Game History and the Local

edited by Melanie Swalwell, Palgrave MacMillan, 2021, 240 pp.
Hardcover $119.99 / eBook $89.00, Hardcover ISBN: 978-3-030-66421-3, eBook ISBN: 978-3-030-66422-0

In order to make sense of this important book, readers need to understand what its authors mean by, and do with, the terms “game history” and “the local.” “Game history” is not explicitly described in this collection. However, as we read we do start to see its contours. Some familiar cognates are invoked and its relative youth as a (sub)field is described. The collection assumes that game history is digital game history, computer game history or video game history.  

“Local” gets more direct definition. Local is never exactly the same thing from chapter to chapter, and at times it varies even within chapters. This diversity is a strength, however, not a weakness. For the volume’s contributors, local can mean many things. Local can mean national (e.g. Finland, Poland, or Sweden). It can also refer to situated inter-connected sites of communication, play or production (e.g. small towns around the UK, or disparate members of networks of users, crackers and designers). Editor Melanie Swalwell notes that she is “aiming at something … conceptual, a sort of collective term for the concern with location” (6). What the local is not is the USA or Japan as imagined and assumed centers of game culture and production. Although we do get the USA via a small American town (Oakhurst, CA in Laine Nooney’s excellent chapter), the overall diversity of regional foci highlights deftly how the USA has been assumed to be a kind of monolith in previous game histories. 

This book successfully shows what can happen if we start to bring new places, regions, and locales into our thinking about the history of games. It is, however, just a start. What might come next could be comparative, as Swalwell argues in her conclusion. This is a promising direction for the field. For now, we readers need to do this comparative and connecting work on our own— but this collection presents some good material with which to start.  

Who should read this book? Every game historian should have this book in their library. People working on histories of computers, particularly those interested in informal or hobbyist networks, should own this as well. Other readers (and syllabus makers) may find less value in this heterodox collection and may be better served by specific chapters, based on the regions or topics addressed. With this in mind, allow me to briefly address each chapter directly. 

In “The Last Cassette” and the Local Chronology of 8-Bit Video Games in Poland,” authors Maria B. Garda and Paweł Grabarczyk deploy the concept of “lateness” to address a typical focus on “firstness” or novelty in technology histories. Their focus on the medium specificity of cassette tapes in computing and game histories is fascinating.  

Ulf Sandqvist’s chapter uses interviews and employment data to create a picture of the Swedish game industry of the 1990s, noteworthy for the ways in which quantitative data was used to address gender, education and generation of industry employees working between 1997 and 2010. We need more quantitative work like this. 

In “A Place for a Nintendo? Discourse on Locale and Players’ Topobiographical Identity in the Late 1980s and the Early 1990s,” authors Jaakko Suominen and Anna Sivula explore the relationship between biography and history. This standout chapter uses the framework of topobiography, a kind of cultural geographic work that allows the authors to capture a range of easily overlooked sites of play. That this chapter is about histories of play and players is note-worthy, as many others in the collection focus on production.  

Laine Nooney has the best line in the book, one that sums up the political, critical and methodological issues at play in a move towards the local: “To put this in game design terms: location remains more like an asset than a core mechanic in game history, a file that can be swapped around to create environmental diversity without harming the underlying structure of player experience.” (105)  

In “Around the World with the Sorcerer of Exidy,”Michael Borthwick and Melanie Swalwell use the frame of the local in  powerful ways to show that early computing networks, even when “online,” were localized, regional, and accessed differently by different people based at least in part on where they were located. This leads to appropriate attention paid to the overlapping communication systems which constituted such networks (including the easily overlooked postal system).  

David Murphy’s use of scene theory allows him to trace the interactions of different kinds of locales and locations which come into play as hardware, techniques and home-brew combine in PSP cracking. Murphy gives important attention to firmware, which is most welcome as it has been largely ignored in accounts of platforms. 

 John Vanderhoef’s “Indie Games of No Nation: The Transnational Indie Imaginary and the Occlusion of National Markers” is a standout as both a chapter on its own merits and as a powerful example of how concepts like the local might be eschewed by subjects of study while meaningfully deployed by researchers at the same time.  

Stephen Mandiberg pushes video game localization’s history back from beginning in the 1970s to highlight localization efforts dating back to the early 1960s (p. 180), while raising issues of discursive and practical invisibility of translation (183) to problematize received histories of localization and translation in favor of a more nuanced account that includes adaptation towards global mobility. 

“Welcoming All Gods and Embracing All Places” centers gameplay as the focus of a game history which, for author Graeme Kirkpatrick, was never and cannot be local. Kirkpatrick draws together a useful and interesting theoretical framework to argue that computer games as a form coalesce in part as explicitly generically global objects.    

Finally, in “Heterodoxy in Game History: Towards More ‘Connected Histories’” Swalwell invokes debates on the relation between the micro and the macro in history in order to show how we might connect the local to the global in game history and move towards a comparative approach.  This is a forward-looking conclusion to an important collection.

Samuel Tobin, Fitchburg State University