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Vol 1 No 1 (July 2019)

Outside of the Folder, the Box, the Archive

Moving toward a Reparative Video Game History

Whitney Pow Northwestern University

I feel a strange kind of loss when I look through Danielle Bunten Berry’s archive in the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. Bunten was a luminary. She reached toward a future for multiplayer games decades ahead of her time. Her games were first and foremost built for multiplayer, like Modem Wars (1988) for MS-DOS, which many consider to be the first commercial video game to link multiple computers through a dial-up connection for real-time online play. In her work, Bunten destabilized an entire industry focused on single-player as the norm, imagining the future of video games not as a lone experience, but a dynamic and what she called an “orientation”: something that moves people toward each other.1

In the archive, there are many boxes filled with files and stacks of papers. All of these things have been saved, and yet I struggle to piece together a full and complete person in the documents that other people have assembled. I find flashes of her occasionally, when I turn a page, or open a folder: in her tight and looped handwriting, there is a moment where Bunten writes about her day and her experience being misgendered by a postal worker, saved because it is on the same page as her last will and testament. A moment where Bunten writes about the process of disclosing her transgender identity to hospital staff. It is in these fleeting moments that I find her, and I imagine how she animated these documents and set them in motion. I try to imagine her as a set of verbs that did and saw and felt, rather than a carefully curated set of facts and documents, sitting motionless in a folder, in a box, in an archive.

I recently heard Bunten’s voice for the first time in a digitized cassette recording of a talk she gave at the Computers Game Developers’ Conference (now known as GDC) in 1998. In it, she is full of actions and verbs, and she moves me: her voice is hoarse; she takes short breaths; her talk is interspersed with coughs. She has a markedly southern accent. She occasionally uses the word ain’t. She talks candidly about her pronoun change. She makes jokes to Sid Meier and other game developer friends in the audience.

After so much time searching for her, for the first time, I can hear her. She presents herself with absolute certainty. She talks about the possible future of online multiplayer games, predicting the multibillion-dollar industry we know today. She predicts iterative development in games, where developers can update and make tweaks to their games after release. She predicts that games will turn away from one-time-only game purchases and move toward in-game advertising and payments in small increments, which we can see now in massively multiplayer online games and subscription services. She criticizes single-player games for their inability to fully embrace the complexity of imperfect, heuristic rule systems that humans “so love and computers suck so bad at.”

In her talk, she animates herself. She sets into motion all of the objects and documents I’ve encountered in her archive. I see her, for the first time, as a self-guided movement, a whirlwind. She speaks pointedly about actions: our “orientations” toward computers, and the dynamics, processes that animate us when we play games. She talks about possibilities that propel the future of games forward, looking toward a great and impossibly vast future for multiplayer games, full of potential. This talk was given in May 1998. When she finishes speaking, she thanks the audience and takes the microphone off. The recording ends. Bunten passed away from lung cancer two months later, in July of that year. This is likely the last recording we have of her. When I finish the recording, it is like saying good-bye for the last time.

In my work, I locate Bunten as a force: as the site of this turn toward digital sociality in multiplayer online games. I locate her as the action, the movement, and the locus of the orientations she advocates for in her belief in what multiplayer could be. Throughout her work, in games like Modem Wars and M.U.L.E. (1983), I imagine her turning, acting, and moving, and asking us to move and turn with her, to see things differently—to see this future she imagined for us in our everyday actions with games today.

By refocusing histories of video games on actions and orientations, we can locate her, not as an object of history, but as action, full and fluid and complete. If we recognize that our orientations toward computers are something that have a history, we might be able to celebrate Bunten every time we engage with a computer or play an online multiplayer game, rather than struggle to find her in the static documents and files and folders that happen to be saved in the archive. In acknowledging the limitations of the archive and how it can carefully regiment what is kept and what is lost, we can locate our queer and trans elders in places we might not expect: in the actions we perform, in the possibilities they imbue into our networked interactions with games. If we destabilize video game history’s focus on objects and documents and rethink video game history as histories of actions and interactions, we might be able to reframe online multiplayer as a celebration of queer and trans life and the women like Bunten who pioneered it.

What could the history of games be? It could be reparative. It could acknowledge the loss inherent to the archive and the archival processes that have been historically used to foreclose the futures and histories of marginalized people. It could decentralize objects and allow us to read queer and trans life in more places than just what is represented or saved for us: in the actions and orientations that permeate all of our modes of understanding and interacting with technology. The act of writing video game history gives us the possibility of reading history as something alive that churns, sets in motion, breathes life into, and animates the documents that have been saved (and those that have been lost), displacing the records that have come to stand in for the people they are attached to. It gives us the possibility of locating queer and trans life in histories of technology as a genealogy. Instead of an incongruous dot in the time line, without a past, and without a future, we might find a continuous line across time where queer and trans people have always been: seeing, feeling, acting, and moving us forward.

Footnotes

1. ^ Danielle Bunten Berry, “Imaginary Playmates in Real-Time or Why Online Games Suck” (speech, Computer Game Developers Conference, Santa Clara, California, April 1997).