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Video Game History Is More Than Just Software and Hardware

'ROMchip' is a new journal asking big questions about how we think about gaming's past.

by Cameron Kunzelman
Jul 1 2019, 7:59pm

Photo by shaunl/Getty Images

When we talk about game history, we’re most often talking about familiar things: the Big Crash of the 1980s, the console wars of the 1990s, and the various business strategies of Sony and Microsoft jockeying for position in the early mid 2000s. ROMchip, a new open access academic journal dedicated to the history of games, is trying to get us to think a little more broadly about what the history of games are and what they could be.

Being an academic work, the journal is aiming for something more than a collection of anecdotes about consoles and lists must-play obscure game titles. The first issue is made up of work from scholars and writers who are collecting, contextualizing, and rethinking the history of games, game production, and the people who play. It has a big task in front of it.

Co-editors Laine Nooney (who I have sat on academic panels with), Raiford Guins, and Henry Lowood argue in their opening editorial that video game history has a problem. As an academic field, it is hard to define, and the shape that it takes for one person might not be what it is for another. It still has big, conceptual questions that remain unresolved or unconsidered. As the editors suggest, it means that game history still has some big, unresolved questions: “What types of histories are being written? Whose history is being accounted for as well as not being accounted for?”

Any cursory search or YouTube scouring of “game history” will provide you with long accounts of specific companies or series, with the occasional video from The Gaming Historian or Kelsey Lewin. These public histories are mostly geared toward fans or aimed at people who want to learn more about fascinating devices such as a blood testing device for a Nintendo handheld. Academic history writing takes a slightly different angle, looking to fill in context and situate video games in a cultural and technological context. It’s less look at this and more look at this whole world of things.

"Whose history is being accounted for as well as not being accounted for?"

The first issue of ROMchip centers on what the history of games might look like if we were more attentive to different perspectives instead of only being interested in forgotten peripherals. In a large polemical section of essays, writers take on the question of what games history should be. For example, VICE’s own Austin Walker argues in his piece in the issue, what would a history of play that archived feel of play look like? Or, as TreaAndrea M. Russworm writes, where is the history of games that takes seriously the contributions of black people to every sector of video games from Jerry Lawson’s and Edward Smith’s hardware and software designs to the fan labor of blerds and beyond. The array of concerns and potential ways of thinking game history bloom from there, from Patrick Harrigan’s suggestion that Civil War games be thought as public debates to Jodi A. Byrd’s demand that “a history of games be one that focuses on those submerged and contrary stories that counter the possessive logics of colonialism and imperialism.”

This first issue also contains a section of interviews, one of which is with Tom Kalinske, whose tenure as president of Sega of America coincided with the anti-Nintendo, pro-Genesis attack ads that we associate with the console wars of the 1990s. The final section, titled “Materials,” is made up of two longform traditional academic articles, one of which deals with Suffragetto, a board game from the early 1900s.

Although it is written for an academic audience, I think that ROMchip is pretty accessibly written, and would be engaging for anyone who is trying to think of new ways of considering how we engage with, and think through, the history of games.

Have thoughts? Swing by the Waypoint forums to share them!