Dominic Arsenault is an associate professor at the Université de Montréal. His research and teaching covers video game writing, industry, genres, history, graphics and music. His 2017 book Super Power, Spoony Bards, and Silverware : The Super Nintendo Entertainment System was published in the MIT Press’ Platform Studies series.
As I understand it, and as others before me summarized it (Lowood & Guins 2014, XIII-XV), history is the study of the past through documents, and historiography is the study of the craft of history – the methods used by historians to write their histories. Historians often conduct their work in two phases: studying the documents to retrace the facts, and then organizing these facts and events into a narrative to infuse them with meaning. As Paul Ricoeur claimed for both historical and fictional narrative, defining an “end point” to a story instills newfound relevance into previously insignificant – or at least disorganized – events (Ricoeur 1984, 66-67). Since many of us have a direct, lived experience with video games, we sometimes face the situation where the grand historical narrative does not play nicely with our own lived experiences and memories. We may reason that our experience was a minority or chance happening, and that the “real” history of games is this other well-documented reality instead. I believe this is dangerous – that there is a lot of undocumented grassroots video game history laying out there in our minds, and that we need to incorporate this into our historiographical methods.
This is a realization I had when working on my latest publication in video game history, which turned out to be a counter-history – an account of the dark side of Nintendo, and how it lived through the SNES years: a silver age of tranquil stability that ultimately carried the seeds of its decline. This view is unorthodox to say the least, since the SNES is often celebrated as one of the greatest game consoles of all time, thanks to its excellent library of games. And if I stuck to the usual preachy-praisy articles and celebratory insider histories of the Super NES, I would have concluded that too. Instead I was unsatisfied with a question from my lived experience: if the Super NES was so great, then why did many of my friends go for the Sega Genesis? Why did some of them leave video games altogether? Why did the PlayStation conquer all their hearts, and why weren’t any games coming out for the Nintendo 64? Setting out to resolve this tension, I ended up carving a new path through a familiar lump of video game historical material. Here are four challenges I tackled and which led me to conclude that we need to rely on our lived experience in our practice of doing video game history.
Challenge #1: Where are the documents?
While many histories of commercial video games have been written, we are still lacking a surprising amount of factual data, as Wolf writes. This means that we have trouble pinpointing the exact release date of a high-profile game like Adventure for the Atari 2600, or one of the most popular video games ever in North America, Super Mario Bros.; As Frank Cifaldi concludes: “rather than finding out when that might be from the very same company that published it, we’re relying on deep research and anonymous tipsters to lead us in the right direction.” Even the meaning of the name “Nintendo” itself is a question that, in the absence of corporate archives from the firm’s creation in 1889, may very well never be resolved, as Florent Gorges exposes (Gorges 2010, 16-17) before closing without an answer.
Sales figures are a particularly evident example of data that is either impossible to obtain or whose reliability is suspect since they are usually released by game publishers themselves as a promotional strategy. Consider Nintendo’s market dominance with the NES, which has been described alternately in terms of market share, percentage of homes with a console, total number of consoles sold, total revenue, and so on. Various publications have pinpointed the market share in percentage anywhere from the low-80s to the mid-90s. So where did the authors get their information? Probably through firms’ press releases, based on private corporate data and relayed by news outlets – a distressing situation when Shinobu Toyoda, executive vice-president of Sega of America in 1989, explained in a 2014 interview that they officially claimed a 10% market share when in truth they only had six. Who’s to say it didn’t bend farther, or at Nintendo too?
Through the circulation and replication of variations and off-handed rephrasings of data trimmed from the source, we can get into “misinformation echo chambers”, with other historians and academics citing texts containing mistakes or off-base statements, which both indirectly validates them by way of citation, and simultaneously provides a justification for the source to be recursively cross-validated by citing the other, newer work.
While it is true that the big-picture of commercial video game history has received much attention already, there is still a lot missing because of very real documentation problems. I knew when I set out to write a historical piece on the SNES that first-hand internal documents would be unavailable or plainly non-existent. So what else could I use? There are two answers: interviews and prior histories.
Challenge #2: What are we documenting?
The first wave of video game historiography, practiced by insiders, journalists and enthusiasts like Leonard Herman, David Sheff, or Steven Kent before the relatively recent corpus of academic work on games history in the late-2000s, had practiced the chronicle (Huhtamo 2005, 4) – the chronological ordering of facts and dates – with a focus on historical “firstness”, celebrating the first time game X, company Y, or famous game developer Z did or said this or that. Their work was based on the available documents and on interviews, which might be said to form the methodological undercurrent to this first-wave video game history.
The danger with interviews is that people and corporations have vested interests in how history will remember them – they might be a little too “generous with words” (Therrien 2015, par.2) and try to aggrandize or justify their acts. But there’s another danger: a prominent Japanese video game developer who worked on the SNES itself at Nintendo was, according to an intermediary I contacted, unlikely to be able to talk, because of the tangled history between Nintendo and Sony around the SNES. He’s not working in games development anymore, but won’t speak of a 25-year old conflict between his former employer and competitor. This begs the question: just how authentic is the information gathered from active developers still employed by corporations and filtered by their PR departments?
Prior video game histories stemmed from interviews with “key personnel”, turning them into an antiquated offshoot of Thomas Carlyle’s theory of the Great Man. Moreover, in interviewing “key” people, certain voices and discourses were elevated, and the mass of events was spun in a certain narrative trajectory – compare David Sheff’s and Blake Harris’ books for a good example of how interviews and narrative writing can orient a historical account, especially since the kinds of documents we have on hand determines the kind of history we are making, as Wade & Webber have discussed.
So I did what other researchers, like Perron et al, Suominen, Kirkpatrick, and Therrien & Picard have done too, and examined video game magazines to try and reconstruct the horizon of expectation (Jauss 1982) of the period, from contemporary documents acting as involuntary witnesses (Ricoeur 1983), hoping it might “lead to strikingly different stories” (Therrien 2015, par.4).
Challenge #3: How are we documenting?
The magazines I examined told weird tales, prophecies of a Grand Future of Games™ with systems that have since left little more than footnotes in video game history – in particular what I call in my book the “generation 4.5” of video game consoles. First-wave history was founded on the model of “console generations”, which persists in popular literature, with consoles succeeding each other in technological progress (for a time counted as “bits”). The evident problem with this console-centrism is that it devalues and/or marginalizes PC, mobile, online, and portable games.
But another, more insidious problem is that the generations model only appears to be based on technology. In truth, the generations are based on market success, chronicling successful new kings when they manage to take the throne, but leaving failed coups by the wayside of history. Thus the CD-i, LaserActive, 3DO and CDTV are never recognized as forming their own convergent movement towards multimedia/game devices and given a place of their own in history, but instead treated as distant runner-ups in generations 3 or 4.
If our first-wave history and generations model is based on marketing and sales rather than technology, then shouldn’t we look at them from the perspective of business studies and economics? That was my impetus for delving into these fields. It’s been a bumpy but enlightening ride. I gained familiarity with the subfield of Platform Studies in economics, very different from Platform Studies in game studies. (And just learned by typing this that Sebastian Deterding coined “economic platform studies” as a term that describes what I did in my book. I wish I had found it before finishing the manuscript.)
Challenge #4: What is left undocumented?
First-wave video game history written from interviews documented notable people’s perceptions of global-scale events and their roles in them. In recent and not-so-recent years, many video game historians like Picard, Donovan, Wolf and Gorges have criticized the “global” perspective of prior histories as invariably U.S.-centric. Melanie Swalwell and Jaroslav Švelch’s creation of an international mailing list dedicated to “local game histories” is a clear sign of this. But not only do we need local histories to complement our global ones, we also need grassroots histories to complement our industrial ones, like Helen Stuckey, Melanie Swalwell, Angela Ndalianis and Denise de Vries’ Popular Memory Archive. In short, our lived histories need to be brought into our historiographical methods to supplement the lacks left by the undocumented.
I grew up in a middle-class household in Quebec City. Video games were expensive to my family; I would often read about and see the deluge of games coming out for Christmas, but we never got any, as they were too costly for that. My brother and I received one NES / SNES game each for our birthdays, a gift that required family members to pool their money together. Around age 13, we’d get the cash itself and spend it ourselves on a game, with some leftover and weekly allowance money to afford a game every 6-8 months, if we saved up. There were no “video game stores” selling used games for cheap; only toy or department stores sold them, always new, always expensive. We had the NES, and then the SNES; some of my friends owned a Genesis instead, but I knew no one that could afford both consoles.
I played hundreds of games, but owned about 15 through my 10 years of Nintendo gaming from 1988 to 1998. In other words, our experience of playing far exceeded the scope of conventional economics. The bulk of my gameplay came through loaning and borrowing games from friends, and renting games from the local video club. Every weekend my father would take us there and spend $5 to borrow a game until 6 PM the next day. We would play intensely, go back to our accrued 4, 8 or 15 games we owned, and repeat the next week.
Looking back on it now, Nintendo must have hated me. I was a first-class piggybacker, consuming hours in game-playing but channeling very few dollars to game publishers for doing so. This was, however, an entirely reasonable way to mitigate the high cost of games, solving Nintendo’s conundrum of having to sell expensive games to kids without the means to purchase them. And these networked play practices created a “peer pressure” effect to “lock in” children to their platforms, which became vectors of socialization. Through this, we increased our exposure to (and literacy of) video games. This is how you get a generation to drink, wear and eat in Nintendo cups, clothes and lunchboxes respectively. But Nintendo didn’t see that, and instead lobbied the U.S. Congress and sued Blockbuster to prevent game rentals – and failed (Provenzo 1991, 25).
None of these realities show up on financial statements or investor reports, or in the economics and business literature I read for my book, either. You’re likely to find certain rationales in economics or video game histories written from interviewing businessmen: how game rentals are tryout periods translating to later sales, or how Christmas is the big sales period for publishers. Then criticism of the games industry can begin: it’s reserved for an elite cadre of wealthy consumers. There’s certainly that side, but if we don’t interview the common folks, we miss out on how they played games even though they were expensive, and how rentals and peer networks provided access to games outside the commercial circuit.
And there’s a lot more left. I haven’t gotten into the fact that, living in a suburb where mass transit wasn’t an option, what wasn’t available in my town’s video store wasn’t available at all period. Or how a weird guy went from house to house with his private stash of NES games, which he’d loan for a week if you gave him a little money – but if you skipped one week, so the rumor went, he wouldn’t come back again. And that’s just me. Imagine what else we could learn from researchers from around the world, from all social classes, regions, and other contexts. It’s time we document our personal histories as a part of video game historiography, so that future game historians may have access to the informal play practices and circulations of games outside the business and market logics.
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