Espen Aarseth

Editor-in-Chief, Game Studies.

Game History: A special issue

by Espen Aarseth

This issue of Game Studies is a special one: The focus is on the history of games. The five articles were among the papers presented at the first international conference on the History of Games held this June in Montreal, and organized by Carl Therien, Raiford Guins, Henry Lowood, and Espen Aarseth, a single-track event with keynotes by Stephen Kline, Melanie Swalwell, and Henry Lowood, and with more than thirty papers and presentations in total. Among the most important topics raised at the conference was the critical issue of game development preservation, especially in light of the game industry’s less than preservative practices when it comes to their own archives. The success of the conference will not be assessed here, but it did demonstrate a clear need for such an event, probably on a regular basis, and this will be followed up already next year.

There is a very common trope in game research (especially in student papers) that goes like this: “almost nothing has been done in area X”, where X happens to be the author’s own topic. This trope is a dangerous one, since it tends to reveal not the author’s originality but instead their lack of both curiosity and scholarship. It is doubly dangerous when it comes to the topic of history of games, where much has been written and published over the years. What has been lacking is not the writing of game history, but the institutionalization of the study of computer game history in the shape of enduring structures: archives, museums, journals, conferences and international networks. Luckily, more and more of these structures now exist.

A part of the explanation for this can be the relative lack of professional historians engaged in the writing of this history. Given the inestimable importance of games for the history of technology and computing, it is a true wonder that so little attention has been given to games from these subfields. Games as conceptual systems (e.g. Chess) and the escalating technological needs of game development have been among the strongest drivers of computer-technological evolution since the beginning, and many insights and innovations that now form the basis of current platforms started out as game projects. Take Unix; probably the most influential and important operating system of all time got its start in 1969 because Ken Thompson needed a dedicated machine to develop his Space Travel game (see Ritchie 1998). And in the late 70s and early 80s, games (and not database programs that would keep tab of the content in your freezer) was the killer app that brought computers to the masses. In the early 90s, MYST did the same for CD-ROMs, and Quake, a few years later, for 3D graphics acceleration cards.

But, consult the most respected works on the history of computing, barring the odd mention of SpaceWar, this fundamental connection is not explored.

After more than a decade of institutialisation of the still largely premature field of game studies, it seems that we have entered a phase of specialization and formation of sub-fields, the history of computer games among them. In addition to general and/or regional conferences we now have topical ones, such as (for more than half a decade) The Philosophy of Computer Games, and from 2013, Games and Literary Theory. Hopefully, these specializations will also promote better scholarship and more diligent reviewing practices, leading to a higher level of scholarly quality. This is, in the end, the only way to win respect for game studies as a research field among other research fields.


Ritchie, Dennis (1998). “Space Travel: Exploring the solar system and the PDP-7”. accessed 31/12/2013.

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