The games industry crash of the early 1980s seemed to spell doom for dedicated gaming consoles in the United States, and confirm in peoples minds that video games were just a fad. However, as home computers continued to thrive in the United Kingdom, video games lived on as popular software for these new, pervasive machines. As magazines covering computing and video games circulated, they created and solidified the gaming discourse that has continued to evolve to this day. It was in the early 1980s computer magazines that the concept of gameplay was created, as well as negative stereotypes that haunt video game discussion today.
In the early 1980s computer magazines were printed in tandem with the sales of home computers in order to help new customers make sense of their novel machines. Video games first saw mention in these works in relation to the thousands of programmers who had begun creating games for their machines. This began the process of introducing gaming as an activity to a widespread audience through the creation and distribution of words, texts, and images pertaining to it.
The most prominent magazine talking about games was Computer and Video Games(CVC), which began in 1981. It covered arcade and computer games, as well as topics on computer hardware. At the forefront of video game discussion, the editors of the magazine struggled to discuss games because no previous discourse had been established. This made it necessary for them to invent their own vocabulary around game evaluation, thus solidifying it as its own cultural object. By evaluating games as distinct artifacts not defined by technology, they laid the groundwork for early video game dialogue.
The first attempts can be seen in CVC’s criteria used to review games. These points of reference were supposed to be all-encompasing, and able to be applied to any type of game. The points of reference they used were: Getting Started(how easy the game was to run and begin playing), Graphics(the visual fidelity of the game), Playability(How much fun it was to play), and Value(an evaluation on price). Playability is the most notable point of evolution, because it was the first attempt to measure the experience of the player separate from the technical or monetary aspects of the game. Adjectives employed in their analysis ranged from “balance” to “addictiveness”. This was the first step forward on the road to modern games criticism.
The exploration and enlargement of playability is what has ultimately led to the term gameplay. This is important because gameplay is the fundamental trait of video games that differentiate it from all other forms of media. At the same time, establishing the term gameplay effectively initiated an entirely new discourse within the culture. By 1985, the term had become ubiquitous in games criticism. Gameplay is now used as the underlying characteristic by which to measure a game’s value, and producers of games strive to create good gameplay. The word has fortified its position in games discussion because all other aspects of games are measured against it. No matter how pretty the graphics, compelling the story, or beautiful the music, a game will be passed over if it is without good gameplay.
While these early gaming magazines succeeded in creating a term that is responsible for crystalizing gaming discourse, they also contributed negative connotations to the word “gamer”. The term was also formed in the mid 1980s, and helped create an identity that those who played games could use to situate themselves in the larger gaming discussion. Gamers were those that were interested in playing games, not computing or technology, and held gameplay in higher esteem than graphics or story. Unfortunately, how magazines addressed and described gamers is what led to connotations of masculinity, childishness, and aggression that still linger.
It was the manner that editors addressed their readers that caused these connotations to arise. First, they would assume the ones reading were parents who had bought the computer, and were looking to buy games for their children. This is apparent when they would describe games as “fun for the whole family”, or “good for youngsters”. Additionally, the visual layout and design of the magazines modeled themselves after boys comics. Furthermore, the magazines alienated older people by calling them names like “old sods” or describing games as ones “that only your mom or dad would play”. Magazine text also frequently disregarded female players. In aggressively alienating certain groups in order to establish a more distinct, gamer identity, video game magazines set up negative norms that still linger around the medium.
Ultimately, the early 1980s can be attributed with creating a whole new discourse around gaming, allowing it to become culturally distinct. Yet, they simultaneously created a description of gamers as young, male, and aggressive that has now rooted itself deeply into the general perception of video games. In order to dispel these assumptions while also creating better, more detailed analysis of gameplay, coverage of the medium needs to continue to be more inclusive of their broad audience and more scrutinizing of gameplay.
This article draws from the work of Graeme Kirkpatrick in his book Computer Games and the Social Imaginary, more specifically chapter 3.