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Before the Crash

Early Video Game History

Edited by Mark J. P. Wolf

Publication Year: 2012

Following the first appearance of arcade video games in 1971 and home video game systems in 1972, the commercial video game market was exuberant with fast-paced innovation and profit. New games, gaming systems, and technologies flooded into the market until around 1983, when sales of home game systems dropped, thousands of arcades closed, and major video game makers suffered steep losses or left the market altogether. In Before the Crash: Early Video Game History, editor Mark J. P. Wolf assembles essays that examine the fleeting golden age of video games, an era sometimes overlooked for older games’ lack of availability or their perceived “primitiveness” when compared to contemporary video games. In twelve chapters, contributors consider much of what was going on during the pre-crash era: arcade games, home game consoles, home computer games, handheld games, and even early online games. The technologies of early video games are investigated, as well as the cultural context of the early period—from aesthetic, economic, industrial, and legal perspectives. Since the video game industry and culture got their start and found their form in this era, these years shaped much of what video games would come to be. This volume of early history, then, not only helps readers to understand the pre-crash era, but also reveals much about the present state of the industry. Before the Crash will give readers a thorough overview of the early days of video games along with a sense of the optimism, enthusiasm, and excitement of those times. Students and teachers of media studies will enjoy this compelling volume.

Published by: Wayne State University Press

Series: Contemporary Approaches to Film and Media Series

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vi

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Foreword by Ed Rotberg

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pp. vii-x

When Mark asked me to write the foreword for Before the Crash, I was certainly flattered, but my first thought was: “Why me?” A little introspection quickly gave me the answer—I’m old! Certainly relative to this industry I’m old. Before I started to work for Atari, I had been working for a large pharmaceutical corporation, integrating microcomputers into lab equipment for real-time data acquisition and analysis—fun stuff, huh? In my...


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pp. xi-xii

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pp. 1-8

So begins patent number 2,455,992, issued to Thomas T. Goldsmith and Estle Ray Mann, who applied for the patent January 25, 1947, and received it December 14, 1948, for what can now be considered the world’s first description of an interactive game played on a cathrode-ray tube. But the...

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Video Games Caught Up in History: Accessibility, Teleological Distortion, and Other Methodological Issues

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pp. 9-29

At the foundation of history as a discipline, lies the necessity to synthesize vast bodies of information in order to represent the evolution of human cultures. The exclusion of sources and artifacts constitutes its inevitable shortcoming. The self-proclaimed objective accumulation of facts—thematically organized, chronologically ordered—associated with positivistic...

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What’s Victoria Got To Do with It? Toward an Archaeology of Domestic Video Gaming

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pp. 30-52

Video games are played by persons, but they are also played by contexts, because we cannot separate ourselves from the cultural, ideological, economic, and social conditions within which we live our lives.1 Humans mold contexts, but—perhaps to an even greater degree—contexts mold humans. A person pushing a shopping cart through the isles of a supermarket may feel absolutely free to choose whatever he or she wants, but the shopper’s...

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Ball-and-Paddle Consoles

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pp. 53-59

In today’s world, watching a video game sometimes awards the viewer with the same experience as viewing a movie. Graphics, especially in sports games, seem to be so realistic that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between real and imaginary.
As graphics improve, audiences’ expectations of games also advance....

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Channel F for Forgotten: The Fairchild Video Entertainment System

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pp. 60-80

The Channel F Video Entertainment System occupies an important place in video game history. It comprised several significant milestones in home console technology and culture but remains relatively unknown today, whereas its major competitor, the Atari Video Game System (VCS, renamed the Atari 2600 in 1982), is emblematic of retro gaming nostalgia with an active hobbyist community that still produces new games for the...

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The Video Game Industry Crash of 1977

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pp. 81-89

Though the Great Video Game Industry Crash of 1983 is well known, it was not the first time the industry experienced a crash. The crash of 1977, although not as big or long-lasting, was the first to test the home video game industry. In some ways, it was a warning to the industry and was predictive of the Great Crash of 1983, with which it shared similar conditions: burgeoning...

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A Question of Character: Transmediation, Abstraction, and Identification in Early Games Licensed from Movies

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pp. 90-104

In recent years, the production processes, aesthetic possibilities, and commercial goals of cinema and video games have become so intertwined that the promotional build-ups surrounding most video games licensed from movies boast of their ability to create digital avatars that nearly duplicate the photorealistic appearance and behavior of their cinematic counterparts. For example, according to its press release, the game...

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Every Which Way But . . . : Reading the Atari Catalog

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pp. 105-118

I remember the arrival of the Atari 2600 game system into my life quite clearly. I was fascinated even then by how its black plastic ridges echoed the black plastic grill on the TV set—the one that “protected” such fine controls as the knobs to adjust tint or saturation. Like the television set, the Atari also bore a faux wood-grain pattern across it: both of these plastic, electronic devices clearly wanted to reference some earlier moment in interior...

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One-Bit Wonders: Video Game Sound before the Crash

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pp. 119-137

The sound of the early video game arcades is probably embedded in the consciousness of everyone who was a child during the late 1970s and early 1980s. To walk into an arcade was to experience an overwhelming onslaught of crashes, laser guns, synthesized speech, and electronic beeping music, all competing for our attention. There have been several attempts to recreate the video game arcade atmosphere (such as Andy Hofle’s Arcade...

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The Rise and Fall of Cinematronics

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pp. 138-167

For several decades prior to the eruption of PONG (1972) and its clones and mutations, pinball games were the kings of coin-operated amusement. That changed drastically when cathode-ray tube (CRT) displays enabled amusements like Computer Space (1971), Nolan Bushnell’s coin-operated version of Spacewar! (1962), and of course, Ralph Baer’s TV tennis game that inspired PONG. The new, virtual entertainments brought with them...

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Color-Cycled Space Fumes in the Pixel Particle Shockwave: The Technical Aesthetics of Defender and the Williams Arcade Platform, 1980–82

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pp. 168-188

In today’s gaming press, it’s common enough to hear about pixel shaders, polygons per second, the Cell chip, and the network speed and latency of our current game hardware—the Xbox 360, the Playstation 3, the iPhone, or the latest PC graphics boards. This technical fetishization is not always helpful in assessing games as meaningful play experiences, but it does tell us something about the underlying materials that those games are made...

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Coin-Drop Capitalism: Economic Lessons from the Video Game Arcade

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pp. 189-208

The video game industry as a whole recovered after the Crash of 1983, but many arcades did not, and within a few years, towns that had previously boasted numerous arcades were left with just a few grimy machines in the corner of the bowling alley. Today, the video game arcade persists as a nostalgic space, an entertainment gimmick, or a nerd mecca for the truly dedicated. The history of gaming as practice critically illuminates the evolution...

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Early Online Gaming: BBSs and MUDs

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pp. 209-224

It’s an unmistakable sound, the piercing shriek of a 300-baud dial-up modem making a connection. It’s followed by then the flash of a welcome screen and pathways to buzzing chat rooms, fantasy role-playing in virtual dungeons, libraries of pirated software, text-based flirtation, and impish trolling. The year is 1983, a decade before the World Wide Web became a truly worldwide phenomenon....

Appendix A: Video Game History: Getting Things Straight

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pp. 225-233

Appendix B: The Magnavox Co. v. Activision, Inc.: 1985 WL 9469 (N.D. Cal. 1985)

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pp. 234-238


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pp. 239-244


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pp. 245-256

Back Cover

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p. bc-bc

E-ISBN-13: 9780814337226
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814334508

Page Count: 272
Illustrations: 40
Publication Year: 2012

Edition: 1
Series Title: Contemporary Approaches to Film and Media Series