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Mary Clark

Digging in the Archives

(Content warning: suicide & self-harm)

Despite pre-spring break laziness, and excluding this blog post being 3 days late, last week was an incredibly productive one research-wise. I read Inspecting Video Game Historiography Through Critical Lens: Etymology of the First-Person Shooter Genre by Carl Therrien, which only surfaced in my readings-search at the beginning of the semester because of its inclusion of several 90s FPS games, but actually provided a substantial amount of research ideas and answered a question I’d asked in a previous blog post.

Therrien’s etymological research analyzed the development of the name “first-person shooter” for a game genre: what terms were used to describe similar games prior to the term’s creation, and what historical events and games led to “first-person” and “shooter” becoming the defining traits of this genre? This research is what finally explained the occurrence of “DOOM-like” in several sources I had read from the decade: DOOM preceded the use of FPS as a genre, so games that had the same perspective and gameplay as DOOM—usually other first-person, 3D action games or even just games with a first-person perspective, or “non-violent DOOM-likes”—were labelled by DOOM’s distinctive mastery of fast, 3D, first-person gameplay, since there was no defining genre given for games like DOOM yet. Similar first-person titles would use “3D” and “first-person” interchangeably, since 3D graphics achieved a more immersive experience than 2D shooting games had, and shooter games would use terms ranging from “shoot ‘em up” to the more vague “action game” in marketing. It was until the later half of the 1990s that Therrien sees the rise of “first-person shooter” in Usenet chat sessions.

The best part of this reading, however, was that Therrien’s discussion of his research methods led me down a rabbit hole of new ideas: he analyzed chats, read magazines, and studied cover art and advertisements to look for etymological clues. The magazines stood out to me as a new target for research, so I found Computer Gaming World magazine’s website, made a script to download all of their 90s publications, and got to reading.

The first issue I read was one from March 1996, which I first found on The Internet Archive and browsed through before the mass download. The content was overwhelmingly masculine; maybe it was just because this issue’s subtitle was “Blades & Bullets”, but each full-page advertisement felt like a call to arms or a masochistic dare. One exception was an ad for The Dig, a point-and-click game by LucasArts, which is illustrated with the dramatic collage look of a movie poster.

Advertisement for The Dig by LucasArts

Many of the advertisements for violent action or horror games used gruesome or comedic shock value. An advertisement for Big Red Racing features a caricature of a man chaotically driving a jeep, leaning out of the vehicle to pose for the camera. He’s wearing ripped jeans and sticking his tongue out, his mohawk blowing in the wind as he races off road. In red, type-writer text over him, the advertisement claims: “After you crash, we simply hose the pulpy red mess off the dash and give the car to the next guy.” It’s worth noting that the game can be played in first-person, which makes me wonder about the linguistic and visual differences between advertisements for first-person action games and non-first-person action games.

The ad that struck me as the most intense and shocking was this one for The Computer Game Developers’ Conference in early April of 1996. The ad’s narrative features a man at a change booth in an arcade, bathed in the room’s colorful red lighting. To his side, you can see two boys playing games in the arcade, but the man is turned away from them, forlornly pointing a pistol to his head. Above them the advertisement reads (bolding where the font gets larger):

“In a moment of utter stupidity, you blow off the Computer Game Developers Conference. Braindead about the latest hardware and game design trends, you lose your job, and your big opportunity to develop the next Myst. Cut off from any industry contacts, you discover there’s just one position in the computer game industry you can land. Shoot, you think, I should’ve gone to that conference.”

The anxious scene of the man trapped at the apparent end of his career is framed by the rest of the advertisement, which soothes the nervous and scared viewer with claims of “four low-stress days networking with people who know how to make great games”. Come to CGDC for some stress-free fun or, I don’t know, die! For the record, the Computer Game Developers’ Conference was renamed to the more general Game Developers’ Conference, or GDC, and the 2017 conference ended 3 days ago.

Advertisement for The Computer Game Developers Conference 1996

This ad is the pinnacle of 90s toxic game dev culture. It feeds off the fears of competitive white male game developers, desperate to not be left behind in the race to make the next revolutionary game, by revealing a false fate: if they don’t keep up with the trends by taking this one simple step, their entire career will fall apart and life won’t be worth living. The use of an arcade job, aside from being environmentally dark, also denotes uselessness—the man is literally left behind in the dying arcade business, which is financially and socially worse than ending up in, for example, a software development job making something besides games. Mixed in with other over-the-top, violent, first-person advertisements for actual games, this ad left me incredibly uneasy.

So the advertisements in this magazine were the most striking to me because their content was so unexpectedly overwhelming, but besides that, the reviews and articles in these magazines have been really helpful so far in discovering new games and contributing to my knowledge of ones I already have. I’m really looking forward to reading the rest, especially the issues that cover “best of”/”worst of” 90s games.

This week I’m back at home for spring break, so I’ll be making a blog post later in the week about what I’ve been doing while I’ve been here.