Before and after ‘Pong’: a new book traces the rise of video games
In The Comic Book Story of Video Games, due out in a few weeks, the author and the artist present a history of video games that’s knowledgeable and wide-ranging but somewhat eccentric. Initially, Jonathan Hennessey focuses equally on “electronic games and electronic screen displays,” but much of the book covers the highways and byways of computer history, in which he finds that computers, which were “intended only for military, scientific, government, and industry use,” were soon used for games as well: a tennis game, a mouse-in-a-maze game, a billiards game, even a clever text-based game called Colossal Cave Adventure, which used only words on a screen. Much of this will be familiar to anyone who already knows the story of computers, but it’s presented in a rather colorful way. Unfortunately, Hennessey has a strange approach to history: he keeps reminding us that things were different in the past. He frequently points out that early games and game devices lacked color, sound, and music, but he never mentions that early movies also lacked color, sound, and integrated music but nonetheless engaged their audiences. The presentation wanders or jumps about, as if the author is trying to cram things in; the writing as well as the storytelling is often a bit awkward. And Jack McGowan’s illustrations are inventive, often sprinkled with video-game-like characters who watch the proceedings, but they’re sometimes hard to interpret. Still, the book concisely renders a parade of personalities and technical innovations.
The business of video games is big and getting bigger. It apparently generates more revenue than the film business; some people make a living from playing games, and there’s a growing market, called e-sports, for viewing video-game competitions. Yet the field retains something of a cult aspect. General-interest publications often nod to new games and new devices but without nearly as much coverage as TV and films get. You may finish this book and still wonder to some extent what the appeal is. I’ve played a few games myself; the first game to get its own panel in the book, a game of geopolitics called Balance of Power (1985), is one that I played (and may write about someday), and I’ve tried some of the early efforts to bring virtual reality into gaming. Yet even I don’t entirely get the eagerness of players to spend dozens, scores, even hundreds of hours on one game after another. But that’s also true of the time many people devote to playing and/or watching traditional sports. (Surely there are video game widows, though I haven’t heard the term yet, just as there are sports widows.) Hennessey and McGowan’s book pays little attention to the question of why we play what we do, but that’s a subject for other books. What The Comic Book Story of Video Games will give you is a reasonably detailed and insightful survey of how the games themselves reached their present stage of development.
For the record, I read a black-and-white uncorrected proof.
Originally published at ifitbenotnow.wordpress.com on September 2, 2017.