Today in Tedium: Video games during the “Golden Age” of arcades in the boom years of the early 1980s attracted much popular attention but little serious scholarship. After all, gaming was just a fad, right? Thankfully, two university professors, Geoffrey and Elizabeth Loftus, thought the medium worthy of a book-length analysis. Published in 1983, Mind at Play: The Psychology of Video Games is an invaluable primary source on gaming’s early days—and it offers broader lessons on what things were like just before the “crash” changed things forever. Join us as we use the book to examine what’s changed and what hasn’t in gaming culture. — Michael @ Tedium
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Before they figured it out
I love learning about the early years of new media. It’s fascinating to look back on what norms and genres popular in the early days of newspapers, movies, TV, etc. did not make it out of the medium’s infancy.
This period of video game history has a special allure to me because I grew up during part of it. I enjoy reading about out-there games I missed in my youth like ones where you play as an anthropomorphic bubble wading around a kitchen sink or a mutant camel. And as someone with a more-than-passing interest in social and consuming history (what, you didn’t read a book on the history of Gum Arabic?) I relish details about how early gaming shaped and was shaped by the society of the time.
For someone looking for a serious analysis of gaming from this era, there aren’t a lot of options. Most dedicated books and magazines of the time were either focused on “how to beat the video games,” or pitched at kids. Martin Amis, now a famous British novelist, did write an extended essay on his “video game addiction” titled Invasion of the Space Invaders that provides both a gonzo analysis of arcade culture and some tips on playing Donkey Kong. And the culture of gaming is also briefly touched on in Frederick Warne’s short book Screen Play: The Story of Video Games, although the book is mainly an industry history.
But the most sober analysis of videogaming and its cultural reception surely has to be Mind at Play: The Psychology of Video Games. It was co-written by two then-married university professors, Geoffrey and Elizabeth Loftus. Both had done and continued to do research on memory. In a recent interview with me, Geoffrey described Mind at Play as a “fun one-off” project building on his time as a programmer at Honeywell that was released “pretty much on the day of the video game crash” of 1983. That may explain why so few other scholarly books followed for quite some time.
What do we learn about early gaming culture by reading this book? As one would expect, much has changed in the four decades since it was written.
We take for granted that gaming and computing more generally are available practically anywhere. This was not the case during the first gaming boom. An intriguing section of Mind at Play highlights how Pong machines placed in airports were some of the first computers many adults interacted with:
“Pong’s second distinction was that it somehow acquired an immediate, broad social acceptance. It suddenly appeared in all sorts of places—in cocktail lounges, train stations, airliners—when no one would dream of putting either pinball or the death and destruction games… The older games, which used heavy mechanical parts, were large and difficult to transport (and were certainly not welcome in places like airplanes where size and weight are at a premium.)”
As the book goes on to mention, airplanes themselves were soon colonized with Pong clones. Well before the days of the Nintendo Gateway system, an initiative at Braniff International Airlines (you may know them from South Park) placed a version of Home Pong on planes.
Missile Command’s infamous game over screen. (Note: there is some Pokémon-style flashing colors on this screen, so an epilepsy warning.
Shoot-em-down and kill people games
Passing references in Mind at Play remind us that gaming genres had not yet been codified. Donkey Kong is described as a “saving-people game” (and is unironically referred to as a King Kong game, something Universal’s lawyers would famously challenge.) Frogger, despite having no people in it, is also a “saving-people game.” Space Invaders and Galaxian are described as “shoot-’em-down” games, which, when you think about it, makes more sense than the term “shoot-‘em-up.”
(For another amusing look into early gaming genres, see Kate Willaert’s great article about the Arkies, the world’s first video game awards. Eccentric categories included “Best Pong Variant” and “Best Solitaire Game.” “Solitaire” in this context meaning “single player” and not the card game.)
The book was written before certain game history “truisms” developed. For instance, most modern readings of arcade classic Missile Command treat it as a warning of the horrors of nuclear war. The game notoriously ends not with a “Game Over” screen but with the much more ominous “The End” after your cities have all been destroyed.
But not everyone viewed Missile Command in this way. The book pointed me to a 1982 article by eminent psychologist Carl Rogers in the journal of the American Psychological Review (not exactly Nintendo Power). For Rogers, the very act of putting nuclear war into a video game means that “we are making nuclear war thinkable by treating it as though it were just a game.”
Rogers’ critique also hints at the still-contentious connection between video games and violence. Philip Zimbardo, who ran the notorious and now disgraced Stanford Prison Experiment, is quoted in the book as saying that video games may be so addictive that they promote violence among players.
The Loftuses take a measured approach, calling for more research on the effects of “kill people” games like Death Race. They point out that many other mediums have faced moral panics about violence.
For instance, movies have also been linked to violence. The Loftuses use an example of a murder outside my local suburban movie theater that followed a screening of the The Warriors. Researching this incident, I learned it wasn’t even the only murder outside this theater! (Although in the second case, the killing followed a screening of the notably less-violent The Lion King.)
Violence and warfare also feature in one of the most curious tangents in the book—the idea making the rounds that video game mastery may lead to a future of joystick-wielding super soldiers.
“We believe that each man’s obsession with playing Space Invaders was a means of handling his anger over the recent commitment to marriage. The disintegration of invading aliens who were trying to overrun the ’home base’ took on symbolic significance. In addition, because the player is ultimately defeated, the guilt over expressing this anger is relieved.”
— Donald R. Ross, Douglas H. Finestone and Gordon K. Lavin, researchers at the Duke University medical center, in a passage from a letter published in the prestigious Journal of American Medical Association. The letter describes three men that started playing more and more Space Invaders prior to their wedding. The authors assert that the men’s obsession stemmed from a Freudian desire to “defend a home base,” i.e. their bachelor lifestyle. It’s curious that the three men were reported to all be playing Space Invaders. At the time of this letter, Space Invaders would have been several years old. I was initially inclined to believe that “Space Invaders” was being used as a generic term for gaming much like “playing Nintendo” would be later in the decade.
Bradley Trainer, the special military version of Battlezone.
The Special Zapper Force fights World War VII
In the chapter “Learning from the Screen,” Mind at Play quotes at length from a hyperbolic column by Art Hoppe in the San Francisco Chronicle. Hoppe was inspired by a report that the US Army was using video games to train troops. The column imagines a “World War VII” on the “US Space Station Dreadnought” where video jockeys trained at the “prestigious Institute of Astrophysics and Video Arcade” annihilate Russian satellites.
Around this time, the Army was in fact commissioning Atari to develop a military simulator version of their popular arcade game Battlezone (much to the opposition of the ex-Hippies at Atari). And simulators and serious games are increasingly used in a variety of industries, including to train self-driving cars. Some military contractors have even moved to using literal video game controllers because that’s what their operators are most familiar with.
But the notion that video game mastery unlocks superhuman hand-eye coordination skills has clearly receded since the writing of Mind at Play. My sense is that this idea was in part driven by the hype around computing in general. During this period, there was an intense push for computer literacy even if most people couldn’t articulate a reason for it apart from “computers are the future.” Much like machine learning today, there was a mystique around computing that in some ways overpromised its potential.
The percentage of computer science degrees awarded to women at American universities in 1985. By 2010, this number had plummeted to 18%. As Jane Margolis has argued, the gendering of video games and computing was a major contributor to this decline.
The gendered gateway to computer literacy
Computing has been a male-dominated field for so long it’s easy to forget this was not always the case. Until the 1980s, the field had considerably more gender parity.
There were many factors that changed computing and programming to the boy’s club it became by the 1990s. Mar Hicks, for instance, demonstrates deliberate government policies in the UK that drove women out of the field and squandered the country’s computing advantage coming out of World War II.
But one of the most important causes for the steep drop in women computer science majors is one that’s presciently called out in Mind at Play: Gaming was the steppingstone to computer literacy. A desire to make games pushed many gamers to learn how to code.
Gaming, as practiced in the “video parlors” was a heavily gendered space. The Loftuses cite a study of an arcade at a Pittsburgh shopping mall. “Out of approximately 175 individuals who were counted, only 30 were girls. While a few groups of girls played together, most girls were with boys, and even then their main role was to admire the performance of their boyfriends.”
This did not improve as gaming entered the home. Gaming consoles and PCs were overwhelmingly boys’ spaces.
Why was this problem not more widely noted at the time? Scholar Carly Kocurek provides an interesting hypothesis in her book Coin-Operated Americans: “Dismissals of gaming as a frivolous leisure activity thus undermined the real lessons being learned by gamers and effectively short-circuited early discussion about why various demographic groups were not gaming and what effect limited or no access to gaming might have on a generation of workers whose labor market would be dominated by computerization.”
Or, perhaps, people just weren’t listening. As Geoffrey Loftus put it in a recent interview, “it didn’t take a genius” to recognize this was a problem.
Perhaps introducing gaming to an educational setting could help?
Where in the world was the origin for Carmen Sandiego?
The chapter in Mind at Play titled “Learning from the Screen” contains a pitch for an educational game that many readers will likely find familiar:
“But now imagine a computer game in which children read about a child hero who is given information about latitudes and longitudes and must use this information to solve the problem of rescuing other children from evil aliens who are holding hostages at various points around the globe. The player roams around the computer world seeking these hostages and is rewarded for each one found. Instead of being tedious, unconnected facts, existing only to be memorized in school, city locations constitute vital information, and the ability to locate the cities becomes a necessary skill for achieving the interesting goal of rescuing hostages. Moreover, the goal is part of an intrinsic fantasy, involving a child hero with whom the child-learners can strongly identify.”
This pitch is remarkably similar to the seminal Broderbund title Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? While Broderbund’s title involves tracking down a criminal mastermind rather than aliens, its almanac-based gameplay very closely matches what’s in Mind at Play.
In an interview, Geoffrey Loftus said he was not familiar with the series. I have no evidence that the developers of Carmen Sandiego were aware of or influenced by Mind at Play. Much more likely this was one of history’s many simultaneous inventions.
“One player referred to the game as ‘Fred,’ and several people called it ‘that guy.’ Somewhat surprisingly, no one ever referred to the game as ‘she.’”
— A passage from a 1979 study by psychologists K. E. Scheibe and M. Erwin, cited in Mind at Play, on the spontaneous verbalizations of students as they played games of varying difficulty. Participants frequently used language like “he’s trying to get me” in reference to enemies in the game. Even more common was to refer to the enemy as “the machine,” adding a level of agency beyond the capabilities of these early programs. “On occasion, in fact, a player would ask the arcade director if a real person weren’t running the game.”
If a game isn’t fun, does that make the Game Genie illegal?
The second chapter of Mind at Play examines just what it is that makes video games fun. Much of this chapter builds on research by Thomas Malone. Malone wrote one of the first Ph.D. dissertations on video games. What Makes Things Fun to Learn?, the document that Malone produced before getting a job at Xerox’s famed Palo Alto Research Center, looked at the then-popular game Breakout and why it was successful.
Breakout is basically a one-player version of Pong. The game involves moving a paddle to keep a ball in the air to break a series of blocks. It was famously designed by Steve Wozniak with then-Atari employee Steve Jobs taking credit and pocketing the bonus for reducing the number of circuits in the game.
Malone’s work involved identifying different elements of Breakout—many that we don’t even think about as being optional for a video game—and testing which ones contributed to making the game fun. To do this, Malone made variants of Breakout that lacked elements like sound, “the visual stimulation of watching the bricks break out,” and no score counter. He then had his fellow Stanford students play the variants and rate which ones they liked best.
The most crucial element ended up being the visual feedback players received of the blocks disappearing when hit. Even when the scorekeeping elements were removed from the game, having a dynamically changing playfield allowed players to keep track of their progress. Without such an indicator, the game lacked almost all its purpose.
As I learned in an interview with Geoffrey Loftus, this chapter ended up having a small role in gaming history. In the early 1990s, Loftus was tapped by lawyers at Nintendo as an expert witness on what made games fun. Nintendo at the time was suing Lewis Galoob Toys, the distributor of the Game Genie cheat device in North America. Nintendo argued that by modifying the game code, Galoob was violating the copyright on the games. Among Nintendo’s concerns was that the Game Genie made it too easy to beat rental games, thus depriving them of sales.
Geoffrey Loftus testified in the lawsuit that by removing the challenge from the games, the games were indeed less fun. I can see where he’s coming from. But as a kid playing extremely difficult games such as the NES Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game or the SNES’s UN Squadron, my personal enjoyment was increased by the Game Genie. There’s something inherently fun in seeing later levels and endings of a game even if you didn’t fully “earn it.” I’m glad Nintendo lost this lawsuit.
As mentioned above, Mind at Play was uncharacteristic of the rest of the work of George and Elizabeth Loftus (who divorced in 1991 but remain only mostly amicable terms.)
Elizabeth Loftus went on to a long and controversial career in the “memory wars.” As this recent New Yorker profile documents, Elizabeth challenged conventional beliefs about memory and witness reliability. She’s appeared as an expert witness for repugnant defendants such as Michael Jackson and Harvey Weinstein.
Side note: If you read nothing else from that profile, don’t miss this anecdote:
When [Elizabeth Loftus’s] gynecologist recommended that she have surgery to remove a fibroid from her uterus, she was so annoyed by the idea of missing days of work that she turned her surgery into an experiment. Her anesthesiologist read her a hundred words while she was unconscious, to see if she could recall them later. “We here report the results of a rigorous experimental test conducted on a patient who was undergoing an abdominal myomectomy under general anesthesia,” Loftus wrote in the journal Acta Psychologica, in 1985. “The patient was an experimental psychologist with a keen interest in human memory.”
As far as I’ve been able to tell from Elizabeth’s publication history on Google Scholar, her only subsequent gaming-related research was a 1998 paper co-authored with researchers at Microsoft on the effectiveness of advertising in those old “shoot the spaceships win a prize” banner ads. (Apparently still a thing in HTML5?)
In the mid-’80s, Geoffrey wrote a few more articles that touched on gaming and computing. In a chapter he co-wrote with Walter R. Nelson in the book Humanistic Perspectives on Computers in the Schools, Geoffrey restates his argument from Mind at Play that games have the potential to be engaging teaching tools. But the arcade (or “video parlor”) is not the right venue for it. Professor Pac Man might exist, “but the proposition that people will be willing to pay a quarter to play a game that is primarily educational in nature is dubious at best.” Loftus and Nelson instead argue that schools could be sites for engaging games to teach reading skills, physical laws and general computer literacy.
Mind at Play concludes with a call for scholars to not neglect the “video game generation” before games are so widespread you don’t have a non-gaming population to study. Whether or not this happened is open to debate. But many members of this generation grew up to study games themselves. The scholarly discipline of Game Studies has ballooned since the 2000s when the first set of digital natives were hitting academia and wondering “what if I apply Derrida to Donkey Kong?” or “how does Pac-Man eat?”
And when you check the bibliography of these books, chances are you’ll find Mind at Play in there.
P.S. Thanks to Geoffrey Loftus for answering my questions about the book!
Thanks again to Michael for the great piece. Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal!
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