"Thank You, Margaret Thatcher!" - How The UK Played A Leading Role In Eastern European Computing 6
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

One of the most gratifying aspects of the recent History of Games 2024 conference was seeing the exploration and research of "global gaming".

Nearly 20 years ago, your author pitched a monthly column on this subject to Retro Gamer magazine, and as a testament to his foresight, founding editor Martyn Carroll gave it the green light despite uncertainty on how readers might react. The first instalment was on Russia, in issue 14. At the time, nobody gave serious thought to countries outside of America and Japan, while "Europe" was treated as a homogenised third place. The truth is, every nation on Earth has its own distinct gaming heritage.

Today, finally, these unique ecosystems are receiving the attention they deserve; there were numerous regional-specific talks at the conference, including at least six talks on countries from the former Communist East Bloc. As was shown, the UK – especially the ZX Spectrum – played a major role in the gaming scenes of these nations.

There was so much covered it's difficult to curate - for starters, a lot of the regional histories belong to countries which no longer exist. Former Yugoslavia is now divided into Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia; while Czechoslovakia is now the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Regardless though, the universal factor is that young people who had access enjoyed computer games the same as you, ultimately creating their own, some of which would reach the UK.

"Thank You, Margaret Thatcher!" - How The UK Played A Leading Role In Eastern European Computing 6
Professor Meliha Handzic (left), Doctor Pierre-Yves Hurel (middle) and Doctor Regina Seiwald (right) — Image: John Szczepaniak

One of the talks worth highlighting was 'Mapping the history of ex-Yugoslav video games', by Meliha Handzic and Samir Ribic. During the talk, Professor Handzic went into detail about how herself and a colleague, and other groups, were making use of the work of fans to research former-Yugoslavia game history. The site isn't in English, but it contains a great (though incomplete) repository of knowledge. Pr Handzic analysed the data using Gephi software, noting ten different computer formats, and also various game genres and the languages these games appeared in. They were roughly equally divided between English and SHB (Srpski-Hrvatski-Bosanski / Serbian-Croatian-Bosnian).

As Pr Handzic revealed during the talk, herself and colleagues feel an appreciation for the UK's contribution to the world of computers:

The Spectrum is the most important platform. It's followed by Commodore 64 and Amiga, and in fourth place the Galaksija, so one local brand. So why the Spectrum? One of the major, major factors was low cost - my colleague says: 'Thank you Margaret Thatcher!' <laughs> That was his answer to this. It was very low cost compared to everything else, and during the 1980s there was an economic crisis in Yugoslavia, so people didn't really have much money. The other important factor is it was the smallest, so it could be smuggled. And smuggle is the key word, because nothing technological could be imported. So people were smuggling Spectrums.

Evoking the era of Thatcherism is contentious among the UK public, and we're not going to unpack that particular topic. Here's a video of Thatcher showcasing the ZX Spectrum in Japan, and here's a nice essay on the topic of DIY programmers during that era. The important point is that the UK created something so wonderful that awareness of it spread globally, and people took great personal risks breaking the law to share it in Eastern Europe. Two amusing smuggling styles were described: one was taping a Speccy to your abdomen and then wearing multiple shirts, jumpers, and jackets to obscure it; another method involved hiding it in a box of chocolates (obviously only the smaller original model).

This was also not just a one-way flow. Programmers in Yugoslavia would develop games on the hardware and, in some cases, these would then be sold in the UK. Pr Handzic's talk referenced four specific examples: isometric adventure M.O.V.I.E, one-on-one fighter Kung-fu, the confusingly named No 1, and mind-bending puzzler Mind Trap. M.O.V.I.E is particularly interesting, with high review scores across the board, including a Crash Smash, while this fascinating 'Making Of' feature reveals it was made in just 42 days!

Another fantastic talk on Eastern Europe was 'Playing with the Family: An Exploration of Computer Clubs and Arcades in Soviet Russia, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia during the 1980s and 1990s', by Regina Seiwald.

Doctor Seiwald's ambitious talk took in several countries, exploring multiple themes, including political games and games as a form of activism or protest, especially against the then Communist regime. Two titles were discussed. Prestavba (1988), a satirical text adventure which starts with an amusing puzzle, where you need light in a dark tunnel, but all you have is "Marxist capital" which you need to set fire to using a faulty USSR lighter. Eventually it emits the light of progress; the game's ending has players blowing up Lenin's statue! The other game is the impressively named The Adventures of Indiana Jones in Wenceslas Square in Prague on January 16, 1989. The author has never been discovered, but it was circulated during the Velvet Revolution. It's since been translated into English by Jaroslav Švelch, who inspired our CTW article. Although just a text adventure, and quite difficult, it can be played in your browser.

Try to think back to the 1980s and the zeitgeist you experienced. The UK had political games - the Monty Mole series was infamously inspired by the miner's strikes and featured a caricature of Arthur Scargill. But to truly appreciate these anecdotes of smuggling Spectrums, or making and sharing political games, you need to understand the dangers involved if caught. Another part of Dr Seiwald's talk touched upon how the Stasi, East Germany's brutal secret police, were monitoring computer clubs for any signs of sedition. To quote Encyclopaedia Britannica: "The Stasi was one of the most hated and feared institutions of the East German communist government." As a native German speaker Dr Seiwald has been going through the publicly accessible archives of the secret police and is planning further analysis. The Stasi Records Archive in Berlin and various regional offices makes all the records available.

"Thank You, Margaret Thatcher!" - How The UK Played A Leading Role In Eastern European Computing 6
Image: John Szczepaniak

Slowly but surely there's been a massive increase in the understanding of regional videogame histories, with local authors now documenting their own. A good book on the topic is Perspectives on the European Videogame, edited by Víctor Navarro-Remesal and Óliver Pérez-Latorre. You can find the contents and a free sample here.

As its blurb states:

The history of European videogames has so far been overshadowed by the global impact of the Japanese and North American industries. However, European game development studios have played a major role in videogame history and popular culture. It offers a kaleidoscope of European videogame culture, focusing on the analysis of European works and creators but also addressing contextual aspects and placing videogames within a wider sociocultural and philosophical ground. The aim of this collective work is to contribute to the creation of a, until now, almost non-existent yet necessary academic endeavour: a story and critical exploration of the works, authors, styles, and cultures of the European videogame.

There are other books too, including one by Svelch, solely on Czechoslovakia!

Wow. It's a lot to take in - decades of history across numerous countries, all of it intertwined with our own. At this point it's worth bringing up Grassroots of Digital Europe, which aims to bring together and integrate researchers across the continent. Professor Alex Wade, one of the co-chairs of the conference, explained: "There's a way of cataloguing and storing games, in the same way as books, that's universal. One of the projects that I'm a part of, the Grassroots of Digital Europe (GRADE), tries to do that. It engages at a national and international level. But even when you've got a European wide project like that, getting people, amateurs or pro-amateurs involved, is actually really difficult. I would not say there's an innate distrust of academia, but there isn't that kind of communication all the time."

We already discussed the seeming disconnect between academia and the mainstream. Conferences such as the History of Games, and articles such as these on Time Extension, hope to bridge this gap and open up further dialogue.

The post-millennium 20s have not been a great decade; we find ourselves in dark times. These talks on East European history showcased not only human endurance, but also a shared commonality, and how technology and games can bring us together, offering solace and hope for the future. They show what humans are capable of.