Great moments in gaming history

A lecture by Martin Berghammer, during Wiretap 5.13, on the history of computer games.

Today I will talk about some interesting aspects of computer games.

For a start I'll give a brief, historical overview and an introduction to different types of games. I will then point out some theoretical thoughts on narrative concepts in games, and later, there will be a practical part, where we will, of course, play…

The era of computer games began around the year 1980 with the classic arcade-games (Fossils - LogBook's classic video game archive) as a direct follow-up of Pinball machines: Space-Invaders, Asteroids and Pac Man. You had a joystick and a fire button - you put a nickel/a coin in the slot and you could play for a certain period of time or until you got killed....

In 1981 PACMAN for the Atari-computer came on the market, and the other game companies also released Atari-versions of the most popular Arcade-games. In addition, battery-powered standalone game toys became quite successful.

People didn't play much at home, the computer was not an entertainment-machine and not common in a normal household back then; all that was mostly for teens and kids, and basically considered a waste of time...

The main structure of games was more or less organized as a vertical one: the player had to solve a task or riddles (a problem- "how to survive..."), only to gain access to a higher level, where the tasks were more complicated, (the monsters move faster...), and so on...until he gets to a final level (the end of the story…), where he was considered a winner (and probably saved the world...)

Games evolved of course along with the development of the Hardware, faster chips, higher graphic resolutions, more memory - that allowed more sophisticated solutions for real-time rendering and interaction.

Different types of games begun to appear, with new narrative forms in which the "reader=user" interacted in new ways with a fictional environment.

Up until now, there are fixed points in these games - the beginning of a travel and the end, the step to another level; within these very few fixed points there are multiple readings with different chronologies, but there is no order.

The leading question is basically "where to go/what to do next."

A very good example is Myst (Cyan, 1993), an adventure-game, designed and directed by Rand and Robyn C. Miller. It is believed that Myst has sold more copies than any other PC game.

The non-linear game play lets players go anywhere, at any time. Unlike other adventure games, there is no inventory, and players never die. Anything you do can be undone.

I was struck by the many references insistently pointing towards textual concepts. For example the players main mission is to collect pages of books and therefore restore a blue and a red book. These books also serve as links to other worlds in the game.

There is a strong Jules Verne influence - it can be seen in the Victorian trappings in several of the rooms - some places look very much like Captain Nemo's cabin.

Those spaces and motifs used in the game Myst are strong references to literary precursors. Their spatial function is an intertextual one: the labyrinth alludes to the Greek labyrinth as well as to the technological set of Science Fiction; added to this SF-set we find an oversized gear wheel, and a spaceship. The library and the books allude to the world of Borges or Umberto Eco's libraries as well as to the world of fiction and storytelling in printed books in general. We find two wells, which remind us of the function of a well in fairy-tales and last but not least, the cottages in the trees, which allude Calvino's Barone rampante who lives in the trees.

Curiously enough a fan of the game wrote a journal (The Myst Journals) about his travels within the game and put it on the Internet...


Space and Memory

The player's capacity for mental reconstruction can help to transcend a mental image of geometric relationships among the linked parts of the game.

The efforts to conceptualise the work spatially can be quite successful, especially if the author helps out by providing means of orientation. A reader/user can navigate the game by creating a mental model of the game's architecture.


Frequency or repetition seems to be a time-category that is applicable to computer games. The example of Myst shows that frequency is one of the most important categories. The library - which is the central place in Myst - has to be visited several times to insert the pages into the books or to find information about the codes. As the player has to return to it again and again, the temporal structure of Myst can be described better as cyclical than as chronological. The cycle of events leads to the final event and the solution of the mystery of this game. It is not the sequence of events or their causal order that make us understand the final event, but their function as elements in a puzzle which has to be composed.

Time, as well as space, is here condensed in a way, which allows for multiple perspectives. These lead to a multiplication of narratives, all embedded in the boundaries of the given space.

As a summary I would say that computer games use narrative structures to organize their worlds.

A semiotic structure is projected onto the game to construct a possible world, which plays with traditional literary motifs and structures of time and space. Depending upon the player's response the computer presents more space, more images, and more text to explore. While a printed fictional text presents its episodes in one order, the digital space of the computer game removes that restriction. The movement between the episodes and places is dependent on the player's interactions with the game or intrusions into the given space. The player's "reading" experience depends on his decisions and interaction.

Fictional works, for example the fairy-tale in its traditional form, as well as its modern forms, such as fantastic literature and science fiction function as source for the intertextual narrative space in computer games. (See the study "Cybertextspace" by Dr. Karin Wenz)

Along with the success of the Internet emerged a new form of interaction in computer games: the multiplayer game. Instead of fighting all by himself against a pre-programmed artificial intelligence, the player would meet other players online, play, and communicate with them.

As an example for this technical change, that is one of the reasons for the success of computer games in mainstream culture, I will focus on action games, the so-called 1-person-shooters.

Action games in their single-player versions started also with (mostly poor) storylines that refer to SF/Phantasy settings. By training certain skills (aiming, movement) the player fights his way through different levels until he reaches the final showdown.

The leftovers of the narrative structure are only represented by the decor (the "textures") that evoke a certain SF-Phantasy-Adventure-setting to justify a situation of permanent threat and danger...

To be a good/successful player it is necessary to know by heart the space and the architecture, the placement of useful things (ammunitions, weapons, health-packs...) and the respawn-cycles of those objects.

Wolfenstein 3D (1992):

One of the first ever 1st-person-perspective shoot 'em ups, created by John Romero of idSoftware.

The game was very simple (no 3D-modelling, everything was flat), but very difficult. The aim was to find your way through each level to the lift, which would take you up to the next level without being killed by the Nazis. This involved killing anyone who got in your way, negotiating complex mazes and finding keys to locked doors. Extra points were awarded for collecting treasure, killing all of the enemies on the level and for locating secret rooms. In one of the secret levels in Wolfenstein we meet someone that looks familiar…. Pac Man!

By the time the source code was released the fans started editing the game, created new levels, modifications and so on.

Doom (1995), created by John Romero of idSoftware was still "fake-3D", as the models were still flat. It was the first game that introduced a multiplayer-client for peer-to-peer networks (LAN). The theme of the game

Recently, a group of programmers developed a tool for system administration with a 3-D interface based on Doom.

The editing community took of again with new level design and total conversions of the game.

With the introduction of the Multiplayer-Online-Clients the timeline and the explanatory aspect of discovering and progressing became less important. (Time became more important in another sense: the rates of your local ISP/Telephone company...)

Quake (1996):

Quake is id's sequel to "Doom"; it featured a new graphics engine where everything including players, monsters, and artefacts was rendered entirely of polygons, which made it the first real 3D-game ever.

The multiplayer-version proposed real online gaming and allowed players to communicate through a build-in chat-client.

The release of the game code made it possible for a fast growing community of builders to tweak the game in every potential way. (Examples: Airquake/Quake-Battle-Chess, Fisheye-quake).

Today, there are over 3400 custom Quake-maps available for download at fileplanet.com; you can check out the worst levels ever built at "maps from hell".

The fans and players rate these creations on their websites, they talk about new features and editing problems, and they give basic explanations to newcomers about the language and the etiquette in Quake. (www.weenie.com)

Clans, leagues and web-rings for single players and team play are formed, each with their self-designed skins. (See Ocrana - a german Quake clan)

That sounds a bit like talking about sports, and it sure has that attitude sometimes - here is CLQ-the Champions League for Quake. This website permanently tracks about 95000 game servers (7 Million players) worldwide and provides rankings and statistics for gamers.

A standard exercise in Quake-editing is the creation of custom "skins" (outfit for the player-model). The material that is used here reflects a permanent recycling of pop culture (Batman, Silver Surfer, Ronald Mc Donald, Sailor Moon, Spice girls, Cartman, Dilbert, …)

In fact, in 1999 we see a transition of the topic of gaming from the underground to mainstream-culture. This can be seen both in contemporary pop videos (Backstreet Boys, Missy Elliott) and in contemporary art shows (Game Over, synreal)

Last fall I curated an art show at shift e.V., Berlin called RELOAD, where we demonstrated some of the features that I am talking about here.

With the recent release of Quake-3-Arena the group of artists and programmers keeps working together on developing a new concept that


From my point of view the narrative in today's action games switched from the storyline of the game to the social context that emerges from the communication between the players and fans. The Internet provides an open metastructure that allows the creation of a strong community.

The history of Computer games is closely linked to the development of digital media and the hybridisation of culture and can therefore serve to highlight this process.

I am closing with a quote from Dr. Karin Wenz of the English Department at the University of Kassel:

The player of a computer game is not safe. Trying to experience a computer game is more like a personal improvisation with the risk of failure. The tensions at work in a computer game are not incompatible with those of narrative texts, but they constitute an extension: a struggle not merely for interpretive insight but also for narrative control. The reader in a computer game comes to be a player. …. While an understanding of and reflection on our world is missing, the cybertextual nature of computer games allows its users a better understanding of the potential and the future of multimedia.

Thank You

Martin Berghammer


More Links

Blue's News -- The Real Deal

WomenGamers.Com - Digital Women

XSReality - XSi Live Q3TV

[ Q3Arena.com ]


Fem.QuakePlayers - Psycho Men Slayers Website

Planet Quake

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