Jaakko Suominen

Jaakko Suominen received his PhD in cultural history and is a professor of Digital Culture at University of Turku, Finland. With a focus on cultural history of media and information technologies, he has studied computers and popular media, Internet, social media, digital games and theoretical and methodological aspects of the study of digital culture. Lately he has studied also game cultures in Finland in the early 20th Century

Contact information:
jaasuo at utu.fi

Review of Gaming the Iron Curtain

by Jaakko Suominen

For a long time, at least since the early 1980s until the beginning of this millennium, the historical interest in games was mainly journalistic in its nature. Predominantly only journalists and computer hobbyists have been writing about game history, and their writings were published mostly in computer hobbyist and gaming magazines, as well as in computing and gaming professional periodicals. Many of these publications were based on other similar writings available in international circulation, thus often repeating the same popular narratives, for example, emphasizing the Anglo-American point of view or canonizing the Japanese commercial hits. Little by little, besides this sort of generally accepted grand narratives, perhaps sometimes seasoned with some local context for a distinct flavour, these stories started to consist also of authors’ personal recollections, as well as comments of interviewees, mostly coming from game industry.

The rise of academic interest towards game history coincided with the emergence of game research as an academic field in the late 1990s. At that time, in addition to a growing public enthusiasm towards gaming, there was a new generation of students and young researchers entering the academia: scholars who had their own experiences with digital games and gaming and as a result a personal interest in studying them. One can also argue that there was, more than before, positive academic atmosphere towards studying popular culture phenomena in general; thus a more welcoming climate for research on games and game cultures in particular. Scholars with various academic backgrounds, ranging from cinema, media and arts studies to anthropology, sociology and computer science, as well as general and cultural history, conducted these early studies on digital game history. This variety of researchers’ disciplinary backgrounds was reflected in the selection of approaches, viewpoints, research questions and foci of individual studies.

It seems that early academic research on game history was predominantly published in national languages and with the national audiences in mind, and thus non-English publications or dissertations gained less international attention than their English counterparts. Lately however, more national, local and even hyper-local [1] game historical studies have been published also in English and for the global audiences. That is good, because it makes international shared game historical scene more varying, opens new avenues for comparative approaches, and in general, it is a sign of establishment of game history as an international field. One can even argue there is a local turn in game historical studies with notable key researchers, such as Melanie Swalwell.

Jaroslav Švelch’s book Gaming the Iron Curtain. How Teenagers and Amateurs in Communist Czechoslovakia Claimed the Medium of Computer Games is a fine example of this locally oriented wave of game historical research. It deals with the history of digital gaming in former Czechoslovakia, focusing on the user perspective and on the period from the 1980s to the 1990s. Švelch examines his subject matter in the context of emerging computer hobbyist cultures. This approach pairs Gaming the Iron Curtain with Petri Saarikoski’s Koneen lumo [Allure of the Machine], an academic monograph published in 2004 in Finland in Finnish. Saarikoski investigates computer hobbyist cultures of the same period and has a strong emphasis on gaming. In addition to comparable temporal focus and contextualization, both books utilize analogous theoretical discussions on domestication of media and technology, cultural studies of technology and history of technology.

However, there are also dissimilarities. Firstly, even though Finland and former Czechoslovakia were both European states of a comparable small size, they experienced substantial differences as to the political systems or consuming cultures in the 1980s. Secondly, due to the fact that Gaming the Iron Curtain was published almost 14 years after the Saarikoski’s book, Švelch has been able to critically engage with the ongoing and even very recent discussions in game studies and game historical research. Furthermore, Švelch has given much more attention to the analysis of games themselves, and even though he has not conducted that much systematic comparative research, he positions his work to the research on digital gaming, computer hobbyist cultures and demoscene activities in different countries. Švelch makes comparisons especially between different countries of the Eastern Bloc but also between Czechoslovakia and Western states, as well as to other regions if there were local studies available in English. Finally, while Saarikoski uses computer and hobbyist magazines as main historical sources, supplemented with other materials, such as oral historical interviews, Švelch puts more emphasis on close reading of local games. Švelch has also conducted more than 40 interviews with computer hobbyists, players and local game industry pioneers. It seems that the reason for this difference in selection of sources is the lesser importance of magazines and fanzines in Czechoslovakia, at least compared to Finland.

In addition to preface, conclusion and epilogue, Gaming the Iron Curtain consists of seven chapters. The chapters deal with topics such as the early Czechoslovakian history of computerization, purchasing of home computers, hobbyists infrastructures (e.g. computer clubs and user networks, research centres, fanzines), attitudes and public discourses towards gaming and games, distribution of games, home coding cultures, importance of game programming and its relation to personal self-expression of the programmers themselves. In the chapter on infrastructure, Švelch also briefly writes about issues of gender within the computer hobbyist cultures giving examples of gender roles existing amongst hobbyist circles and explaining why they included so few females. There are several studies published so far focusing on history computing and gender, as well as history of digital gaming and gender, but lot of more studies should be done on gender and from a much wider, intersectional perspective.

One of the main theoretical concepts of the book is the so-called coding act. With this notion, Švelch refers to various ways in which programming of computer games has affected self-expression of hobbyist and the creation of meritocratic home computer hobbyist culture. Coding as an act does not consists only of writing computer programs but also their publication and circulation. Švelch has gotten his conceptual inspiration from speech act theory, as well as from such game historical research traditions where creativity of (ordinary) users has been emphasized. The concept of coding act helps to link -- in a Latourian way -- users and artefacts together, and artefacts here refers to both hardware and software.

I would like to point out few other interesting observations from the book. For example, I appreciated the way Švelch described the role of homebrew games as a type of home computer software, as well as the tension between games and other types of software in the early 1980s, in relation to the intended use of home computers and what to program with them. It seems that there were also generational differences in users’ attitudes towards gaming. Furthermore, it is fascinating to read a historical study on an Eastern Bloc country that does not focus on political leaders but rather on everyday cultural practices such as home computing, media use and production. Finally, it is very rewarding to learn about Czechoslovakian games and Czechoslovakian adaptations of Western games that not many people has been familiar with.

Gaming the Iron Curtain is an excellent and well-written game historical study that not only makes an important contribution to the fields of game history and game studies, but can also impact related disciplines such as history of media and technology. I am convinced that Švelch’s book will function as a fine paragon and dialogue partner for many future studies that deal with various, especially local, issues related to game and media history. Together with such studies, it might create a solid foundation for a bigger international project that could undertake a systematic research effort in comparative game history.

In fact, game history could proceed from this point in many ways. One possibility would be to contextualize gaming from a different angle, for example, to compare digital gaming more straightforwardly to non-digital gaming and related ludic historical continuities. Likewise, one could examine computer and game hobbyism in a larger context of hobbyism or DIY cultures. Moreover, one could expand the researched period, implementing for example this new context. Another interesting topic that would require further investigations would be to study relationship between public institutions and computer and gaming hobbyists. For example, Švelch writes about the role of paramilitary youth groups in the emergence of computer clubs in Czechoslovakia, and one could conduct an international study on various political, state and community organized groups and clubs, youth organizations like boy scouts and girl guides, as well as the role of church and other religious organizations in organizing computer clubs.


Jaakko Suominen


[1]Hyper-local approach refers to such studies that focus on games and game cultural activities related to specific towns and municipalities.

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