011). Obviously, it is worthwhile to follow article links and references and trace their mutual connections and cross-references in an ongoing loop bouncing between Wikipedia entries, online articles, and message boards.

Information dealing with Amersoft and Raharuhtinas became more specified in 2013 and in spring 2014. In autumn 2013, game historians, hobbyists and collectors Markku Reunanen, Mikko Heinonen and Manu Pärssinen, published an article about the history of Finnish games in Finnish Yearbook of Game Studies (Pelitutkimuksen vuosikirja 2013). Their article was based on their database of Finnish games published at the Videogames.fi site. They claimed: “So far the oldest finding is an adventure game Raharuhtinas, programmed by Simo Ojaniemi and published by Amersoft in the year 1984.” On the 14th of December 2013, however, Videogames.fi was updated and a new game appeared. The site alleged that the first game, also programmed by Simo Ojaniemi, was called Mehulinja (Juice line), not Raharuhtinas: “[Mehulinja] requires a VIC-1211 Super Expander extension. According to our current information, Mehulinja is the first commercially published computer game. The game won I came-made-won programming contest in 1984.” The example shows how researchers, at least, were careful when claiming something as being the first.

Videogames.fi refers to another website called Sinivalkoinen pelikirja (http://sinivalkoinenpelikirja.com/) (Blue-white game book [colours referring to the Finnish national flag]), which has published a review of the Mehulinja game on 22 March, 2013. The Sinivalkoinen pelikirja site was connected to an ongoing book project, a chronicle about Finnish game history. The book was published in spring 2014. On the one hand, the book, written by journalist Juho Kuorikoski and based on the website, claimed that RahaRuhtinas is “as far as we know, the first commercial Finnish game for Commodore 64.” Kuorikoski mentioned three “small games” programmed by Simo Ojaniemi for VIC-20 published in the same year: Mehulinja, Herkkusuu (Sweet Tooth) and Myyräjahti (Vole Hunt) (Kuorikoski 12). On the other hand, he declares that Raharuhtinas was the first Finnish game released (20) and that Yleisurheilu was only “one candidate for being the first Finnish game ever.” (25). That variation proves the uncertainty of the first.[6]

Figure 6. Mehulinja entry on sinivalkoinenpelikirja.com website.

Figure 6. Mehulinja entry on sinivalkoinenpelikirja.com website.

Similar updating of the information has happened on a YouTube channel by alias AlarikRetro. He published a video review – another type of history – of Raharuhtinas on December 1th, 2013 and remarked that the game was the first Finnish release. Only a few days later, the 14th of December, he included an edit, in which he refers to the Videogames.fi site and states that actually Mehulinja was the first (AlarikRetro 8.12.2013 and AlarikRetro 27.12.2013) There are similar debates on other hobbyist sites.

In sum, the question of the first game has not been verified, although though it has received some emerging interest. Then, in July 2014, a novel turn took place, when Manu Pärssinen and Markku Reunanen discovered a new, an older candidate, which might have been the first commercial computer game in Finland. That was called Chesmac, a game programmed by Raimo Suonio in 1979 for the Telmac 1800 home computer. According to Suonio, the game, released by computer retailer Topdata, sold 104 copies. Pärssinen and Reunanen published several documents related to game, such as scanned photos of the game’s manual and an interview with the programmer (Pärssinen & Reunanen 28.7.2014). The news of this new first was circulated in online magazines as well as in newspapers (Kauppinen 28.7.2014; Berschewsky 28.7.2014). In the end, the leading Finnish newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, published an interview with the programmer Raimo Suonio (Jokinen 10.8.2014). Thus, the history of Finnish commercial game releases turned out to be at least five years longer than previously thought and has garnered, for the first time, major public coverage in Finland. It therefore appears that the discussion amongst hobbyists and researcher-hobbyists has emerged and strengthened during last few years.[7]

We would argue that such interest in discussing and representing the past was not only related to collecting of games, or sort of hobbyist retrogaming boom, but also to international emerging interest towards digital game preservation, exhibitions, and a turn towards the research of national and local aspects of games and game cultures (See also English blog writing on the history of Finnish digital games: Skäpädi Pöy 28.8.2013). This shift was also connected to the organization and recognition of the Finnish game industry.  It is a sign of legitimization and institutionalization processes of digital games in society.

Figure 7. Helsingin Sanomat titled their interview as "Raimo Suonio, a pioneer of Finnish game developers. [...] developed the first commercial computer game in Finland." In the photo, Suonio holds his old Telmac 1800 computer.

Figure 7. Helsingin Sanomat titled their interview as “Raimo Suonio, a pioneer of Finnish game developers. […] developed the first commercial computer game in Finland.” In the photo, Suonio holds his old Telmac 1800 computer.

However, there has not been significant discussion about the first Finnish commercial game yet outside the hobbyist and academic communities, even though it seems to be emerging during the time of writing this article in autumn 2014.[8] Earlier, for example, one is not able to find many mentions of first games in the database of the largest Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, nor in many other newspapers published by the same corporation. The references are from the 2000s and they are not connected to the first ever Finnish commercial game, but rather to the first Finnish publication for a certain new platform, such as first game for PS3 (Digitoday 27.4.2007), PS4, Nintendo Wii (Kauppalehti 23.6.2009, 14–15), Steam downloading platform (Digitoday 13.9.2006), etc. These mentions belong, thus, to contemporary discussion where the importance of the game industry has been acknowledged and where turning points are aimed at aimed at explaining contemporary use and applicably only for future history writings. The issues are distinctively connected to the economy, ICT sector, and new cultural industry.

When Chesmac, Mehulinja, Raharuhtinas and other games were published in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, the game industry was an undeveloped field internationally. Historical understanding or awareness was not established, not even among game developers and players. The establishment of Finnish computer hobbyist and game oriented publications from the mid-1980s, created the needed public space for the creation and construction of historical understanding amongst hobbyists and players (see Saarikoski 2004; Suominen 2011). The press created hero stories about the earliest Finnish game designer individuals and occasionally introduced the first releases in a certain genre (first adventure game etc.) (Saarikoski 2004, 264), or underlined the historical importance of some new releases (such as the Sanxion game, published in 1986). Amersoft, however, had a somewhat marginal role in the early magazines, even though some of its publications were reviewed and it had advertised it products, primarily books, but also some games. These early computer hobbyist magazines and game magazines later on, including the above mentioned hero stories – which usually revealed histories of individual programmers or game designers as computer users, gamers and developers, have acted as sources when the interest towards the early phases of Finnish game industry has been emerged since the early 2000s.

In the beginning of the 2000s, new interest towards development of the Finnish game industry and education emerged. This was due to several, interconnected reasons. International success stories such as with the Max Payne (2001) PC-game, developed by Finnish company Remedy, raised interest towards the game industry. Importantly, it was situated in the international trend of new cultural and creative industries. Likewise, the triumph of cell phone corporation Nokia created an information and communication technological boom which, in its minor part, focused on mobile game software development.

Several game industry and education reports were published. Even though they mostly referred to the national history of game industry (typically excluding non-digital games, for example) very cursory, they articulated the more general trend, which with was related to the production of game historical narrative: the significant branch of industry had its roots. However, the origin story of game developers themselves did not mention Chesmac, Mehulinja, Raharuhtinas or some other early games but was fastened to so-called demoscene phenomenon due to the fact that some key persons of the focal firms, like Remedy and Housemarque, which had their background in the late 1980s and early 1990s demoscene (on demoscene’s role in the Nordic game industry, see Jørgensen et al. 2015). The demoscene origin story was introduced in the interviews of firm personnel in computer and game magazines and newspapers in the late 1990s. Later on, it has growth as a myth which has been repeated in publications as well as in the interviews of early game developers (e.g. Niipola 51–62; Kuorikoski 36–38).

But as we have argued, the primary “boom of the first” has started to emerge in last few years. It has mixed ingredients from new success stories of Finnish game industry, post-Nokia context, establishment of retrogaming, anniversaries as well as “awakenings” of memory organizations and researchers on questions of game history and preservation. What has happened? Who uses history, for what and why?

The First Game is both a piece of historical evidence and a symbol

We argue that cultural heritage process of digital games has reached a new phase, and the Finnish heritage community of digital games is actively involved in a new kind of identity work. The institutionalization of this new type of heritage has begun. The cultural heritage process of digital gaming can be observed in the context of the different levels of the cultures of history.

Oral and written histories are produced in three different fields. First, there is the academic field of history-cultural activities consisting of academic rules, refereed publications and academically trained researchers with doctoral degrees. Histories are based on the source criticism and supplementary rules of academic research. Secondly, there is a field of the public, which consists of politically controlled and publicly funded processes of cultural heritage with less strict academic control, but much more discussions on and monetary involvement. The institutionalization of cultural heritage takes often place on the second level of the cultures of history. It is conducted with political decisions, and there is not a specific means of control for the credibility of a frame story. The third field is the field of amateurs; such as individuals and groups of hobbyists, even families, selecting meaningful things from the more or less authentic remains of their pasts. The amateur is permitted to choose whatsoever (elements of) heritage and use any kind of frame stories as arguments, without an obligation to put the arguments to the test of any kind. The three fields of cultural heritage are interrelated.  Amateurs are often extremely active in the second field of cultures of history. An amateur may find academic research useful as a frame story that gives meaning to one’s own cultural heritage of her/his own.  An academic researcher or a politician may also be an enthusiastic amateur, and an academic researcher often uses the academic competences for to promote the cultural heritage process and consolidate the cultural heritage value of the historical remnants of her own hobby.  (Sivula 2013, 163; Aronsson 43.)

The case we described above shows that the first game historians were not usually “proper” professional historians, but more likely historically oriented amateurs. The active heritage community, in our case, consisted of the hobbyists.

It seems to be quite common, that the historicisation of a new culture begins among the community or groups of the amateur historians, involved in the historical process themselves. (Cf. history of computing and Lee 1996.) Because of this involvement, we refer to them as participatory historians. Amateur popular historians use often specific period-related concepts as metaphors or rhetorical elements.[9] Accurate or not, the amateur historian has already marked the turning points of the story, when an academic professional historian begins the research work. The preliminary plot of historical narrative, suggesting the argument for valuable cultural heritage, is often constructed by the amateurs.

The plot of history has, at least, a beginning and an end, and a change in between them. The emplotment of a history consists of the defining of the origins of the historicized phenomenon’s life cycle, marking some turning points of the process and constructing the end of the presentation. In the presentations of the history of digital gaming, there have been some international discussions on, what actually was the first game.  The battles of what came first are common in the discussions on the phenomena that are not yet historicized, however they can continue after that as well. Historian of an incomplete process is strongly interested in the beginnings of the process and the origins of the phenomenon.

Either the beginning or the end of a historical narrative is usually self-evident. The first and the last fact of a historical series are often chosen from among several options.  The defining of an origin, the beginning of the story, is an act of interpretation. It is, however, not an arbitrary one. The professional historian’s choice must be based on evidence. The interpretations are built in negotiations (Foucault 34; Ricoeur 143–144.) The plot of a written or orally solidified history determines the experienced value of the cultural heritage. The original game is experienced to be historically more valuable than the successor or a copy.

According to Michel Foucault, the past was an irregular chaos of events, and an oral or written history organizes these events. (Foucault 34–35.)  History gives comprehensibility to the past and solidifies the connections of separate events, building series of events and building the sense and sensibility of time and temporality. The oral or written, amateur or professional history, as a frame story of the cultural heritage process, solidifies the symbolic function of a monument.

There are some regular phases in every cultural heritage process. In our case, the digital game is originally used, functioning and experienced as a game. In the new context, though, it is defined in the historical frame story, it begins to be used and experienced as cultural heritage, either as a tool for to build the temporal identity of a heritage community, e.g. group of players, or as a tool of building the public image or other communicative activity of an enterprise or other corporation. Likewise, it could be used by the state or international organizations. For these goals they use all the other institutionalized cultural resources, such as education or cultural production. In the cultural heritage process, the use, function and experience of the game, all change. The public or private heritage community has either active or more or less subconscious goal of increasing the symbolic value of the game. The game with increased symbolic value, cultural heritage value, can still be played, although it might represent outdated technology and design.

When public resources and the academic field of history culture are involved in the cultural heritage process, the histories used as frame stories are most often based on academic, professional research. The interpretations pass the normal academic quality control. In the field of amateurs and in the private field the rules are different, but in many cases academic sub-contractors are hired for to produce the frame story.

When an object, e.g. a digital game, is identified as a symbol or evidence of the history shared by a group of the digital cultural heritage community, it receives a new social function. It is no longer only a game, but a monument or a place of memory. It is used, either with a playful sense of retro or in the more serious feeling of the memorizing the past, in commemorative rituals. It becomes a tool of identity work. (See also Heineman) Sooner or later, it may be rejected, changed, found to be useless or be replaced with another, more accurate tool, e.g. what we have learned with the changing definition of the first commercial computer game in Finland. Or the community, whose identity tool the cultural heritage was, may disband and move on (Bohman 17–23; Sivula 2013, 161–164).

Conclusion

Digital game culture is a unique field of contemporary culture, and a very interesting one at that. Our case study opens a view to the historiographical operations of participatory historians. Our case aids us in understanding the strengths and weaknesses, risks and opportunities of the historiographical practice related to monuments. It helps to develop the methodology of analysing the historiographical operations, historicizing the contemporary culture. To be critical, we ought to know, how the monument of the first digital game was erected.

In most cases of the production of new monuments, the role of the amateur field has been essential. The production of monuments is a part of historiographical operations and it is clearly located in the documentary and representative phases of the model of historiographical operation, presented by Paul Ricoeur.

The right to choose a monument of digital game culture cannot be monopolized by either academics or amateurs. In our case, both academics and computer game hobbyists were active, selecting objects that they considered worth of preserving and creating monuments of Finnish game culture. In the case of the cultural heritage process of Finnish computer games, the academic field of history culture is closely and continuously interacting with the history-cultural field of amateurs. Many actors of the academic field do have a position in the field of amateurs as well. In other words: there are many computer game hobbyists among the academic researchers of the history of digital culture. The historiographical operation of digital games produces plethora of monuments.

The question of what was the first game becomes important in the phase of representation of historiographical operation. That is the phase where the plot of history is created. The question of what came first is often already answered, even before a professional historian gets an opportunity to make any conclusions.

We can conclude that there are some preconditions for a reliable definition of the firstness, when concerned with digital games. All the concurrent definitions must be observed critically, paying attention to the goals and needs of inventors of the monuments.

First, there is the contemporary definition. A chronicling actor has a motive to spot and articulate a new field, turning point or a milestone. The actor wishes to claim that something important, even revolutionary has happened. We must notice who is acting and why.

Second, there is a retrospective definition. Usually, it is connected to a situation and phase where certain field of actions is the subject of reformation and re-definition. Need for birth stories and origin stories, when legitimizing a need for a cultural industry and several organizations related to it, has taken place. It this case as well, economy and politics have certain role in the process. There is a supply of and demand for money.

Third, there is a specified retrospective definition. That happens, for example, when celebrating anniversaries. In Finland and within digital game cultures, this sort of definition has not happened until recent years and celebrations of the 30th anniversary of commercial game development and digital game importing businesses.

The knowledge related to what is first might become more exact, although this is not necessary. A contemporary definition of what has been the first do not occur, if phenomenon does not feel like significant for contemporaries – if they don’t comprehend that they are living “historical moments.” With the Finnish case, it was not until the publication of “the first Finnish adventure game”, a release of specific popular genre, was the rhetoric of first actually launched. Another option is that they do not comprehend something as being first: this question applies to what is Finnish, what is a game and what is commercial? Because definitions of all of the three aspects are controversial, it is difficult to define something as first Finnish commercial game publication.

The question of what is the first, functions on at least two levels: on one hand, it can deal with the particular first (first game ever), but essentially there are difficulties, and in many cases, that are not necessary to define. On the other hand, questions regarding firstness are connected to larger turning points and they are less difficult to outline: there is, for example, no doubt that that Commodore 64 was the first popular home computer in Finland and the first popular computer gaming device available.

 

Acknowledgements: We are grateful to the Kone Foundation for funding the Kotitietokoneiden aika ja teknologisen harrastuskulttuurin perintö [Home Computer Era and the Heritage of Technological Hobby Culture] project, and the Academy of Finland for funding Ludification and the Emergence of Playful Culture (decision #275421). In addition, we thank the two anonymous referees for their useful comments.

 

Works Cited

Interviews

Reunanen, Markku 5.3.2014, Facebook chat with Jaakko Suominen.

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Digitoday 2007

Kauppalehti 2009

MikroBitti 1984–1986

Poke&Peek 1983–1984

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AlarikRetro: “RahaRuhtinas (C64): Videoarvostelu” YouTube-video, published 8.12.2013.

Berschewsky, Tapio: “30 vuotta ennen Angry Birdsiä – Tämä on ensimmäinen kaupallinen suomalaispeli. Ilta-Sanomat Online” Ilta-Sanomat Online 28.7.2014.

Heinonen, Mikko: “Suomipelien kronikka” V2.fi 6.12.2009.

Jokinen, Pauli: “Raimo Suonio on Suomen pelintekijöiden pioneeri.” Helsingin Sanomat 10.8.2014.

Kauppinen, Jukka O.: “Onko tämä ensimmäinen suomalainen peli ikinä?” Dome.fi 27.6.2011.

Kauppinen, Jukka O.: “Suomalainen peliala 30 vuotta? Ehei, uusi löytö ajoittaa ensimmäisen kaupallisen suomipelin vuoteen 1979!” Dome.fi 28.7.2014.

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Pärssinen, Manu & Reunanen, Markku: “Ensimmäinen suomalainen tietokonepeli.” V2.fi 28.7.2014.

Rautanen, Niila T.: C= inside, Finnish Commodore Archive.

Sinivalkoinenpelikirja.com

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Notes

[1] See, for example, The Game Canon proposed for the Library of Congress, consisting of games such as Spacewar!, Tetris and Doom and selected by a committee comprising game historian Henry Lowood, game designers Warren Spector, Steve Meretzky and Matteo Bittanti, as well as blogger Christopher Grant.

[2] We thank referee number two for giving us information on some more recent software preservation projects: Preserving Virtual Worlds Final Report (2010); Preserving.Exe. Toward a National Strategy for Software Preservation (2013); Emulation & Virtualization as Preservation Strategies (2015); Software Preservation Network Proposal (2015).

[3] The constructionistically oriented researchers of heritagization, e.g. Laurajane Smith, do not use the concept of monument in the sense we do. From the point of view of the historicization of a tangible or intangible object, the concept of monument is useful.

[4] The specific group, working with its identity in the process of cultural heritage, can be named as cultural heritage community.

[5] The line between the artifacts/monuments and commodities becomes less clear when old devices and game software are bought and sold at Internet auction sites. Various music videos, works of art, books and new editions and revisions of old game products– in some degree commercials as well – are also commodities of the cultures of history (Author 2 & Author 1 2004). (See Suominen 2008; 2012.)

[6] In a Facebook chat discussion with Jaakko Suominen, Markku Reunanen explains background of the rewriting the history of the first. According to Reunanen, they received new information while they browsed online Finnish Commodore archive maintained by a hobbyist Niila T. Rautanen (Rautanen: Commodore Archive). Rautanen has gathered games, screen shots, some information and for example scanned early Poke&Peek Commodore magazines, published by the Finnish Commodore importer. The magazines proved to be an important source of information. Amersoft had released several games in 1984, and according to Reunanen, mentioned publication order of 1984 releases in Videogames.fi, was based on mainly to reasoning. VIC-20 computer was simpler than Commodore 64 and the popularity of VIC was decreasing in 1984. Reunanen states that Raharuhtinas for Commodore 64 represent “more advanced programming” and Mehulinja had won an earlier VIC-20 programming contest. (Reunanen 5.3.2014, FB-chat.)

[7] In addition to Jukka O. Kauppinen, Mikko Heinonen from Pelikonepeijoonit collector community, started in the 1990s, has specifically contributed to discussion. For example, he published “for honor of Finnish Independence Day,” “A Chronicle of Finnish Games” in 6 December 2009, where he divided the history into “prehistory,” “middle ages,” and “modern times” (Heinonen 6.12.2009) and started his “prehistory” from Amersoft publications and claiming wrongly that Yleisurheilu was published in 1986. The association of Finnish Game Developers, for their part, published on their website “A Short history of Finnish game industry” in October 2011 where they alleged that Sanxion by Stavros Fasoulas, published for Commodore 1986 was the first Finnish commercial game (Suomen Pelinkehittäjät Ry 3.10.2011). Actually, the particular game was the first larger international Finnish computer game hit, released by the British company, Thalamus, but not the first.

[8] The situation has partially changed after that, however, mainly because the introduction of Finnish Museum of Games project. The Museum, partially based on a crowd funding project, will be opened in January 2017 (http://suomenpelimuseo.fi/in-english/).

[9] That is why, for instance, in the above mentioned case, a journalist has applied terms such as “pre-history”, “middle-ages” and “modern times” to game historical representations.

 

Bios

Jaakko Suominen has a PhD in Cultural History and is Professor of Digital Culture at University of Turku, Finland. With a focus on cultural history of media and information technologies, Suominen has studied computers and popular media, internet, social media, digital games, and theoretical and methodological aspects of the study of digital culture. He has lead several multi-disciplinary research projects and has over 100 scholarly publications.

Anna Sivula has a PhD in History and is a Professor of Cultural Heritage at University of Turku, Finland. Sivula has studied theoretical, methodological and cultural aspects of cultural heritage process and heritage communities, historiographical operation and historical culture. She has written commissioned histories and led several research projects.

Born Digital Cultural Heritage – Angela Ndalianis & Melanie Swalwell

The collection and preservation of the ‘born digital’ has, in recent years, become a growing and significant area of debate. The honeymoon years are over and finally institutions are beginning to give serious consideration to best practice for digital preservation strategies and the establishment of digital collections. Digital technology emerges and disappears with incredible speed, as a once-new piece of hardware or software becomes old and is replaced by the next technological advancement. What happens to: videogame software and hardware of the 1980s and 90s? The web browsers, blogs and social media sites and content they once displayed? The artworks that relied on pre-2000 computers to create art? Are these – amongst many other – digital creations fated to be abandoned, becoming only memories of individual experience? Are they to be collected by institutions as defunct objects? Or are they to be preserved and revived using new digital technology? These are but a few of the serious questions facing collecting institutions. The question of who is responsible for collecting, preserving and historicising born digital cultural heritage is a crucial one, as is the issue of best practice – what are the best ways to preserve and make accessible such born digital heritage?

In June 2014, our “Play It Again”[1] project team ran an international conference on “The Born Digital and Cultural Heritage” that aimed to convene a forum where some of these issues could be discussed. “Play It Again” was a three year project focused on the history and preservation of microcomputer games written in 1980s Australia and New Zealand, but as the first digital preservation project to be funded as research in this part of the world (at least to our knowledge), it also had a broader significance. We tried to use it to raise awareness around some of the threats facing born digital cultural production more broadly, beyond 1980s digital games. Two of the project’s aims were to “Enhance appreciation for the creations of the early digital period” and “To build capacity in both the academic and cultural sectors in the area of digital cultural heritage and the ‘born digital’”, both critical issues internationally. A two-day event held at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, the conference’s remit was thus deliberately wider than the focus of the Australian Research Council Linkage Project.

The need for cooperation between different stakeholders – legislative bodies, professionals working in different types of institutions, and the private sector – was a key recommendation of the 2012 “Vancouver Declaration,” a Memory of the World initiative (UNESCO). Born digital artefacts often require multiple sets of expertise, therefore our call for papers invited proposals from researchers and practitioners in a range of disciplines, spheres of practice and institutional contexts concerned with born digital heritage. This included libraries, archives, museums, galleries, moving image institutions, software repositories, universities, and more besides. We wanted to create a space where communication between the different types of professionals dealing with preservation of born digital cultural heritage could take place. Archivists, librarians, conservators, and moving image archivists share many challenges, yet, we suspect, often they attend conferences which are profession based, which enforces a kind of silo-ing of knowledge. Particularly in small countries such as Australia and New Zealand, there’s a need for conversations to take place across professional boundaries, and so we sought to bring people who perhaps don’t normally move in the same circles into contact.

The presentations during the conference ranged in approach from theoretical, to practical, to policy-oriented. We gloried in the range of papers that were presented. There were game histories, reflections on the demoscene, on net.art and other forms of media art, on born digital manuscripts, robots, twitter accounts and website archiving. As well as papers addressing different forms of heritage materials, there were also technical reports on the problems with hacking and patching disk images to get them to emulate, on software migration, and legal papers on copyright protection, and the ‘right to be forgotten’. (Audio of many of the presentations is available here. The variety of presentations made painfully visible the enormous task at hand in addressing born digital cultural heritage.

While Refractory focuses on entertainment media, in this issue we recognise that born digital entertainment media share many of the challenges of non-entertainment objects. Here, we have collected article versions of selected papers from the conference. The topics and subjects are varied – from those looking more broadly at approaches to born digital heritage and the preservation of digital art, to the documentation of and public discourse about early game histories, and to future creative writing practice facilitated through the collection of digital manuscripts.

In his paper “It Is What It Is, Not What It Was: Making Born Digital Heritage” (which was a keynote address), Henry Lowood examines the preservation and collection of digital media in the context of cultural heritage. Lowood is concerned with “the relationship between collections of historical software and archival documentation about that software” and poses the question “Who is interested in historical software and what will they do with it?” He argues that “answers to this fundamental question must continue to drive projects in digital preservation and software history”. Using the examples of ‘The Historian’, ‘The Media Archaeologist’ and ‘The Re-enactor’ his paper raises important questions about the function, purpose and varied approaches to the digital archive. The historian, he states, is interested in the digital archival material in order to interpret, reconstruct and retell its story in history. For the media archaeologist, “media machines are transparent in their operation” and, rather than requiring interpretation, speak of their pastness by making possible the playback of “historical media on historical machines”. Finally, for ‘The Re-enactor’, ‘authenticity’ is a crucial factor for digital preservation; however, the question of authenticity is fraught with debate – on the one hand, the re-enactor at one extreme insists on a “fidelity of play” with the software that engages with technology (hardware and software) in its original state, and at the other extreme is the re-enactor who is willing to forgo the historical machine in favour of emulation and virtualisation that recreates an embodied experience of ‘playing’ with the original software, whether a game or word processing program. In either case, as Lowood explains, “Re-enactment offers a take on born-digital heritage that proposes a commitment to lived experience.”

In their article “Defining The Experience: George Poonhkin Khut’s Distillery: Waveforming, 2012”, Amanda Pagliarino and artist George Poonkhin Khut present an account of Khut’s sensory artwork, Distillery: Waveforming 2012, which uses the prototype iPad application ‘BrightHearts,’ which was acquired by the Queensland Art Gallery. The Curator of Contemporary Australian Art requested that the acquisition “was captured in perpetuity in its prototype state”. The authors explain that this biofeedback artwork is ‘iterative’ and Khut continued to develop the work in other iterations that include updates for the BrightHearts app for touch screen devices. This article describes the development of the artwork and the issues that were addressed in its acquisition, archiving, and the consultations that took place between the artist and the collecting institution. As the writers argue “to secure the commitment of the artist to engage in collaborative, long-term conservation strategies is extraordinary and this has resulted in the Gallery acquiring an unparalleled archival resource” that includes documentation and description of the interactive principles and behaviour of the artwork in its early state and as it evolved in Khut’s art practise. This archival resource will make it possible for the work to be reinterpreted “at some point in the future when the original technology no longer functions as intended”. In this respect, Distillery: Waveforming is understood as a “legacy artwork intrinsically linked to past and future iterations” of Khut’s larger Biofeedback Project.

The next article “There and Back Again: A Case History of Writing The Hobbit” by Veronika Megler focuses on the iconic text adventure game The Hobbit (Melbourne House, 1981), which Megler co-wrote during the final year of her Bachelor of Science degree at Melbourne University. This paper is a case history of the development of the The Hobbit (based on J.R.R.Tolkien’s novel of the same name) into a game that could run on the first generation of home computers that were just beginning to hit the market. Little has been written about the development of the first generation of text-based computer games; this case history provides insight into this developmental period in computer game history. Megler describes the development process, the internal design, and the genesis of the ideas that made The Hobbit unique. She compares the development environment and the resulting game to the state-of-the-art in text adventure games of the time, and wraps up by discussing the game’s legacy and the recent revival of interest in the game.

Jaakko Suominen and Anna Sivula’s article “Participatory Historians in Digital Cultural Heritage Process — Monumentalization of the First Finnish Commercial Computer Game” continues with games, analysing how digital games become cultural heritage. By using examples of changing conceptualisations of the first commercial Finnish computer game, the article examines the amateur and professional historicisation of computer games. The authors argue that the production of cultural heritage is a process of constructing symbolic monuments that are often related to events of change or the beginning of a progressive series of events, and the article presents an account of the formation of games as symbolic cultural monuments within a Finnish context. Whilst many researchers and journalists have claimed that Raharuhtinas (Money Prince 1984) for Commodore 64 was the first Finnish commercial digital game, its status as such is controversial. As the authors explain, “in this paper, we are more interested in public discourse of being the first” and how this relates to the cultural heritage process. The case of the ‘first’ game, it is argued, illuminates how items are selected as building material for digital game cultural heritage.

In “Retaining Traces of Composition in Digital Manuscript Collections: a Case for Institutional Proactivity”, Millicent Weber turns to digital manuscripts, their collection, preservation and digital storage by collecting institutions. Weber argues that libraries, archives and scholars have not addressed the content of future digital or part-digital collections, or their capacity to support sustained scholarly research. This paper examines the potential content of future collections of poetry manuscripts and their capacity to support research into the process of composition. To predict this capacity, the article compares a study of compositional process, using handwritten and typewritten manuscripts, with a small-scale survey of early-career poets’ compositional habits. The draft manuscripts of three poems by the poet Alan Gould and three by the poet Chris Mansell are used to describe each poet’s compositional habits, while the survey component of the project obtained information about the drafting practices of 12 students of creative writing and poetry at the University of Canberra. Weber concludes that the results indicate both the great diversity of manuscript collections currently being created, and the importance of archival institutions adopting an active advocacy role in encouraging writers to create and maintain comprehensive and well-organised collections of digital manuscripts.

The collection and preservation of born digital cultural heritage is of critical importance. In the digital era, “Heritage refers to legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what should be passed from generation to generation because of its significance and value” (UNESCO/PERSIST Content Task Force 16). If we want to ensure that records and works from this era persist, we will need to substantially ramp up our efforts. Cooperation between different stakeholders is critical and the research sector has an important role to play, in undertaking collaborative research with cultural institutions to tackle some of the thornier challenges surrounding the persistence of born digital cultural heritage.

Works cited

UNESCO. “UNESCO/UBC Vancouver Declaration, The Memory of the World in the Digital Age: Digitization and Preservation.” N.p., 2012. Web. 17 Dec. 2012.

UNESCO/PERSIST Content Task Force. “The UNESCO/PERSIST Guidelines for the Selection of Digital Heritage for Long-Term Preservation.” 2016. Web.

 

[1] The “Play It Again” project received support under the Australian Research Council’s Linkage Projects funding Scheme (project number LP120100218). See our research blog and the “Popular Memory Archive” for more information on the project.

 

Bios

Associate Professor Melanie Swalwell is a scholar of digital media arts, cultures, and histories. She is the recipient of an ARC Future Fellowship for her project “Creative Micro-computing in Australia, 1976-1992”. Between 2011-15, she was Project Leader and Chief Investigator on the ARC Linkage Project “Play It Again“. In 2009, Melanie was the Nancy Keesing Fellow (State Library of New South Wales). She has authored chapters and articles in both traditional and interactive formats, in such esteemed journals as ConvergenceVectors, and the Journal of Visual Culture. Melanie’s projects include:

  • “Creative Micro-computing in Australia, 1976-1992”. Watch the filmhere.
  • Australasian Digital Heritage, which gathers together several local digital heritage research projects. Follow us onFacebook & Twitter @ourdigiheritage
  • Play It Again: Creating a Playable History of Australasian Digital Games, for Industry, Community and Research Purposes”, ARC Linkage, 2012-14. Follow us onFacebook & Twitter @AgainPlay, and visit the Popular Memory Archive.

 

Angela Ndalianis is Professor in Screen Studies at Melbourne University, and the Director of the Transformative Technologies Research Unit (Faculty of Arts). Her research interests include: genre studies, with expertise in the horror and science fiction genres; entertainment media and media histories; the contemporary entertainment industry. Her publications include Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment (MIT Press 2004), Science Fiction Experiences (New Academia 2010), The Horror Sensorium; Media and the Senses (McFarland 2012) and The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero (editor, Routledge 2008). She is currently completing two books: Batman: Myth and Superhero; and Robots and Entertainment Culture. She is also a Fellow of the Futures of Entertainment Network (U.S), and is the Hans Christian Andersen Academy’s Visiting Professor (2015-7), a position also affiliated with the University of Southern Denmark.   

Volume 27, 2016

Themed Issue: Born Digital Cultural Heritage

Edited by Angela Ndalianis & Melanie Swalwell

Introduction: Born Digital Heritage – Angela Ndalianis & Melanie Swalwell

  1. It Is What It Is, Not What It Was: Making Born Digital Heritage – Henry Lowood
  2. Defining The Experience: George Poonhkin Khut’s Distillery: Waveforming, 2012 – Amanda Pagliarino & George Poonkhin Khut
  3. There and Back Again: A Case History of Writing The Hobbit – Veronika Megler
  4. Participatory Historians in Digital Cultural Heritage Process: Monumentalization of the First Finnish Commercial Computer Game – Jaakko Suominen and Anna Sivula
  5. Retaining Traces of Composition in Digital Manuscript Collections: a Case for Institutional Proactivity – Millicent Weber

There and Back Again: A Case History of Writing The Hobbit – Veronika M. Megler

Abstract: In 1981, two Melbourne University students were hired part-time to write a text adventure game. The result was the game The Hobbit (Melbourne House, 1981), based on Tolkien’s book (Tolkien), which became one of the most successful text adventure games ever. The Hobbit was innovative in its use of non-deterministic gameplay, a full-sentence parser, the addition of graphics to a text adventure game and finally “emergent characters” – characters exhibiting apparent intelligence arising out of simple behaviours and actions – with whom the player had to interact in order to “solve” some of the game’s puzzles. This paper is a case history of developing The Hobbit, and covers the development process, the internal design, and the genesis of the ideas that made The Hobbit unique.

 

Fig.1 - C64/128 The Hobbit (disk version). Melbourne House.

Figure 1.  C64/128 The Hobbit (disk version). Melbourne House.

Introduction

This paper is a case history of the development of the text adventure game, The Hobbit (Melbourne House, 1981). The game was a translation of Tolkien’s novel of the same name (Tolkien) into a game that could run on the first generation of home computers that were just beginning to hit the market.

As co-developer of The Hobbit, I offer my recollections of the development process, the internal design, and the genesis of the ideas that made the game unique. Those ideas included the use of non-deterministic gameplay – the game played differently every time and sometimes could not be completed due to key characters being killed early in the game – very different to other games, which had only a single path through the game and responded the same way each time they were played. The Hobbit contained a full-sentence parser that understood a subset of natural language, dubbed Inglish, as compared to the simple “verb noun” constructions accepted by other adventure games of the time. There were graphic renditions of some of the game locations, another groundbreaking addition to a text adventure game. And finally, “emergent characters” – non-player characters exhibiting apparent personalities and intelligence – with whom the player had to interact in order to solve some of the game’s puzzles. In combination, these features led to a game experience that transformed the industry.

Little has been written about the development of the first generation of text-based computer games; this case history provides insight into this developmental period in computer game history. I compare the development environment and the resulting game to the state-of-the-art in text adventure games of the time. Lastly, I discuss the legacy and recent revival of interest in the game.

“Let us not follow where the path may lead.
Let us go instead where there is no path,
And leave a trail.”

– Japanese Proverb

The Tenor of the Times 

It was early 1981. I was a Bachelor of Science student at Melbourne University, majoring in Computer Science (CS) and just starting my last year. These were the early days of Computer Science education, and the curricula required today for undergraduate Computer Science students had not yet been developed. In our classes we were studying topics like sort algorithms and data structures and operating systems such as BSD Unix. Another class focused on calculating rounding and truncation errors occurring as a result of a series of digital calculations. We were taught software development using a systems analysis method called HIPO[1] – Hierarchical Input-Process-Output, the best practice in structured programming – and that documenting our code was a good practice. Object-oriented programming was still in the future.

During our first couple of years in the CS program, programming projects were written using “mark sense cards”, which we marked up with pencils and fed into card readers after waiting in a long queue of students – sometimes for an hour or two to get a single run. You had to get the program running within a certain number of runs or the card reader would redistribute the lead across the cards, making them illegible.

By the time we reached the last year of the Bachelor’s degree, in our CS classes we were actually allowed to log onto a Unix machine in the lab and work there, if we could get access to a terminal (which often meant waiting for hours, or booking a timeslot, or waiting till late in the evening). We programmed in Pascal, Fortran, Assembler, C (our favorite), and Lisp. Our favorite editor was, universally, Vi. I remember programming a PDP8 in Assembler to run a toy train around a set of tracks, switching the tracks as instructed; we hand-assembled the program, typed it in and debugged it using a hexadecimal keypad.

By this time I’d built my own PC, from a project in an electronics hobbyist magazine. I’d purchased the mother board, which came as a peg-board with a printed circuit on it, minus any components or cross-wiring. I would go to the electronics parts store with my list of chips, resistors, capacitors and diodes, and solder for my soldering iron.  In the store they’d say, “tell your boyfriend we don’t have these” – it was not even considered possible that I might be the person purchasing them. The system had a small number of bytes – around 128 bytes, I believe (that is not a misprint) – of free memory, and used a black and white TV as a monitor. For this system we wrote programs out on paper in a simple Assembler, hand-assembled it and typed it in using a hexadecimal keypad. There was no save function, so whenever the system restarted we had to re-type in the program. It was quite impressive to see the programs we could develop in that amount of space.

I was used to being one of around 2-4 women in my university classes, whether it was a smaller class of 30 students or one of the massive Physics classes holding perhaps two or three hundred. Sexism was alive and kicking. The norm for women – for most of the fellow students at my all-girl high school, MacRobertson – was to become secretaries or nurses (although my closest friend for many of those years became a lawyer, traveling to the ‘Stans to negotiate for oil companies, and is now chairman of the board). One fellow student (luckily, I don’t remember who) gave me the ultimate compliment: “you’re bright, for a girl!” In self-defense, I partnered with another woman – Kerryn – for any pair projects. Whenever we had 4-person group projects we joined with another frequent pair, Phil Mitchell and Ray, who were amongst the few men willing to partner with us; these group experiences later led to me recruiting the other three to work at Melbourne House.

My game-playing experience was very limited. There was a Space Invaders arcade game in the lobby of the student union at the university that I sometimes played. For a while there was a game of Pong there, too. The Unix system featured an adventure game we called AdventureColossal Cave, also often referred to as Classic Adventure (CRL, 1976). In our last year I played it obsessively for some time, mapping out the “maze of twisty little passages”, until I had made it to through the game once. At that point it instantly lost interest for me, and I don’t believe I ever played it again. I was not aware of any other computer games.

State-of-the-art PC games were a very new thing – PCs were a very new thing – and at the time were written in Interpretive Basic by hobbyists. Sometimes the games were printed in magazines, taking maybe a page or two at most, and you could type them into any computer that had a Basic interpreter and play them. The code was generally written as a long list of if-then-else statements, and every action and the words to invoke that action was hard-coded. The game-play was pre-determined and static. Even if you purchased the game and loaded it (from the radio-cassette that it was shipped on), you could generally solve the puzzles by reading the code. The rare games that were shipped as compiled Basic could still be solved by dumping memory and reading the messages from the dump.

Getting the Job

I was working early Sunday mornings as a part-time computer operator, but wanted a job with more flexibility. On a notice board I found a small advertisement looking for students to do some programming, and called. I met Alfred (Fred) Milgrom, who had recently started a company he called “Melbourne House”, and he hired me on the spot to write a game for him. Fred was a bit of a visionary in thinking that hiring students with Computer Science background could perhaps do a better job than the general state-of-the-art of self-taught hobbyists.

Fred’s specifications to me were: “Write the best adventure game ever.” Period.

I told Phil Mitchell about the job, as I thought he had the right skills. I brought him along to talk to Fred, who hired him to work on the game with me. Kerryn and Ray joined us later that year to write short games in Basic for publication in the books that Melbourne House was publishing. These books featured a series of games, most of them about a page or two in length. The books were often sold along with a radio-cassette from which you could load the game rather than having to type it in yourself. Ray only stayed briefly, but Kerryn I think stayed for most of the year, and wrote many games. She’d sit at the keyboard and chuckle as she developed a new idea or played a game she’d just written.

Software Design, Cro-Magnon Style

So, what would “the best adventure game ever” look like? I started with the only adventure game I’d ever played: Classic Adventure. What did I not like about it? Well, once I’d figured out the map and solved the puzzles, I was instantly bored. It played the same way every time. Each Non-Player Character (NPC) was tied to a single location, and always did the same thing. Lastly, you had to figure out exactly the incantation the game expected; if the game expected “kill troll”, then any other command – “attack the troll”, for example – would get an error message. You could spend a long time trying to figure out what command the game developer intended you to issue; as a result, most adventure games tended to have the same actions, paired with the same vocabulary.

Phil and I split the game cleanly down the middle, with clearly defined interfaces between the two halves. I took what today we would call the game engine, physics engine and data structures (although those terms did not exist then). Phil took the interface and language portion. I don’t remember who had the original idea of a much more developed language than the standard “kill troll” style of language used by other text adventures of the time; my thinking stopped at the level of having synonyms available for the commands. I had almost no involvement in the parser; I remember overhearing conversations between Fred and Phil as the complexity of what they were aiming at increased. For a time, Stuart Richie was brought in to provide language expertise. However, his thinking was not well suited to what was possible to develop in Assembler in the space and time available, so, according to what Phil told me at the time, none of his design was used – although I suspect that being exposed to his thinking helped Phil crystallize what eventually became Inglish. No matter what the user entered – “take the sharp sword and excitedly hack at the evil troll”, say, he’d convert it to a simple (action, target) pair to hand off to me: “kill troll”, or perhaps, “kill troll with sword”.  Compound sentences would become a sequence of actions, so “take the hammer and hit Gandalf with it” would come to me as two actions: “pick up hammer”, followed by a next turn of “hit Gandalf with hammer”.

I put together the overall design for a game that would remove the non-language-related limitations within a couple of hours on my first day on the job. I knew I wanted to use generalized, abstracted data structures, with general routines that processed that structure and with exits for “special cases”, rather than the usual practice of the time of hard-coding the game-play.  My intent was that you could develop a new game by replacing the content of the data structures and the custom routines – a “game engine” concept I did not hear described until decades later. We even talked about developing a “game editor” that would allow gamers to develop their own adventure games by entering items into the data structures via an interface, but I believe it was never developed. I very early on decided that I wanted randomness to be a key feature of the game – recognizing that that meant the game could not always be solved, and accepting that constraint.

I envisaged three data structures to be used to support the game: a location database, a database of objects and a database of “characters”. The location “database” (actually, just a collection of records with a given structure) was pretty straightforward, containing a description of the location and, for each direction, a pointer to the location reached. There could also be an override routine to be called when going in a direction. The override allowed features or game problems to be added to the game map: for example, a door of limited size (so you could not pass through it while carrying too many items) or a trap to be navigated once specific constraints had been met. There’s a location (the Goblin’s Dungeon) that uses this mechanism to create a dynamic map, rather than having fixed connections to other locations: for each direction, an override routine is called that randomly picks a “next location” for the character to arrive in from a given list of possible locations. Another innovation in the location database occurred when Phil added pictures to specific locations, and drew them when the player entered one of those locations. Rather than representing the entire map of the Middle Earth in the game (as I might do today), I simplified it into a set of individual locations where noteworthy events occurred in the story, and represented those as a linked set of locations, with the links oriented in the directions as laid out on the map. So, for example, “go North” from one location would immediately take you to the next location North in the game where a significant event occurred. I did not then have a notion of variable travel time based on distance between the two locations.

Similarly, I conceived of an object database with a set of abstract characteristics and possible overrides, rather than hard-coding a list of possible player interactions with specific objects as was done in other games. Each object had characteristics and constraints that allowed me treat them generically: weight, size, and so on – in effect, a simple (by today’s standards) physics engine. An object could have the capability to act as a container, and a container could be transparent or opaque; a transparent container’s contents could be seen without having to open it first. There were generic routines that could be applied to all objects: for example, any object could be picked up by something bigger and stronger than it, or put into a bigger container (if there was enough room left in it). Some routines could be applied to any object that matched some set of characteristics; an object could also have a list of “special” routines associated with it that overrode the general routines. There was a general “turn on” routine that applied to lamps, for example, that could also be overridden for a magic lamp by a different, more complex “turn on” routine. I went through the book noting where objects were used to further the plot (swords, lamps, and most obviously, the ring), then added those objects to the game, with appropriate generic characteristics and actions (weight, the ability for lamps to be turned on) and special routines as needed (for example, the ring’s ability to make the wearer invisible).

Each non-player character (NPC) was also an object that began in an “alive” state, but could, due to events in the game, stop being alive – which allowed a player to, for example, use a dead dwarf as a weapon, in the absence of any other weapon). However, the physics engine caused “kill troll with sword” to inflict more damage than “kill troll with (dead) dwarf”.

In addition to regular object characteristics, each NPC had a “character”, stored in the third database. I conceived of an NPC’s character as being a set of actions that the NPC might perform, a sequence in which they generally performed them and a frequency of repetition. The individual actions were simple and were generally the same actions that a player could do (run in a given direction, attack another character, and so on); but again, these routines could be overridden for a specific character. The sequence could be fixed or flexible: an action could branch to a different part of the sequence and continue from there, or even jump to a random location in the sequence. The apparent complexity of the character comes from the length and flexibility of its action sequence; the character “emerges” as a result. For example, Gandalf’s short attention span and kleptomania were represented by a sequence like: “[go] <random direction>. [Pick up] <random object> [Say, “what’s this?”]. [Go] <random direction>. [Put down] <random object>.”

The division between inanimate object and NPC was left intentionally a little blurry, giving extra flexibility. For example, the object overrides could also be used to modify character behaviour. I actually coded an override where, if the player typed “turn on the angry dwarf”, he turned into a “randy dwarf” and followed the player around propositioning him.  If he was later turned off, he’d return to being the angry dwarf and start trying to kill any live character. Fred and Phil made me take that routine out.

In order to develop each character, I went through the book and, for each character, tried to identify common sequences of behavior that I could represent through a sequence of actions that would capture the “texture” of that character. Some characters were easy; for a troll, “{If no alive object in current location} [go] <random direction> {else} [kill] <random object with status ‘alive’>” was pretty much the whole list. Others were harder, such as characterizing Thorin; and yes, I did write the now-classic phrase, “Thorin sits down and starts singing about gold.” (I hereby apologize for how frequently he said that; short character-action list, you see.) An action could invoke a general routine which was the same for all NPCs – like, choose a random direction and run, or choose a live object in the location and kill it; or, it could be an action specific only to this NPC, as with Thorin’s persistent singing (as seen in Figure 2). For Gandalf, the generic “pick up” routine was used under the covers, but overridden for Gandalf to utter “what’s this”.

Figure 1. Gandalf and Thorin exhibit classic behavior. Courtesy Winterdrake.

Figure 2. Gandalf and Thorin exhibit classic behavior. Courtesy Winterdrake.

Sometimes an alternate behaviour list could be chosen based on events, as can be seen in Figure 2. For example, the friendly dwarf would become violent once he’d been attacked (or picked up). For a while, we had terrible trouble with all the NPCs showing up in one location and then killing each other before the player had the chance to work his way through the game, before I got the character profiles better adjusted. Some character would attack another, and once a battle was in progress any (otherwise friendly) character entering that location would be attacked and end up joining in. The same mechanism was used to allow the player to request longer-running actions from NPCs, such as asking a character to follow you when you needed them to help solve a puzzle in a (sometimes far) different location from where they were when you found them. In general the NPCs were programmed to interact with “another”, and did not differentiate whether the “other” was the player or not unless there was a game-related reason for doing so. The NPCs exhibited “emergent behaviour”; they just “played” the game themselves according to their character profile, including interacting with each other. In essence, the NPCs would do to each other almost anything that they could do to or with the player.

Phil programmed the interface to accept input from the player, and after each turn he would hand control to the NPC system, which would allow each (remaining) alive character to take a turn, as can be seen in Figures 2 and 3. For the time, this design was revolutionary; the model then was to have a single, non-mobile NPC in a single location, with only a couple of specific actions that were invoked once the player entered that location, and behaving the same way each time you played the game. Even in the arcade games of the time, we were able to identify that each object the player interacted with behaved the same way each time, and they did not interact with each other at all.

Figure 3. The player modifies Thorin’s default behavior – to the player’s cost.

Figure 3. The player modifies Thorin’s default behavior – to the player’s cost.

At the beginning of the game, we would generate, for each NPC, a random starting point in that NPC’s action list, giving the game much of its random nature. This combination of factors led to the “emergent characters”; or, seen another way, “a bunch of other characters just smart enough to be profoundly, infuriatingly stupid” (Maher).

I quickly transitioned to the concept of the player merely being another character, with a self-generated action list. At some point I experienced the emergent nature of the characters while trying to debug and was joking about the fact that the characters could play the game without the player being there; that discussion led naturally to the famous “time passes” function, where, if the player took too long in taking his next action (or, chose to “wait”, as in Figure 1), the characters would each take another turn. This feature, which Melbourne House trademarked as
“Animaction” (Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc.), was another innovation not seen in prior text adventures, where game-play depended wholly on the player’s actions. (It is also noteworthy how many of the game’s innovations began as jokes. I now believe this to be true of much innovation; certainly it has been, for the innovations I’ve been involved in.)

The next, seemingly obvious step to me was to allow – or even require – the player to ask the NPCs to perform certain tasks for him (as seen in Figure 4), and to set up puzzles that required this kind of interaction in order to solve them. This addition added another layer of complexity to the game. As commented by one fan, “As most veteran Hobbit players know, a good way to avoid starvation in the game is to issue the command “CARRY ELROND” whilst in Rivendell. In the game Elrond is a caterer whose primary function is to give you lunch and if you carry him then he will continue to supply you with food throughout the game.”[2] Another had a less tolerant view: “Sometimes they do what you ask, but sometimes they’re feeling petulant. Perhaps the seminal Hobbit moment comes when you scream at Brand to kill the dragon that’s about to engulf you both in flames, and he answers, “No.” After spending some time with this collection of half-wits, even the most patient player is guaranteed to start poking at them with her sword at some point.”[3]

Figure 4. The Hobbit starting location, and a player action that I never thought of.

Figure 4. The Hobbit starting location, and a player action that I never thought of.

The non-determinism of the overall game meant that it was not, in general, possible to write down a solution to the game. There were specific puzzles in the game, however, and solutions to these puzzles could be written down and shared. However, people also found other ways to solve them than I’d anticipated. For example: “A friend of mine has discovered that you can get and carry both Elrond and Bard. Carrying Elrond with you can by quite useful as he continuously distributes free lunches. And, to be honest, carrying Bard is the only way I’ve found of getting him to the Lonely Mountain. There must be a better way.” (“Letters: Gollum’s Riddle”) As commented by a retrospective, “And actually, therein sort of lies the secret to enjoying the game, and the root of its appeal in its time. It can be kind of fascinating to run around these stage sets with all of these other crazy characters just to see what can happen — and what you can make happen.” (Maher)

Inglish

While I worked on the game, Phil designed, developed and wrote the language interpreter, later dubbed Inglish. I had little interest in linguistics, so I generally tuned out the long discussions that Fred and Phil had about it – and was supported in doing so by the encapsulation and simple interface between the two “halves” of the game, which prevented me needing to know any more.

Figure 5. Opening scene from one of many foreign language versions.

Figure 5. Opening scene from one of many foreign language versions.

Every word was stored in the dictionary, and since only 5 bits are used to represent the English alphabet in lower-case ASCII, the other 3 bits were used by Phil to encode other information about speech parts (verb, adjective, adverb, noun), valid word usages, what pattern to use when pluralizing, and so on. I’ve seen screen images from versions of the game in other languages (e.g., Figure 5), but I do not know how the translations were done or how the design worked with these other languages.

 

Phil translated player commands into simple “verb object” commands to hand to me, with some allowed variations to allow for different action results. For example, I seem to remember that “viciously kill” would launch a more fierce attack, and use up more strength as a result, than just “kill”. Rather than a set of hard-coded messages (as was the norm), we generated the messages “on the fly” from the dictionary and a set of sentence templates. At the end of some action routine, I would have a pointer to a message template for that action. The template would contain indicators for where the variable parts of the message should be placed. I would then pass the message, the subject and object to the language engine. The engine would then generate the message, using, once again, spare bits for further customization.  To take a simple example, “Gandalf gives the curious map to you” used the same template as, say, “Thorin gives the axe to the angry dwarf”.

We were so limited by memory that we would adjust the size of the dictionary to fit the game into the desired memory size; so the number of synonyms available would sometimes decrease if a bug fix required more lines of code. It was a constant trade-off between game functionality and language richness. As a result of all the encoding, dumping memory – a common method of solving puzzles in other text adventures – provided no information for The Hobbit.

Software Development, Cro-Magnon-Style

Our initial development environment was a Dick Smith TRS80 look-alike, with 5 inch floppy drives. Initially I believe we used a 16k machine, then a 32k, and towards the end a 48k or perhaps 64k machine. Our target machine for the game was initially a 32k TRS80. During development, the Spectrum 64 was announced, and that became our new target. Game storage was on a cassette tape, played on a regular radio-cassette player. As the other systems became available we continued using the TRS80 platform as the development environment, and Phil took on the question of how to ports the game to other platforms.

We had a choice of two languages to use for development: Basic, or Assembler. We chose Assembler as we felt the added power offset the added difficulty in using the language.

During initial development, the only development tool available was a simple Notepad-like text editor, and the majority of code was written that way. Later I believe a Vi-like editor became available; even later, I have faint memories of a very early IDE that allowed us to edit, assemble the code and step through it (but that also inserted its own bugs from time to time).

We initially worked with the system’s existing random number generator, but realized that its pseudo-random nature made the game play the same way each time – against what I hoped to achieve. Phil then spent some time writing a “true” random number generator, experimenting with many sources of seed values before he was successful. He tried using the contents of various registers, but discovered that these were often the same values each time. He tried using the time, but the TRS80 did not have a built-in battery or time, and most people did not set the time each time they started the system – so again, if someone turned the machine on and loaded the game, we would get the same results each time. After some experimentation he finally succeeded, and the game – for better or worse, and sometimes for both – became truly random.

Debugging was a nightmare. Firstly, we were debugging machine code, initially without the advantage of an IDE; we ran the program, and when it crashed we tried to read the memory dumps. In Assembler, especially when pushing the memory limit of the system, the Basic programmer’s technique of inserting “print” statements to find out what is happening is not available. We had characters interacting with each other in distant parts of the game, and only actions in the current location were printed on the game player’s console. In one of several cases where a game feature was originally developed for other reasons, we initially wrote the “save” mechanism to help us debug parts of the game without having to start from the beginning each time. It then became part of the delivered version, allowing players to take advantage of the same function.

At some point, the idea of adding graphics came up, I think from Phil. Fred commissioned Kent Rees to draw the pictures, and Phil figured out how to draw them on the various systems; I do know that he adapted the pictures from the originals Kent provided in order to make them easier to draw. The first version of his code always drew the picture when you entered a location that had one; however, it was so slow and annoyed us (me) so much that Phil quickly added a switch to turn them off.

Sidelines

In between coding The Hobbit, we occasionally took time to work on other games. Fred would give us $20 to go and play arcade games, sometimes as often as each week, to see what other folk were doing and what the state of the art was in that industry. Someone in our group of four wrote a version of Pac-Man. We spent hours with one person playing Pac-Man, trying to get up to higher levels in the game, while the others leant over the arcade machine trying to figure out the algorithms that caused prizes to appear and how the behaviour changed across the game levels. We didn’t see it as piracy, as arcade games and home computers were at that time seen as being completely unrelated industries – it was more in the spirit of gaining ideas from another industry for application into ours.

Another game that we wrote was Penetrator (Melbourne House, 1981). Phil was the clear lead on that game while I worked on some pieces of it, and I think Kerryn may have worked on it a bit too.  It was a copy of the arcade game Scramble (Konami, 1981). Because of the speed (or lack thereof) of the processors at the time, we had to ensure that each separate path through the game took the same amount of time; even a difference of one “tstate” (processor state) between one path of an “if-then-else” to another would interfere with smooth motion, so we spent significant time calculating (by hand) the time taken by each path and choosing different Assembler instructions that would compensate for the differences (and given that “NO-op” took 2 tstates, it was not always easy). Another difficulty was getting the radars to turn smoothly, while handling the variable number of other activities taking place in the game. It took forever to get it “right”.

Figure 6. Screen shot from the game Penetrator

Figure 6. Screen shot from the game Penetrator

At the beginning we drew the screen bitmaps for all the landscapes on graph paper and then hand-calculated the hexadecimal representations of each byte for the screen buffer, but that became so tedious so quickly that Phil wrote an editor that we could use to create the landscapes. In the end the landscape editor was packaged with the game, as a feature.

Another “pressing” issue for shooter games of the time was that of keyboard debounce. At the time a computer keyboard consisted of an electrical grid, and when a key was pressed the corresponding horizontal and vertical lines would register a “high”. You checked the grid at regular intervals, and if any lines were registering high you used a map of the keyboard layout to identify the key that had been pressed. However, you had to stall for just the right amount of time before re-reading the keyboard; if you waited too long, the game seemed unresponsive, but if you read too quickly, you would read several key presses for each key press that the player intended. While it was possible to use the drivers that came with the keyboard, they did not respond quickly enough to use for interactive games. “Getting it right” was a tedious matter of spending hours fiddling with timings and testing.

Perhaps A Little Too Random

In addition to all the other randomness it exhibited, The Hobbit was also known to crash seemingly randomly. There were a number of reasons for this. Firstly, The Hobbit was a tough game to test. It was a much bigger game than others of the time. Unlike the other games, it was approximately 40k of hand-coded Assembler[4], as opposed to the commonly used interpreted Basic (a few more advanced games were shipped in compiled Basic). It was written without the benefit of formalized testing practices or automated test suites. The assembly and linking programs we used were also relatively new, and during development, we would find bugs in them. I remember spending hours debugging one time only to discover that the assembler had optimized away a necessary register increment, causing an infinite loop; I had a lot of trouble trying to invent a different coding sequence that prevented the assembler from removing the required increment. Altogether, I took away lessons about not letting your application get too far ahead of the ability of your infrastructure to support it.

Secondly, the game was non-deterministic; it was different every time it was played. It exhibited its own manifestation of chaos theory: small changes in starting conditions (initial game settings, all generated by the random number generator) would lead to large differences in how the game proceeded. Due to the “emergent characters”, we constantly had NPCs interacting in ways that had never been explicitly programmed and tested, or even envisioned. The game could crash because of something that happened in another location that was not visible to the player or to person testing the game, and we might never be able to identify or recreate the sequence of actions that led to it.

It was possible to have an instance of the game that was insoluble, if a key character required to solve a specific puzzle did not survive until needed (often due to having run into a dwarf on the rampage); this was a constraint I was happy to accept, though it frustrated some players. The ability to tell the NPCs what to do also meant that people told them things to do that we hadn’t accounted for. The very generality of the game engine – the physics, the language engine, and the ability for the player to tell characters what to do – led players to interact with the game in ways I’d never thought of, and that were certainly never tested. In some cases, they were things I didn’t realize the game was capable of.

Epilogue

The Hobbit was released in 1982 in Australia and the U.K. Figure 7 shows a typical packaging. It was an instant hit; amongst other awards, it won the Golden Joystick Award for Strategy Game of the Year in 1983, and came second for Best Game of the Year, after Jet-Pac. Penetrator came second in the Golden Joystick Best Arcade Game category, and Melbourne House came second for their Best Software House of the Year, after Jet-Pac’s publishers (“Golden Joystick Awards”). A couple of revisions were published with some improvements, including better graphics. Due to licensing issues it was some time before a U.S. release followed. The book was still covered by copyright and so the right to release had to be negotiated with the copyright holders, which were different in each country. The U.S. copyright holder had other plans for a future game. As a result, future book-based game ideas specifically chose books (such as Sherlock Holmes) that were no longer covered by copyright.

Figure 7. Game release package.

Figure 7. The Hobbit. Game release package.

At the end of 1981, I finished my Bachelor’s degree. We were beginning to discuss using the Sherlock Holmes mysteries as a next games project; I was not sure that the adventure game engine I’d developed was a good fit for the Sherlock style of puzzle solving, although there were definitely aspects that would translate across. However, I was also ready to start something new after a year of coding and debugging in Assembler. I’d proved that my ideas could work, and believed that the result Phil and I had produced was the desired one – an adventure game that solved all my frustrations with Classic Adventure, and in my mind (if not yet in other people’s) met Fred’s target of “the best adventure game ever”.

I interviewed with several major IT vendors, and took a job at IBM, as did Ray. Kerryn took a job in a mining company in Western Australia. Phil stayed on at Melbourne House (later Beam Software), the only member of our university programming team to continue on in the games industry. We eventually all lost touch.

During this time, I was unaware that the game had become a worldwide hit. Immersed in my new career, I lost touch with the nascent games industry. At IBM, I started at the same level as other graduates who had no experience with computers or programming; developing a game in Assembler was not considered professional or relevant experience. Initially I became an expert in the VM operating system (the inspiration and progenitor for VMWare, I’ve heard), which I still admire for the vision, simplicity and coherence of its design, before moving into other technical and consulting position. In late 1991 I left Australia to travel the world. I eventually stopped in Portland, Oregon, with a plan to return to Australia after 2 years – a plan that has been much delayed.

A 3-year stint in a global Digital Media business growth role for IBM U.S. in the early 2000’s brought me back in contact with games developers just as the movie and games industries were moving from proprietary to open-standards based hardware and infrastructure. The differences in development environments, with large teams and sophisticated supporting graphics and physics packages, brought home to me how far the games industry had come. But while I appreciate the physics engines and the quality of graphics that today can fool the eye into believing they are real, the basis of a good game has not changed: simple, compelling ideas still captivate and enchant people, as can be seen in the success of, for example, Angry Birds. I also believe that the constraints of limitations – such as small memories and slow processors – can lead to a level of innovation that less limited resources does not.

And Back Again

As the Internet era developed, I started receiving letters from fans of The Hobbit. The first person I recall tracking me down emailed me with an interview request for his Italian adventure fan-site in 2001, after what he said was a long, long search. The subsequent years made it easier to locate people on the Internet, and the emails became more frequent. At times I get an email a week from people telling me the impact the game had on the course of their lives.

In 2006, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) held an exhibition entitled “Hits of the 80s: Aussie games that rocked the world” (Australian Centre for the Moving Image), featuring The Hobbit. It felt a little like having a museum retrospective while still alive: a moment of truth of how much things have changed, and at the same time how little. The games lab curator, Helen Stuckey, has since written a research paper about the challenge of collecting and exhibiting videogames for a museum audience, using The Hobbit as an example (Stuckey).

In late 2009 I took an education leave of absence from IBM US to study for a Masters/PhD in Computer Science at Portland State University. (IBM and I have since parted company.) When I arrived one of the PhD students, who had played The Hobbit in Mexico as a boy, recognized my name and asked me to present on it. While searching the Internet for graphics for the presentation, I discovered screen shots in many different languages and only then began to realize the worldwide distribution and impact the game had had. Being in a degree program while describing work I’d done during my previous university degree decades before caused many conflicting emotions. I was also amazed at the attendance and interest from the faculty and other students.

In 2012, the 30-year anniversary of the release, several Internet sites and magazines published retrospectives; a couple contacted me for interviews, while others worked solely from published sources. The same year I was contacted by a fan who had been inspired by a bug (“this room is too full for you to enter”) to spend time over the intervening decades in reverse-engineering the machine code into a “game debugger” of the kind I wish we’d had when we originally developed it: Wilderland (“Wilderland: A Hobbit Environment”). It runs the original game code in a Spectrum emulator, while displaying the position and state of objects and NPCs throughout the game. His eventual conclusion was that the location is left over from testing (and I even have a very vague memory of that testing). That a game I spent a year writing part-time could cause such extended devotion is humbling.

In retrospect, I think we came far closer to Fred’s goal of “the best adventure game ever” than we ever imagined we would. The game sold in many countries over many years, and by the late 1980’s had sold over a million copies (DeMaria) – vastly outselling most other games of the time. During one interview, the interviewer told me that in his opinion, The Hobbit transformed the genre of text adventure games, and that it was the last major development of the genre: later games merely refined the advances made. Certainly Beam Software’s games after The Hobbit did not repeat its success.

While many of the publications, particularly at the time of release, focused on the Inglish parser, it is the characters and the richness of the gameplay that most people that contact me focus on. I believe that just as the game would have been less rich without Inglish, putting the Inglish parser on any other adventure game of the time would in no way have resembled the experience of playing The Hobbit, nor would it have had the same impact on the industry or on individuals.

In 2013, the Internet Archive added The Hobbit to its Historical Software Collection[5] – which, in keeping with many other Hobbit-related events, I discovered via a colleague’s email. Late that year, ACMI contacted me to invite me to join the upcoming Play It Again project[6], a game history and preservation project focused on ANZ-written digital games in the 1980s. That contact led to this paper.

As I complete this retrospective – and my PhD – I was again struck again by the power a few simple ideas can have, especially when combined with each other. It’s my favorite form of innovation. In the words of one fan, written 30 years after the game’s release, “I can see what Megler was striving toward: a truly living, dynamic story where anything can happen and where you have to deal with circumstances as they come, on the fly. It’s a staggeringly ambitious, visionary thing to be attempting.” (Maher) A game that’s a fitting metaphor for life.

Disclaimer

This paper is written about events 35 years ago, as accurately as I can remember. With that gap in time, necessarily some errors will have crept in; I take full responsibility for them.

 

 

References

Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc. The Hobbit: Guide to Middle-Earth. 1985.

Australian Centre for the Moving Image. “Hits of the 80s: Aussie Games That Rocked the World.” N.p., May 2007. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

Crowther, Will. Colossal Cave. CRL, 1976. Print.

DeMaria, Rusel Wilson, Johnny L. High Score!: The Illustrated History of Electronic Games. Berkeley, Cal.: McGraw-Hill/Osborne, 2002. Print.

Golden Joystick Awards. Computer and Video Games Mar. 1984 : 15. Print.

Letters: Gollum’s Riddle. Micro Adventurer Mar. 1984 : 5. Print.

Maher, Jimmy. “The Hobbit.The Digital Antiquarian. N.p., Nov. 2012. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

Mitchell, Phil, and Veronika Megler. Penetrator. Melbourne, Australia: Beam Software / Melbourne House, 1981. Web. <Described in: http://www.worldofspectrum.org/infoseekid.cgi?id=0003649>.

—. The Hobbit. Melbourne, Australia: Beam Software / Melbourne House, 1981. Web. <Described in: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hobbit_%28video_game%29>.

Stuckey, Helen. “Exhibiting The Hobbit: A Tale of Memories and Microcomputers.” History of Games International Conference Proceedings. Ed. Carl Therrien, Henry Lowood, and Martin Picard. Montreal: Kinephanos, 2014. Print.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit, Or, There and Back Again,. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966. Print.

Wilderland: A Hobbit Environment. N.p., 2012. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

 

 

Notes:

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HIPO

[2] http://solearther.tumblr.com/post/38456362341/thorin-sits-down-and-starts-singing-about-gold

[3] http://www.filfre.net/2012/11/the-hobbit/

[4] An analysis by the Wilderland project (“Wilderland: A Hobbit Environment”) shows the following code breakdown: game engine and game, 36%; text-engine for input and output, the dictionary, the graphics-engine, and the parser 22%, graphics data 25%; character set (3%), buffers (8%), and 6% as yet unidentified.

[5] https://archive.org/details/The_Hobbit_v1.0_1982_Melbourne_House

[6] https://www.acmi.net.au/collections-research/research-projects/play-it-again/

 

Bio

Veronika M. Megler now works for Amazon Web Services in the U.S. as a Senior Consultant in Big Data and Analytics. She recently completed her PhD in Computer Science at Portland State University, working with Dr. David Maier in the emerging field of “Smarter Planet” and big data. Her dissertation research enables Information-Retrieval-style search over scientific data archives. Prior to her PhD, she helped clients of IBM U.S. and Australia adopt a wide variety of emerging technologies. She has published more than 20 industry technical papers and 10 research papers on applications of emerging technologies to industry problems, and holds two patents, including one on her dissertation research. Her interests include applications of emerging technologies, big data and analytics, scientific information management and spatio-temporal data. Ms. Megler was in the last year of her B.Sc. studies at Melbourne University when she co-wrote The Hobbit. She currently lives in Portland, Oregon, and can be reached at vmegler@gmail.com.

Playing At Work – Samuel Tobin

Abstract: People play games at work, especially digital games, rather than asking “why” this paper starts with “how”? To do so the game Minecraft and its players are used as a focus to address how people manage to play while at work and in workplaces. This data is drawn from public online forums where hundreds of Minecraft players offer tips for circumventing technical, bureaucratic, social and ethical play constraints and share their feelings, experiences and successes. In these specific and detailed accounts of media practices constrained and engendered by the demands and expectation of workplaces we see the shifting nature of public and private, of work and leisure.

Minecraft-Banner

Playing at Work         

This paper focuses on the way people play the game Minecraft (Mojang, 2001) at work and the ways in which they talk about that play and the practices that support it.  The Minecraft players I study write about this play and the tactics needed to engage in it at work as a combination of subterfuge, escape, challenge, invention and guilt-ridden compulsion. I show how this complicated relation to their play is informed by the ways in which play, games, work and the work place are continuously redefined through these players’ practices and discourse. I focus on adult players of the game Minecraft and the ways they manage to play while they are at work. This data is drawn from the forum reddit.com, where hundreds of Minecraft players offer tips for circumventing technical, bureaucratic, and social play constraints. These online discussions detail a range of technical and play practices constrained and engendered by the demands and expectation of workplaces. In these practices and discourse we see the continuously shifting nature of public, private, work, leisure, mobility and most of all play.

From the Minecraft subreddit on reddit:

thread title: who plays Minecraft at work?

I’ll be honest, this game has pretty much destroyed my productivity recently. I work in IT so I’m on the computer all day. I also have my own office so people cruising by and catching me building really isn’t an issue. Since I bought thisgame 2 weeks ago I’ve wasted more time at work than I even care to admit. Everyday I tell myself I will focus and do actual work, and everyday boredomsets in and I am drawn to Minecraft like a moth to a flame. I am a sad pathetic   individual. Who else is with me? – Apt Get

The short answer is “lots of people.” But what these people mean when they say “Yes, I play Minecraft at work” and refer to themselves as “sad pathetic individuals” is complicated. To address these complicated and complicit issues, I focus on the central problem for these players: “How do you bring your game to work?”  In the sections that follow I rework the phrase “bring your game to work,” stressing different words to expose what is at stake in these spaces and practices of work and of play. First, however, we need to ask what people might or could mean by Minecraft. In exploring how people play Minecraft at work (or any game), we are asking “how” not just in the sense of “How do you manage” but also “In what manner” do you play at work.  The manner or way of playing changes the nature of the game, redefines it, pushes certain aspects of the game forward while eliding others.  As we will see below, players redefine Minecraft, sometimes radically, as they need to in order to play it.

Here at the outset are some general observations and caveats.  At the time of this research (2011-2012) few posters in the subreddits (as the forum threads of reddit are called) mentioned mobile or “Pocket” versions of the game when discussing how to play it at work. This may be due to a kind of self-selection of Minecraft fans in the threads.  People who like the game enough to read and write about it on an online forum may not be interested in playing it on platforms other than the PC or laptop.  In any case, the issue of mobility for most reddit users is not as much about buying a Minecraft app for a smartphone, as getting Minecraft onto their work computers. What we see when we look at the responses people gave to the question “How do you play Minecraft at work?” is a move to redefine what Minecraft play can be while referencing a core experience and object: PC-based Minecraft play.

playing at work

Foregrounding the “at” in the phrase “playing at work,” focuses our attention on “work” as “workspace,” a space constituted by labor, and also by architecture, furniture, expectations, routines, and movements.  We need to attend to the implications of bringing play materials and practices into the workspace, and to the movements such play demands.  The workplace context and the practices it demands make mobile a game which otherwise might not be. This complicates definitions of mobile games, while reinforcing the importance of space and situation to the understanding of game play.

To play Minecraft at work, players need to find ways to bring the game with them to the office. The barriers to this are technical, securitized, cultural and practical. In order to access saved games through workplace firewalls, players trade tactical tips on online forums on how to load Minecraft files onto thumb drives, email zips to themselves, and to otherwise convince their work networks that no barriers have been breached and that nothing is amiss.  Commenters discuss issues of visual surveillance and subterfuge, with extensive discussion of monitor tilting, lines of sight, glare, minimizing routines, hotkeys, and ways to arrange a play mis en place that looks like work (a point we will return to).  These commentators are not always employees contriving to avoid being caught by their boss: the thread at the top of this piece was originated by a boss, Apt Get, who wants to hide his play from his peers as well as from his underlings, and ultimately from himself. These techniques of circumventing lines of sight and firewalls allow people to play at work and at the same time shape and define what that play can be. This play is both proscribed and defined by the context. While details and the differences are important, what these players in all sorts of work contexts share is an array of needs, worries and techniques developed in order to play at work.

It is easy to see how work could be a hostile environment for Minecraft play. Yet in many cases, for some players, work is a less fraught play space than other alternatives. As Apt Get’s comments later in his thread on playing Minecraft at work shows:

Glad to know I’m not alone. I am also guilty of sketching things on graph paper during meetings when I am without a computer. I am married and have 2 small kids, so work is about the only time I get to play.  – Apt Get

This comment reminds us not to assume a neat split between workplace and labor on one side, and domesticity and leisure on the other. The nature of the relation between work and play is a key issue for any study of play or games. In Games of Empire (2009), Greig de Peuter and Nick Dyer-Witheford discuss the historical transformation of this relationship through their critical account of games, capitalism and immaterial labor. In Free labor: Producing culture for the digital economy (2000), Tiziana Terranova makes similar points. Julian Kücklich’s account of computer game modification, or “modding” as a strange mixture of labor and play or “playbour” (2005), also helps us historize the shifting relationship between play and work, and the new hybrid modes that emerge from these categories. In “Alienated Playbour: Relations of Production in EVE Online” (2015),  Nicholas Taylor et al. show how what we might assume is “just” play can in fact be work.

These questions of the work-play relation predate contemporary developments in game studies. We see the relation and separation enforced to different degrees in classics such as Roger Caillois’s Play and Games and Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Hannah Arendt writes in the Human Condition: “(A)ll serious activities, irrespective of their fruits, are called labor, and every activity which is not necessary either for the life of the individual or for the life process of society is subsumed under playfulness.” (1998) Similarly, in the “Sociology of Sociability,” Georg Simmel expresses an interest in play because of its very apartness from other ‘material’ spheres of life, including work (1949). Separation for these authors is a matter of motivation, economics and necessity.

For Apt Get and many responders at reddit, work is defined spatially. Apt Get asks: “Do you play Minecraft at work?” rather than asking, “Do you play Minecraft instead of work?” Work, for Apt Get and many other players, work is defined more as a place than an activity. This definition of work as a location means that itretains its status as a place for labor even when play is brought in to it. To understand what is at stake when people bring their Minecraft play to work, we need to pay attention not just to what they mean by “work” and “at work” but also to what they mean by “home” and what they do “at home.” For Apt Get, his job is where he can play, even if it is difficult to do so. He can’t or won’t play at home. His posts suggest it is more difficult for him to play at home than it is a work. No doubt many of us recognize ourselves and our workplaces in these posts. What we find in the threads is a complicated and contradictory range of attitudes, experiences and ideas about the appropriateness, pleasures, worries and requirements of playing Minecraft (and other games) at home as well as at work.

Is playing at work always a modified, compromised form of Minecraft play? Not necessarily. This author, who has the luxury of work of an office with a door, a personal computer, and students who rarely take advantage of office hours, is able to play Minecraft in an as unfettered manner as one could hope for. Indeed like Apt Get, time at work was the only time I really could play Minecraft or, for that matter, wanted to. Game play is never “free-play,” as it is always defined and constrained as well as afforded in by the exigencies of everyday life (office, door, computer, students, teaching preparation, publication pressures). Play is always in relation to the everyday, to the rhythms of leisure and labor and socialization and movement and the un-freeness of free time.  Playing at work then is not (or not just) a more constrained or diminished form of play, even if it is often viewed this way.  Playing at work is a compromise, but a compromise that can lead to new and interesting permutations of play.

Minecraft play is typically described as open-ended, free, and creative, in short as the kind of play celebrated by ludic utopians of every stripe.  But what we see in the Minecraft “subbreddit” is a discussion of an even more expansive and “free” play, one perversely bounded by the space of work, as we can see in following two examples, which while specific and personal, are not outliers, and which give glimpses of play tactics and techniques shared in the Minecraft forums, when responding to the question: “How do you play at work?”

Figure 1. A player shares an image of how he "plays at work."  He has used his companies’ Maple computer algebra system to model a possible Minecraft construction.

Figure 1. A player shares an image of how he “plays at work.”  He has used his companies’ Maple computer algebra system to model a possible Minecraft construction.

Figure 2. A player shows how he "plays at work" by stacking shipping boxes in a recognizably Minecraft manner.

Figure 2. A player shows how he “plays at work” by stacking shipping boxes in a recognizably Minecraft manner.

These are very different ways to play Minecraft.  They are different from each other and different from our expectations of how people play Minecraft. These (seemingly) radically different approaches to Minecraft play result in part from differences between these two posters’ workplaces.  However what these two players share are places of work filled with tools and objects of labor. Both players use the stuff of their jobs to build things as Minecraft play practice.  Each is playing Minecraft, but in a kind of play that arises out of and reflects the specific contextual affordances and constraints of their work. Each plays in a way that is both in contestation and conjunction with work and its boundaries.  These two images of Minecraft play would not exist without the work and work places that shaped them. These are just two examples of how the space and tools of one’s work shapes the kinds of play needed to fit those contexts. For every job site and set of tools or materials, we might expect to find different play practices. These examples point to the need to account for a thicker, messier kind of play for playing not just Minecraft, but for all kinds of games played at work.  And while Minecraft may be especially suited to these ludic perruques, it is not unique in being a game people like to play when they are otherwise expected to be working. For each game, as for each work site, we can expect new play practices, cultures and experiences.

With these new practices we get new discourse. How do the Minecraft forum commentators talk about their relationship to this place into which, against which, and with which they forge new play practices?  Many commentators, Apt Get included, use negative and loaded language borrowed from substance abuse and addiction to describe their relationship to their Minecraft play. In my book, Portable Play in Everyday Life, I found that Nintendo DS players use these same metaphors to describe games that they play intensely (2013). We see similar language going back all the way to David Sudnow’s Pilgrim in the Microworld. The angst conveyed by this fraught language seems to go against the perspectives we see in work by researchers like Leonard Reinecke (2009) or Paul Mastrangelo et al. (2006), who argue that play at work is useful or salutary in the sense that it helps one to work better or longer. This perspective may seem managerial or exploitive, but it is also useful for those of us who are invested in a critical approach to games, and to further examining the connections between play, work, playbour and leisure. The reddit commentators are much more likely to talk about their play as transgressive, criminal or pathetic, than restorative. Their discourse is not one of break-rooms and recharging, but of addiction, subterfuge, and tricks. I suggest that this kind of player language should be read as not (only) about compulsion or addiction, but also as code for a particular kind of pleasure and awareness of the larger cultural context for understanding and describing that pleasure. It is a compliment to call a game addictive. It is not only a self-flagellating or distancing remark.

play at work

This discourse brings with it the habitus of the addict: of secret drunks and self-deception.  In order to keep the activity going, there needs to be subterfuge, evasion, cover and camouflage. This is a different kind of playing, a “playing at.” This is playing at in the sense of playing as make believe, as “acting as though.”  This approach to playing at work owes much to Johan Huizinga’s sense of play as always secretive, even in plain sight, and as having a “pretend” quality (Huizinga 1955). It also carries a bit of the sense of calling out something as deceptive, as bullshit, as in the phrase: “What are you playing at?”

The kind of pretense most essential for these commentators is pretending to work while “really” playing.  The hidden or furtive aspect of playing games at work is neither new nor endemic to Minecraft.  Older Macintosh users may remember the “quick the boss is coming” feature from games such as Othello, a command which would instantly bring up a mock spreadsheet to hide your game.  The personal computer’s WIMP interface (windows, icons, menus, pointer), with its layers upon layers of windows, allows a kind of slight of hand and easy hiding of games or other NSFW (Not Safe For Work) activities.  Digital games can be harder to sneak into work outside of white-collar office settings. But as desktop and other types of computers increasingly are used in stores as point of sale systems, in entry ways, and at front desks, we can suspect that many are being used to play games, although it is impossible to know how many, how often — I know that I played a lot of web based games while a clerk at a wine store.  This kind of video game playing at work has clear connections to la perruque (“the wig”) as described by Michel de Certeau, except instead of “a worker’s own work disguised as work for his employer” it is a worker’s play disguised as work. This has more in common with how de Certeau mobilizes la perruque to describe a whole range of practical détournement (s) of time and space (2002).  The time and the spaces which are constituted by work are not our own but spaces of the other. As de Certeau writes:

(A) tactic is a calculated action determined by the absence of a proper locus. No delimitation of an exteriority, then, provides it with the condition necessary for autonomy. The space of a tactic is the space of the other. Thus it must play on and with a terrain imposed on it and organized by the law of a foreign power (2002).

We should take literally de Certeau’s suggestion that the tactic “must play on and with a terrain imposed on it.”  In the case of Apt Get and his interlocutors, this terrain is one of cubicles and frosted glass, but also of box trucks, servers, firewalls, nosey neighbors, and if we merge terrain with time, deadlines, lunch breaks and all-nighters.

If we look back to the algebra-derived model above, or think of design doodles in meetings, or other more expansive ideas of what constitutes Minecraft play, we see that these are perhaps unsurprisingly also potentially cases of perruquesque tactics.  The shipping box stacking, while not at all subtle, takes advantage of the fact that the thing being used in play is also the thing used at work, here not just boxes, but also the act (and skill) of stacking them.  This points not just to a flexibility inherit in the tactics needed to play at work, but also to a more fundamental relationship and tension we see in cases where objects of labor are used for play or pleasure.  This is especially common in digital play (think of the keyboard and mouse of pc gaming), but as the shipping box example demonstrates, not unique to digital play. The tools employed in the case of Minecraft play at work, whether the PC in orthodox forms of Minecraft play, or the diverse workplace materials (graph paper, algebraic software) of the more outré tactics, are always ready to shift back and forth between ludic and mundane. Whatever is reworked towards play always shifts back.  This too, is consistent with de Certeau’s understanding of the tactics of everyday life; whatever tactics of subterfuge might win us, we must be willing to readily discard (2002).  Minecraft play at work is a kind of playing at the level of mimesis and pretense as well as duration; it is, in the best sense of the word, improvised.

To close, let’s return to the two images presented above of work-place play (or work/place/play). If we (mis)read these as being about Minecraft play, and not forms of Minecraft play itself, we leave behind these practices and these players. If we leave exclude these players and their play from our definition of what Minecraft play really is, we must then face the realization that there is no center to hold on to in defining Minecraft play: When is it real, really? In adventure or survival mode? When one is playing alone, or only in groups? Networked or not? To better understand all forms of digital play we must take the limit or fringe cases seriously.  Stacking real boxes at work at first may seem like a strange way to play Minecraft, but it is also somehow the most Minecrafty practice one can think of.  This is due to the creativity of the player, but also to the centrality of space and context for determining what play looks like and what play can be.  We move then from the ideal to the possible, from the discrete to the situated, from the simulated workspace of the mine to the real and contested work place of the player.

This is a move that we need to make when we study games in general, a move towards the world of the player rather than just the world of the game. This is important not only for understanding work-themed games played at work, or mobile games played on the go, but also for understanding more seemingly stable arrangements between player and place, from the historic arcade, to the tavern, to the couch and TV coupling of the home.  These spaces are in many ways as mysterious and as contested as any mine, dungeon, or alien galaxy. When we listen to players talk about how they play rather than just what they play we can begin to attend more to the nuances of these mundane spaces to understand the situated, contextual and contingent nature of play and to see play as always complicated and complicit.  We may well then arrive at an understanding of play as more like the rest of our lives: complicated, compromised, and vital.

 

References

apt_get. “How Many of You are Playing Minecraft at Work?” http://Minecraft.reddit.com/r/Minecraft/comments/dtbiz/how_many (accessed November 2011)

Arendt, Hannah, and Margaret Canovan. 1998. The human condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Caillois, Roger, and Meyer Barash. 2001. Man, play, and games. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

De Certeau, 2002. Michel The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Dyer-Witheford, Nick, and Greig De Peuter. 2009. Games of empire: global capitalism and video games. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Huizinga, Johan. 1955. Homo Ludens: a Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Boston: Beacon Press.

Mastrangelo, Everton, and Jeffery A. Jolton. 2006. “Personal Use of Work Computers: Distraction versus Destruction,” CyberPsychology & Behavior. 9, no. 6, 730-741.

Reinecke Leonard. 2009. “Games at Work: The Recreational Use of Computer Games

During Working Hours” CyberPsychology & Behavior 12, no. 4 461.

Simmel, G. and E. C. Hughes. “The Sociology of Sociability.” The American Journal of Sociology 55, no. 3 (1949): 254-261.

Sudnow, David. 1983. Pilgrim in the microworld. New York, N.Y.: Warner Books.

Taylor, N., Bergstrom, K., Jenson, J. & de Castell, S. 2015. “Alienated Playbour: Relations of Production in EVE Online,” Games and Culture 365-388

Tobin, Samuel. 2013. Portable Play in Everyday Life, Basingstoke and New York, Palgrave Macmillan.

Terranova, Tiziana. 2000. “Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy.” Social Text, 63 (Volume 18, Number 2), Summer 2000, 33-58

 

Bio

Samuel Tobin is an Assistant Professor of Communications Media and Game Design at Fitchburg State College in Massachusetts who studies play, media and everyday life. He is the author of Portable Play in Everyday Life: The Nintendo DS (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.)