- Playback: A Genealogy of 1980s British Videogames by Alex Wade
by Alex Wade. Bloomsbury Academic, New York, NY, 2016. 192 pp. Trade, eBook. ISBN: 978-1628924893.
Videogames have a problem—not the kind brought up as part of a moral panic—rather one where the understanding of their own history is distorted by a North American account (even with Japan's influence upon the medium). For many currently involved with videogames in some capacity, the calendar seems to start at 1983, after the North American videogame market crash. There is, of course, a tacit recognition of what existed prior to the crash, but this is viewed as a sort of "prehistory"; one that does not fit with the strict linear chronology that has helped define the way the medium has been understood since.
In Playback: A Genealogy of 1980s British Videogames, Alex Wade attempts to provide an alternative to an approach that he considers having overlooked the less evident influences of videogames: from the United Kingdom and internationally. Wade largely succeeds in this aim, but to an extent less than the title of the book would suggest. Yet, the book is the better for it, for it is not meant to be a history of British videogames, nor is it solely focused on the 1980s. If it were, it would be hypocritical, for then it would be providing the very linear chronology that he is arguing against. Furthermore, while the focus is on the United Kingdom, it is not exclusively so, as the videogames medium is a truly global one, albeit with centers of influence.
The relationship between videogames and technology is a running theme throughout, and one that Wade acknowledges has an intricate dichotomy. The model of supersession and obsolescence is at the core of the industry, but it occurs on the manufacturers' terms and not purely in response to technological advancement. Wade states that they give the appearance of innovating, but "only in the context of the past," implying that a new videogame console is not necessarily the best it can be, merely that is better than the previous one, and that the previous console is now unable to play newly developed videogames. This process of obsolescence has resulted in hardware platforms that "refuse to die" despite being replaced by superior technology and game design, which James Newman argues defies "the logic of upgrade."
There is a fitting example that highlights the difficulty that the videogames medium faces in terms of archiving, as well as engaging with and understanding its past. Wade posits that "kids on the bus are aware of Sega's existence as a hardware manufacturer [Sega stopped manufacturing videogame consoles in 2001 and became a third-party publisher/ developer], but unsure as to why the definitive version of Sega Rally runs on a console that wasn't built for 3D." Emulation might enable videogames of the past to run on newer hardware. But despite efforts to make this an easier process, it remains uneven, and often the videogames do not function in the same way as they would on the original hardware. This distinction between awareness of the medium's past and firsthand knowledge results in Game Studies adopting its equivalent to Latin: serving the purpose of describing events of the past but struggling to translate to the current time.
Equally Game and Film Studies are influenced by their relationship to older, more "mature," media forms that are deemed to inherently carry greater critical weight, resulting in a hauntology. This hauntology could also be seen to exist within the videogames medium itself. Wade expediently notes that "today's 'hardcore' gamers are able to express their dissatisfaction with the current state of the industry on NeoGaf [an online videogame forum] and then crowdfund a new game which fits with their profile of what a game should [End Page 201] be and how it should play." Recently there have been notable examples of videogame releases that were the result of crowdfunding campaigns based on nostalgic desires for past franchises. Upon delivery of said promised game, however, gamers discovered that gameplay mechanics they were so fond of...