Write your own history in the Lost Histories Jam! Blog category

This post is fairly late, but hopefully you still have an opportunity to participate in the Lost Histories Jam!

When we talk about the history of games, there tends to be a focus on famous milestone games, people, and companies. But gaming history is so much more than a list of greatest hits, and this week is a chance to fill in some of the gaps from our own experiences. From now through Saturday, February 16 [UPDATE: extended to Sunday],  Emilie Reed is running a writing jam about lost video game history, specifically personal histories, the ways that we’ve interacted with games that aren’t reflected in conventional stories of video game history. Quoting Reed:

Just think about it, what was something specific to the way that you played or experienced videogames that you feel like hardly anyone ever talks about? How can the community-based, experiential, specific, overlooked and personal enrich the common-knowledge history of videogames?

I’m extremely late posting this with only 3 1/2 days to go before the end of the writing jam, but that might be enough time for you to collect some thoughts about how your own experiences can inform the history of video games.

Even if you can’t enter, you can read along as folks add their entries to the Submissions page. I’ve already submitted mine, a rambling, stream-of-consciousness essay about the Mario fangame community where I spent my teenage years, viewed from the lens of a series of really bad games I helped make. It was awkward to write something so personal, but I think it’s worth opening a window to that and examining it.

Take some time on Saturday morning to write about something unique in your personal history with games and submit it to the writing jam! (I’m sure if you go over the deadline that’s okay!)

Despair Macintosh categoryOther category

Title screen from Despair

“What’s it like to be a jealous god?” That’s the advice you’re given on how to play Despair, a nihilistic software toy by Lloyd Burchill meant to “[help] you vent some steam.” Basically, you kill a bunch of people using weird, supernatural powers.

As grim as that sounds, Despair is surprisingly mellow, maybe even bored by the violence. It feels like a product of 90s cynicism, where everything sucked but in a cool, fun way you could rebel against. » Read more about Despair

Stuffin the Briefcase Puzzle category

Screenshot from Stuffin the Briefcase

Stuffin the Briefcase makes a game out of an everyday activity – packing a bag.

Epyx included this game as part of the Getaway Entertainment 6 Pack, a collection of games for laptops in the early 90s. The Getaway pack has six small, simple games, like a dominoes game and a variation of Mastermind; they’re little timewasters intended for someone to play while traveling, something they’d kill time with on a train ride, the mobile games of their time. Stuffin the Briefcase, the most creative of the pack, is the only one that sticks with the travel theme. » Read more about Stuffin the Briefcase

Sentient Adventure category

Title screen from Sentient

When a solar flare hits the space station ICARUS, the entire place shakes. Your screen rattles back and forth. Alarms go off. Over the loudspeakers, a voice dispatches orders for the medical team. This disturbance repeats periodically in the background as the station careens closer to destruction. The crashing noises are a constant reminder: this disaster will continue to unfurl, no matter what else is going on.

Something is always happening in Sentient. The ICARUS has a full crew running around doing their jobs, and as part of your mission to save the space station, you can go anywhere in the facility and talk to any character about basically anything. It’s dizzying, and it can be hard to understand what you’re supposed to do with that radical freedom. » Read more about Sentient

Thanks for Super MAGFest 2019 Blog category

The panelists for "True Weird Stories from Video Game History" at Super MAGFest 2019. (from left to right) Me, Frank Cifaldi, Rachel Simone Weil, Kelsey Lewin

“True Weird Stories from Video Game History” at Super MAGFest 2019. (from left to right: me, Frank Cifaldi, Rachel Simone Weil, Kelsey Lewin) Photo credit: AtariSpot

It’s been a few days since Super MAGFest 2019. While I’d usually wait to talk about the event until panel videos are available, I want to recap the weekend while it’s still fresh.

This year was incredible. The video game history panel track was a huge success. We put on 11 unique, insightful panels on a wide range of topics, and they brought in big audiences. (Three panels, including our midnight panel on weird game history, were standing room only!) Our panelists represented a variety of perspectives, experiences, and interests, and I’m proud of the voices we showcased.

I was amazed by the synchronicity between the panels. They were in dialogue with each other – referencing shared ideas like “evocative objects,” preservation through play, and, surprisingly, the Nancy Drew games. They made a strong case for the importance of archives. They challenged the social and cultural assumptions behind how we tell the story of video games and questioned the value of nostalgia. One of our panelists literally challenged the audience to a fight. And the history topics fit neatly into the rest of the MAGES educational panel section; they felt right at home alongside psych research, musicology, and art history.

One goal with the panel track was to foster a gaming history community, where historians, archivists, and fans could interact and learn from each other. This was just one panel track over three days, but it felt like we started something. The response from both the panelists and audiences has been outstanding.

Thank you so much to everyone who attended, and thanks to all our panelists – Carly Kocurek, Kelsey Lewin, Anne Ladyem McDivitt, Kevin Bunch, Florencia Pierri, Michael Hughes, Rachel Simone Weil, Jeremy Parish, Bob Mackey, Chris Sims, Andrew Borman, Beth Lathrop, Campbell Parker, and Frank Cifaldi. It was a pleasure and an honor to meet and to work with all of you. Just typing out everyone’s names like that is ridiculous. This was an amazing event.

Videos of every panel should be available in the next few months as MAGFest gradually uploads everything.

UPDATE: The videos are up! I’ve embedded the playlist below, starting with Carly Kocurek’s panel.

The Walt Disney World Explorer CD-ROM Software category

Title screen from The Walt Disney World Explorer CD-ROM

The Walt Disney World Explorer CD-ROM is an animated travel brochure that doubles as memorabilia. It compiles a bunch of photos and facts from Disney’s Orlando theme park resort into an interactive map format – a way for families to learn about Disney World and, maybe, remember their trip later, like saving a paper map for a scrapbook. The CD-ROM doesn’t have information about planning a visit; it’s more like a sprightly, clickable ad for Disney rides, hotels, golf courses, and water parks. It’s a piece of the sort of celebratory self-mythmaking that Disney loves.

Decades later, we can call the Explorer CD-ROM a time capsule. Disney World today looks quite different from this version of the park from 1996. Yet the Explorer CD-ROM has always been a time capsule: even in 1996, this program became outdated quickly. In hindsight, it still has merit as a snapshot, an image of what Disney aspired for the parks to be at one specific point in time. » Read more about The Walt Disney World Explorer CD-ROM

Video game history at Super MAGFest 2019 Blog category

Super MAGFest 2019 logo

I’m coming back to Super MAGFest 2019 on January 3-6, 2019 in National Harbor, MD! Super MAGFest is my favorite gaming event, and this time, I’m doing something different.

This year, I’ve helped put together a gaming history panel track, featuring an incredible lineup of video game historians, archivists, and curators. There’s been a need for a place where video game historians can talk with fans about their research – a middle ground where researchers and fans can interact. We’re making it happen at Super MAGFest.

I am incredibly proud of our panel selection. All panels will be part of the MAGES educational panel section in the MAGES 1 panel room:

Thursday, January 3:

  • Carly A. Kocurek (Illinois Institute of Technology) will walk through the history of video games by using ten gaming-related objects – and talk about the importance of preservation. 5:30pm
  • Kelsey Lewin will explore the legacy of Gunpei Yokoi, the famed developer behind the Game & Watch, Game Boy, and WonderSwan. 7:00pm

Friday, January 4:

  • Anne Ladyem McDivitt (The University of Alabama) will speak about women in video game culture in the early arcade era and the influence of Pac-Man on women in game development. 1:00pm
  • Kevin Bunch and Florencia Pierri (Sarnoff Collection at The College of New Jersey) will reveal the recently rediscovered history of RCA’s video game consoles and computers in the 70s, including a close-up look at lost games and prototype hardware, some of which have never been seen outside of museums. 2:30pm
  • Michael Hughes (Trinity University) will share his research on the history of video game fanzines and their role in video game culture. 4:00pm
  • Rachel Simone Weil (FEMICOM Museum) will share her insights on the history of video game hacking and homebrew games for old platforms. 5:30pm
  • Kelsey Lewin, Frank Cifaldi, Rachel Simone Weil, and I will hold a late-night panel about true weird stories from video game history. (I’ll be talking about Secret Writer’s Society!) Midnight

Saturday, January 5:

  • Retronauts (Jeremy Parish, Bob Mackey, and Chris Sims) will record a live episode of their podcast about the history of sound design from Nintendo’s R&D1 division. 1:00pm
  • Andrew Borman and Beth Lathrop (The Strong Museum of Play) will talk about the Museum of Play’s efforts to preserve video game history and their amazing collections of video game materials. 2:30pm
  • Campbell Parker/StrangetownFunk will give a look into the history of the Sims community and “the diverse ways that players interact with both their games and their fellows.” 4:00pm
  • Frank Cifaldi (Video Game History Foundation) will dive into the strange afterlife of the Nintendo Entertainment System and why the system keeps living on in unexpected places. 7:00pm

    (Frank will host another panel at Super MAGFest about his research on the recent SNK 40th Anniversary Collection in the Panels 4 room on Thursday at 4:00pm.)

A full schedule for Super MAGFest 2019 will be available in the coming weeks.

I am overjoyed by what these folks are presenting. We’re putting on a unique, insightful, subject-diverse panel track, and I can’t wait for everyone to join us. Less than one month is short notice, but I hope that folks on the east coast will be able to make a trip down, maybe even just a day trip!

I wanted to find the right gaming history event, so I helped make it. I hope you’re as excited as we are!

Visit the Super MAGFest 2019 website for more about what’s happening this year.

Visiting the old home of a multimedia studio Essay category

A building at nighttime. It is located along an overgrown canal. The side of the building is lit with purple columns of light. In the distance, a white smokestack is visible.

The building on the C&O Canal that in Georgetown used to house Magnet Interactive

Last night, I was in Georgetown in Washington, DC with friends to look at the public art that had been put up for the holidays. We passed this building on the C&O Canal, which you can see overgrown in the picture. This building was the former home to Magnet Interactive, a multimedia CD-ROM developer from the 90s that created titles like Icebreaker, Theresa Duncan’s Chop Suey, and the award-winning Beyond the Wall: Stories Behind the Vietnam Wall. Magnet was at the end of the building, near the smokestack, at 3255 Grace Street NW in what was once a historic Georgetown power house.

Back in 1996, The Washington Post ran a profile about Magnet Interactive; it touches on the precarious financial situation they and the entire CD-ROM industry found themselves in:

It is so volatile, currently in the midst of a wave of mergers and closings, that even some well-established companies with hit consumer products are in trouble — and six-year-old Magnet is still in the red and still waiting for its first hit. The most basic questions about the future of This Business — Will anyone still use CD-ROMs in five years? Can anyone figure out how to make money on the Web? How big is the audience for this stuff, anyway? — are in doubt.

So perhaps it is not so strange that at the same time Magnet’s executives are talking about taking the company public and creating a lot of rich 30-year-olds with its stock-option plan (“Everyone’s going to make out like a bandit,” co-founder Greg Johnson gleefully predicts), executives at other Washington multimedia companies suspect that Magnet may soon explode and fade like a supernova. Everyone in the industry says a shakeout is coming.

Visiting the former location of Magnet put the company’s mindset in context. Georgetown is a ritzy area of DC, mostly inaccessible by public transit and blanketed in upscale furniture stores and fancy restaurants in old buildings. Despite not turning a profit in six years, the company was renting offices on the canal. Even in 1996, it must have been expensive as hell. The Post‘s profile says the company “[spent] freely” on everything from their location and payroll to art for decorating the studio. They flaunted their expensive development workstations (“Most game companies can’t buy that. We can. Too bad.”). They spent on their image, on the status of being the hip renegade media company that the Post described. They must have been convinced that the big break was around the corner, that CD-ROMs were the next big cultural thing, and that they were the ones who would benefit from this new medium, even while the internet was on the horizon.

Of course, that didn’t happen. As Bob Stein recounted, CD-ROM multimedia was a stepping stone to the web and other formats. It’s unclear if Magnet struggled to adapt or simply spent themselves into oblivion. But it reminds me of the recent story about the digital publisher Mic effectively going out of business after they couldn’t find a sustainable business model for video content while shelling out for a full floor in one of the most expensive buildings on Earth.

Seeing Magnet’s old home brought all that into focus – the audacity of the multimedia era, wrapped up in one expensive office building.

Grizzly Fighting categoryMacintosh category

Title screen from Grizzly

The readme file for Grizzly, a fighting game with teddy bears, tries its best to explain the strategy for the game, but it can’t.

“I haven’t personally game tested Grizzly enough to say how involved the strategy is in Grizzly, but it does exist nonetheless,” developer Adam Winiecki says. He goes on to claim that some people play the game for eight hours a day, or at least he imagines those people are out there, and if they are, “[they] have strategies which are so complicated they couldn’t really explain them.”

If the creator of Grizzly can’t explain Grizzly, I can’t really either.

It doesn’t quite seem to know what it should be. It’s strangely, uncomfortably intense and dramatic while trying to be silly. The tonal mismatch in the game is severe – in a way that’s compulsively, compellingly wrong. » Read more about Grizzly

Ten years of The Obscuritory Blog categoryEssay category

Ten years of The Obscuritory

Some time in early summer 2008, I registered a Blogger account called What the Game? It was my personal goal for a while to start a game review website, and although my writing was unnecessarily mean and not great, I had the confidence to put words out there. For the past year or so, I had been rediscovering some of the old CD-ROM games I played as a kid, like Spaceship Warlock, and learned about many others I’d never heard of before. I wanted a place to share them.

The blog only got two posts before I abandoned it and went off to college. I told myself to put the game stuff behind me. But I couldn’t ignore the itch.

Ten years ago today, my friend Chris set me up with space on his website to install WordPress, and I started The Obscuritory.

The site evolved over the years. It began as an attempt to extensively document old games “in excruciating detail,” as I put it, with screenshots and videos. I found an old backup of this earliest version of the site, and like the old Blogger account, the writing was sometimes derisive and meandering. But I needed those first years to figure out my voice and decide what I really wanted to say.

I burned out on it quickly, but it motivated me to keep exploring. For a while, I focused on uploading playthrough videos to YouTube. Then, during a difficult time in my life in the summer of 2010, I rebooted the blog, starting with the Windows 3.1 theme and a post about Robomaze II.

I don’t know where I expected this to end up, but this is far beyond what I thought it would become. I’ve now been running The Obscuritory for over a third of my life. The blog has continued to grow and change alongside me. It’s seen me through career and lifestyle changes and personal episodes. It’s pushed me to improve my writing and to think more critically, curiously, and empathetically. It’s been an outlet for me to explore the weird side roads of gaming and software history and learn about digital preservation. It’s intersected with my professional life in surprising ways. It’s somehow brought me into the conversation talking about games alongside folks I respect and admire.

A lot has changed in a decade. The prevalence of YouTube and streaming have completely changed how people share games, and with the increased centralization of internet communication and social media, the idea of wanting to start a game website in 2008 might seem a little outdated. I think more than ever, it’s important for us to cultivate our own spaces. The world keeps demanding us to be part of large, noisy, destructive platforms that amplify the loudest voices, to chase engagement metrics. We can still be ourselves in a digital space on our own terms, in control of our own words and communities.

From the beginning, I told myself to do this because it was fun. I wanted to do it for me, and sometimes that wasn’t enough. There have been times when I’ve thought I should stop. (See 2013, the year of my depression diagnosis, when I made a grand total of four posts all year.) I’ve kept going because of how much it means to me to stay curious.

I want to keep looking in places that have been neglected or rejected. I want to share the unexpected things that excite me. I want to keep making gaming a more surprising place, where we can celebrate a deep, diverse, and broad cultural history. I hope The Obscuritory has encouraged you to do the same.

So what comes next? Honestly, I don’t know, and that’s really exciting to me. This blog still has the same bedrock as ever. I’ll keep writing about strange old software and sharing stories about them. I’ll keep rambling about preservation, history, and criticism. From there, the sky’s the limit.

For now, though, we’ve got some celebrating to do!

On the first day I started The Obscuritory, I posted a list of games that I wanted to cover. Some of them I did eventually post about. Several of them I still have to. (A couple of them weren’t even really obscure, or at least they aren’t now, and I just wanted an excuse to write about them.) This week, I’m gonna finally get around to posting one I’ve delayed talking about for ten years – plus one other that’s just really weird and seems right for the occasion.

This week on Tumblr, I’ll be resharing some of my favorite articles and stories from the last ten years, plus some fun art celebrating the games featured here.

There are a few particular people I want to thank who have encouraged me:

  • Chris, Rick, and Justin, three friends who have supported The Obscuritory since the beginning.
  • Anna, who one night over drinks and pinball told me she thought my perspective had value.
  • Molly, the first honest-to-god fan I met in person (and now a good friend).

I am grateful to have an audience that’s thoughtful and excited about all these weird topics. Thank you for your support and for coming along on this ride. Keep curious. Who knows where we go from here?

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