Old Paradigms and a Podcast

This post is an extension of my previous entry on financial games, not because it deals wholly with that section of early gaming, but instead that it highlights a certain perspective that I feel modern games have not adequately addressed; the potential for the medium to inform and shape general perceptions of both complex real world systems, and historical events.  I'm aware there are many games that currently deal with both of these concepts, but I have been continually struck by the large range of subject matter present in software from the collection and the utter lack of similar focus in the modern game-scape.  The items presented below will hopefully highlight what may be considered a spurious claim, that certain uses of games as communicative devices (both as vessels for history and relevant social issues) have fallen by the wayside in popular game culture.

While a bit polemical, this presentation is meant more as an illumination of past ideas than an indictment of the present. There are many, many people working on serious games, games that focus on social injustice, games that try to discuss odd or irreverent topics, and games that challenge basic conceptions of reality.  But there is a certain vibrancy in the titles that I look through, and a direct willingness to try out very specific ideas or game concepts that I think would be well remembered and helpful to current game generation and development.  There are two mildly divergent strains of games below, the first deals with software representing difficult historical events, and the second with some notable and some relatively unknown titles focused on subjects that I believe have no current analogs. (I believe this last statement probably has many caveats, and hope for the collective enlightenment of the 'net in potentially flaming corrections).

The first title has, like many here, a lack of historical framing except for its existence.  After searching, the only information I found was a reference to its "unlucky" naming in a Gamasutra article discussing its designer William Volk. I don't know if "unluckily named" fully conveys the title's weight, given its release slightly before the event.


"So Take The Challenge If You Dare"

Obviously the result of tragic timing, the game "Mac Challenger" is a space shuttle simulator named after the space shuttle Challenger, which exploded shortly after launch on January 28, 1986.  The box came with an affixed sticker offering a percentage donation to the children's fund of the deceased astronauts.  This piece struck me as a presenting a peculiar mode for the simulation genre, that of altering tragic historical events and effectively succeeding where history failed.  Rhetoric on the back of the box is pretty standard for the time period, but takes on a rather horrific subtext because of its pertinence to a recent disaster.  Players are enticed to "bring the shuttle Challenger back through the Earth's atmosphere", an act now impossible due to current reality and positively audacious in respect to the tragedy.  But the framing of the simulation's challenges, intended to encourage participation and purchase of the game, continue on down the box.

"This simulator is no toy. It moves like the real thing and the desert floor is only seconds away!...So take the challenge if you dare!"

The player is not only encouraged to take up the reins of history, but explicitly dared and called up to peculiar task, that of rewriting death and despair into the successful, positive completion of a simulation.  I know that the intent of the game was probably innocuous. Many space shuttle simulators were released at the time, all dealing more or less with the same objectives; basically just going up and coming down safely.  But I feel this title resonates in a fashion that most games could not or would attempt to nowadays (though this example is predominantly an instance of timing rather than intent.) I don't know if this is a good direction for games to take, but righting the wrongs of history is an intriguing prospect and perhaps a good platform for discussion and coping.  Encapsulating a historical event within a controlled environment provides a mediation of the happening, and a nudge towards deeper understanding and empathy.



Following this trend, and segueing to next, is Muse Software's 1980 release "Three Mile Island", a nuclear reactor simulator named for the notorious power plant in Londonberry Township, Pennsylvania.  In the previous year, the plant had experienced a partial meltdown of a reactor resulting in the "worst civilian nuclear accident in United States history" and generating a significant backlash against the implementation of nuclear power in the US.  Apparently this setting provided another stage for a player directed diremption of idealized and actual history. Placed in the role of the plant's general manager, players were tasked with control of "the valves, pumps, filters and turbines to keep the pressurized reactor functioning" and challenged to understand, "the most powerful method of energy generation" known to humanity.  Success is measured again by, implicitly, NOT repeating the disaster which had struck fear into the  American psyche.   Although seemingly primitive, the game's focus on the myriad facets of plant management, from maintenance to budgeting to implementation, aimed to enlighten the user to the realities of plant operation and instill an agency often lacking in media presentation of events. One was not passively watching an event, but engaged in diverting tragedy to triumph, all within a decidedly educational framework.  While the actual playability and effectiveness of the title remain a mystery, the intent is worth reiterating, learn from this event through re-imagination and professionalization in hope of gaining new perspective and understanding.

Three Mile Island was not a singular instance of power infrastructure simulation, the following year Atari released, "SCRAM (A Nuclear Power Plant Simulation)" for the Atari 400/800 personal computers. I'll let the close up of the packaging describe the perceived experience.

(After doing some research, I discovered that this title and the next two were designed by Chris Crawford; the designer responsible for "Balance of Power", the beginnings of the Game Developer's Conference, and an early proponent of games as an "art form". I picked these next two games without realizing that they were his first two releases for the Atari PC.  Crawford's opinions also appeared in the Journal of Computer Game Design beginning in the late 80s (link to them here).  A good read considering that you will find a desire to create exactly the sort of games I'm highlighting in this post, and calls for, as yet, still unexplored game design paradigms. Anyway, back to the post.)

The term SCRAM is (thank you Wikipedia) a backronym for "Safety Control Rod Axe Man". Back in the day, the control rods necessary for the cession of a nuclear fission reaction were literally dropped in after an operator cut the ropes holding them with an axe.  Man's ability to play with things on a catastrophic level never ceases to amaze.  Anyway, avoiding tangent, this game places the player on the inevitable brink of nuclear disaster, asking them to hold out for as long as possible before scramming the core.  The description positions the game as a "qualifying exam" in plant operations; one wonders how close it is to the actual process of managing a plant via computer terminal or how often such an exam ends in failure. Though less historicizing, the idea of simulating complex and politically current scenarios is not very prevalent in modern gaming.  Whether through a lack of marketability or the belief that games focused on specialized, inherently complicated material do not warrant large budgets, many simulation scenarios faded away after the nascence (and perhaps naivety) of the gaming sector wore off.

Another title in Atari's line of relevant simulation games was "Energy Czar", which tasked the player with manipulating energy subsidies, taxation, and the other aspects listed above.  Apparently winning was based on a public opinion poll, which brings up the issue of the type of policies promoted by the software.  Did going green and cleaning up pollution save the day? Or did everyone just want kickbacks from oil companies? Given the complex political realities of the day, I wonder how partisanship mapped onto expectations of the player's action.  Maybe you had to please your specific constituency and let the rest sort it out.  I think I'm reading too much into this title's potential.  My main point is that you can keep coming up with expectations and possible pivots for a game about energy policy and regulation. Real world issues can definitely make for intellectually compelling and potentially affective games. 

Above is the 1990 simulation "Balance of the Planet", an extensive and rather deep game that forced the player to think about humanity's influence on the environment. This may be the most fleshed out simulator in this post, considering it contained over one hundred interdependent metrics representing different aspects of human-nature interaction. It seems odd  in the new age of "sustainability" and "green" that few games seem to focus on those issues or try to confront them with a more robust approach.

The next few examples point towards certain ideas I felt to be particularly intriguing; indicative of attempts to make sense of specific, yet complex, subject matter.

Coincidentally also designed by William Volk, Controller is one of many simulations created by the Microcomputer Games Division of Avalon Hill board games. While many of their games were based on computer renderings of physical board games, I'm unable to find out if this title shares a similar origin (ed: it does not - William Volk).  The covers of the Avalon Hill games are predominantly stellar, the large boxes standing out amongst many smaller and less intricate designs.  Controller puts the player in charge of commanding air traffic control, causing the player to "take the lives of hundreds of passengers" into their hands. Quite heavy for a simulation box cover.


Next up is Broderbund's 1982 arcade style take on genetic drift. So yes, even arcade shooters can present a simplified whiff of evolutionary theory, and benefit from specific scientific concepts.  While the implementation of genetic drift inside the game space seems rather dubious, relying heavily on blasting, I feel the title heart is in the right place.  The cover is a bit pessimistic. Unless, of course, the man in the chair is using the game to visualize his ideal self, then the cover is also depressing.  Along these lines is a more modern game, and by "modern" I mean a 1990 release for the Sega Genesis.


I inserted this here because it used a similar motif for its expression of the game's primary goal. Plus it situated the game's narrative in an interesting socio-economic condition.  By presenting an interpretation of the American dream, pulling oneself up by the boot straps and acquiring, "a brand new sports car...and the girl" (an off-putting equivalency), this game instantiates a working class struggle for wealth as gameplay motivation.  The game represents another area not usually mined for ideas, everyday labor and realistic goal structures. How many games are directed at portraying the reality and possible entertainment inherent to seemingly routine daily activities? The Sims?

The last game is Epidemic! an early Strategic Simulations title tasking the player with containing the spread of a deadly disease.  Accompanying the game disk was the shown insert, outlining the success of various methods for dealing with the outbreak, including strategic nuclear strikes as a cession control technique, and martial law as a advisable option.  Failure results from allowing too many civilian deaths, again, a rather negative reward structure for a game; success being dictated by the limiting of devastation.

Aside from the titles above, there are always more coming through the office that reveal the try-anything attitude of the time period.  I feel that a good deal of these represent entries in conceptually unexplored genres, and highlight games' abilities to present potentially tragic, or socially mindful commentary about experience out in the world. 


I was recently interviewed by PALGN for their weekly podcast. Revel in my odd speech patterns and lack of knowledge!

Text:  http://www.palgn.com.au/article.php?id=13183

Audio: http://palgn.com.au/article.php?id=13091

As a little addendum, Stephen Cabrinety began the collection with the intention of creating a museum/library to house all the artifacts.  He was a driven collector with a definite purpose behind the acquisitions, not the spoiled son of a rich computer executive (as I think it may have come across).


I got such a kick seeing

I got such a kick seeing these games and reading this article. If only we were able to somehow right the wrongs of the past. Making it possible through a game is essentially what the purpose of games are really for...playing. Thanks for sharing this article, it was a fun one to read.

What a magnificent blast from

What a magnificent blast from the past, thank you so much! That Mac Challenger game has to take the all-time award for Most Inappropriate Use of National Tragedy in a Game.

I was intrigued by the games about energy resources, since that's the focus of our work at IDT Energy. I agree wholeheartedly with your assertion that "real world issues can definitely make for intellectually compelling and potentially affective games" and you've got me thinking about how we might use such a game in our work.

But of course, any such games would have to have those fantastic retro graphics if they're going to satisfy my gaming urges.

Mac Challenger was created

Mac Challenger was created and released BEFORE the disaster. The sticker was placed on the boxes afterwards. Game was pulled off the market soon after. Controller was not based on a board game. Here's a link to a screen image: http://ekranownia.atari8.info/grafika/ekrany/gry/c/controller_1.png Kicking myself for not recreating this for the iPhone, given the success of "Flight Control." William Volk

I'm gratified that you've

I'm gratified that you've come across this post, I haven't been keeping up with comments (such a busy world).  I just posted about Avalon-Hill's computer games, and then realized that most were not based on board games. I'll note it in the edit here, thanks for the info and screenshot!

MacChallenger was a joy to

MacChallenger was a joy to develop. William Volk poured himself into the project, as he did with anything he was attached to. Bill was - and is, one of those people who is, "in it to win it." The obstacles of the time relative to rendering, screen refresh, memory, etc. were all issues that Bill wanted to beat. The packaging and marketing was similarly pursued. John Skeel, who was involved in the content, focused on the fact that our team believed this sim was going to be different than any other that was in the market. And, unlike any other flight sim, this was based on making decisions - and so the wording evolved. I worked with NASA photographs and support to create the packaging. And the best drama related to a shuttle launch is lift-off. The development, timing, and cohesion of the team was an effort I'll not forget. More importantly, I will never forget all of us standing in our office, watching the television, listening to the narrative, as Challenger fell into the sea off Florida. The game had been out for only a month, and initial reviews were very positive. Mr. Skeel, really terrific at taking difficult situations and making them workable, dove into the process of reworking the packaging. Michelle Mehterian had a lot of work to do relative to explaining the game (after the tragedy), but was successful in getting additional strong reviews. It was temporarily successful, but ultimately, perhaps a bit too much for the time. If the game had been developed a year later, we might have been able to rename it for a different shuttle, but by then, we were heavily into other games, computer-based CAD, and animation and paint software development. Your blog entry is powerful, because it focuses on key issues that every gamer should be thinking about. It's not just about what you like. It's about enticing people to check you and your game out. To show up for the party. Thanks for bringing some powerful memories to light. David Barrett Former CEO of Aegis Development, Inc. Co-founder with William Volk, John Skeel, and Michelle Mehterian. davidb@rcomcreative.com

Wow, I stumbled upon this

Wow, I stumbled upon this looking for a online image of the Challenger Box. It's nice to see TWO of my games featured. Funny thing is, I recently did the concept for an iPhone game called "Bailout Bonanza" which is a story in itself: huffingtonpost.com/william-volk/farting-permitted-politic_b_186008.html Thank you, William Volk

I have several games like

I have several games like these in my garage I think. I will have to go see if I can dig them out and let you know if I found them. If you have any interest in them you can let me know on the contact form on my blog over at http://don-jones.com

In popular gaming culture

In popular gaming culture (and console gaming in particular), I absolutely agree with your assertion that these sorts of "real world" games have fallen by the wayside. I think this is mainly due to the rising cost of game development, which has tended to push out niche titles in favor of summer blockbusters. But I don't think these games ever truly disappeared. They have have found a home in other cultures (see the popularity of the Densha De Go! train simulation series in Japan), in specialized applications (see the recent New Yorker article on helping soldiers deal with PTSD), or in web-based games. In fact, with the advent of digital distribution and web-based games, I think we're going to see a resurgence of more "personal" games, created by a lone developer or in small teams with low production costs, addressing the same sorts of themes the games in this post did 20 years ago. Recently a number of these games have appeared, some in poor taste (a flash game based on the Hudson River plane crash, numerous games on the web and the iPhone recreating George W. Bush's shoe-throwing incident), some in jest (a recreation of the infamous "Desert Bus" sequence from the never-released Penn and Teller Sega CD game), some with higher ambitions (see this New York Times article on Games for Change dealing with issues like the Gaza conflict, Darfur, and world hunger), and some just for fun (see the recent Nintendo DS release Air Traffic Chaos).

In short, while it's doubtful the next Halo will introduce any weighty themes like world hunger, I do see these issues being addressed in a growing number of independent games. And, if any of these games catch on with the general public, I wouldn't be surprised to see the bigger game studios develop "prestige games" in the same way Hollywood does with movies.

~Brett Bates

That's a terrific comment!

That's a terrific comment! And a terrific post as well of couse...