Jaroslav Švelch

Jaroslav Švelch is an assistant professor of media studies at Charles University, Prague. His monograph Gaming the Iron Curtain (MIT Press, 2018) explores the do-it-yourself computer game culture of Communist-era Czechoslovakia. In 2017-2019, he was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Bergen, studying the theory, history, and reception of video game monsters within the Games and Transgressive Aesthetics project. Besides game history and monsters, his research interests also include comedy and humour in games and video game voice acting. He is a co-founder of the Central and Eastern European Game Studies conference (CEEGS).

Contact information:
jaroslav at svelch.com

Say it with a Computer Game: Hobby Computer Culture and the Non-entertainment Uses of Homebrew Games in the 1980s Czechoslovakia

by Jaroslav Švelch


Focusing on the specific context of the 1980s Czechoslovakia, this article makes a historical argument for treating the production of games as something more than the mere production of entertainment. Based on archival research, interviews and qualitative analyses of individual titles, it shows that entertainment was only one of the intended functions of homebrew games. Although Czechoslovak game developers were familiar with the developments in the West, they could not form a game industry due to the absence of free enterprise. They were therefore left to explore various niches of game design. Instead of providing entertainment, many computer games were used by their designers to showcase coding skills, to deliver messages to other members of the hobbyist community, or to reflect on the excesses of the Communist regime. Thanks to an efficient distribution system and a relatively low barrier of entry, computer games established themselves in the 1980s as a prominent communication medium within the Czech computer hobbyist and gaming communities.

Keywords: history of games, Czechoslovakia, Eastern Europe, homebrew games, hobby computing, communication, pragmatics, persuasive games


The late 1980s were a tumultuous period in Czechoslovakia. On the one hand, oppression by the Communist government was gradually loosening up in response to the developments in the Soviet Union (namely the "perestroika"). On the other hand, the state police kept suppressing peaceful demonstrations, only fuelling the Czechoslovak people's determination to protest.

Events culminated on November 17, 1989, when riot police, armed with shields, batons and automatic weapons, brutally attacked unarmed student protesters in downtown Prague. The attack triggered the events of the Velvet Revolution. It also provoked a massive response from the Czechoslovak people, many of whom started to spread the word using leaflets, student papers and other unofficial media (Institute for Contemporary History, 2009). Among the media reacting to the event was a computer game - 17.11.1989, a 1989 text adventure for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum (Doublesoft & Hoblsoft, 1989) [1].

The protagonist's mission in the game is to film evidence of police brutality. However intriguing this premise may sound, most of the actual gameplay consists of solving conventional lock-and-key puzzles while looking for a video camera, batteries and a VHS cassette inside an apartment block. The game does not use "procedural rhetoric" (Bogost, 2007) to get its point across and most of its narrative is unrelated to the Prague demonstration. However, it does deliver a message.

The most revealing parts of the game are non-diegetic. The instructions, available through the menu screen, make it clear that the game is a "protest against the brutal attack of the riot police." The game's loading screen includes the words "We do not want violence," one of the most powerful and popular slogans of the Velvet Revolution, and bears the date "19. 11. 1989," suggesting that it was made as an immediate reaction to the November 17 events.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Loading screen of the game 17. 11. 1989. The text translates as (from top left to bottom right): "We do not want violence !!! / Never again September 17, 1989 / Who is to blame? / We do not want violence / Graphics by HOBLSOFT 19. 11. 1989."

17. 11. 1989 is an example of a title in which "gameplay" serves as an excuse to reach out to fellow players. This article will show that this use of the computer game medium was not uncommon in the 1980s Czechoslovak homebrew scene. There, the entertainment function of the games was often overshadowed by their function as a means of communication within the community. Most existing theorizations of the medium, built around the notions of rules, procedures and play, do not account for this dimension of the medium. Therefore, we need to interrogate and extend them based on historical research.

The Czechoslovak example makes an intriguing case because of its marked difference from today's industrialized and market-driven contexts. In the 1980s Czechoslovakia, private enterprise did not exist, the domestic computer industry was lagging years behind the capitalist West and foreign trade was limited by embargos, restrictions and a lack of convertible currency. Although the penetration of home computers was roughly at a tenth of that in the U.K., a vibrant hobby computing scene took root in Czechoslovakia, often converging around state-supported computer clubs (Český statistický úřad, 2010; Schmitt & Wadsworth, 2001). Hobbyists and amateurs had been making games for home computers since the 8-bit micros became accessible around 1982.

This article draws from an ongoing research project which aims to map the history of computer gaming culture in Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic in the 1980s and early 1990s. Its sources include archival material, contemporary media discourse (mainly magazines and computer club newsletters) and personal interviews with developers, players and organizers of the computer hobby life. The games I refer to have been preserved in multiple digital online archives of Czechoslovak software run by individual collectors and enthusiasts (Bórik & Bórik, 2013; CS.Speccy.CZ, 2012; panprase, 2013).

The article has two goals. The first is to familiarize the reader with the history of computer games in the 1980s Czechoslovakia and thus contribute to the body of knowledge on local game histories. While work on the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Finland and the Netherlands has been published during the last decade (Kirkpatrick, 2007; Swalwell, 2012a, 2012b; Saarikoski & Suominen, 2009; Veraart 2011), Eastern European game histories remain largely unknown to the English-speaking academic audience, with the exception of partial accounts of the 1980s Poland by Kirkpatrick (2007) and Wasiak (2010). The second goal of this article is to argue for a broader and more open-ended conceptualization of digital games that takes into account the intentions of their authors, which often include the desire to directly communicate with their audiences.

In the following sections, I will lay out the basic points of my theoretical argument and provide a condensed introduction to the history of Czechoslovak gaming culture. In the latter half of the article, I will give concrete examples of unconventional uses of the digital game medium.

Beyond and before Commercial Entertainment

Contemporary game studies has mostly been investigating digital games produced by commercial enterprises (Kerr, 2006; Bogost, 2006a; Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Smith, & Tosca, 2008). According to Kerr, "digital games appear to epitomise an ideal type of global post-industrial neo-liberal cultural product" (Kerr, 2006, p. 1). Like film and popular music, they are considered a commercial entertainment medium (Vorderer, 2003).

Although the academic interest in commercial games is justified by their sales and popularity, focusing solely on "industrial" games limits us to working within a narrow set of industrialized contexts in which games are being made by professional developers for paying customers with the goal of making profit.

Mainstream theories of digital games are suited to study these commercial games - including both AAA and "indie" titles - as the analogies they are using point towards the entertainment uses of technology. The scholars retroactively dubbed "narratologists" tended to think of digital games in terms of narratives and fictional worlds; their analogies were the novel, the play, or the film (Jenkins, 2004; Murray, 1998). Another group of academics, later called "ludologists," focused on the rule systems of games and used the analogies of non-digital games (Bogost, 2006b; Frasca, 2003). Both fictional content and "gameplay" are the features that digital games share with other traditional forms of entertainment, such as film or non-digital games.

Also, the consensus in both popular and academic works that are geared towards game design seems to be that game makers wish to create "fun" gameplay (Koster, 2005), express certain ideas through game mechanics (Rusch & Weise, 2008) or persuade others using procedural rhetoric (Bogost, 2011). However, looking at the early history of computer games, we can see that this was often not the case [2].

The early 1980s computer game cultures were intimately connected to local hobby computing scenes (Swalwell, 2012a; Saarikoski & Suominen, 2009; Wasiak, 2010). As Veraart notes, the meanings that early hobbyists ascribed to games were not related primarily to leisure and entertainment (Veraart, 2011). Games attracted hobbyists and would-be amateur programmers [3], who could use them to demonstrate both their own capabilities and those of their machines (Swalwell, 2012b). Hobbyist communities were maintained by an ongoing flow of communication among its members. Adorno and Horkheimer highlighted the contrast between the culture industry and the amateur sphere's "private transmissions" (Horkheimer & Adorno, 2002, p. 96). Early homebrew [4] games were often such private, or more precisely, communal transmissions.

Several games scholars have sought to extend the scope of game studies to include the notions of community and social activity. Taylor and Sicart, among others, suggested that games matter just as much as (or even less than, in Sicart's view) what players do with them (Taylor, 2009; Sicart, 2011). But rarely have we seen theorizations of what the creators do with games they build; what the relevance of game-making as social interaction is [5].

Bogost approaches this question in his book How to Do Things With Video Games. He illustrates the potential of the medium by cataloguing a spectrum of its applications. His method, which he calls "micro-ecology" of the medium, "seeks to reveal the impact of a medium's properties on society. But it does so through a more specialized, focused attention to a single medium, digging deep into one dark, unexplored corner of a media ecosystem, like an ecologist digs deep into the natural one" (Bogost, 2011, p. 7). Although the title of Bogost's collection alludes to Austin's How to Do Things With Words, it mentions the latter's work in pragmatics and speech act theory only in passing while describing how players make changes in the real world using video games.

I believe that in order to better understand the "micro-ecologies" of homebrew games, we must explore what the creators of games were "doing" by making them. According to Austin, speaking is also doing. In natural language communication, an utterance can have a specific semantic content, or the locutionary force. It also affords the potential to change the state of things, or the illocutionary force, related to the intent of the speaker (Austin, 1962). Similarly, the game 17. 11. 1989 contains a set of game mechanics (borrowed from the text adventure genre) and a narrative (the search for video recording equipment). However, the game's instructions make it clear that it is to be taken as a "protest."

My exploration must therefore take into account the fact that there is another message in the game that cannot be derived merely from its fictions and procedures. Instead, I will take an approach inspired by pragmatics, the sub-discipline of linguistics co-founded by Austin, which investigates "the relation of signs to their users and interpreters" (Horn & Ward, 2006, p. xi) and has traditionally concerned itself with the relationship between signs, context and speakers' intentions. I will therefore focus on the seemingly marginal non-diegetic elements such as instructions, scrolling messages and loading screens, as opposed to the usual focal elements of rules or narratives. Using a number of examples, I will show that homebrew games have been used to do a wide variety of things, all of which were related to the communal nature of the hobby computing scene. But first, I must describe the scene itself.

Computers: Not Available

In his non-fiction book about computer games (the first of its kind in Czechoslovakia), Bohuslav Blažek, an academic, journalist and home computer enthusiast, paints following picture of the late 1980s Czechoslovak "computer scene":

Around a half-empty town square dominated by the big sign that says NOT AVAILABLE, followed by a long list in small print, there are many doors, behind which one can hear some lively commotion. But most of these remain closed. Sometimes a deus ex machina descends from above, bringing the truth about microcomputers. For example, that they are an ideological subversion, or, on another occasion, that they are the pre-requirement for the technological revolution [6]. (Blažek, 1990, p. 37)

With a little help from metaphor and irony, Blažek pinpointed some of the defining features of the state of microcomputers in Czechoslovakia. Firstly, neither computers nor software were easily available to ordinary citizens. Not unlike the Soviet one, the Czechoslovak hardware industry was lagging years behind the West (Trojan, 1989a; Wilson, 2009).

Although the country did produce mainframes and minis, its centrally planned economy failed to respond to the Western trend of manufacturing microcomputers for home and hobby use (Kovář, 2005). Besides the lack of incentives, domestic industry was plagued by the lack of manufacturing facilities and critical resources (Trojan, 1989a). Bulk imports of Western computer technology were rare due to CoCom embargos [7].

The government realized it had slept through the technological revolution and proclaimed (at least verbal) support for a large-scale introduction of digital technology through its "long-term complex plans of electronization" of the "national economy" and "the education," adopted in 1984 and 1985 respectively (Jelínek, 1987; MŠ ČSR, 1986). But as Blažek noted, the support of the state (or the "deus ex machina") was scattershot and uncoordinated (Blažek, 1990).

The microcomputers that the country did produce were generally not sold for home use. Machines like the IQ 151 and the PMD 85 were sold almost exclusively to state-owned facilities and educational institutions. They were notoriously unreliable and their low production runs [8] could not satisfy the demand of the institutions, let alone the general public (Libovický & Dočekal, 1987). The first Czechoslovak computer available to the public was the 1987 "Didaktik Gama," a clone of the British Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Over 50,000 of these were sold, but demand vastly exceeded supply (Zajíček, 1989).

However, there was still commotion behind closed doors. Despite the limitations and restrictions, some hobbyists managed to secure computers for their individual and collective use. They often had to mobilize much of their social and financial capital, but in the hobby community, "it was everybody's dream to have their own computer" (Fuka, 2008). For a long time, the only way to get hold of one was to purchase it on a trip abroad - which selected citizens could do on limited occasions - or in government-controlled stores with imported goods, whose supplies were scarce and spotty (Zajíček, 1989). Another widely used option was the black market (Libovický, 2011).

Although we lack reliable statistics on the penetration of the micros, contemporary hobbyist sources estimate that there were around 100,000 home computers in the 15-million-strong country in 1987. Most were ZX Spectrum compatibles, although the numbers of 8-bit Ataris rose sharply in the late 1980s as imports grew steadier (Amatérské radio, 1989; Libovický & Dočekal, 1987).

Many Czechoslovak hobbyists convened in computer clubs. As any organized leisure activity in the country had to be backed by a "socialist organization," the clubs were usually affiliated with and funded by organizations such as Svazarm (Union for the Cooperation with the Army) and the Socialist Union of the Youth. The first clubs sprang up around 1982; by 1988 there was at least one in every major city.

The official rhetoric justified the support of hobby computing as a means of preparing the youth for their future jobs in the socialist economy or the army. Although day-to-day operation of the clubs was apolitical, computer hobby life in the socialist Czechoslovakia was always subject to the whims of individual state officials - two prominent hobby organizers described their efforts as a never ending struggle against "bureaucratic supermen" and "technological conservatism"(Kalousek, 1983; Zajíček, 1988).

While clubs were also common on the other side of the Iron Curtain (Veraart, 2011; Swalwell, 2012a), the contribution of their Czechoslovak counterparts to the local home computer culture was indispensable. Besides disseminating know-how, they occupied the roles that commercial companies fulfilled in the West. They provided access to hardware and published newsletters that became the only periodicals in the country dedicated solely to computers [9]. They organized meetings and programming competitions. They also maintained databases (or "banks") of programs available free of charge to its members. A closer look at some of the listings reveals that most of these programs were "cracked" [10] copies of Western games (ENOsoft Prievidza, 1986; Mikrobáze, 1986).

Bringing the Games In

The role of games in the Czechoslovak hobby computer culture was complex and sometimes controversial. Initially, hobbyists considered games an integral part of computer culture. In the early 1980s, computer users could only play the games they programmed themselves or that they typed in from a program listing. Asked if there had been a discussion about whether computers should be used to play games, Vít Libovický, a prolific 1980s coder, says:

There was no dialogue about it, because people were simply doing both. Before floppy disks and text editors, you couldn't really do any serious work on a computer. […] People were instead trying out what's possible and what's not. (Libovický, 2011)

Around 1985, an effective system of unauthorized distribution brought professionally produced Western (mostly British) games into the country. Although there was no software market in Czechoslovakia, Western computer games circulated freely among home computer users, usually on cassette tapes. The so-called "exchange network," consisting of computer clubs and innumerable informal ties between individual users, has been described as "lightning fast" Libovický, 2011). In the late 1980s, it would only take a few weeks for a cracked version of a new British Spectrum title to appear in the Czechoslovak network (MS-CID, 1990).

Some prominent hobbyists saw the influx of prefabricated computer entertainment as a threat to the values of the hobbyist culture:

Of course that with a Sinclair on your desk, you can spend the whole night by collecting pearls with a scuba diver or getting eaten by a sea monster; skiing downhill or driving a silvery F1. Such a program can entertain, but it is important to realize that it originated under completely different circumstances. It will soon cease to be fun. Unless I am just a mere passive user of [sic!] sleepless nights and two sore fingers… I never understood the computer-passive user connection. Computer must by its nature mobilize the desire for knowledge that materializes in creative work. (kš, 1986, p. 3)

This discussion was a response to the increasing differentiation within the home computer user base. As computer games emerged as an industrial product in the first half of the 1980s, more specialized groups of users started to form: hardware tinkerers, amateur coders and - the most numerous - users who used software made by others (also see Veraart, 2011). At the same time, the user base was getting younger as a result of more and more parents purchasing computers for their children.

Playing commercially produced games seemed to threaten the open-ended tinkering and "creative work" of hobby computer users of the ham radio tradition; it made users more "passive" than when they had to program for themselves. Blažek similarly criticized the paradoxical cornucopia of readily available foreign games for curbing domestic creativity (Blažek, 1990).

But the exchange network disseminated domestic software too, and just as effectively. Asked about the distribution of his own creations, the programmer František Fuka (affiliated with two of Prague's most prominent Svazarm computer clubs) said in a 1989 interview:

I make copies for my friends, they make copies for others and… this is how programs are copied and passed on here. The speed is unbelievable. One of the games that I released was offered back to me from Bratislava six days later [11]. (Trojan, 1989b, p. 3)

Despite Blažek's fears, dozens of authors like Fuka were creating computer games for a well-connected audience, even without any prospect of financial gain. Online archives contain at least 222 Czechoslovak titles made in 1984-1990 for the ZX Spectrum, 8-bit Atari and PMD 85 platforms (Bórik & Bórik, 2013; CS.Speccy.CZ, 2012; panprase, 2013), while numerous other games have not been preserved.

A majority of Czechoslovak game developers were young males - high school or college students - and while many of them attended computer clubs, game making was their individual endeavour. As a result, they found it difficult to compete with Western professionals. As František Fuka, releasing games under the label "Fuxoft," put it in his 1988 brochure:

The few individuals that make games in our country can naturally hardly compete with teams of specialists, for whom making games is not only fun, but also a job (a paid one, of course). One person can hardly be a good author of a game idea, a programmer, a graphic artist, a musician and also have enough time to pull it all off. (Fuka, 1988a, pp. 11-12).

Due to the influx of computer entertainment unwittingly provided by Western developers, local developers were left to carve niches for themselves. A large number of developers usually worked in the genre of textovka, the Czech-language text adventure game, which did not suffer from Western competition. This genre comprised around 50 percent of the preserved games from 1982-1990. Other major avenues of game production were the unauthorized conversions of existing Western games for domestic platforms; digital adaptations of regionally specific non-digital games (such as "piškvorky," the local variant of tic-tac-toe) and graphical action games that mimicked Western commercial production.

Thematically, original games tended to blend influences from Western games and popular culture with local sources (Švelch, 2012). Iconic Western heroes such as Indiana Jones and John Rambo became characters in non-licensed fan-made Czechoslovak games, suggesting that local homebrew production had elements of remix culture (Lessig, 2008).

Authors of these homebrew games did not seek financial profit, but could gain social capital, even becoming quasi-celebrities in the community. Michal Hlaváč, one of the members of Sybilasoft, a collective of creators based in Bratislava, remembers:

What we got out of it was a kind of fame. […] People knew us. Once, we received a letter from a guy [name] from Cheb. That was the other end of the world; that was the other end of Czechoslovakia. (Hlaváč, 2012)

Game creators knew of each other through their games and greeted each other using scrolling messages in games; many of them also met or were friends in real life. At the same time, they "competed" among themselves in various aspects of game production, especially programming. By the latter half of the decade, a community of creators and players emerged that could appreciate their exploits and pass around their messages.

Game as a Proof of Coding Skills

With no market to sell their games on, many amateur programmers in Czechoslovakia made games to impress their peers and earn their credit within a community [12]. Graphics-intensive action games made especially good showcases for one's coding skills because they required mastery of machine code, a programming language which lacks any hint of user-friendliness (see Montfort & Bogost, 2009).

Coding competition is a defining feature of demo scenes (Wasiak, 2012). These communities are built around what Dovey and Kennedy call technicity - the expression of identity through exhibition of computer-related technical skills (Dovey & Kennedy, 2006). But in Czechoslovakia and its successor countries, a stable demo scene did not establish itself until the peak period of 16-bit computers in the 1990s. In the 1980s, the function of demos [13] - demonstration of coding skills through audiovisual effects - was instead fulfilled by conversions and "demonstrational" games.

Interviews with programmers suggest that showing off one's coding chops was among the main motivations for making games. Aleš Martiník, author of one of the oldest preserved Czechoslovak games, a 1984 conversion of the popular British Spectrum title Manic Miner programmed for the inferior Sinclair ZX81 machine, remembers:

[My motivation was] 20 percent the desire to play Manic Miner, even if I only had a ZX81. […] And the remaining 80 percent was the desire to prove to myself, but mainly others, that I am good enough to pull it off, at both of which I succeeded. (Martiník, 2013)

He succeeded to the degree that his effort continues to impress fans of 8-bit computers even more than twenty years later (Gasking, 2007).

Vlastimil Veselý, a prolific programmer affiliated with a Svazarm computer club in Ostrava, created his first game, the conversion of the Japanese arcade/puzzle hybrid Flappy to the PMD 85, following a bet: "That was a kind of a bet. 'I bet you couldn't make this!' And I said I would" (Veselý, 2013).

Authors of many original games had similar motives. In a 1989 interview, František Fuka said of his game F.I.R.E. (Fuka, 1988b): "My latest game is a full-on shooter. It's in machine code and I made it because a rumour has been spreading that Fuka cannot do machine code." (Trojan, 1989b)

Most of these titles (both conversions and originals) share a certain disdain for what we may call "game design." Conversions lack original design completely, while originals tend to adapt existing Western formulas without paying too much attention to balanced and "fun" game mechanics. The latter can be said about shooter games like Star Fly and Star Swallow by Tomáš Rylek (T.R.C.), Fuka's friend from a Prague Svazarm club. While Fuka admits Rylek and Miroslav Fídler (another Prague-based programmer) were better coders, he adds that "they managed to program a subroutine for smooth display of graphics, but they soon grew tired of [the game] and did not want to do the game logic […]." (altairiscz, 2013)

Figure 2. T.R.C.'s Star Swallow featured fast monochromatic graphics and mimicked Western shooters.

Both "demonstrational games" and conversions could entertain players and the latter certainly did. But their creators intended them first and foremost as messages about their personal skills, about proving what they are capable of coding.

Game as a Carrier of Messages

To say that games carry messages seems to be stating the obvious. But besides containing messages in the form of procedural, visual or textual representations, games can also carry messages in the literal sense. Czechoslovak amateur games transmitted messages within the micro computer community. They did so using scrolling text, Easter eggs [14] and other devices.

Scrolling text messages are typical of demos created by demo scenes and cracking groups of the "computer underground" (Blažek, 1990; Wasiak, 2012). In computer games, they were usually featured on menu screens as elements of the games' non-diegetic content [15]. In 1980s Czechoslovak titles, these texts contained messages and shout-outs to other members of the community, as well as mundane requests and personal rants.

It was common for authors to publish their addresses and telephone numbers within these scrolling texts. In his shooter game Galactic Gunners, Fídler (who goes under the label Cybexlab Software) does so, seeking collaborators for future projects (Fídler, 1987). In F.I.R.E., Fuka also starts the message with his address, before going on to boast (in English) about how fast he made the game: "Programming time: Three weeks (from the very beginning to final coding)." (Fuka, 1988b)

Figure 3

Figure 3. The controls selection screen of Cybexlab's Galactic Gunners. The scrolling text can be found at the bottom of the screen. The message to the community, which follows the copyright notice, is introduced by the words: "For Czech Spectrum owners."

An extreme example of a scrolling message is the one in Patrik Rak's (Raxoft) 1990 title Piškworks, an adaptation of the regional variant of tic-tac-toe. In almost 1,000 words, Rak manages to list all his collaborators; advertise his older games; greet 16 favourite developers, including Fuka, Rylek, Fídler and Sybilasoft; condemn incompetent crackers; ask for whereabouts of his lost cassette tape; and muse about his life (he was about to graduate) and hobbies (Rak & Gregorová, 1990).

Due to the communal nature of the computing scene, various games featured internal references to other people's games and the community itself. A hidden room in Cybexlab's flip-screen shooter Planet of Shades contains a pedestal bearing the name of an unpopular club member, supporting a goblin-like head (Fídler, 1986). Sybilasoft's text adventure Fuksoft featured a character of a teacher at the high school that the programmers went to (Hrda, Hlaváč & Sustrík, 1987). And Fuka, as well as Stano Hrda of Sybilasoft, became characters in other authors' games (Hrda et al., 1987; Tom & Jerry & Delphinesoft, 1988).

Some titles elevate these references to the main themes of the game, which in turn becomes an extended in-joke. Several text adventures were based on the shared experiences of the computer club life. The popular humorous title Revenge of the Insane Atari Owner [16], for instance, takes place in a small-town Atari club (Lošťák, 1989). Another title, a crime-themed text adventure called Katanga, features characters based on the programmer's real-life acquaintances and adversaries. As he explicitly states in the in-code comments: "I wrote this game as an original form of revenge. All the names in it are real" (Malý, 1988).

The trend of writing games about everyday life and high school experiences continued into the early 1990s. Unlike last section's demonstrational games, these were usually simple programs written in BASIC [17]. Text adventures, in particular, provided a low-barrier outlet for would-be game creators who could take advantage of the effective unauthorized distribution system to share their stories and circulate messages unrelated to the content of the game.

Game as a Political Statement

Game studies has dedicated much attention to titles that address current social and political issues (see for example Bogost, Ferrari & Schweizer, 2012; Bogost, 2007). While Egendfeldt-Nielsen and his colleagues admit that these games represent a genre that is only "emerging," they also argue that "the subversive use of video games has always been present within game culture, but became less of a factor as the industry matured commercially during the 1990s" (Egenfeldt-Nielsen et al., 2008, p. 208). The following examples confirm that subversive games were already being made in the 1980s.

Several Czechoslovak games from this period react to current events and criticize or ridicule the Communist regime; all of them are short and fairly simple in terms of mechanics and puzzles. For obvious reasons, they were released anonymously and their authorship remains unknown.

The 1988 satirical text adventure game P.E.R.E.S.T.R.O.I.K.A, circulating in versions for the ZX Spectrum and the 8-bit Atari, features a narrative in which the main character is to tear down a statue of Lenin in an unnamed city. Once the player completes the task, she is explicitly invited to participate in the real-life demonstration commemorating the 20th anniversary of the invasion (and occupation) of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet army: "Congratulations once more. We will all meet on August 21 in Old Town Square… (Or anywhere else.)" (ÚV Software, 1988). This makes the title another example of a game that conveys an explicit message to its users.

The game The Adventures of Indiana Jones in Wenceslas Square in Prague on January 16, 1989, released for the ZX Spectrum, is another response to police violence, namely the brutal suppression of a demonstration that took place ten months prior to the Velvet Revolution. In this text adventure, Indiana Jones, who had already appeared in a number of Czechoslovak games, has to escape the violence and reach the airport to leave the country for the United States. The adventure features over-the-top violence both towards the antagonists (Jones kills members of the Communist police with an axe, among other weapons) and the main character. Through hyperbole and satire, the anonymous author protests against the practices of the country's totalitarian regime, while taking advantage of the popularity of local fan-made Indiana Jones games.

These games, along with 17. 11. 1989, provide evidence that the medium was used to express and share political statements. This was possible due to a number of factors. Text adventures were a fairly accessible means of message circulation because they could be easily programmed in BASIC. Games in general were also - in all likelihood - the least regulated medium in the country, as no centralized control of home computer technology was possible. This enabled an efficient network of users to disseminate them easily.


The previous three sections described three different applications of computer games by amateur users in the 1980s Czechoslovakia. Although each of these sought different goals, they all have one thing in common: the design of their mechanics and, to a large extent, their fictional content was secondary to the message they wanted to send out. Circulating in the community of computer hobbyists, computer games offered programmers an accessible means to show off, reach out and share their opinions. While appropriating elements of commercial Western games, authors of Czechoslovak homebrew games used the medium to different ends.

To some extent, the practice of doing such things with games was encouraged by the specifics of the Czechoslovak context - by the absence of a commercial software market and by the unauthorized distribution network that required personal exchange of storage media. On the other hand, similar uses are also employed by authors working in contemporary contexts. The German developer Marius Fietzek has, for example, created the adventure game The Applicant with the purpose of securing an internship with the U.S. company Double Fine (Fietzek, 2012).

The focus on the "pragmatics" of digital game production can help us broaden the range of analogies game studies is working with. Games can be understood as more than just entertainment products or art pieces. Some of them, like Martiník's version of Manic Miner, can be seen as model airplanes proudly bearing their authors' names, focusing more on the very feat of their construction than on their design. Others, like Piškworks, partially resemble hip-hop shout-outs to fellow artists. And games like P.R.E.S.T.A.V.B.A. or 17. 11. 1989 may be interpreted as politically charged chain letters, wrapped around toy labyrinths.

While games tend to provide gameplay and stories, they can also function as a medium for personal and communal transmissions. In these cases, the message can overshadow game mechanics and narrative, which are usually considered the core elements of the digital game as an entertainment medium. Historical research shows us that amateur and homebrew communities have taken advantage of other communicative affordances of the medium, otherwise relatively neglected by both commercial game production and game studies.


[1] "17. 11. 1989" is the filename of the game's BASIC loader. However, no particular title is used in-game or on its loading screen. It is therefore possible that the game was known under different titles.

[2] The relative disdain for "gameplay" was also mirrored in the gaming press. As Kirkpatrick shows, the use of this concept as an evaluative measure specific to digital games only emerged in the U.K. in the latter half on the 1980s (Kirkpatrick, 2012).

[3] People who made games in Czechoslovakia tended to call themselves "programmers" rather than using the terms "game developer" or "game designer," both of which became more common in the following decades.

[4] I am using the term "homebrew" because of its fairly general meaning. When speaking about the Czechoslovak context specifically, I am speaking of "amateur" production, as the word "amatér" (amateur) was widely used in the 1980s Czechoslovak discourse to characterize the scene.

[5] There have been several accounts of game design as a subversive and/or art practice. See Galloway's essay on "countergaming" or Salen and Zimmerman's chapter on "games as cultural resistance," which includes a short discussion of DIY games (Galloway, 2006; Salen & Zimmerman, 2004).

[6] All quotes from Czech and Slovak were translated by the author. The literal translation would be "scientific-technical revolution," which was a term used in the official discourse to describe technological advancements.

[7] For an example of guidelines of CoCom embargos, see (British Goverment, 1980).

[8] Not more than 1,000 per year in case of the IQ 151.

[9] Computers received some coverage from more generally oriented hobby electronics magazines like Amatérské radio (Amateur Radio).

[10] "Cracking" is the practice of programmers (called crackers) removing copy protection from a game.

[11] Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia, 328 kilometres from Prague.

[12] Veraart claims that early game builders in Dutch hobby computing clubs also saw games as "demonstrations of craftsmanship" (Veraart, 2011, p. 53).

[13] I am using the word "demo" to refer to programs created by demo scene members. Besides these, there were also official tech demos, which served different purposes.

[14] An Easter egg is a "message, trick, or unusual behavior hidden inside a computer program by its creator." (Montfort & Bogost, 2009, p. 59)

[15] On the Spectrum platform, a scrolling message itself was a display of programming skills, as smooth pixel-perfect scrolling was difficult to achieve.

[16] For the sake of readability, I refer to games with Czech or Slovak titles by the English translation of the title. For the full title in the original language, see References.

[17] For a discussion of the impact of BASIC on the accessibility of programming, see (Campbell-Kelly & Aspray, 2004).


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