“Video games are perfect training for life in fin de siècle1 America, where daily existence demands the ability to parse...information being fired at you.”2 Within decades, video games had progressed from simple text-based adventures to colorful first person shooters and 2-D fighting games. With humble beginnings, videogame corporations have blossomed to form a multi-billion industry. J.C. Herz’s Joystick Nation is a standing testimony to the subtle birth of video games.
The first videogame was Spacewar, programmed by Steve Russell in 1961, the “Promethean figure in video game lore.”3 As an MIT student, Russell was inspired by the ongoing “Space Race” and wrote Spacewar as a demo for the PDP-1, a new model computer intended for electrical engineering. From the 1960s to the 1990s, video game progression can be divided into six eras—the Pre-Pong era, the Pong era, the Atari era, the 8-bit era, and the 16-bit era, and the “Next-Generation” era. In the Pre-Pong era, Spacewar was the game of choice for consumers. The Pong era occurred from 1972 to 1976, and was marked by the founding of Atari by Nolan Bushnell and Pong, a ping pong inspired game which started the arcade revolution. Atari continued to dominate and became popular due to the release of Space Invaders, which was followed by Asteroids, Pac-Man, and Frogger. Also during this time, Nintendo and Sega began exporting games to the United States. The 8-bit era began with the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System and Super Mario Brothers. The 16-bit era is marked by the Sega Genesis, the Nintendo Gameboy, and Tetris. Super Mario Brothers 5, the “best-selling video game of all time”4, is also introduced. The next-generation era is marked by the release of the Sony Playstation, the Sega Saturn and Nintendo 64. During the 70s, companies were vying for consumer attention, and consumers were conflicted over which format was superior: consoles or personal computers. In the 1980s, arcades were becoming popular as a hangout for teenagers and to compete for top score. From 1980-1983, America’s mall time was halved, while its entertainment budget doubled.
The classics in video game history include iconic pieces such as Donkey Kong, Centipede, and Pac-Man. Doom is known as the first ever first person shooter game and became an absolute phenomenon—“It was as though a thousand people in line for Nine Inch Nails tickets had formed a human wall, blocking out the one guy who could open the ticket booth.”5 Players were immersed in an environment where they were the sole survivor of a space squadron, “stranded with only a pistol, rapidly blasting your way through an avalanche of evil incarnate in a frenzied quest for bigger and bigger guns.”6 It gave the player the power to ruthlessly murder hundreds of aliens with weapons ranging from a pistol to a rocket launcher. Fifteen million copies were sold internationally, the survivor shooter appealing to audiences around the world. The videogame industry opened many potential jobs such as 3D model making, object design, landscaping, and polygon animation. Sound was just as important in video games, and sound production progressed from simple beeps and bloops to “synthetic sixty-piece orchestras unfurl[ing] cinematic scores.”7
Game cartridges were only beginning to be produced in Third World countries in the 1990s for a higher profit: “orders flow back to warehouse[s] through the venous channels of digital inventory databases and thence to the factories of Central America and China.”8 In 1991, Sega introduced their new mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog, who was received with love from audiences. Children interpreted videogames as a status symbol: “kids have to attain a certain level of proficiency with Donkey Kong Country 2 before they can brag to their friends.”9 Also during this time, magazines started to appeal to players. Magazines such as Nintendo Power and Game Pro illustrated “a kind of techo-porn...fascinating places [children] might visit in a new game, eyeing the magazine’s uncloaking of those secret sites,”10 which catered to audiences eager to get a sneak peek at the latest release in gaming. In the 1980s, Pac-Man was the iconic “video game hype” of the day, but Nintendo’s Mario quickly surpassed the “yellow, limbless, ravenous disc.”11 Mario became one of the most iconic video game characters in history, and Nintendo exploited that coverage and licensed Mario’s likeness to multiple industries, producing shirts, lunch pails, and other assorted merchandise. With the introduction of complex characters in video games, companies realized that a solid story was important to drive the game forward. Kidnappings became a common trope in video games, appearing in multiple Mario games alone: the story revolved around the player, the hero who was tasked with rescuing a princess in need of a savior. Space was also a common theme, with many games taking place in some extraterrestrial habitat—Doom, Galaga, and Space Invaders are all prime examples of videogames that have some association of outer space in their backstory.
Videogames are commonly seen as hybrids between Asian and Western cultures, “a bicontinental crossbreed of America and Japanese pop culture, with elements of Japanese comic books and animation as well as Western comics and science fiction.”12 Some franchises have spawned both games and movies—one example being Dragonball, which has produced six arcade games, twelve titles for the Super Famicon (the Japanese version of the Super NES), and one Gameboy cartridge. One commonality in popular games are their smaller-than-life characters. For example, Mario is supposedly a full grown man, sprouting a full moustache. However, in many games he appears to be no more than three feet tall. Most characters also appear similar to humans. Characters in Mortal Kombat look humanoid, despite most of them being otherworldly beasts, with scaly skin, extra appendages, or some obscure ethereal powers. If a character is portrayed as American, they often have blonde hair, bulging muscles (or breasts if they are female), and are often larger than life. On the other hand, Japanese characters are often cute and unassuming. Most characters are disproportionate in some shape or form, and children often admire them because of their super powers or popularity. Females didn’t exist in games until the introduction of Ms. Pacman in 1981, and soon characters such as Q Bert were created as a divergent from standard “shoot-and-slay”13 games to appeal to an audience that is squeamish around violence. Mortal Kombat is the most “hyperbolically graphic and wildly successful martial arts game,”14 and is known for its over exaggerated “fatality” sequences. The game was deemed so violent that politicians on Capitol Hill used it as a scapegoat for the “rising tide of crime, drugs and social unrest.”15 Despite controversy, Mortal Kombat sold three million copies by the time federal law was involved. The outcome was the creation of the ESRB, the Entertainment Software Rating Board, which serves to provide a maturity rating for parents to raise awareness of game content. However, the potential in the video game industry caught the eyes of the military, and so strategy games were created for training CIA, FBI, and DEA agents. Games such as Battlezone, Virtua Fighter 3, and Wing Commander were played by military personnel to imitate battle without physical repercussions.
Herz’s reason for writing Joystick Nation is to “trace the evolution of video games from blips to behemoths, and to trace their radiation into our pattern of thought.”16 Herz proceeds to recall the video games from her childhood and how they have progressed from simple text based games such as Hunt the Wumpus to colorful hyperactive fighting games like Mortal Kombat. Her timeline of events fills her audience with nostalgia when confronted with their childhood memories.
Herz is the CEO of Joystick Nation Inc., which consults companies about the principle of game design. She herself got involved in video games because of her older brother. Herz initially was a New York Times columnist before she became an author, and is still writing books to this day. Joystick Nation was a product of Herz’s own nostalgia: “video games were twenty-five years old and [she] was twenty-five years old...What [she has] done...is completely immerse [her]self in this medium and try to draw out its implications, not just for the development of interactive media, but for marketing, for business purposes, how experiences are designed and should be designed, and what goes into the most compelling experiences that you can have with pixels17”.
Joystick Nation was published in 1993, before the time of high definition graphics or virtual reality, and the “advanced technology” of the time was co-op playing. Video games did not exist until the 1960s, and in thirty years, video games had exploded and there was an increasing popularity around the world for loveable mascots Sonic and Mario. Consumers were content with their Nintendo Game Boy and their Sega Saturn, and weren't as demanding as video game fans are now in modern times. Herz believes that “people are already writing dissertations on the social dynamics of massive multiplayer online worlds...Three hundred thousand people suddenly—you have a society forming and rules emerging and all kinds of customs and behaviors,”18 and Joystick Nation was Herz’s way to remember how society functioned in a simpler time.
Reviewers criticize Herz for ending Joystick Nation abruptly, but otherwise being a “smart and entertaining read.”19 Herz delves into the the social, political, and cultural background behind video games and “eschews a historical point of view for a free-associating mediation in the video game culture that, by her calculations, has engulfed one-fifth of our population.”20 Herz ends her book shortly after mentioning omnipotence in simulators and how the player has complete control of the environment. It seems that the book ends on a rather pleasing note, but still feels a bit incomplete because it lacks a physical conclusion—the information just ends without something wrap it up. However, despite its faults, Joystick Nation is an intriguing read on the history of video games with subtle political nuances that experienced readers will enjoy.
Joystick Nation was a nostalgic blast through time, but felt off topic when Herz started to mention her personal opinion: “we all crave the perfect enemy. Political leaders employ squads of propagandists to create these monsters—the Evil Empire, Manuel Noriega, al-Qaddafi, Saddam Hussein.”21 Not all gamers crave violence, but franchises such as Mortal Kombat and Grand Theft Auto appeal to many gamers that enjoy a little guts and gore here and there. These types of games are rated M for mature audiences but are still controversial because of their explicit content. As a gamer herself, Herz should not generalize the public solely based on the majority opinion. Herz does deserve credit for addressing the issue of female gamers— “Shortly after video games became icons, one thing became glaringly obvious: This was a Guy Thing, programmed by and for males.”22 Just because of a gender difference, that doesn't mean women can be as dedicated to video games as men can be. Some women have made successful careers in competitive games such as Starcraft II and League of Legends and can compete with their male counterparts in the same league. Overall, Joystick Nation was an informative report on the history of video games that was enjoyable throughout.
Video games were one of the outcomes of progressivism, with the advancement of technology, more people started to accept science and logic over religion. When people realized the potential of video games to bolster the economy and to create more jobs, young adults in the 1980s started to train in fields such as polygon animation, background modeling, and level designing. Herz was a liberal, believing in “buy[ing] lots of ads, hire[ing] lobbyists, [and] force[ing] your competitors to knuckle under hire and fire, downsize, and watch your stock price soar.”23 Even though Herz is a CEO herself, she talks in almost an anti-business manner, scolding the way business handle things. Video games became a new way for children and adults. to socialize.
Video games also helped to establish a new social order around children. In the 80s, children could brag about a game they had never beat, “they can't just stand at the water fountain at recess and casually bluff about how much easier and more productive this software has made their lives.”24 This is similar to an ethic in gaming today—don't brag about a game you never beat for yourself. Gamers don't brag about beating Diablo III on hard mode until they've done it—and that goes for any other number of games that involve dedication. Instead of kids bragging about how they've seen the latest episode of the Simpsons, children would brag about whether or not they've beat Donkey Kong 2 or Super Mario Bros. 5.
Video games will forever be immortalized as the face of mass media with advancements in virtual reality and 4K graphics. However, the past of 16-bit Mario and the prehistoric existence of Spacewar shall never be forgotten, lest we forget our humble beginnings—with one man and one computer.
1. Means “end of a century” in French.
2. Herz, J. C. Joystick Nation: How Videogames Ate Our Quarters, Won Our Hearts, and Rewired Our Minds. Boston: Little, Brown, 1997. 2. Print.
3. Herz, J.C. 5.
4. Herz, J.C. 21.
5. Herz, J.C. 24.
6. Herz J.C. 85.
7. Herz J.C. 105.
8. Herz, J.C. 113.
9. Herz, J.C. 123.
10. Herz , J.C. 124.
11. Herz, J.C. 131.
12. Herz, J.C. 131.
13. Herz, J.C. 188.
14. Herz, J.C. 188.
15. Herz, J.C. 188.
16. Herz, J.C. 3.
17. Peters, Tom. “Herz, J.C. - Tom Peters.” Tom Peters. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 May 2016.
18. Peters, Tom. “Herz, J.C. - Tom Peters.” Tom Peters. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 May 2016.
19. Peters, Tom. “Herz, J.C. - Tom Peters.” Tom Peters. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 May 2016
20. Peters, Tom. “Herz, J.C. - Tom Peters.” Tom Peters. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 May 2016.
21. Herz, J.C 87. 22. Herz, J.C. 171. 23. Herz, J.C. 31. 24. Herz, J.C 123.