Progress update: Games behind the Iron Curtain
It’s already been a year since I defended a dissertation on the history of computer games in the 1980s Czechoslovakia. It’s time to gather all the links to my published work on this topic and give an update on where this project’s heading.
As you may know, Czechoslovakia was a Soviet satellite, divided from the West by the Iron Curtain and therefore peripheral in terms of game culture. It was governed by a rigid Communist party that was more conservative than its Polish, Hungarian or Soviet counterparts, and its economy was inefficient, centrally planned, and did not allow for private enterprise. A short overview of the history follows:
While the party officials realized that computers are the future and supported their adoption at schools and “computer clubs”, they dismissed the importance of people having their own devices at homes and using them for entertainment, all to the discontent of hobbyists and their supporters. Acquiring a computer often involved personal sacrifices, smuggling and the black market. Owners of these machines, predominantly the ZX Spectrums and 8-bit Ataris, usually convened in computer clubs, which often had the official backing and support of “socialist organizations”. Clubs soon became hubs of efficient cassette-based informal distribution networks, in which games constituted the most trafficBy 1985, this network was well connected to European flows of pirated software, and local players could thus enjoy, as well as misunderstand, foreign games. The meaning of games was not uncontroversial. On the one hand, many users were enthralled by the colorful, moving, interactive images they offered. At the same time, more traditionally inclined hobbyists feared that games were just passive entertainment that would curb creative work and delegitimize computer enthusiasts in the eyes of the public and the government. However, many home computer owners were indeed active users, who not only played games, but also dissected, cracked and modded them, and created their own works.
While Czechoslovak games could not deny Western influences, they served different purposes and therefore appropriated their templates in locally specific ways. This can be documented by the popularity of Czech and Slovak text adventures (“textovky”) and the local phenomenon of text-based hacking games, which never took off as a genre in the West. Local games were almost exclusively homebrew and therefore resembled pre-industrial “personal transmissions” rather than entertainment products. Their authors used them to circulate messages about themselves and their coding abilities, about their experiences, and also about their political views – as evidenced by activist anti-government games such as Indiana Jones on Wenceslas Square – a title which pits the iconic hero of Western popular culture against the members of the Communist police during a demonstration that preceded the events of the Velvet Revolution.
My research will soon yield a book in Czech, to be published by Charles University Press hopefully in 2015, and later a book English – I’m currently talking to publishers and editors. My former graduate students and doctoral students at the Masaryk University in Brno are meanwhile working on follow-up projects that will cover the 1990s in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
And here’s a list of links to the stuff that’s already been published in English:
Say it with a Computer Game: Hobby Computer Culture and the Non-entertainment Uses of Homebrew Games in the 1980s Czechoslovakia, an article in Game Studies
Indiana Jones fights the communist police: Local appropriation of the text adventure genre in the 1980s Czechoslovakia, from the Gaming Globally book
An older version was presented at the MIT7 conference in 2010. Rhizome have a scoop here.
Selling games by the kilo: using oral history to reconstruct informal economies of computer game distribution in the post-communist environment, from 2010 FROG proceedings – it’s old and I’ve reworked this part, but this is the only piece on distribution currently in English
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