Sunday, May 19, 2019

Pitfall II: Scene 1: The Great Video Game Crash of 1983

This is a story that’s overtold. Now the domain of wide-eyed youtubers who serve their indentured lives to Google by reading you another Wikipedia article. The myth, recitied monthly: Atari was pong. Then they were cartridges. Those cartridges ended up in a landfill.

Atari, in its original incarnation anyway, endured for over a decade after the crash. Basically the game crash had about as much material impact as our current “single player games don’t sell” games-as-service apocalypse. Both have led to closures and significant downsizing, but isn’t that just the nature of the work? Videogames have always traded in hitmaking and that tendency generally continues today. If “crashes” were so serious, well, I’d imagine our entire entertainment sector would have angled away from hitmaking toward more consistent forms of revenue. Market capitalism rewards undercutting competitors, mindless brand loyalty, and other monopolistic bullshit, so corporations that have the bulk to rapidly gamble continue to persist. (o7 Disney o7)

The “game crash” was a tectonic settlement that occured after the home console market’s faddish gold rush. Established arcades were operating fine and like every year some landmark arcade games came out (1983: Dragon’s Lair; 1984: Tower of Druaga). Yeah, spit and prayer arcade joints unfortunately closed down, lots of hardware and software manufacturers shuttered, and yes, Atari reported great losses. But this is unfortunately a consistent trend in videogames. (Was the huge wave of MMORPGs that’ve now mostly gone boom a game crash?) Fad chasers run up against [nasally voice] Supply And Demand. In only two years, home consoles would boom again, thanks to a different friendly neighborhood con artist, and the home console market has kind of oscillated like that until today. Nintendo got edged out by Sony, who got edged out by Microsoft, who got edged out by Valve? Maybe, except Valve is (probably) too busy fucking with tax shelters to post their profits, and anyway now they’re all together reckoning against closed games-as-markets (Fortnite, et al) that are increasingly making the hardware/software producing entity meaningless.

Rather than a closed ecosystem around allied software developers, the future is getting people to play one game and have them bully each other into spending $20 to get the 2019 version of Peanut Butter Jelly Time. Always online, always invasive. Epic doesn’t care if people download Fortnite off their store. I mean perfunctorily they do, but a sale of a battle pass is a sale of a battle pass. Of course, being gatekeeping bastards and creating proprietary hardware/distribution bloatware and so establishing a bottleneck on must-have hitmade very innovative or whatever videogames has always been the gold star scam in the videogame business. (Google and Amazon are both trying to do this pathetically as I breathe CO2 emissions and die. (That’s supposed to be a riff on live and breathe)).

By 1984, CMB and their Commodore 64 home computer came out on top, at least briefly. They marketed a basic assertion: why buy a console to play games, when a computer can play games and do other stuff too? Now in the 80s, home computers and home consoles were separate and competing. Today, that’s meaningless. Only the dork-tech giants care about hardware; Ubisoft is going to hawk Assassin’s Creed 14: El Dorado Bungalow on whatever people have that will run the game. In other words, the Great Videogame Crash is based on conditions that don’t exist and mean nothing in the current game market. Similar rubber band snaps have been neatly weathered over the years because fuck if nothing can finally kick Nintendo’s ass for good.  

Early videogames sold speculation. I assume for adults it had a proto-silicon valley appeal. Getting Atari was like buying Google Glass or Oculus Rift or something. Proximity to a sci-fi future stapled into a disappointing container of the present. I’ve read Pilgrim in the Microworld and the author accounted a kind of deliriousness and fear reckoning toward our new lives with machines. Having essentially grown up with videogames, I consider them part of the “natural world,” or at least it’s hard to imagine a videogame as something invasive or new, you know? Part of what was being sold with early home consoles and home computers was a break from an established “natural world,” something never seen before. I would imagine for the average person, the kind of software didn’t matter as much as the novelty of psychological displacement that comes from using any kind of software at all.

That being said, investors, speculators; the “average adult” demographic orbiting videogames; shocked by games, reckoning with them, and ultimately seeing no use for them, easily felt games had run their course. The Great Video Game Crash was really a loss of Atari’s speculative power and the reasons for that might not be very deep. Atari spread themselves too thin, made a handful of business mistakes, got catapulted around by the whims of coke-addled boardrooms that have never touched a game in their life, and Newspaper Reading, Ford Driving, Light Beer Drinking American Men thanked god that their kids would go outside again with the death of this atari game nonsense.

So I ask the obvious, why the fuck has videogames historicized the nascent, knee-jerk opinion of retailers, toy-business analysts, investor pyramid schemes, and otherwise boring dads? Whose game crash? I’m convinced that the Great Videogame Crash, the one that gets talked about, only exists in retrospective, a way to explain why Nintendo replaced Atari for those who lived through it, dramatic enough to match the iron anchors of childhood fixation. Atari lost stewardship, resulting in anxiety over a loss of needed authority (again, in retrospect), that would lead to videogames being considered less important. But like, this is neurotic as shit, basically a symptom of “NO, games ARE ART Dad!!” Like, no fucking kid in the 1980s thought about the market and the investment value of their junk. Serious hobbyists might have mourned in passing while messing around with their new computers. Who else remembers the crash? Who else is the crash about?

When it’s suggested that Valve is going to cause another videogame crash by allowing anyone to put a game on their store, the local poster, esquire, is pointing to a vague signifier of collapse that either can’t happen or has happened rapidly in cycles, take your pick. I’ve been hearing this line for 15 years though the reasons are topical the culprit is the same: too many bad games. Bad games are just games and as long as there’s games there’s going to be weirdos to argue about which of them really count as games (thinking of schisms in rpgmaker forums or fangame groups about what makes a “good” game, which games have the correct effort signifiers, when both are relative creative faultlines that Polygon can’t mine and r/indiedev gets to lord over). He who is mad at sjws, or “greedy companies” (but not capitalism), or devs having free reign (that he doesn’t have), calls for a game crash. But what he really craves is a deathlike release! A spiritual death because he put everything into videogame corporations and will get nothing back. This release will not come from videogames alone (and so maybe, perhaps, he becomes a nazi, or nazi-adjacent).

Revising the history around the game crash matters because otherwise what remains is corporation-worship that puts a magnifying glass on profit margins while disguising human effort and lives.
At this point I don’t think it’s controversial to state that videogames will endure as long society as does. Videogames informed by a strict subculture of critics and artists will probably remain marginal like noise sculptures and jazz improv jams, unless as a whole, arts culture improves. People still for whatever reason make the terrible stuff they need to see. Or basically, the history of videogames is a history of game developers, not shareholders, profits, and blockbusters.

"You are no more important to the product than the guy on the assembly line who puts them together” -- Ray Kassar to David Crane, 1978