History Of Games 2024 Offered An Embarrassment Of Riches, But Games Media Isn't Listening 1
Image: John Szczepaniak

The following event was ignored by the press, apart from Time Extension – so if you enjoy games history, please speak up.

Between Wednesday, 22 May, and Friday, 24 May, Birmingham City University played host to the fifth History of Games conference, the first taking place in Montreal in 2013.

There have been several related games history conferences over the past decade; your author was a keynote at a 2014 symposium, and a general speaker at Replaying Japan 2016 in Leipzig. These events bring together all sorts - professors, PhD students, independent scholars, and even myself - to give talks on various topics related to games history.

Typically, you submit an abstract and a review panel filters the submissions. The audience is fellow speakers and anyone interested, viewing it locally and remotely (they're open to everyone). The atmosphere is friendly, the knowledge accessible. The first day also had a classy wine reception in the evening, while the second day wound down at board game café Chance and Counters, next to the NQ64 Arcade.

For #HoG24 there were 93 overall submissions, resulting in 68 selected talks (62 after withdrawals), from 18 countries, representing almost 40 institutions, with 80 delegates attending (56 in-person, 24 online).

History Of Games 2024 Offered An Embarrassment Of Riches, But Games Media Isn't Listening 1
BCU Team photo. Back: Dr Nick Webber, Dr Alex Wade, Dr Charlotte Stevens, Reuben Mount, Andrew Bell. Front: Dr Poppy Wilde, Harrison Charles. Not pictured but also on the local organising committee: Eugenio Triana. — Image: Mia Osborne

Organising such a large gathering were Doctors Alex Wade, Nick Webber, Poppy Wilde, and Charlotte Stevens - all of whom were interviewed. The theme of the talk was "families of games", and it produced a diverse range of talks! There were three keynotes, covering Playboy magazine, different mafia (families) in games, while mine was on forgotten lineages. A mash-up of my recorded audio and slides can be viewed below. It's 45 minutes and covers the inspiration that led to multiple classics; normal talks are 20 minutes, with time for questions after.

The three-day conference was truly mindblowing. Think back a quarter of a century, when games history wasn't even a thing - there were almost no books on games, apart from David Sheff's Game Over. Retro was an emerging concept. No one in the mainstream paid attention to games.

Dr Webber, director of the Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research, explained: "I think we've come a long way. There's an increasing professionalisation of the study of games, and therefore the associated histories. We've seen a shift into the academy of learning around games. The first video game course in the UK was in 1997. And that laid down the foundations to do more. That means historians are paying attention to them, but of course, what they're doing is relying on lots of work that's been done by people - effectively fans - collecting games that they're interested in, bringing together these really complicated sets of information. Which we have then relied upon as academics. So there's been a big shift, and it's taken more seriously, as games become more embedded in our understanding of culture."

To this, Dr Wilde, senior lecturer in media and communications, added: "We are in a position, culturally and socially, where games make up a really large fabric of people's media consumption. So, exploring that from a cultural studies perspective, we have the opportunity to look at how video offers different representations, commentaries, and critiques. How different communities coalesce around particular bodies of work. Where the industry has been lacking."

To understand what it's like to attend a talk, think of your favourite YouTube documentary. Not just collectors in front of a games wall, wildly espousing favourites. But in-depth, intelligent, and exploring complex topics. Several incorporated fresh interviews. These talks were akin to watching the absolute best documentaries - well-researched, visually engaging, thorough, with proper crediting, citations, and sources (something YouTubers fail miserably at). But watching it as if it were live theatre, performed only once, transient and irreplicable, and with audience participation at the end!

This raises a troubling point: now the conference is over, where can any of us access such priceless content?

"Specifically, with regards to this conference," begins Dr Wilde, "The materials aren't as yet being collated into a particular space. But there is potential for that. Out of most conferences, there is potential for people exploring publication, and often people use it as an opportunity to present their works in progress, that they then go on to publish. What we also see more of, is certain academic journals that are open access. Which means they are not locked behind an institutional paywall. Because I think the academy is starting to see that as problematic."

To give two spellbinding examples: PhD student Charlotte Courtois gave a talk on modifying pornographic games on micro-computers, with video talks in French online, and an expanded article to be published as a chapter in the Handbook of Games and Sexuality by Bloomsbury later this year. Whereas scholar Mikael D Sebag's presentation on the "history of magic systems design in games" doesn't yet have an outlet, though he's hoping to pitch an article to Games & Culture soon.

We briefly explore some of the talks at the end of this feature, and will have further articles in the coming days. Such a rich tapestry of investigations was joyous to behold. The only complaint would be that with three talks running simultaneously, it was impossible to experience everything. The important point to realise is the conference was not simply for entertainment, but the ideas shared filter back into education - the game developers of tomorrow are now being taught by the attending professors.

Tragically, despite this embarrassment of riches, the specialist and mainstream press ignored the conference. I personally contacted multiple staff at outlets such as Retro Gamer, Edge, Eurogamer, PC Gamer, The Guardian, BBC News, Sky News, and Channel 4, plus smaller outlets. In total, nearly 30 people! None of them even replied, with the exception of Christian Donlan, the hero of Eurogamer. Sadly, the sale of the site's parent company, Gamer Network, to IGN owner Ziff Davies curtailed discussions.

This pervasive apathy baffled me - the topics are enthralling, the speakers professional investigative researchers, often funded by taxpayer's money. They want to share this knowledge! After the conference, I again pressed one of my former editors on the matter, who said it would be odd to suddenly cover this kind of event, and that, if the fields of academia and games journalism were so closely connected, the organisers would have reached out previously for coverage.

Speaking with Dr Stevens, she described the challenges of getting the media to take notice. She also added, "The push to publish academic work open-access is to share research. We don't get paid for our academic articles. Knowing how to pitch our work to a more general audience is not a natural part of our jobs, which is why it's great that you [John] are taking an interest."

Academics have multiple training courses to engage with the press, while their work is made available to be published by outlets, at absolutely no cost, yet seldom does this happen. As Dr Stevens explained, academics are funded by public money, so there's an expectation for their research to be publicly available. We both expressed frustration that no one utilises it.

Dr Webber added to this: "Universities have press teams. Of course if The Guardian is not interested in the conference, then we're not going to get that kind of attention facilitated by our press team. So then it becomes: do we have people that we can talk to, that we can bring to the conference?"

Dr Wade adds: "I also think it's a cultural thing, around whether or not we think that games - and play - are central to human civilisation. And it is, but it's not really kind of permeated into the wider culture yet. It's seen as 'something that kids do'. And it still seems like that sometimes."

Multiple professors suggested I try to bridge this gap. No pressure...

Speaking with colleagues and editors there seems to be a fear of academia (understandable given how many games "journalists" lack degrees). It took two years of every single games media outlet rejecting my academic-leaning pareidolia article, until Time Extension took a chance. The response from readers was positive - they wanted intelligent investigative reporting. We need to bridge this gap between academia, the specialist press, preservation groups, and amateur hobbyists, because this wealth of information cannot remain confined.

Below are some talks which caught my interest. The full programme of 62 talks is here. Over the coming days we'll be running smaller satellite articles, focusing on specific panels. We ask you, our readership: do you enjoy these? If the topics enthuse you, please make it known, loudly, because the belief is that the public doesn't care.

The History of Games 2024 Conference - A Curated Selection of Talks

La Famiglia: The Mafia and Videogames (Regina Seiwald)

The second day's keynote. Dr Seiwald explored the Italian Cosa Nostra, Japanese Yakuza, Mexican La Eme, and Russian Bratva. It was a riveting 45 minutes, charting games from U.S. Gold's The Godfather (1991) up to the present day, and touching on how Mexican cartels now use online games to recruit members. There are plans to publish a much expanded paper.

From the High Street to the Home: Identifying the Foundations of British Gaming Consumer Culture in the 1980s (Richard Sherriff)

Who created software sales charts in the 1980s and how reliable were they? A look at the declining presence of Crash Smash awarded games, and how for a time WH Smiths controlled what was popular.

Translating Cultural Memory in Video Games: Realism and Localisation of Chinese Parents (Dody M. H. Chen & Haoxi Luo)

A look at the history and growth of Chinese video games. Case study of Chinese Parents, a Beijing-developed life-sim about an urban child growing up in 1990s China.

Lifecycle of an Avatar: Shared Histories of Affective Experience (Poppy Wilde)

A fascinating look at how people invest in the creation and growth of in-game avatars (using World of Warcraft as an example), and how doing so invokes the same emotional reward response in real life. A rich topic; Dr Wilde has a book exploring things further.

Weird Ancestors: The Literary Prehistory of Rational Magic in Dungeons & Dragons (Mikael D. Sebag)

Have you ever enjoyed a game featuring any form of magic? If so, then Sebag's talk was worth attending. His past work has been on the ways that Tudor witchcraft laws categorized illicit magic, and co-creating Hellguard: Curse of Caina, and now his dissertation explores, as he puts it: "The three main currents contributing to the technologisation of magic in modern games: mid-century American fantasy literature, analogue commercial wargames, and the digital adaptations of D&D."

What Memory Cards Cannot Store: Putting Player Memory and Materiality in Conversation (Dany Guay-Bélanger)

Several aspects of the conference dealt with the complexities of "preservation". My own keynote stated that it's not just game data, but also the memories of those who made the data. Dany took this even further in an exploration on player memories - which is essential if we're to have a contextual understanding of the zeitgeist. The history of games includes how we remember them and the culture surrounding them.

From 2D to 3D in Video Games Reviews: Sonic and Mario in the Light of New Graphical Regimes (1990s-2000s) (Francis Lavigne & Clément Personnic)

A look at the difficult transition to 3D via two popular series; incorporating not just prior academic research, but contrasting the reactions of magazines at the time.

Rebuilding the Residence – Do Remakes and Remasters Preserve or Invent Gaming Traditions? (Krzysztof Olszamowski)

Did you know there are at least 11 versions of Resident Evil 4, each one different to varying degrees? If there's no universal experience, Olszamowski asks: what even is RE4? Because it's not just a single game. What about other games, where the remake removes earlier content?

Silas Warner and the Apple II (John Aycock)

I attended a talk by John Aycock back in 2014, and it was fascinating. This time the talk was on the programming style of Silas Warner, creator of Castle Wolfenstein, dissecting the code in a super easy to understand way. The bit about "self-modifying code" was revelatory!

The Banalization of Wargames in H.G. Wells' Floor Games and Little Wars (David ten Cate)

Several talks covered not "video games" as we know them, but the games which came before and directly influenced videogames. In this instance, two game books by famed sci-fi novelist H.G. Wells (1911 & 1913). In 2004 Gary Gygax wrote the foreword for Little Wars, saying it influenced his creation of Chainmail and Dungeons & Dragons, which in turn helped define today's RPGs!

Over the coming days, we'll have a more in-depth look at several of the talks held at the event, different to the above list, so please look forward to them!