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The History of Games Could Be a History of What Play Felt Like

Austin Walker (Waypoint)

What do we know about The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind? Assuming that the game’s credits are accurate, we know who made it. We know when it was released, how many copies it sold, and whether critics believed it was worth buying. We know how it functioned across various operating systems and game consoles. We have a catalog of mods that amateur designers, artists, and programmers made to transform the game in ways large and small.

But do we remember what it was like to emerge from the cramped prison ship onto the provincial shores of Seyda Neen in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind? Can we recall with accuracy our first impression of the tiered city of Vivec, its weathered cantons under the shadow of an asteroid held in place by the power of a self-made god? Where is the record of my first, resource-draining trip through the ash storms, or of the terrifying descent into the diseased laboratory of the Corprusarium?

No historical endeavor can be complete. With each inclusion and exclusion, the archivist reveals the unspoken priorities of the archives. With each focus chosen, the historian slides the academic apparatus toward a particular perspective. Like most choices, these are made not only according to the interest and biases of the scholar, but also the countless pressures and limits of the institutions, processes, technologies, and resources with which they work.

Which is why, if we are to begin the project of a widened history of games in earnest, we need to prioritize the archiving of contemporary, phenomenological, and anthropological records of play, such as blogs, journal and diary entries, let’s plays, forum posts, reaction videos, text messages, homemade maps and guides. Just as institutions like the Lesbian Herstory Archives or the Black Cultural Archives offer historians an archive of lived experience through a collection of artifacts and ephemera, the history of games should be eager to create a living library of play experience so that future historians can be aided in in their scholarship.

Why the urgency? While all historical work must contend with the drift of time, material, and memory, anecdotal accounts of play (recorded contemporaneously with the initial moments of play) bear the added pressures of being not only ephemera, but ephemera of an experience that is culturally coded to be disposable distraction.

Worse, though all recollections of lived experience are changed by the context of both event and recording, personal accounts of video-game play must contend with a special sort of mnemonic transformation. “The oceans of the original Myst in 1993 are completely flat and frozen, without any visual motion on them at all,” writes Andrew Hutchinson in his essay “Making the Water Move: Techno-Historic Limits in the Game Aesthetics of Myst and Doom.” “[They] look quite ridiculous now, compared to any of the subsequent versions. … However it is very important to note that they did not ‘look’ frozen in 1993.”1 Players who enjoyed the original Myst at the time of its release had not yet had their expectations shifted by the emergence of the 3D graphics technologies that would come to dominate the world of video games. In their experience, Myst lived in a way very few games had yet.

In some ways, the pursuit of this style of archive should be easier than ever, as the availability of primary play experiences is greater now than in any previous moment. Live streams and video-based let’s play content on Twitch, YouTube, and other platforms is widely available. Yet an archive that focuses solely on these platforms would need to contend with not only the performative aspect of these records, but also the curatorial biases of these popular services, which lead to the promotion of particular games, styles of play and performance, and player identity.

This is not to say that such an archive should retreat from the most mainstream of accounts. The creation and utilization of such an archive would allow historians to critically confront what many who play games refuse to: the regressive, hostile, and consumption-focused culture of contemporary digital play. In an era where the online radicalization of young men is a constant topic, games historians have the unique ability to drill into one of the key ways this happens with nuance and expertise.

More important, still, is that such an archive would be useful in disputing the mythical and monolithic identity of the “gamer,” providing access to perspectives that are actively overshadowed. It should be our task to interview players who have been pushed to the margins, yet whose perspectives are no less important in the construction of a history of games—from collectives of queer players, to guilds of color, and to those modders who make game hardware and software more accessible for disabled players.

This will be a heavy lift. With each goal listed, a dozen complications occur to any scholar who has worked in a related field. But this is and has always been the shape of the archive. We can take this solace, at least: from the docks of Seyda Neen, a continent lies in front of us, composed of countless sights and sounds, words and faces, scripted stories and surprise encounters. We have mapped Morrowind with vigor, and though such a background may not actually give us a methodological advantage, perhaps it predisposes us to take joy in the mapping.


1. ^ Andrew Hutchison, “Making the Water Move: Techno-Historic Limits in the Game Aesthetics of Myst and Doom,” Game Studies 8, no. 1 (September 2008),