Constitutive Tensions of Gaming’s Field: UK gaming magazines and the formation of gaming culture 1981-1995by Graeme Kirkpatrick
The paper is based on a study of UK gaming magazines in the 1980s and 90s. It argues that a quasi-autonomous gaming culture was established in the mid-1980s, which established the perceptions and habits that make gaming possible and create the ‘gamer’ identity. The analysis shows a structural break associated with the introduction of the term ‘gameplay’ around March 1985, after which the appraisal of games takes on a limited independence from technical, educational and other normative criteria that get applied to other objects in the computer culture. The resulting discourse explains what is and can be meant by ‘computer game’ in our culture. The thwarted autonomy of gaming discourse then becomes its most interesting characteristic, since it positions gaming as essentially transgressive in relation to key cultural distinctions that it cannot fully leave behind (technology/art; childhood/adulthood; health/pathology).
Keywords: Gaming culture; 1980s magazines; media analysis; gameplay; Bourdieu; field theory
In this paper I draw on ideas from Pierre Bourdieu (1996; 2005) to examine the formative period of computer gaming culture. Taking UK computing and gaming magazines published between 1981-1995 as my object of analysis, I argue that we can discern the emergence of a new cultural field, a formation that is constitutive for gaming as a culture and for the computer game as a socially shaped artifact. I begin (section 1) with a brief account of relevant ideas from Bourdieu, followed (2) by a description of the magazines, the rationale for their selection and the methods used in their analysis. I then (3) present a thematic analysis of the magazine contents in which I emphasise the formative significance of the discovery or invention of ‘gameplay’ as an evaluative category in game criticism. The use of gameplay as the central concept in game appraisal corresponds to the formation of a gamer habitus and a rupture through which gaming establishes itself as an autonomous (or quasi-autonomous) cultural practice, with its own field. I conclude (4) with reflections on the ‘quasi’ character of gaming’s autonomy: the field’s failure to develop a fully autonomous vocabulary for evaluating and criticizing its objects turns out to be constitutive. Viewed in this light, some of gaming’s more problematic aspects, including things that game scholars sometimes view as obstacles to be overcome, turn out to be constitutive for gaming and probably therefore incorrigible. In this sense, the stalled character of the field’s development is its defining property.
Bourdieu and the idea of field
This paper argues that the ‘computer’, ‘video’ or ‘digital’ game is a social construct in a way that is analogous to Pierre Bourdieu’s suggestion that art is a field structured around an historically specific illusio.
The idea of such a field has a number of elements:
1. It structures human perceptions so that they identify certain objects under specified conditions as necessitating specific kinds of behavioural response.
2. It works on a prior set of physiognomic attributes, or dispositions of selves within bodies, to generate and sustain new habitus, a process that is operative in our interactions with the field’s privileged object(s).
3. This involves the production and circulation of discourse – specific combinations of stretches of language with practices – that mediate bodies and objects in the formation of new identities (eg. ‘gamer).
4. Once constituted the field positions the new objects and the human initiates in relation to other societal institutions and cultural practices.
5. The field accommodates diverse ‘position-takings’ on the part of initiates and its inner logic, once established, determines relations of power, including dynamic relations that pertain to these possibilities. This logic reflects the structure of the field, which need not be the same as that found in other fields.
6. Fields are characterized by a property of hysteresis: they are responsible for the existence of the thing that calls them into being. This applies to computer games: they exist as such because we identify them, play with them and discuss them in the ways that we do. Our activity makes them what they are, but our activity is not spontaneous or unorganized. Rather, it falls within the parameters set by the logic of the field.
7. Fields are more or less autonomous: Bourdieu (2005) argues that it took literature several centuries to secure its autonomy. This entailed gaining recognition as an art, with its own principles and values, over which there could be reasoned controversy that did not invoke criteria, standards or ideas extraneous to those directly applicable to the work of literary fiction (the field’s illusio).
According to Bourdieu, art has an illusio at its core: the activities of appraising, esteeming and valuing artworks are essential pre-requisites for the existence of things like artworks. That we engage in those activities is what explains the appeal of the artwork. There seems to be a hint of the ‘emperor’s new clothes’ about this but actually it is a way of giving social substance and ‘reality’ to art and its effects: the illusio gains weight because art’s objects are entangled in social structures that are consequential. We recognize art and its value because we have learned to do so but we give it its social status and confer values on it by living out what we have learned.
Gaming is also a cultural practice organised by a field in this sense and at its heart is a unique illusio. This paper examines the formative period during which the core properties of gaming’s field were established by looking at computing and gaming magazines of the 1980s. Central to the formation of gaming’s field was the innovation of the concept of ‘gameplay’, which became the defining concept of game criticism and the key to whatever autonomy gaming finally secured as a cultural practice. Analysis of computer game magazines from the 1980s reveals how the emergence of this concept as the central operative category of game appraisal is associated with the appearance of tensions that are constitutive for gaming and come to define its position in the wider culture.
Describing gaming as a field in this sense enables us to see how the circulation of discourses about games contributed to a determinate structuring of perceptions, such that it became inevitable that everyone could identify a computer game and speak about them with confidence, even in the absence of a sound ‘philosophical’ definition1. Through this process, what counts as a computer game has been socially and culturally determined in practice. Importantly, in Bourdieusian perspective, the modification of perceptions described here goes along with a broader change to the physiognomic dispositions of entrants to the field. Those who play the games acquire a historically specific habitus: they are disposed within their own bodies in such a way that picking up a controller, or rattling keys and twisting a mouse in the specific manner associated with playing computer games is natural and obvious to them.
The modification of perception and acquisition of a unique mode of embodiment are mediated through discourses that relate bodies and things to produce new identities. In this way, the field positions gaming as a cultural practice in relation to other practices and accommodates diverse ‘position-takings’ by social actors. One of the things we see in the magazines of the 1980s is the struggle to identify the gamer and to find ways of talking about players that position them within the new practice and enable them to recognize themselves within its field. Gaming produces gamers and these two together fix in place and make possible our enduring sense of what a game is. In this way, the field that was formed in the 1980s is constitutive for its objects and practices through the process Bourdieu calls hysteresis.
Finally, according to Bourdieu, fields are more or less autonomous from other domains of cultural and social activity. Of especial significance here are economics and technology. Computing was established as a popular cultural practice, albeit that it was associated with a minority sub-culture, by the mid-1980s. And at the time when gaming’s field was produced, which we can date fairly specifically to the middle of that decade, the practice was about to become a global industry. Gaming had to secure its autonomy from computing and establish itself as a legitimate cultural practice with internal criteria of validity before the commercial revolution of the later part of the decade (associated with the names of Nintendo and Sega) and the technical changes to game production a little later2 could take place.
Gaming magazines in the UK 1981-1988
This is not the first attempt to use Bourdieu’s ideas to analyse the formative period of gaming culture. Mia Consalvo (2008)3 also argues that 1980s computer game magazines formed a culture of reception and appreciation that shaped the computer game and its players. Without this culture, she argues, gamers would not have known what to do with the games: “…before they can even pick up a controller, their expectations are shaped to some degree about what to expect and what it means to play a game” (Consalvo 2008: 176). A clear illustration of this is the failure of Nolan Bushnell’s first foray into commercial gaming, the 1970 ‘Computer Space’ arcade machine, which notoriously failed because people did not know what to do with it. There was no cultural mediation in place that would incline putative players to interact with it successfully.
However, Consalvo’s analysis is limited to US magazines, in particular, Nintendo Power, which was published from 1988. This reflects a US-centric bias and is related to the different impact of the 1982-3 crash in games production, which all but destroyed the American industry but does not seem to have affected the UK4. Gaming culture, in the sense defined above, developed in the years prior to 1988-9 and was essentially incorporated into magazines like Nintendo Power, having been produced elsewhere. Secondly, Consalvo’s concern is to explore the disciplinary aspects of this culture, with a particular emphasis on the idea of ‘cheating’ and associated normative ideas circulated by the magazines concerning right and wrong ways to play. This emphasis is productive for the analysis of cheating, which is Consalvo’s principal concern, but is rather more Foucauldian than Bourdieusian in inspiration. More importantly, it loses sight of the constitutive function of the field.
In the UK, computer game magazines started much earlier, in 1981. This means that by studying them we can gain perspective on gaming culture in its nascent phase; its period of formation. Concentrating on the 1980s as a whole, we can discern a logic to gaming’s field and demonstrate that this has been constitutive for the subsequent development of the medium. This enables us to see that computer game-ness is actually an inherently unstable, socially produced illusio in the sense that Bourdieu gives that term in relation to art.
The magazines analysed for the study were Computer and Video Games (hereafter CVG), which ran from 1981 to 1995 and which now exists as a web-based game magazine, and Commodore User Magazine (CU), which was published between 1983-1990. After 1990, Commodore User changed its name to Commodore Format (CF) and continued publication until 1995. These magazines were part of a rich culture of computing and gaming magazines in the UK at this time, which also included The One, Crash and Zzap! . They were chosen partly because they were among the most popular5 but also on an opportunistic basis: the full range of back issues was made available to me by enthusiasts who have scanned them all and, in so doing created an invaluable resource for games scholars6.
CU might seem a strange choice for an analysis that is concerned with games, since its title suggests a concern with wider computing issues and even an exclusive focus on one specific range of machines. In fact neither observation holds in the sense that all the magazines of this period were concerned with computing issues in a wider sense, with large amounts of space devoted to discussion of technical issues like solving problems with hardware, or identifying and fixing programming bugs. Similarly, while there is a ‘pro-commodore’ bias in CU, this really just means that the magazine never ignores games for Commodore machines: it also includes reviews of arcade games and programs for other computers. As far as the aims of the study are concerned, CU seems to have been involved in exactly the same process as its competitor, namely, one of feeling its way towards a discrete gaming culture7.
For what follows I have subjected the magazines to a thematic discourse analysis aimed at disclosing shifts in the evaluative discourse around games and gaming, in line with the ideas presented above. This analysis is supported at various points by results from a content analysis, which is more quantitative in character and has two dimensions. The first is a fairly crude page by page count which sorts the magazines into sections to see if the balance of their content changed significantly between, for example, technical issues, hints and tips, advertising, and so on. Applied to eight cross sections of the magazines, each consisting of four consecutive issues, this reveals changes in the way that an interest in games is framed and in how games are positioned relative to other cultural practices. It also provides a snapshot of the kinds of activity, consumption and disposition associated with an interest in games between 1981-1995.
The second content analysis is focused exclusively on game reviews and looks at how games were evaluated in the course of the 1980s. Working with a similar sample, it charts the evolution of an autonomous evaluative discourse that applies to games and, in keeping with the theoretical perspective outlined above, is in some ways constitutive for games as an element in contemporary culture. This analysis is quantitative but it is not rigorously free of intensional, or semantic issues. I have not limited myself to counting the instances of ‘gameplay’ and related terms, for example, revealing though such a count might be. A preliminary read through of the reviews in the sample (and beyond it) makes it possible to identify modes, or perspectives of evaluation coming to prominence and disappearing again in the reviews. These have been noted and the result is a list of criteriological types including ideas like game affordances (what a game allows you to do, choices, in-game movement, rule structures); space (size, screens, number of levels); graphical qualities (realism, resolution, speed, art qualities; sounds (effects, music, atmosphere); challenge to manual skill (dexterity, virtuosity); cognitive challenge (puzzle solving, things to be understood, finding and searching), and others.
This count reveals subtle shifts in the ways that people think about games and the kinds of evaluative criteria they considered appropriate to apply to them. This is a useful quantitative index on the thematic shifts that form the main focus of the discussion below.
Figure 1: Cover images from CVG and CU magazines, September 1983 and April 1985 respectively (Source: Mort’s scans (undated).)
Analysing the magazines in this way reveals a number of shifts in the ways that games are presented and evaluated in the formative period of gaming’s field. These are suggestive for the history of gaming as a cultural practice and ultimately for the logic of the field as a whole. I discuss the results in terms of the shaping of perceptions of games; the emergence of the category ‘gameplay’ and a quasi-autonomous discourse of game evaluation, and the relation of this to the formation of a (gendered) gamer habitus.
The central dynamic of gaming’s field concerns the technical and how people relate to technology, especially how they learn about it. In particular, the establishment of the field is marked by a pronounced shift in the way that gaming relates to its own technological foundation, which reflects its achievement of a kind of autonomy in the second half of the 1980s.
As late as 1985, the representation of games in the magazines tended to emphasise that they were computer programs and to stress their merits or de-merits in technical terms derived from programming and engineering. The advertisement in figure 2, for example, which appeared in various magazines in 1983-5, presents imagery associated with a game called The Lords of Midnight, which was sold by a company called ‘Beyond’ for the Commodore 64. What’s interesting about the advert is the way that the qualities of the game are not differentiated out from the ones that the software house wants to project in connection with its technical work. Consequently, the banner headline, which is the clearest text in the advert, proclaims that Beyond are producers of ‘challenging software’, something which tells us nothing about the game or what it would be like to play8. The imagery associated with the game is contained within a smaller frame central to the overall advert. Small captions from reviews appear on either side of this, one describing the game as ‘exciting’ and another as ‘mind-gripping to an almost unhealthy degree’.
Figure 2: Advertisement for Beyond Software, or their game ‘Lords of Midnight’, which appeared in CU and CVG between 1983-1985. (Source: Mort’s scans (undated).)
To be sure, these appraise the game as a game, but another combines ludic and technical terms, describing it as an ‘open’ game that uses ‘intelligent play by the computer’. The longest piece of text in the advert is beneath this picture and it too is ambivalent between telling the reader about the ‘new programming technique’ that has been used to create the game and describing its fictional plotline.
This advert is representative of how new games were presented to putative players in the early-to-mid 1980s. It illustrates the fact that neither developers nor the people who bought the games (not, at this time, ‘gamers’) were sufficiently confident in any particular discursive framing of computer games. Games were not fully differentiated out from their technical basis: they sat alongside adverts for light pens and reviews of word processing software. The magazines of this time allow us to see the emergence of a game-specific evaluative terminology. One of the primary effects of this was to prise games away from their basic association with technology; to create an understanding of games as discontinuous with technology and in some ways even opposed to other computing practices.
In the 1990s, it was obviously still important for game reviewers to invoke technical features of games as part of constructing an appraisal that would mean something to players. However, the nature of the reference to technology and its function in the discursive constitution of the computer game as a cultural object change quite drastically.
Figure 3: Page from CU magazine, March 1985, showing part of the code for a game program and an advert for an early modem (Source: Mort’s scans (undated).)
Here it is also relevant to point out that the most dramatic change observed within the content analysis as a whole was of pages of the magazines devoted to programming a game on your own machine. This part of the magazines provided code for players to type into their machines (see figure 3). Once compiled, the code would generate a free game, which commonly erased itself once the computer was turned off, meaning that the player would have to type in the code all over again if s/he wanted to play the game again. The programs are typically several pages long, amounting to a few hundred lines of code. In the course of the 1980s, those 25% of pages that had been given over to this disappear.
This illustrates the fact that for people who played games on home computers at the start of the decade, the game object was apprehended as a piece of code. Players who paid for games on cassette or disc invariably had some idea, when they did so, of the properties of each game, understood as a piece of software. They knew that if a game ran well or poorly this was because of how the programmer had handled a particular problem, or exploited an aspect of the machine9. This technical knowledge was still essential to appraisal of the games. It is common to read in early reviews that a game has been “well programmed”, which, at this time, mainly meant that it was free of bugs and made efficient use of the machine’s resources.
By the time we get to the 1990s it is clear that this merging of the two levels of description, so to speak, has come undone – but not entirely. Technology and technical features of games remain a concern for 90s reviewers. However, the way in which technology features has altered profoundly. In place of representations that place detailed technical descriptions alongside other features, like story or plot, in later reviews technological references take on a more fetishized character. Technical allusions are deployed as part of the sheen games possess as commodities. In the November 1995 issue of CVG, for instance, 16-bit consoles are described as “a bit crappy” (p.34-5) and the reviewer of Rayman jokes that the game is only worth having if you have a Jaguar console (because there were few games for that 64-bit machine). The author rejects the game on the grounds that it makes little use of the benefits of the 32-bit machines of the day, unlike other games such as Yoshi’s Island. The issue here is not that more powerful consoles are straightforwardly better, as the reference to the Jaguar shows, but rather that some machines are the current standard, the norm within the gaming community and that games should be designed to be compatible with them and to get the most out of them. This is defined in terms of novelty (getting them to do new things) and ‘reward’: a nebulous concept that depends upon the successful formation of gaming’s illusio in the intervening years.
Figure 4: Detail from CVG November 1995 invoking idea of ‘reward’ and demonstrating the emphasis on visuals (at the expense of text) in the 1990s magazines (Source: Mort’s scans (undated).)
Here, reference to technology is used as a marker of the quality of a game but without any detailed description of programming issues or precise technical details. We move from games as technology – on a level discursive playing field so to speak, with other technical objects – to technology as a factor in the appraisal of games. The power of the console needed to enjoy the benefits of a game is indicative of its quality as an entertainment commodity. Technology marks the fact that this is an up-to-the-minute game, adding to its desirability, but reference to it is a way of presenting or situating the game as: a) consistent with current gaming expectations, and b) likely (or not) to deliver on quality. It does not require us to think technically about how the game was made10. The hallmark of quality is a gesture at the experience of playing the game, which reflects the presence of newly autonomous criteria of game evaluation.
An autonomous evaluative discourse: the discovery of ‘gameplay’
The shift from talking about games as part of a wider technological environment to using technical properties as indexical for value reflects the way in which games get prised away from, and in some ways opposed to, the technological context that formed them. Central to this is the establishment of a distinctive way of appraising games as something more than technical objects, or as a discrete class of objects that have a unique technological dimension but are not defined by it. The magazines bear witness to the struggle to make this discursive innovation. In early issues there is no established way to discuss or assess games. A vocabulary of game evaluation was something the magazines had to invent.
Editorial and comment pieces frequently set out the criteria that have been applied in game reviews. From the beginning there was an effort to establish some kind of consistency by providing lists of four or five criteria that could be applied to all games. CVG’s initial categories show reviewers finding their way towards a full-fledged gaming discourse. In an early issue (September 1983), they define the criteria used in game reviews, under the heading ‘How we judge the games’, as follows:
The four marks on our reviews pages are all out of a possible 10.
Getting started refers not only to how easily it loads but the way the instructions are given and how quickly a newcomer can understand the game.
Graphics gives marks for realism and use of the machine’s capabilities to give a pleasing effect.
Playability is the all-important question of game balance, how long it will build your attention and how addictive it is.
Value takes into account the packaging, presentation and how much a player will get value for money out of the tape.
In each case barring playability, we see that evaluative criteria for the experience of playing the games involve technical assessments of their qualities. Getting started is a category that includes technical usability and documentation and loading times, as well as the experience of being able to get into a game. Graphics are assessed for their ability to create an illusion essential to enjoyment but also as a programming task to be accomplished within known technical parameters, while the value of the game seems to concern both the appearance and packaging of the game as a commodity and its comparative scale as a programming project relative to other game programs. Playability alone is exclusively focused on the experience of the player. The attempt to clarify this idea, with reference to ‘balance’, ‘attention’ and ‘addictiveness’ mark the first steps onto the ground of a properly autonomous evaluation: it assesses the game from the standpoint of the player as someone who plays and not as an amateur programmer or someone who is interested in ‘computing’. Enlargement of this ground is the key to the autonomy of gaming discourse11.
The struggle is to establish a way of talking about games that will make sense of the experiences people have with them. At one point in CVG (January 1982) the reviewer turns ethnographer, describing how they listened in on people playing Defender to see if there was a specific gaming argot in formation. The conclusion is negative: “it is a sign of the concentration required to play Defender that very few sayings connected with the game were brought to our attention,” though they did apparently hear the phrase ‘mountain hugging’ (p.30)! As if to compensate for the paucity of established discourse, we find many attempts in the early magazines to generalize about games and play, along the lines of , “Like any game involving skill it makes you want to improve your performance” (p.81CVG 3, December 1981). These kinds of generic reflection, which constitute a link to the older culture of board gaming and might form starting points for essays in contemporary computer game studies, are strikingly absent from later issues, where a terminology specific to computer game evaluation has been secured.
Perhaps the decisive moment in this development concerns the central category of game criticism, gameplay. The distinctive contraction of game and play only begins to be used regularly in game reviews after March 198512. The first sign of the change appears in February of that year, when CVG 40 described Maze Gold, a game for the Commodore Vic-20, as having ‘very basic game play’. The following month a CVG review refers to the C64 game Airwolf as having ‘addictive game play’. In the same month reviews in CU also make use of the new noun. This occurrence marks a significant turning point that merits closer scrutiny. In two short reviews, the author of the ‘Screen Scene’ game review section introduces the phrase ‘game play’ first to describe a game for the C64 called Cauldron. The game involves “you play[ing] the part of a witch seeking the golden broomstick”. To achieve this goal the player collects ingredients from around the game to make a magic spell. The review praises the game for being easy to get into: “Cauldron is one of those games where you can just pick up the joystick and play”. At the same time, though, Cauldron “is the most cunningly planned” game the reviewer has come across for some time, so it is not too easy. He concludes: “It’s impossible to fault Cauldron. They’ve got everything right. Splendid graphics, interesting plot, and above all challenging and entertaining game play”.
The next review is for an adventure game, also for the Commodore computer, called Shadowfire. What’s interesting about this game is that it, “is described as ‘a text adventure without text’”. Instead of entering directional commands in the form of ‘east’, ‘west’ on the keyboard players used their joysticks to “simply move an on-screen cursor to an icon which represents the required action. Press fire and the command is implemented”. The reviewer (correctly) expresses confidence that “we will see this technique used a lot more in the future”. The effect of the new control is that “Shadowfire creates a total atmosphere that gamers can lose themselves in – the essence of a good adventure. The revolutionary icon game-play technique is the icing on the cake”. Here the hyphenated form of the phrase marks the arrival of the key concept in video game criticism, one which has held sway over the tastes of gamers for the subsequent three decades. Far from being the icing on the cake, the revolutionary control mechanism, which the author links to what we would now call the game’s immersive properties, seems to have prompted a linguistic innovation whose sense-meaning finds its co-ordinates within the developing field of computer gaming.
The concept of gameplay marks the point at which gaming bids for autonomy as a cultural practice and subsequently it becomes the philosopher’s stone of game creation: it is the enigmatic mark of value that designers compete over. Making a game with good gameplay is every designer’s goal. At the same time, there are no clear criteria that would enable us to measure its presence. The fact that there is no stable consensus over what the compound noun actually signifies reflects the fact that, just as Bourdieu says in relation to form in art, it is both a stake in the game and the decisive move made by winners. Successful game designers produce games with gameplay and in persuading players this is what they have done they determine what ‘gameplay’ signifies.
The semantics of gameplay turn on the way that the term is deployed in the reviews and beyond. Its introduction is coincident with a structural transformation of gaming discourse. Previously, playability, and even game play in the non-contracted form, sat alongside other criteria in a review of a game: those terms were not opposed to other features of the game. For example, in the first issue of CU we read that a game called “Sheepdog is not very realistic, but basically a good game”, and that “great graphics don’t make a playable game”. After 1985, such contrasts take on a different, more aggressive inflection. Now gameplay is opposed to things like graphics, character, plot and so on. Gaming discourse secures its autonomy partly by articulating gameplay as a term that is opposed to other elements of gaming experience. As well as being the mark of a good game, gameplay also signifies the tastes and preferences of the authentic gamer. The true gamer, as we will see below, is the player who is interested in games and not computers; gameplay and not stories, and graphics in so far as they reward good play.
Closing the gap: formation of the gamer habitus and the authentic gamer identity
This change in gaming discourse concerns the construction of the player habitus and it is most clear in the kinds of description that mediate the player’s relationship to their on-screen character. In magazines of the 1980s it is not uncommon to read descriptions like the following in game reviews: “the player is in charge of a marker at the bottom of the screen”, or in a discussion of Pac-man 2: “the player controls the munchman using his keyboard” (CVG 3 January 1982 p.30; 72). In another example from 1983, a racing game is described in the following terms: “Each player chooses a lane and tries to advance the symbol in that lane” (CU 1 October 1983, p.44). The magazines of the 1980s frequently refer to gamers’ on-screen characters as ‘your little man’, a formulation that would make 90’s gamers snigger. In the 1990s magazines the assumed gap between the body of the player and their on-screen representative has been closed, so that ‘you’ (the gamer) simply ‘play as a worm’, or ‘you are driving a rig’ (CVG 169 December 1995).
The body of the gamer had to close around the gaming apparatus, to make it invisible, so that the characteristic sensations of gameplay could form the basis of gaming’s illusio. Fundamentally, this concerns a transformation in the way that the body of the player is situated in relation to the game apparatus: it marks a change in the way that gaming intersects the habitus of players. From the late 1980s, as the idea of gameplay takes hold, the way that operating games is described changes so that increasingly a near-symbiotic fusion of the two terms is the sine qua non of the computer game form. The discovery of gameplay is the moment at which the player gets incorporated into the game and it marks the point at which gaming is established as a field, as a cultural institution with an established group of participants. The latter group recognize themselves as gamers and are physically attuned to the activity of playing games as this came to be defined in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. Gameplay serves as both the core evaluative concept in game discussions and as the mark of authenticity in gaming identity: the true gamer is the one who understands and appreciates good gameplay and the ‘gamer’s game’ is the one that has it in abundance.
As gameplay is established as the elusive yet central concept and gamer habitus is fixed around it, so the magazines change their mode of address, becoming more confident in their audience. In the formative years of gaming’s field the magazines assume multiple, sometimes conflicting readership positions. Later, this is no longer an issue: 1990s gaming magazines are aimed at teenage boys and they insert games at a point in the culture appropriate to this13.
The voice of the magazines of the early 1980s is often parental. The first issue of CVG (1981), for example, reviews a chess game and addresses itself to the adult who is likely to buy such a device: “This offers a good game to the keen chess youngster who is short of an opponent… it will also fit into most family budgets” (p.25), while a review in the third issue (January 1982) describes a game as one that will keep “the whole family entertained” (p.87).
These formulations rationalize the adult purchase of computers for children. This is often related to the mooted educational value of computers which was an important part of their marketing at the time (Haddon 1992; Selwyn 2010). When game reviews address young readers directly, they often do so in a condescending way, as in the review that says: “We’ve been telling you vidkids out there just how good that old-fashioned arcade game pinball is for some time now” (p.48, CVG 25, Nov. 1983). The magazines are out to educate, even about games and play. And the position this confers upon young readers is occasionally gladly embraced in the all-important letters pages, with one young correspondent writing, “As a beginner I look forward to buying the magazine regularly” (CVG 3, Jan 1982). At the same time, the early magazines do talk up the fun aspects of games and extol their virtues in terms of ‘addictiveness’ and ‘violence’, in ways that might be expected to unsettle parents looking for wholesome ‘family entertainment’ and ‘educational’ values.
In later magazines the question of address has been clarified. The most striking change concerns the appearance of the magazines. The early magazines include a lot of text alongside ads that are themselves often just lists of game titles with a contact address. In later issues in-game imagery predominates, to such an extent that images are sometimes just stuck over text, rendering it illegible (see figure 4). The magazines have become more like comics and they address their readers more assuredly as teenage males. We move from a mode of address in which parents are privileged and gamers are their children to one in which gamers are in control and in which ‘the gamer’ is an established identity. As Consalvo (2008) makes clear in her study, magazines of the late 1980s and early 90s are centrally concerned with the construction of a sense of community among gamers, within which core distinctions are drawn that apply to games and to the people who play them.
Gaming discourse here becomes entangled with normalization processes and the concept of gameplay is used to police gamer identity. The authentic gamer opposes gameplay to story and other varieties of frippery in games. ‘Sad fops’, we are told in a review of a fighting game, get taken in by good-looking moves when what really matters is their effectiveness in intense gameplay (CVG November 1995, p.37). Being an authentic gamer involves being ‘cool’, liking the right music and appreciating the intensity of gameplay. “It’s a mark of cool to master this game”, states a (CVG) review of Ridge Racer in February 1996. This concerns what Consalvo calls ‘gaming capital’: there is an established constituency for games with rules for securing recognition and affording esteem, and these things can be accumulated.
Understanding good gameplay is the mark of a real gamer and it opposes them to the ‘uncool’. It also marks them out as young. A review in CVG 171 (Feb 1996) of Namco Museum, which made arcade classics available for the playstation, contains numerous references to older people: “old duffers” will “rejoice” in being able to play the games again and are referred to as “old sods” (these players would have been in the their late 20s or early 30s at the time). Similarly, in the November 1995 issue (p.48) there is a negative reference to “the kinds of maths your dad might like”. Trainspotters , games workshop enthusiasts and even “board games heads” are all condemned as “dull” (CVG 168, Nov 1995) p.22). These statements are distancing strategies and their effect is to differentiate the gamer from other identities. Through these negative relations gamer identity takes on a kind of weight of its own, enabling aggressive assertions of positive presence, like the reference to the fact that “even the women behind the counter of WH Smith’s have heard of Playstations now” (p.52 CVG 168).
The 90s magazines are clearly addressed to young males and this is evident from the salience of a certain kind of humorous content, which is specific to 1990s British youth. For example, in a review of Space Hulk for the 3DO console, we find the following:
If the term ‘game’ tied with ‘adventure’ makes you think of dulldom on a particularly dull day, don’t despair because ultimately this is an arcade shooter that makes even Doom look tame (CVG 168, Nov. 1995, p.22)
The riff on ‘dull’ is reminiscent of Blackadder – a popular UK TV series of the time. Elsewhere in the same issue we get references to “revelations revelated” and jokes about dandruff. Other examples of ‘laddish’ humour predominate in the magazines of this time14. The definition of difficulty, we are told, “is not saying ‘out’ when your mum asks where you’re going”. A competition in CF (41 p.8, Feb 1994) casually announces that “no one called Derek may enter this competition”. These kinds of witticism define a discursive strategy that establishes a tie with a particular kind of reader, positioning and defining them in the process. This involves ironic distance from the idea of computer games as educational or toy-like, occupying, with discourse, the spaces that have now clearly opened up between computer games and computing, gaming and childhood15.
The heavily gendered character of this discourse contrasts with the earlier magazines, which were prone to reflection on the gender bias in computing/gaming culture. CU 19 (p.41), for example, contains criticism of the absence of female characters in a game, while the following issue carries a critique of the sexism of the ‘rescue the princess’ genre that is common in adventure games. To be sure, these are isolated sentences and not extended lines of reflection but it is difficult to imagine them appearing in the 1990s magazines, where the gender identity of gamers has been firmly consolidated.
Constitutive tensions and the logic of the field
Through the development of a discourse of game evaluation, gaming acquires independence and begins to define itself as a cultural practice. However, what is most striking about gaming discourse is the faltering character of its autonomy, as late as the mid-90s. This is illustrated by the November 1995 issue of CVG (168). The editorial for this issue describes staff changes to the magazine and relates them to a new orientation within the magazine. The industry, it says, is now a “serious business” and “gamers demand more sophisticated titles”. Pursuant to this, the magazine promises “more ruthless… comments and ratings” to help players secure the best products. However, a few pages further on, in a review of Guardian Heroes, a game for the Sega Saturn console, the reviewer announces that the game is “hard to describe”. It and the following two reviews largely lapse into a discussion of different “boards”, falling back into a technical appraisal, although, as noted in the previous section, this is not a detailed analysis but a rhetorical strategy that positions the games reviewed in relation to contemporary hardware, that is, it marks them as ‘up to the minute’, or as deviations from the contemporary trajectory. Paradoxically, there is an emphasis here on the increased complexity of new games, so that one review comments that “the volume of new or improved features is phenomenal” (p.24-5, review of the Konami ISS football game), but little corresponding differentiation in the critical discourse to be applied to them.
The faltering and even incoherent nature of much of the writing in later reviews and the struggle to say anything specific about the games, as against showing many more images from them, is indicative of a stalling effect that, I submit, is actually constitutive for gaming’s field. Although the invention of gameplay and the construction of gaming’s illusio mark an assertion of autonomy for games and gaming, it is only partially fulfilled. This sets limits to the development of games as a medium. In effect, these limits are constitutive: to surpass them is to produce something that would not be seen as a game; that gamers would not incorporate into their embodied practices, and which would be rejected by gaming culture.
The faltering or stalling effect described here operates along three dimensions and computer games are constituted in the tensions that generate the effect. First, technology: games are technology and this is important, yet they are also more than technology. The developments described here show that gaming only secures recognition as a cultural practice when it is opposed to technology, yet gaming discourse continues to rely on technical allusion to describe its objects. It is as if every aesthetic comparison of Mozart to Beethoven was obliged to discuss the innovations to brass instruments in the years between their creative lives. When game scholars and others speculate about games becoming art or being an art-form, they express frustration at the way that games discourse falters here, unable to produce truly autonomous discussion of games that clarifies their value independent of considerations like their usefulness to educators.
Similarly, games hold an ambiguous place in relation to childhood. The discussion above shows that they have come to be positioned alongside other, officially sanctioned yet transgressive elements in what we call ‘youth culture’. They share this ambiguous location with some popular music and fashion. The constitutive role of the field – the perceptions and dispositions that it sustains – is nowhere more clear than in the fact that we expect computer games to be violent. Part of what enables us to recognize a piece of software as a game is precisely that it is transgressive in this way: a good game is provocative, even cheeky. This is the space that has been carved out for games in the culture and gaming’s illusio is operative here. Here too we find that the stalled character of gaming’s field frustrates some academics, who want to create games for education but who find that their products mysteriously fail to gain recognition as games.
The third dimension has been well studied by Consalvo and discussed in less depth here. It concerns the normality of gaming and of being a gamer. The formation of a distinct gamer identity involved discursive strategies aimed at distancing the playing of computer games from other elements of the computer culture. Social isolation and addiction become problematic but the stigma of excessive computer use (associated with labels like ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’) remains a problem to be negotiated. Magazines employ combined yet contradictory strategies of self-mockery and ‘othering’ to persuade gamers of their normality. The emphasis on positioning gaming as a community pastime, mentioned above, must be viewed in this context. Here we see that games are social and healthy, yet also associated with identified pathologies (isolation and addiction). In this case too we can say that games are restless between the two poles, but they have been constituted here, in this restlessness and we (probably) cannot rescue them, by designing ‘games for health’, or ‘social gaming’ contexts.
I have argued that much of computer game culture was formed in the mid-1980s. The evaluation of games in terms of gameplay as opposed to other elements is a socially constructed illusio that dates from this time. It corresponds to gaming’s bid for autonomy from other cultural practices, especially computing and various kinds of technical hobbyism. However, the bid for autonomy was only partially successful: the magazines do not develop a fully fledged evaluative discourse, in fact there is a decline in the range of evaluative concepts and ideas. The magazines become more visual, contain fewer ideas and present games as commodities to be consumed. In this process gaming and games are constituted in a place of tension within the culture, as provocative objects that gain our attention with their false promise to become something else.
1 A philosophically acceptable definition of game, and now computer game, has proved hard to come by, see Juul (2006) for an interesting discussion and attempted solution.
2 It is perhaps surprising to note that gaming as a practice separated itself from computer programming several years before the first commercial ‘game engine’, or software development kit, Renderware, made full game programming inaccessible to individual hobbyists (Nieborg and van der Graf 2008). Moreover, the arrival of fully commodified games associated with the Nintendo 64 and Sega Megadrive cannot be seen as technically determining the changes described in what follows: the determinate perceptions and dispositions as well as the evaluative discourses that applied to games had to be present for the second generation of consoles to succeed. This argument partly contradicts that of Aoyama and Izushi (2003).
3 Garry Crawford (2011) has also made use of Bourdieu’s ideas in connection with gamer identity.
4 One US commentator ruefully observed: “I can see that you guys are still computer game freaks. It seems like there are hundreds of computer game companies over there, and they’re cranking out thousands of titles. It’s obviously your passion, your reason for existence. I find that very interesting, because this side of the Atlantic, games are as dead as a doornail.” (Dan Gutman in CU 20, May 1985).
5 According to Wikipedia, CU had monthly circulation around 70,000. No comparable figure seems to be available for CVG but anecdotally this magazine would have sold more.
6 Particular thanks are due here to Stephen Stuttard.
7 Commodore, who made the biggest selling home computer of the 1980s, the C64, were ambivalent in the promotion of their machine, sometimes advertising it as a games machine, at others telling the world it could perform more serious, business operations. Where the company placed the emphasis seems often to have been a function of what the competition were doing (Bagnall 2010). It is worth remembering that in the 1980s companies like Atari and even Nintendo, now firmly associated with gaming, also marketed other machines with more serious, home computing type functions. In this dynamic context, CU magazine quickly settled on its own identity, which was primarily a gaming magazine. CU acquired a strong focus on games within its first few issues and, as the content analysis makes clear, it is very similar in its contents and orientation to the more obviously relevant CVG.
8 In Bourdieu’s terms, this advert threatens to be a ‘short-circuit’: Referring to art, he writes that, “the relative autonomy of the field is asserted more and more in works whose formal properties and value are derived only from the structure, hence the history of the field, increasingly barring the ‘short circuit’, meaning the possibility of passing directly from what is produced in the social world to what is produced in the field” (Bourdieu 1996: 248). Gaming’s field here struggles to provide the rules to maintain autonomy.
9 Bogost and de Montfort’s (2009) Racing the beam describes these processes in connection with the Atari VCS.
10 On occasion, technology is used to indicate quality in the early magazines too, as when a development company called Visions are reported to be releasing games for the Spectrum on chrome tape, alongside a comment from the company’s CEO in which he distances his firm’s products from ‘violent video games’ and predicts such games “will eventually be replaced by more realistic games, like snooker”. The magazine is gently skeptical, but endorses the metal tape practice as a sign of honest intent to “provide quality goods with professionalism”. I think it is clear, though, that technology here signifies different values (quality defined in terms of performance and reliability, and seriousness) than in the later magazines, where it is used to mark social acceptance and as an index on the likely quality of play. It is clear that the discursive context has completely shifted.
11 The tentative character of these categories, and the novelty of the thinking behind them is reinforced by the fact that four different categories are mooted elsewhere (p.33) in the same issue of the magazine, namely, action, graphics, addiction and theme.
12 The two terms were first placed together in the distinctive contraction ‘gameplay’ in September 1983, in a review in CVG 23. However, the merger of the two terms may have been a typo, as it is not repeated until March 1985. The phrase ‘game play’ (no contraction) also occurs in a July 1984 review of a home computer conversion of the arcade game, Bentley Bear (CVG 33).
13 As Dmitri Williams points out, “During the mid-1980s and the 1990s, video games were constructed as the province of children... the popular conception of game use as a purely child-centric phenomenon did not emerge until well after games had entered the popular consciousness” (Williams n.d.: 13-14)
14 There is a characteristic humour in the early magazines too, but it tends to be the kind popularly associated with computer scientists: “There are no mistakes in this magazine except this one” (CU 2, November 1983p.3).
15 Early magazines occasionally employed the more diminutive ‘gamester’ to describe their younger readers. ‘Gamer’ appears in the post-1985 period. Before that, when magazines referred to their readership as a whole they used inclusive locutions, like ‘the computing fraternity’.
Aoyama, Y. Izushi, H. (2003) ‘Hardware gimmick or cultural innovation? Technological, cultural and social foundations of the Japanese video game industry’, in Research Policy 32.
Bagnall, B. (2010) ) Commodore: Company on the Edge Manitoba: Variant Books.
Bogost, I. Montfort, N. (2009) Racing the Beam: The Atari video computer system London: MIT Press.
Bourdieu, P. (2005) The Rules of Art Cambridge: Polity Press.
Bourdieu, P. (1996) The Field of Cultural Production Cambridge: Polity Press.
Consalvo, M. (2008) Cheating London: MIT Press.
Crawford, G. (2011) Video Gamers London: Routledge.
Haddon, L. (1992) ‘Explaining ICT consumption: the case of the home computer’, in Silverstone, R. Hirsch, E. (eds) Consuming Technologies – media and information in domestic spaces London: Routledge.
Juul, J. (2006) Half-Real: Video games between real rules and fictional worlds London: MIT Press.
Nieborg, D.B. van der Graf, S. (2008) ‘The mod industries? The industrial logic of non-market game production’, in European Journal of Cultural Studies 11(2).
Selwyn, N. (2010) Schools and schooling in the digital age: a critical perspective London: Routledge.
Williams, D. (n.d.) ‘A brief social history of game play’, at
http://dmitriwilliams.com/williamssochist.doc accessed 5th April 2011.