‘Game Over’ For All-Encompassing Video Game History Books?

A few years back, when Steven L. Kent published the bible of video game related history books, The First Quarter, bedroom video game historians and classic game fans like myself were in heaven. Kent’s book spurred a much heftier second volume, The Ultimate History Of Video Games , plus the photo heavy High Score as well as several others books on related topics. The “gaming” section at the book store filled-up with interesting volumes on video games, and it appeared a new book genre was born. However, 6 years later, that section is almost completely devoid of video game history books, and whatever space they might have taken has been pushed a side for strategy guides and books about playing chess and Texas Hold’Em. I get angry every time I browse that section, wondering “What happened?”

About 6 months ago I wrote a blog about this topic entitled Where is the great, all-encompassing history of Atari? , basically asking someone to write a end-all-be-all book on my favorite video game company, mostly because I, selfishly, wanted to read one. I’m still waiting, and it looks like I will be waiting even longer. Bill Loguidice over at Armchair Arcade wrote in his blog last week about the current situation with a book he and Matt Barton have been writing about the first 15 years of video game history. Bill wrote:

“…the market for videogame books through normal publishing means (meaning not vanity press, subsidized or self-published) has collapsed, making publishers hesitant to bite on even a 90% completed book with proven content and testimonials from countless people who actually want to purchase it. ”

This is quite unfortunate, but not surprising. When Gamerdad.com‘s Andrew Bub and I attempted the same thing with a book about Atari through mainstream publishers in 2004/2005, we ran into much the same situation. Unless there is some sort of lurid angle that a book can take (i.e. violence arguments), it seems like it might be some time until we see another solid volume at the book store dedicated to video games.

It’s interesting to note that the market for technical books (a category that has a similar audience as video game history books), has steadily fallen since 2001 (the same year The First Quarter was published) to about 50% of what it was that year. Technical books are an interesting comparison , because many (but not all) of the video game history books of the past have seemed “technical” in their style and appealed to “techies” and not the mainstream public. Instead of telling stories, some ofthe books presented a mostly dry set of information ( technical facts, figures, dates, specs) and organized it strictly chronologically or alphabetically. Many times, the actual games that these video game books were ostensibly covering, were pushed aside and replaced with business information and corporate politics. Furthermore, it seems that the advent of Web 2.0 has given us so much more to read online, and so many more ways to interact with readers (Blogs, Digg, Wikis etc.), that the need for these types of technical-heavy volumes has fallen greatly. This is exacerbated by the fact that the web is an easy way to find “general knowledge” on almost any topic these days and for most people, that is quite enough. Want to know something about an Atari VCS game, your first stop is Atari Age. If you have a question, for instance, “Did Atari Make An Army Version Of Battlezone?” It’s fairly easy to find that information on Google. So easy in-fact, that it’s become common knowledge. It all comes down to how much detail you want in your answer.

I think that possibly, the scope of these all-encompassing History Of All Video Games ideas might be the problem. It’s difficult to make a compelling, page-turning story out of an chronological history book. Authors of titles for other entertainment genres have solved this problem, while video game many aspiring video games book authors still playing catch-up. How many large-volume History Of TV or History Of All Books Ever Published do you see at the book store these days? While they do exist, you’ll find many more books that relate to single topic or personality and organized in their own sections. While some of these books are technical, more often than not they tell very personal stories about particular TV shows and movies, or personalities in their respective fields. I could not find any information on sales for these types of books, but my own personal observation is that there seems to be many more movie and TV related books these days than ever before, and certainly more than in the nearly vacant video game section. I think ultimately, video games deserve their own section just like that Movies And TV (near-by if possible, away from the strategy guides), and to get there, it needs to be filled with volumes that present the small stories as well as the larger ones.

There are very interesting. smaller stories about events and larger- than-life characters that could easily fill-out this section. Along-side great, more focused volumes of the past like Game OverHackers, Masters Of Doom and Dungeons And Dreamers I’d love to see biographies, war stories, insider’s views, etc on topics like Nolan Bushnell, Dan Bunten, Jay Miner, Rockstar, Sid Meier, Blue Sky Rangers, the Atari Coin-op division, Ed Logg, Eugene Jarvis, Lucasarts, Activision, Chris Crawford, Trip Hawkins, etc., etc. etc. It might be time for aspiring video game book authors to dig deeper than the big, all en-compassing picture, and instead focus on the small stories that can be blown-out into interesting narratives and biographies. I suggest this all starts with a warts and all, no-holds-barred, dirt and glory biography/autobiography of Nolan Bushnell. There has never been one, and since he arguably started the industry, it will set the tone for everything to follow. It needs to be written by a well-known author/biographer who is also a video game fan (anyone have a suggestion?), and it needs to find a way to fold the importance video games into the cultural fabric of last part of the 20th century. We all know how important video games, and by extension, video game entrepreneurs, authors, and companies have been to our generation. They are just as important, if not more-so, than TV and movies were to the previous generations. It’s time someone made a push to prove it.  However, to accomplish that task, they may have to focus on smaller portraits to paint on a larger canvas, instead of trying to tackle the full story on a single landscape..

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