Raiford Guins

Raiford Guins is an Associate Professor of Culture and Technology at Stony Brook University. He is a Founding Curator of the William A. Higinbotham Game Studies Collection at Stony Brook University and Principal Editor with the Journal of Visual Culture. He has recently published Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game After (MIT Press, 2014) and is currently researching his next book: Atari Modern: A Design History of Atari’s Coin-Op Cabinets, 1972 " 1979. His writings on game history appear in the following journals and magazines: The Atlantic, Cabinet, Design and Culture, Design Issues, Game Studies, Journal of Design History, Journal of Visual Culture, and Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture. He has also edited, Debugging Game History: A Critical Lexicon (MIT Press, 2016), with Henry Lowood. Guins and Lowood are also editors for MIT Press’s book series, “Game Histories”.
Contact information:
rgun81 at gmail.com

A Voice From the Electronic Grotto: A re-view of Martin Amis’s Invasion of the Space Invaders.

by Raiford Guins

“I have seen bloodstains on the PacMan joystick.”

- Martin Amis

Martin Amis is not a name we normally, no, scratch that, ever associate with video games. The British novelist, who now resides in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, is better known for the rich caricatures of London denizens found in his most popular works: the London Trilogy of Money: A Suicide Note (1984), London Fields (1989), and The Information (1995). Sandwiched between his 1981 novel, Other People, and his best-seller, Money, is a little known book also penned by Martin Amis with the Cold War era B-movie title: Invasion of the Space Invaders. It seems his strong attraction for button smashing, avowed as a personal addiction across the book’s 127 pages, predates his hedonistic, all consuming, all spending, character, John Self, of Money (in an instant’s reverie one might even wonder whether “Bruv Can You Spare a Quarter?” may have been entertained as an alternative title to Invasion of the Space Invaders?). Amis is center-stage in his expository work cleverly adducing his own “symptoms, withdrawals, dryouts, crack-ups, benders…(p. 14)” at the controllers of coin-op arcade video games. Those science factual machines firing towards the Millennium one quarter at a time; a historical epoch when “the space-game craze”, as Amis dubs player’s affinity for blasting aliens across CRT screens, expressed “a time of extraterrestrial hopes and anxieties”. And tell me when the spaceship lands, cos all this has got to mean something…

In fact, end of the century malaise is a fixation for Amis - London Fields, with its (wonderfully) deplorable characters, is set in 1999 West London amidst an imminent crisis with the stench of degradation wafting down the Portobello Road, or at least mid-life banality washing across the high street of its crowded market stalls. Amis takes us inside the book’s local (read: for locals) pub, the Black Cross, where pub hero, lager lout, cheat, thief, and dare I forget, soon-to-be murderer, the charismatic Keith, introduces Sam, the novel’s struggling writer, to his shadowy world of dart boards, stale cigarettes, fetid beer towels and sodden carpets. Sam vividly narrates the lugubrious scene: “I was doing alright there, under Keith’s tutelage. He introduced me to the Polacks and the brothers, or paraded me in front of them. He gave me a game of pool. He showed me how to cheat the fruit machine. I bought a lot of drinks, and endured a lot of savage cajolery for my orange juices, my sodas, my cokes. Taking my life in my hands, I ate a pork pie. Only one real fight so far. An incredible flurry of fists and nuttings; it ended with Keith carefully kicking selected areas of a fallen figure wedged into the doorway of the Gents; Keith then returned to the bar, took a pull of beer, and returned to kick some more” (p. 24). It’s not fruit machines in Invasion of the Space Invaders that are instrumental in depicting a scene. Instead, as Amis recollects from his first experience of playing Space Invaders in Toulon, France, 1978, it’s “cinematic melodrama blazing on the screen, infinite firing capacity, the beautiful responsiveness of the defending turret, the sting and pow of the missiles, the background pulse of the quickening heartbeat, the inexorable descent of the bomb-dumping monsters…(p.16).” Amis played a lot of Space Invaders, the reader quickly learns, and his little known book is not only an author’s vibrant first-person account of playing coin-op arcade video games during their heyday but, as my re-view will encourage, Invasion of the Space Invaders serves as a momentous documentation of an era that has quickly slipped between the fingers of game historians. Amis’s insider voice paints a masterful scene, warts and all.

Before I explain why, specifically, I bestow the word “momentous”, a term not dropped lightly mind you, upon Amis’s book I would like to position this short piece within Game Studiess archive. In the journal’s inaugural issue Jesper Jull dug out a book from the vault of neglected, or overlooked scholarship from the “old field” of game studies, to gift that (then) new generation of game studies scholars. Aptly titled, “The Repeatedly Lost Art of Studying Games”, Juul’s “new review” of Elliot M. Avedon and Brian Sutton-Smith (eds) The Study of Games (1971) was presented to an audience to demonstrate the previous “waves” of games studies while also alerting readers that game studies has a history that precedes computer games (even though, it’s fair to say, that computer games have significantly shifted the object of study as Juul rightly notes). I regard my re-view as operating in a similar manner. I insist on the hyphenated spelling of re-view, on the one hand, so that no one is mislead into thinking that I’m actually going to “review” Amis’s book. Decidedly, I’m only going to touch upon the first part entitled, “They Came From Outer Space: The Video Invasion”. Besides 30 years on such an effort to review would seem futile - especially as you will be hard pressed to actually find a copy (at present a copy is on eBay for $140.00 and the cheapest on Amazon goes for $124.98). A library is your best bet. Besides Amis’s most recent book, Lionel Asbo: State of England (2012), has already had too many reviews hurled at it. Now, on the other hand, re-view denotes a second look, another glance; to visually inspect again while view can also mean a sight to be seen as in a view from a window, “looking from a hilltop, watching from a lighthouse” - stole that last bit from The Jam. So I am asking that we look back over Invasion of the Space Invaders to see what view it can offer to game historians of a nascent game and gaming culture in the late 1970s and very early 1980s; a phenomena with surviving material evidence (e.g. arcade game flyers and the games themselves) but with little evidence from which to work its social experiential history; to piece together a composite of playing at an arcade in 1980 for instance.

Why is a re-view even necessary? I have argued elsewhere that Game Studies may be in danger of neglecting a number of early (1980-1983) mass-market paperbacks on video games.[i] These include voluminous strategy guides of arcade and home console games, an assortment of “games-as-social-problems” books[ii], and, what interests me most, paperbacks depicting the lived experiences and culture of video gaming. Here I have in mind: Len Albin’s Secrets of Video Game Super Stars (1982), Steve Bloom’s Video Invaders (1982), Daniel Cohen’s Video Games (1982), Craig Kubey’s The Winner’s Book of Video Games (1982), and Michael Rubin’s Defending the Galaxy: The Complete Handbook of Videogaming (1982). Evidently 1982 was a good year for the “old field”. Amis’s book can easily find an amicable cohort here and not just on account of its publication date. It is certainly the case that such books will dedicate a bulk of pages to a brief history of video games as well as include synopses of popular games, mostly arcade games given their reigning popularity at the time. Amis dedicates his entire second section (pages 45-94) to sharing his personalized strategies for beating the games (via his lively commentary). But what captures my attention the most is that all of these books go beyond the games themselves. The diverse spaces of play as well as social experience of playing video games are conveyed in detail for their readers. Arcade etiquette, styles of play (stance can say a lot about how you play), the coded language of selecting one’s preferred initials on the High Score screen (“SLA”=Symbionese Liberation Army, or the ubiquitous, “ASS”), vital tips for beating a level, and general gamesome stories of hanging out, dropping in (or out), and being in close proximity of the mighty machines decorate these fading pages. These books may not comprise a scholarly Game Studies as we understand it today but they are, nonetheless, a chromatic study of games, not to mention primary source for historical research.

Such books, and Amis’s book is the prime case here, offer differing voices from those that over-determined the arcade, or playing coin-ops in general, as a “social problem”: caliginous spaces festering with crime, pickpockets, truancy, and illegal substances; frothing with machismo; bottomless pits for “wasting” money, and, on top of all this, even detrimental to one’s physical health (the dreaded “Asteroids or Pac-Man Elbow”). Early coverage of the “video game craze” decried these and other “effects” of dropping quarters into machines. And we’ve easily (too easily) accepted this picture; too easily accepted limiting roles for girls and women playing arcade games while gulping down a very pale nostalgia resounding only with guitar riffs.[iii] That’s the problem with writing from personal memory…it’s your memory only. Amis’s Invasion of the Space Invaders is a global invasion. His book shares stories and photos of people playing arcade games from around the world. On page 18 two backs stare at us. The caption informs that we are seeing two “Vidkids” playing Space Invaders at New York’s Penn Station - arcade machines line the walls at a frenzied hub for mass public transportation (today our smartphones line our pockets, quite a different picture from the past). Photos in the book’s first section (pages 11-43) illustrate a multi-racial, multi-gendered, multi-classed, multi-aged assortment of public game players. Heavy Metal kids meet a distinguished gentleman with Professorial panache. An Asian family plays upon a cocktail table game while a lone black kid strikes a “wild style” pose in front of Space Invaders. We see a group of young women hanging out around Pac-Man (no boyfriend in sight contrary to the raison d’etre for women occupying such a space) and above (on page 28) a suited man with the archetypal “business man” khaki trench coat drabbed over his shoulders jams on Defender in a laundromat. Such photos, although few, are still invaluable as visible evidence of who played, comparable to the incredibly rich collections of “Bay Area Video Arcades: Photographs by Ira Nowinski, 1981-1982” housed at Stanford University Libraries and the photographs exhibited online at the “More Than a Craze: Photographs of New Zealand’s Early Digital Games Scene”, Mahara Gallery, Waikanae, New Zealand.[iv] Anonymous people frozen in the act of play become informational snapshots.

The photos do not, of course, speak for themselves within Invasion of the Space Invaders. Amis’s pedantic style isn’t spared when portraying the inhabitants of arcades. I want to share a particularly baroque description with you:

Zonked glueys, swearing vandals, with childish faces full of ageless evil, Mohican punks sporting scalplocks on violet verticals and a safety-pin through the nose. Seven-foot black kids on roller-skates, coolly monitored by their more mystical and whacked-out older brothers, all gone on gangja, dreadlocks, and petty crime. Ten-year-old monsters, cunning little cave-men, foul mouthed and furious and very easily frustrated (no one ever told them that you mustn’t be cruel to defenseless machines). Queasy greasers, living out a teen-dream movie with faggot overtones. Bemused, doddering hippies, attracted by the lights; immaculate schoolboys, fascinated, terrified, saying please and thank you; classic, textbook child-molesters; and - in New York - hip Madison Avenue ad-execs and MIT whizzkids, enjoying their coked-up coffee break (p. 20).

Upon first read it’s easy to lump this patch of prose into those accounts that predominate the arcade experience as corrupting and corrupt. It’s also easy to feel as if you’ve stepped into London Field’s Black Cross by mistake perhaps soon to be that body kicked into the toilet. Amis occupies a dual role here: he’s not only an observer, furtively peaking into the arcade, but one who writes from within. He too is playing in the “electronic grotto” maneuvering his turret in defense of the Earth. Moreover, Amis doesn’t by any means attempt to wipe the arcade moral slate clean. Nor does he wish to affirm it. Instead, he fleshes it out fully, presenting a range of faces, not all pretty, not all polite, of a moment in time removed from us in the present and one often faceless in the hands of writers of the era, so-called self-appointed moralists bemoaning its existence, or social science researchers seeking to dissect why “youth” frequent these haunts.

Amis is so deeply lodged “within” video game culture that he finds himself trying to desperately finish his game of Defender when a massive brawl breaks out in his favorite 24-hour arcade, Play It Again Sam in New York. “I glanced to my left,” Amis discloses, “two white youths were in the process of being apprehended; they were cartwheeling about in an explosion of up-ended pintables, swaying hot-drink machines, and a blizzard of missiles from the sympathizers further back. I glanced towards the street. It looked like the 87th Precinct out there - police cars, thirty or forty cops, a dozen German shepherds. In they came. A policeman standing directly behind me stopped a glass ashtray with the back of his neck. I warped out” (p. 26). Amis returns the next day to find that the two youths were “resisting arrest”, rather than having “committed murder for a few games of Frogger” as he jokingly surmised. Soon after the skirmish, Play It Again Sam no longer stayed open 24-hours. And eventually it was no longer even open, Amis reports. Game over. The City Council got high score: the initials TCC across all screens. “All-night places attract all-night people. There is nothing inherently clandestine about the average parlor addict. These adepts of wipe-out and smart bomb, these dealers in death and destruction, these guerillas of Space Fury, Berzerk and Astro Blaster, are really pretty gentle types” (p.26). Gentle types who may even happen to be one of the “50 greatest British writers since 1945”.

So there you have it: Invasion of the Space Invaders is a momentous document for refusing to wipe clean the bloodstains. The crime scene of antiquated game play left for forensic game historians to sort through. Luckily we have evidence - these yellowing, flimsy, cartoony paperbacks - that can be added to our workings with and of game history. In the end, Amis is your typical addict. He knows that he has a “problem”. He even recognizes the routine,[v] yet, as he informs his reader at the close of the book’s part one, “I must get back to defending Earth”. Amis had his own demons to exercise -descending fleets of them in fact. I sup up one last drop from Amis: “What does the adult think about when he plays Space Invaders? He thinks about life, about survival, about what the hell he’s up to, playing Space Invaders at his age. The kid, on the other hand, thinks about nothing except the pulsing screen. He thinks of Space Invaders. He dreams of Space Invaders” (p. 30). What does the game historian think about when reading Invasion of the Space Invaders?

References

Amis, Martin. Invasion of the Space Invaders. Millbrae, CA: Celestial Arts, 1982.

Amis, Martin. London Fields. London: Vintage International, 1989.

Beamer, Charles. Video Fever? Entertainment? Education? Or Addiction? Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982.

Berry, Joy Wilt. So What’s Wrong With Playing Video Games? Waco, TX: Educational Products Division of Word Incorporated, 1982.

Guins, Raiford. Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014.

Toop, David. The Rap Attack: African Jive to New York Hip-Hop. Boston: South End Press, 1984.



Notes

[i] See Raiford Guins (2014). Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014.

[ii] See Berry (1982) and Beamer (1982). Such books are couched between the poles of “benefits” and “hazards” and aimed at a parental audience to help them understand their kid’s “obsession”.

[iii] The promince of video game arcades was not lost on David Toop’s (1984) seminal study of hip hop. He writes: “Sharing the twilight zone of 42nd Street movie houses, drug dealers and seedy subterranean record stores are the video arcades. Video games have had a big influence on latter day hip hop - the arcades are bleeping, pulsing, 24-hour refuges for the obsessive vidkids with nowhere else to go” (p. 128).

[iv] “More Than A Craze” was curated by Melanie Swalwell and Janet Bayly. Visit the exhibition @ http://www.maharagallery.org.nz/MoreThanACraze/index.php

[v] He knows the routine very well: “You give yourself a bit of extra time for the diversion. You hoard change. You start to encounter familiar, furtive faces in the line for the machine. The murmured talk is all of Smart Bomb and Hyperspace, Fuel Count and Quadrant Warp” (p. 14).




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