Jimmy Maher is creating a comprehensive history of computer gaming
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Back in 2011, having just finished writing a book for the MIT Press, I started a blog to keep my hand in the writing game until the next big paying project came along. Some of my earliest posts chronicled an obsession I'd developed with the history of the edutainment classic The Oregon Trail. I ended up installing an emulator of an old room-filling institutional computer called the HP-2100 and networking with a group of old-timers who have collected dozens of tape images of HP-2100 systems that were installed in schools and businesses across the United States. I was hoping to find the original version of The Oregon Trail from 1971. I didn't succeed, having to settle for a slightly later version from circa 1975. I did, however, find a huge quantity of other early games, puzzles, and toys, the detritus of a now largely forgotten computing culture that predates the PC era. I was hooked on the thrill of writing history by immersing myself in the primary sources of the times. Almost accidentally, the blog changed from a personal outlet for my musings to what you see in the masthead of this page, "a comprehensive history of computer gaming."

Now, there are plenty of people writing about gaming history on the Internet. Whilst endeavoring not to disparage anyone -- fans have done an amazing job collecting and archiving information, and I depend on their efforts almost every day -- I'd like to tell you what makes my work a little bit different from the norm.

A few years ago Jason Mcintosh published a blog post that has always stuck with me. It described how gaming journalism desperately needs "an alternative to enthusiasm." The phrase leaped to mind again at a recent conference I attended, where a representative for a major publisher declared to an audience composed mostly of hopeful young would-be game developers that videogames are "the greatest art form ever invented." This sort of cheerleading is not terribly helpful to anyone. Gaming has spawned no Anna Karenina, no Hamlet, no Sgt. Pepper, no Lost in Translation. The computer has very rarely made us cry tears born of anything other than frustration. Oh, gaming can be awesome fun; I don't need to tell you that. And occasionally it's striven to be more, and even more occasionally achieved it. Over the past few decades gaming has had a huge cultural impact, far bigger in fact than most people who aren't gamers are aware of; I will, for instance, defend to my dying breath my assertion that Dungeons and Dragons has had far more impact on the pop culture of today than any book, song, or movie that's appeared since 1974. But let's keep things in perspective, and let's not be afraid to take the bad with the good as we do so. What, for instance, are we to make of the extreme violence that's still so endemic to so much of gaming, or the sexism that is sadly still a part of hardcore gamer culture? We don't know what gaming will become; that's part of the fun. Yet when looking deeply and critically at its past, as I try to do, we find an almost unbelievably rich tapestry of all the things that gaming has been, still is, and perhaps someday may be again. That should be more than enough. There's no need for hyperbole when the reality is so rich.

While I don't blame you if you're skeptical of credentials -- I am too, believe me -- I do think my background makes me almost uniquely qualified to be that alternative to enthusiasm, at least when it comes to the historical perspective. I have a B.A. in Literary Studies and an M.A. in something called "Aesthetic Studies," if you can believe that. My time at university taught me how to write, how to research, and how to do real history. It also taught me what separates a good from a bad critic, and even taught me something about the great works in all those other art forms. At the same time, I've worked for many years in various computer programming and system administration roles, and I was an adolescent hacker for years before that. Thus I understand the technologies about which I write and the constraints and affordances they placed upon the creators of which I write. I fancy I have a gift for explaining these things in everyday, understandable language.

I fancy also that I have a modest gift, which I've further developed through many years of effort, for writing in general. I hate academese as much as you do; a big factor in my deciding not to do a PhD was my realization that I just couldn't stand to write the way you have to for a thesis. I think the subjects of which I write are fascinating and important, and I want you to share the joy of discovery, to be riveted to the screen, to have fun along with me. I've occasionally been told by readers that I made a subject they didn't find intrinsically interesting fun enough that they ended up enjoying the article anyway. In my experience, that's about the greatest compliment a writer can receive. I don't know that I'm worthy of it all the time, but I do try.

I'm neither an archivist nor a collector, although I depend on both. I'm rather trying to do history here. That means looking for connections within all those data points the archivists and collectors have amassed. It also means placing all that detail into a cultural context, looking at how -- to name a topic of an upcoming article -- the rise of Microprose Software, with their gung-ho military simulations and their flamboyant ex-fighter jock as President, coincided with the arrival of Tom Clancy on the bestseller racks and Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America." It means setting the early days of the British home computer in their historical context of economic and labor strife and Margaret Thatcher's determination to remake Britain on a new, conservative model. It means really examining that strange time in the mid-1980s when software was seen as a potential new form of literature to be sold alongside conventional books in book stores. It means looking thoughtfully at all of the processes that shaped gaming and, indeed, the world we live in today; one other almost accidental byproduct of the gaming history has turned out to be a reasonably comprehensive history of computer technology since the 1970s. And it means doing all that without neglecting the games themselves; I play everything about which I write, and tell you what I think about the experience. When a game is worthy of sustained critical attention, I'm not afraid to linger, using however many words are necessary to give it its due.

This project has always been a labor of love for me. I have a wonderful, patient wife who earns a lot more than I do as a doctor, but I do feel the need to kick in my modest share. For the last five years or so, since leaving the U.S. for Scandinavia, I've been doing that largely by taking programming and consulting work. However, I'd dearly love to be able to justify spending still more time on the blog. Thus this Patreon page. For me, anything you contribute means more time devoted to gaming history, less time to other things. For you, it means more and more comprehensive articles, published more often. It will also help me to defray the cost of my research, and, again, may allow more and better of same; there are for instance some historical archives in the U.S. that I'm itching to get my hands on, but I so far haven't quite been able to part with the cost of a trip from Europe. In the long term, I plan to rework the material on the blog into book form or something else that will long outlive me and hopefully remain an authority on this important historical era. Your contributions will, again, help a lot with that process.

If you're not familiar with my work, the best argument I can make for it is to ask you to visit my site and see for yourself. I like to believe the quality of the content there speaks for itself (he says, having just indulged in an extended plug). And if you're already a reader, thank you, and thank you again for considering becoming a supporter. Should you do so, you'll be billed whatever amount you decide -- $1 US, $2, $5, or whatever you feel is appropriate -- for every substantial article I publish. You can set an upper limit on your monthly contributions, in case I become madly prolific. Whether it's because you consider it important to preserve this history or just because you think it's fun to read, or both, I hope to see you on the inside!
Back in 2011, having just finished writing a book for the MIT Press, I started a blog to keep my hand in the writing game until the next big paying project came along. Some of my earliest posts chronicled an obsession I'd developed with the history of the edutainment classic The Oregon Trail. I ended up installing an emulator of an old room-filling institutional computer called the HP-2100 and networking with a group of old-timers who have collected dozens of tape images of HP-2100 systems that were installed in schools and businesses across the United States. I was hoping to find the original version of The Oregon Trail from 1971. I didn't succeed, having to settle for a slightly later version from circa 1975. I did, however, find a huge quantity of other early games, puzzles, and toys, the detritus of a now largely forgotten computing culture that predates the PC era. I was hooked on the thrill of writing history by immersing myself in the primary sources of the times. Almost accidentally, the blog changed from a personal outlet for my musings to what you see in the masthead of this page, "a comprehensive history of computer gaming."

Now, there are plenty of people writing about gaming history on the Internet. Whilst endeavoring not to disparage anyone -- fans have done an amazing job collecting and archiving information, and I depend on their efforts almost every day -- I'd like to tell you what makes my work a little bit different from the norm.

A few years ago Jason Mcintosh published a blog post that has always stuck with me. It described how gaming journalism desperately needs "an alternative to enthusiasm." The phrase leaped to mind again at a recent conference I attended, where a representative for a major publisher declared to an audience composed mostly of hopeful young would-be game developers that videogames are "the greatest art form ever invented." This sort of cheerleading is not terribly helpful to anyone. Gaming has spawned no Anna Karenina, no Hamlet, no Sgt. Pepper, no Lost in Translation. The computer has very rarely made us cry tears born of anything other than frustration. Oh, gaming can be awesome fun; I don't need to tell you that. And occasionally it's striven to be more, and even more occasionally achieved it. Over the past few decades gaming has had a huge cultural impact, far bigger in fact than most people who aren't gamers are aware of; I will, for instance, defend to my dying breath my assertion that Dungeons and Dragons has had far more impact on the pop culture of today than any book, song, or movie that's appeared since 1974. But let's keep things in perspective, and let's not be afraid to take the bad with the good as we do so. What, for instance, are we to make of the extreme violence that's still so endemic to so much of gaming, or the sexism that is sadly still a part of hardcore gamer culture? We don't know what gaming will become; that's part of the fun. Yet when looking deeply and critically at its past, as I try to do, we find an almost unbelievably rich tapestry of all the things that gaming has been, still is, and perhaps someday may be again. That should be more than enough. There's no need for hyperbole when the reality is so rich.

While I don't blame you if you're skeptical of credentials -- I am too, believe me -- I do think my background makes me almost uniquely qualified to be that alternative to enthusiasm, at least when it comes to the historical perspective. I have a B.A. in Literary Studies and an M.A. in something called "Aesthetic Studies," if you can believe that. My time at university taught me how to write, how to research, and how to do real history. It also taught me what separates a good from a bad critic, and even taught me something about the great works in all those other art forms. At the same time, I've worked for many years in various computer programming and system administration roles, and I was an adolescent hacker for years before that. Thus I understand the technologies about which I write and the constraints and affordances they placed upon the creators of which I write. I fancy I have a gift for explaining these things in everyday, understandable language.

I fancy also that I have a modest gift, which I've further developed through many years of effort, for writing in general. I hate academese as much as you do; a big factor in my deciding not to do a PhD was my realization that I just couldn't stand to write the way you have to for a thesis. I think the subjects of which I write are fascinating and important, and I want you to share the joy of discovery, to be riveted to the screen, to have fun along with me. I've occasionally been told by readers that I made a subject they didn't find intrinsically interesting fun enough that they ended up enjoying the article anyway. In my experience, that's about the greatest compliment a writer can receive. I don't know that I'm worthy of it all the time, but I do try.

I'm neither an archivist nor a collector, although I depend on both. I'm rather trying to do history here. That means looking for connections within all those data points the archivists and collectors have amassed. It also means placing all that detail into a cultural context, looking at how -- to name a topic of an upcoming article -- the rise of Microprose Software, with their gung-ho military simulations and their flamboyant ex-fighter jock as President, coincided with the arrival of Tom Clancy on the bestseller racks and Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America." It means setting the early days of the British home computer in their historical context of economic and labor strife and Margaret Thatcher's determination to remake Britain on a new, conservative model. It means really examining that strange time in the mid-1980s when software was seen as a potential new form of literature to be sold alongside conventional books in book stores. It means looking thoughtfully at all of the processes that shaped gaming and, indeed, the world we live in today; one other almost accidental byproduct of the gaming history has turned out to be a reasonably comprehensive history of computer technology since the 1970s. And it means doing all that without neglecting the games themselves; I play everything about which I write, and tell you what I think about the experience. When a game is worthy of sustained critical attention, I'm not afraid to linger, using however many words are necessary to give it its due.

This project has always been a labor of love for me. I have a wonderful, patient wife who earns a lot more than I do as a doctor, but I do feel the need to kick in my modest share. For the last five years or so, since leaving the U.S. for Scandinavia, I've been doing that largely by taking programming and consulting work. However, I'd dearly love to be able to justify spending still more time on the blog. Thus this Patreon page. For me, anything you contribute means more time devoted to gaming history, less time to other things. For you, it means more and more comprehensive articles, published more often. It will also help me to defray the cost of my research, and, again, may allow more and better of same; there are for instance some historical archives in the U.S. that I'm itching to get my hands on, but I so far haven't quite been able to part with the cost of a trip from Europe. In the long term, I plan to rework the material on the blog into book form or something else that will long outlive me and hopefully remain an authority on this important historical era. Your contributions will, again, help a lot with that process.

If you're not familiar with my work, the best argument I can make for it is to ask you to visit my site and see for yourself. I like to believe the quality of the content there speaks for itself (he says, having just indulged in an extended plug). And if you're already a reader, thank you, and thank you again for considering becoming a supporter. Should you do so, you'll be billed whatever amount you decide -- $1 US, $2, $5, or whatever you feel is appropriate -- for every substantial article I publish. You can set an upper limit on your monthly contributions, in case I become madly prolific. Whether it's because you consider it important to preserve this history or just because you think it's fun to read, or both, I hope to see you on the inside!

Recent posts by Jimmy Maher