Book Review – Before The Crash: Early Video Game History

There has always been a profound differences between academic and non-academic writers, from simple execution of grammar and punctuation to assuming a more nuanced approach.  Often the analysis and research are more in-depth, and quotations or declarations of knowledge are cited, permitting the reader to pursue the issue further to either support or repudiate the writer’s claims. In short, these works tend to engage the mind to develop a deeper understanding of the subject, and Before The Crash: Early Video Game History is such a book.

Before The Crash: Early Video Game History (2012)

Before The Crash: Early Video Game History is composed of a series of essays, each with a very specific focus on some aspect of gaming prior to the Great Video Game Crash of 1983-1985. There are a variety of fascinating subjects here, ranging from a compelling argument for the recognition of Stereoscopes as the earliest precursors of the video game system, to a clarification of the Magnavox patent and how it was applied by the courts, to a description of the first historic video game crash of 1977, to a discussion on the historical cultural lessons gleaned from a perusal of an Atari product catalog, to a study on ASCi-II based BBS (Bulletin Board Systems) and Multi-User Dungeons (MUD) and how they influenced the development of online gaming. There are many more – TWELVE in all – each bringing forth some tidbit of knowledge, meticulously argued or outlined for the eager reader to absorb and ponder.

The book’s editor, Mark J.P. Wolf, is a Professor in the Communication Department at Concordia University Wisconsin, with a Ph.D. from the School of Cinema/Television at the University of Southern California. He is an accomplished author with many previous works in the video game culture field, including The Medium of the Video Game (2001), Virtual Morality: Morals, Ethics, and New Media (2003), The Video Game Theory Reader (2003), and The World of the D’ni: Myst and Riven (2006).  As a leader in the field, he has compiled work from a variety of experts ranging from fellow academics including Erkki Huhtamo, professor of media history and theory at the University of California; Sheila C. Murphy, associate professor in the Department of Screen Arts & Cultures at the University of Michigan; and Zach Whalen, an assistant professor in the Department of English, Linguistics and Communication at the University of Mary Washington, and related industry experts, including intellectual property attorney Ross A. Dannenberg, engineer and accomplished inventor Ralph H. Baer, and “ground floor” game creator and designer Tim Skelly.  There is a tremendous level of knowledge that is represented by individuals of this caliber, and it shows in this book.

This is not to say that every essay contains the most riveting material, nor are all essays written in a compelling manner. The world of academia contains a broad range of writing styles and abilities; some writers are capable of capturing the interest of readers with the right mixture of brevity and verbosity, while others appear unable to form a sentence without the aid of obscure, multisyllable words that do nothing to drive their argument forward, but everything to cement their place as an academic through the liberal use of shibboleths. I am not a fan of such writing, as it is designed to exclude readers from the very start, making it an odd choice for an educator to employ. But I digress…

A more exciting and subtle aspect of the contributor list is the significant portion of graduate students and recent doctoral candidates (at the time of publication) writing on the subject of video game culture and history, including individuals like Jessica Aldred, a doctoral candidate and researcher with the Hypertext and Hypermedia Lab at Carleton University; Carly A. Kocurek, a doctoral candidate in American Studies at the University of Texas; and Staci Tucker, a PhD student and teaching fellow of Communication and Society in the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon.  On first blush, it would appear that video game culture is becoming more and more recognized as a worthy area of research and study, and is clearly a growing field.  Perhaps it is a case of those original arcade gamers growing up, or perhaps it is the sheer size of the industry ($16.9 billion in 2010 and $16.6 billion in 2011) that is attracting more study. Whatever the reason, there is joy to be found in the realization that the academic sector that embraces video game study is growing!

Sample graphic used within Before The Crash: Early Video Game History

As for the general layout, again, it must be remembered that this book is not a coffee table edition filled with glossy photographs and pithy writing, but presented in a more austere fashion.  The type-font is small, as each essay is robust and does not require the padding of increased font sizes to improve the page count (which still manages to achieve 272 pages in length).  There are a few illustrations and photographs scattered throughout (40 in all), used as exhibits for the purpose of clarification or identification, none of which are in color, but none needing to be in color. The austere vibe the book projects serves as a reminder that it is not a book to be speed-read while stretching out at the beach; this book requires attention and reflection, reading one essay at a time and giving each its just due.

Before the Crash: Early Video Game History is not a book for everyone, but for those with an appetite for the cultural significance of video games and a desire to learn more on their impact and context within North American history, this book should be considered a “Must Read” volume.  Anyone purchasing it should prepare to be challenged, entertained, but above all, educated. I certainly enjoyed reading it, some essays more than others, but finding something of worth to be ruminated upon within each and every one.  Highly recommended!

Before The Crash: Early Video Game History is published by Wayne State University Press, a non-profit mid-sized publisher of several series, including the Painted Turtle Books series, Made in Michigan Writers series, and the Great Lakes Books series. Before The Crash can be purchased from their website, located HERE, or by phoning direct at (800) WSU-READ.


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