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Vol 1 No 1 (July 2019)

Introducing ROMchip

What Could the History of Games Be?

Laine Nooney New York University Raiford Guins Indiana University Henry Lowood Stanford University

We first became motivated to create ROMchip: A Journal of Game Histories in 2015, at the Society for the History of Technology’s annual conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Raiford and Henry, two of ROMchip’s three cofounding editors, participated in a roundtable session entitled “History of Video Games as History of Technology?” During the discussion that ensued, an audience member asked the panel a simple question: “Can you recommend a critical book on the history of games?” The panelists stared at one another. At the ceiling. And at the floor. Silence prevailed. In that moment, panelists could not conjure the name of a single title.

With a bit of distance, there are works that might have sprung to mind: Stephen Klein, Nick Dyer-Witheford, and Greig de Peuter’s Digital Play; Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter’s Games of Empire, which has its historical moments; several books in MIT’s newly minted Platform Studies series; Mark J. P. Wolf’s edited collection Before the Crash; and Carly A. Kocurek’s Coin-Operated Americans, perhaps the first archivally driven historical monograph in the field, which was out that very year. Yet the core problem facing the critical historical study of video games—perhaps electronic and nonelectronic games generally—was apparent in that clumsy, awkward moment opened by a single question: despite interests circulating across game studies, the history of technology, and other disciplines, there was hardly anything that constituted video game history as a field.

Since that time numerous books, articles, themed issues of journals, conferences and conference panels, documentaries, and museum exhibitions devoted to the history of games have appeared. The growth of this ever-expanding bibliography attests to increasing scholarly and nonscholarly interest in taking the historical study of games much more seriously. These events, writings, and collections are asking important questions: What types of histories are being written? Whose history is being accounted for as well as not being accounted for? What constitutes the history of games, that is, what is a history of games a history of? Is the history of games part of general historical studies or a subconcentration within game studies, history of technology, or some other field of study? And which research methods, collections, documents, traditional and nontraditional archives are being employed to dig deeper into the complex historical phenomena?

Being around a scholarly field in formation is a heady moment, and one that carries more questions than answers. ROMchip aims to be a platform where diverse historical questions about games can be explored vigorously across fields of study, research methods, materials, regions, and identities, by academic and nonacademic contributors alike. In conceiving of this platform for the advancement of critical historical studies of games, we adopted the tagline, “ROMchip is where the history of games is taken seriously.” How can we make good on such a bold claim in our inaugural issue?

Like that anonymous conference attendee’s question in 2015, we too have just one question to ask in this first issue: what could the history of games be? We chose the word could to call upon possibilities, suggestions, innovation, advice, and perchance polemics and practices for constructing more meaningful, rigorously researched, and dynamic histories of games. For us it is neither a matter of continuing to bemoan all of those “in the beginning,” “from—to,” or “ultimate” historical narratives, nor an attempt to redefine the subject matter, but rather an invitation to ponder what else the history of games can become.

Our first issue launches with an assortment of short responses to this singular provocation. We’ve gathered answers from a mix of established and emergent writers, across historical and theoretical fields, across industries, and across intellectual commitments. Their answers appraise readers of what game history could be: foremost, it cannot be neatly untangled from broader social, cultural, economic, and political contexts; it is not found only in documents and objects but also in histories of actions and orientations; it is feminist, Black, queer, and Indigenous; it depends upon creative labor between academic and amateur historians; it is a curatorial enterprise that stretches beyond aesthetics, formalism, and technological aspects of games; as a field of study, it can comprise both areas of history in games as well as history of games; it generates new metaphors, archives, and methods; it is not based solely in research labs and game companies but in the everyday.

And even within this wide stretch of responses, gaps remain. Histories of nonwestern nations and cultures remain chronically underexamined within game history, despite the long-standing prominence of Japan and Korea, and to say nothing of the twenty-first-century emergence of game industries within Latin and South America, West Africa, the Middle East, India, Southeast Asia, and most prominently, China. While game history of the past fifty years has been dominated by the creations and exports running along a Japanese–American–European axis, economic trends in the industry clearly indicate that gaming’s future will not look like its past. If one of the benefits of studying games, and digital games in particular, is that their swiftly changing character allows us to bend traditional demands for historical distance in the creation of research projects, then we should recognize that the massive industry changes in distribution and globalization that mark this century are worthy of our historical attention now. The point of game history should not be to further sketch games as a singular object of analysis but to analyze and document the ways they are bound up in other forms of social, technological, economic, and political life. As ROMchip moves forward, we do so with a demand that we relentlessly interrogate the limitations of what we think game history is, should be, or could be.

After reflecting on this question, its array of responses, and its conceptual absences, we have determined that action is required from all invested parties. Beyond being a home for academic journal articles, ROMchip also features two other sections, Interviews and Materials; both of these sections are designed to support critical contributions from journalists, enthusiasts, and developers as well as graduate students, independent scholars, and full-time academic researchers. In this issue, you will see models of that work, including oral histories with Tom Kalinske and Alan Meades, as well as close readings of historic board games like Suffragetto, Xeno, and Galaxy. In every forthcoming issue, our Interviews and Materials sections will serve as complements to the traditional peer-reviewed articles you will expect to find here.

So, keep that browser tab open, dig in, and spread the word. ROMchip is here, and we think there’s a lot of history to look forward to.