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Based on a study of 1980s UK computer and gaming magazines, this article argues that a gaming discourse emerges in the middle of the decade with the strategic goal of normalizing the activity. It succeeds – gaming spreads – but fails in that to present gaming effectively as an attractive leisure pursuit, gaming discourse has to absorb accusations of abnormality that were levelled at computer culture from the outset. Hence, ‘addictive’ gameplay becomes a good thing; the gamer is distinguished from the computer obsessive but is still defined as a ‘freak’, and gaming, having been presented as a realm of creative self-expression within the computer culture, becomes subject to the discourse of normal and correct computational practice. Gaming cannot escape the logic of its field, which determines that it will always try to be something more and better than gaming.
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DOI: 10.1177/1461444814558905
Making games normal:
Computer gaming discourse
in the 1980s
Graeme Kirkpatrick
University of Manchester, UK
Based on a study of 1980s UK computer and gaming magazines, this article argues
that a gaming discourse emerges in the middle of the decade with the strategic goal
of normalizing the activity. It succeeds – gaming spreads – but fails in that to present
gaming effectively as an attractive leisure pursuit, gaming discourse has to absorb
accusations of abnormality that were levelled at computer culture from the outset.
Hence, ‘addictive’ gameplay becomes a good thing; the gamer is distinguished from the
computer obsessive but is still defined as a ‘freak’, and gaming, having been presented
as a realm of creative self-expression within the computer culture, becomes subject
to the discourse of normal and correct computational practice. Gaming cannot escape
the logic of its field, which determines that it will always try to be something more and
better than gaming.
Computer gaming, content analysis, discourse analysis, home computing, gamers, game
studies, gaming discourse, gaming magazines, 1980s, technology and culture
Any new entertainment medium faces a period when its acceptance is in doubt. Sometimes
this is associated with a degree of anxiety that can lead to rejection, negative portrayal
and even stigmatization. These observations apply even to practices that subsequently
secure recognition as high art forms. According to Pierre Bourdieu (2005), literature took
Corresponding author:
Graeme Kirkpatrick, School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester, ALB, Oxford Road, Manchester
M13 9PL, UK.
558905NMS0010.1177/1461444814558905new media & societyKirkpatrick
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2 new media & society
several centuries to achieve this. In what follows, Bourdieu’s (1993) notion that success
requires the establishment of a determinate field of habits, dispositions and perceptions,
which enables people to recognize and respond to a class of objects in the necessary way,
is used to explore the early years of computer gaming.
Bourdieu’s notion is useful for historians of gaming because it accounts for the reflex-
ive entwinement of the medium and its cultural context in a way that assigns explanatory
priority to neither but rather emphasizes their mutually shaping character. This article
explores the process whereby computer gaming took its first steps towards becoming
normal and acceptable. By looking at the early years of gaming as reflected in the
UK-based gaming press of the 1980s, we gain an insight into the peculiar way in which
normalization was first attempted in connection with this particular cultural practice.
Different strategies were pursued to win an appropriate place for games in the culture.
At the same time, a Bourdieusian approach highlights the way that power operates
within the field, producing participants or actors of a certain social type while at the same
time affording them a tactical margin of manoeuvre (De Certeau, 1988), which may be
used to establish and occupy positions within the new field. In the early phase of com-
puter gaming, this involves a paradoxical relationship with the idea of normalcy itself.
Games and gaming present themselves not so much as ‘normal leisure pursuits’ as ‘nor-
mal in their abnormality’. This peculiar strategy reflects the fact that each field has its
own internal logic through which contradictions and antagonisms are played out and on
which basis relevant practices are sustained. Viewed in this way, gaming is itself a game
and, according to its rules, certain discursive constructions of the abnormal (‘addictive’,
‘crazed’) come to constitute a new normal.
While the field is key to securing a place for gaming in the wider culture, then, it also
exerts a limiting, constraining power over those who participate in creating it. As Marie
Hicks (2010) points out, ‘for all but the most exceptional practitioners, popular dis-
courses surrounding technology, skill and gender role can serve to powerfully reinforce
certain outcomes and effectively shut down other possibilities’ (p. 3). Gaming discourse
produces ‘normativity’ in George Canguilheim’s (1989 [1966]) sense of a polemic that
‘negatively qualifies sectors of the real’ (p. 239), so that there is a right and a wrong way
to participate in gaming and the norm for gamers is to be, in one construction or another,
a bit abnormal.1
The article leaves aside the issue of whether this situation has changed in subsequent
decades, focusing exclusively on gaming’s formative period.
I begin with a description of the magazines in the study and the methodology used.
The next section, ‘Children’s games?’, then provides an account of the problematic of
normalization in terms of the difficulty the magazines faced concerning the issue of child
readers and the presentation of computers and gaming to an audience that included
adults, children and everyone in between. As it became apparent that computers were
primarily being used to play games in 1980s homes, the magazines adjusted their strate-
gies and mode of address. It was clear that adolescent males were making games their
own and this is manifest in the discursive framing of games from the mid-1980s onwards.
The section headed ‘Stigma and pathology’ looks at the issue of addiction, exploring
the use of this metaphor to make sense of the compulsive nature of computer use in the
early 1980s. What Sherry Turkle (1984) called the ‘holding power’ of the computer was
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Kirkpatrick 3
viewed as a hazard by elements of the mainstream press, which often stigmatized com-
puter users as ‘obsessives’, and it was something that the specialist magazines also
reflected upon. Gaming discourse emerges here to liberate games from the taint of asso-
ciation with this, describing games in terms developed especially for the purpose
(Kirkpatrick, 2012) while denouncing ‘tech-heads’. At the same time, gaming cannot
make itself fully independent of the computer culture. Even as it denounces the ‘nerds’,
gaming discourse acknowledges that its ‘cool’ is based in ambiguity about its own
In the fourth section, ‘The limits of play’, the emergence of gaming as a discrete cul-
tural practice with its own vocabulary and norms is related to changes in the technology
and economics of the burgeoning games industry. In the pages of the magazines, we can
observe the decline of a culture of ‘do it yourself’ coding and free copying of game soft-
ware as gaming transitions into a world of copyright controls and legal restrictions on
player activity.
In each of these dimensions, the logic of gaming’s field is the same: There is an initial
problem or limit to be overcome and a possibility space looms just beyond it which it
seems as if the medium might, with improvement, come to fill. Games seem to be child-
ish toys; if they could just take the next step they could become something that merits the
interest adults are taking in them. Steps in this direction, however, end up with gaming
positioned in the nowhere territory between childishness and grown-upness. Gaming
struggles to shake off the stigma that computing is compulsive and strange yet it cannot
lose those connotations entirely without shedding the very thing that makes it appealing.
The result is an increasingly hyperbolic discourse in which addiction and abnormality
are presented as bases for an attractive new identity. Finally, gaming holds out the pos-
sibility of access to a world in which the only limits are those of the imagination but in
practice it increasingly ensnares the play of its participants in a web of technically
enforced controls and legal restrictions.
The magazines and methodology
The magazines analysed in this study were Computer and Video Games (hereafter CVG),
which ran from 1981 to 1995; Commodore User (CU), which was published between
1983 and 1990; and Zzap!, which was also aimed primarily at Commodore computer
users and was published from 1985 to 1995. CVG was initially the most popular of the
magazines, selling around 40,000 copies each month in the middle of the decade. Later
it seems to have been outsold by Zzap! which peaked at around 83,000 in early 1988
(Kimines, n.d.). CU’s circulation was smaller, with perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 regular
readers. All the magazines were published in the United Kingdom but had international
readerships in continental Europe, Scandinavia and Australasia. They seem to have been
among the most successful and widely read gaming magazines of the 1980s.
When home computers were first sold commercially in the late 1970s, most people
who bought them had little idea what they were for (see Ceruzzi, 2000; Freiberger and
Swaine, 1984; Kirkpatrick, 2013). Indeed, manufacturers prevaricated over whether the
machines were business tools, educational devices or entertainment technology. The
magazines reflect the ways in which people were responding to this question and
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4 new media & society
participate in shaping the answer. Given that the number of households with home com-
puters did not reach one million until the end of the decade, their circulation figures sug-
gest they were key participants in shaping home computing.
The magazines describe programming projects, bugs in commercial software, techni-
cal solutions as well as games. It bears emphasis, though, that from their inception all
three were at least as concerned with games as with generic computing issues. This
reflects the fact that the question of what machines like the Commodore and Spectrum
were for was being resolved on the ground by young people who used them to play
games (Selwyn, 2002). In the pages of the magazines, we can trace the process through
which computers and computing, and then games, gaming and gamers were positioned
and re-positioned in the wider culture. These activities were framed by rhetorical and
discursive strategies in the editorial pieces, which related news about the industry; soft-
ware reviews, which evaluated new games and other programs; and letters pages in
which readers expressed their views, asked questions and participated in shaping the new
In order to establish itself as an autonomous field, gaming had to distinguish itself
from computing, as a practice with its own rationale and values. Studying the magazines
enables us to see how this was achieved. What follows is a thematic discourse analysis
focused on how the magazines handled issues of abnormality and stigma in relation to
gaming and its effects on players. In its formative period, gaming discourse constitutes a
novel ordering of the world that draws out games as a salient feature of human activity
with computers and identifies categories of people on the basis of their involvement in it.
This discourse opens up a new stretch of social reality, organizing the perceptions and
dispositions that constitute a habitus in Bourdieu’s (1993) sense, articulated to discourse
on games and gamers that presented people with new subjective possibilities.
Gaming’s field defines the key tensions of gaming culture and specifies the margin of
manoeuvre for its human participants. Focusing on the issue of normalization facilitates
an exploration of gaming discourse in this, its strategic dimension. The magazines intro-
duce people to games and gaming but they also prescribe the correct way to enter this
field and establish rules of conduct that apply there. Gaming discourse insulates the new
community against attacks from outside but it does so not by presenting games as a uni-
versal force for good, open to all, but rather through strategies of inclusion/exclusion and
the use of rhetorical techniques that ‘re-position’ (Bourdieu, 1993) games in the culture.
The effect of this strategy is not to repudiate negative views on gaming but rather to
ensure that those views help bolster its appeal.
The discourse analysis is supplemented by a quantitative method, which involved
counting occurrences of particular kinds of statement in the editorials, articles, letters
pages and advertisements. This count focused on the following:
x References to addiction, addictiveness and players as addicted, or play as a com-
pulsive activity.
x Invocations of extreme sensations associated with gameplay in terms of risky
pleasures, including metaphors of drug use or mental illness.
x References to physical health issues associated with gameplay, including harm
caused by excessive play.
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Kirkpatrick 5
x Statements concerning whether games are educational or good for children’s
development and the usefulness of games as educational tools.
The sample for this part of the study consisted of 7 × 4 consecutive issues of the
monthly magazines.2 This gives seven quarter-year-long time slices drawn from a
15-year period. The quarters were selected at random, excluding selection of the same 4
months from any 2 years in case of distorting seasonal variations in content. The dis-
course analysis encompassed a further 72 issues of the magazines, each subject to counts
concerned with other themes in the study.3
Children’s games?
Computer games first appear in the context of a pre-existing technical culture. This is the
culture of the bricoleur (Levi-Strauss, 1966; Turkle, 1995) or dedicated hobbyist, in
which dabbling with technology, learning how things work and making things were
esteemed (Kirkpatrick, 2004; Levy, 1984; Taylor, 1999). It was in this context that the
term ‘hacking’ had its original meaning, namely, the practice of making an artefact per-
form some other function than the one its designers intended. In early magazines, games
mingle on the page with other software products and are not systematically picked out as
a special class of product meriting the application of distinctive evaluative criteria. At
this time, games are as often judged on how well they are programmed as on the quality
of the play they offer.
As others have pointed out (Haddon, 1988, 1992; Selwyn, 2010), a large part of the
promotion of computers in the United Kingdom in the early 1980s focused on their edu-
cational benefits. When discussing games, the earliest magazines tend to address their
readers as parents and present games as a benign part of the new practice of home com-
puting. Computers represent ‘the future’, so familiarity with them gained initially through
games will be an important advantage in the job market. The emphasis on education even
leads the magazines to sometimes present their own activity as teaching people to play
games on computers. Moreover, their efforts are appreciated by young readers who occa-
sionally express their gratitude in the letters pages. The adult tone of the magazines at
this time means that they can present games to parents as educational and to children as
something about which they can learn.
This strategy enables adult readers to overlook their own gaming proclivities, perhaps
encouraging them to think of the activity as something they do with or for their children.
The problem of game content that some might consider inappropriate for children and of
the compulsive, even addictive character of play with computer games is sometimes
raised. However, it is important to notice that in the first few years of the 1980s, the issue
of game addiction was not separated out from the addictiveness of computers. The latter
was a recognized problem but it affected all users. Games at this time could be assessed
on the basis of their ‘addictiveness’ but this was not specific to game programs. I found
no instance of it being treated as a particular concern in connection with young users.
A possible source of disruption to this situation was the existence of pornographic
games like ‘The Naughty One’ (1982). Reviews of this game were dispassionate and
sceptical about the games’ titillating properties. However, some readers’ letters
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6 new media & society
complained that reviewing them at all was inappropriate. A particular discursive strategy
was needed to handle this.
Adverts for CheetahSoft in mid-1984 marketed a tactical adventure game called
‘Conquest’ and a 3-D action maze game called ‘Bat Attack’ under the headline ‘After
these, the rest is kids stuff’ (CVG 32, June 1984, p. 10). The company logo was distinc-
tive, showing a realistic cheetah in full flight rather than a cartoon alien or wizard. The
firm presents its games as for adults not because they are about sex or include violence
but because of the experience they offer:
Are you ready for CheetahSoft? There’s only one way to find out. But be warned these vampire
bats know a good meal when they see one. And our friend with the scythe has had years of
experience. So don’t play unless you’re ready to play the game for real. Because you’ll find
there’s one sure thing about CheetahSoft. Soft we’re not.
This is interesting because it is a rare attempt to stake out ‘serious’ ground for games
without reducing them to their technical properties. It was common in 1984 to find
adverts that promoted games as seriously ‘well programmed’ but CheetahSoft’s claim is
about the quality of the games as played. It is their ‘hardness’ that makes them different
and superior. Playing ‘for real’ signifies difficulty and challenge in the game and a cer-
tain maturity in the player.
In this advert we can identify a possible way forward for the cultural framing of
games, which was not taken. It was perhaps obvious that qualitative distinctions could
be drawn between, for example, easy games for children and harder ones for adults
(the latter might include games with sexual content). The intersection with social
mores is more fraught than this, though, and what actually happens is that the language
of game evaluation, in which games and players are assessed and their qualities under-
stood, becomes entangled with inter-generational and other antagonisms. The separa-
tion of games from computing, game programs from other software, is not analytically
but socially mediated.
The period after 1985 sees games located on neither side of the boundary between
child and adult but in the territory in between. Games became firmly aligned with pop
music and with transgressive sensations associated with teenage culture, especially drug
taking. We can see this in the specific way that the magazines consider games as some-
thing other than technology and games players as different from computer enthusiasts.
In the early 1980s, music was discussed in the magazines mainly because hobbyists
enjoyed getting their computers to play tunes. A regular column in CU, for example, was
‘sounds with Sid’, which gave tips on making music with computers. In the early 1980s,
the magazines also report serious musicians’ interest in games. Punk musician Pete
Shelly, for example, released a tape, ‘XL-1’, in 1984 that contained both music and a
game (CVG 23 September 1983, p. 20). These kinds of project illustrate the ongoing
embroilment of games in the computer culture of bricolage and creativity. By the late
1980s, however, editorials include photographs of pop stars and discuss their gaming
preferences merely to affirm the common ‘cool’ credentials of the magazines, games and
the musicians. The group ‘Pop will eat itself ’ are pictured in the February 1995 issue of
CVG, for example, because they are friends with the editor.
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In the second half of the decade, then, we see games presented as a teenage pastime.
The magazines now address readers in terms that are not parental but engage them as
equals, on the assumption that they are ‘gamers’a term which, like ‘gameplay’, increas-
ingly features in the magazines after mid-1985 (Kirkpatrick, 2012). Diminutive terms
like ‘the young enthusiast’ or even ‘gamester’ disappear as it becomes clear that the audi-
ence are both a bit too old for that and yet too young and ‘cool’ to be interested in com-
puters as technology.4
The key development here is the repudiation of technology and computers as the
defining context for games. Game programs are to be assessed for how they play rather
than how well they have been programmed. This involves re-positioning games in the
culture, away from computers and closer to other elements of popular entertainment
culture. There was rhetorical violence in the creation of this distinction, which we can
see in the magazines.
Some computing magazines defined themselves as ‘serious’ and therefore not con-
cerned with games.5 An editorial in Zzap! in June 1986 reports that the editor of a rival
publication, Commodore Computing International, has described the magazines with a
games focus as bringing ‘general regard for the home computer to the elevated level of
the hula hoop’ (Zzap! 14, p. 7). The article goes on to describe his comments as ‘self-
defeating, a voice in the wilderness trying to tell you that what you are doing is bad for
you’ but there is no counter-argument that makes the case for the value of games as
entertainment or art. Reference to Zzap!’s superior sales figures and the implication that
‘serious’ magazines are losing market share stand in for this.
This critic from the world of technology and computers was not alone in discerning
and reacting against the shift in the content and character of the magazines that were
becoming privileged sites for the production of gaming discourse. A letter in the October
1986 issue of CU protests against what the reader sees as a change in tone of the games
I have been taking CU since November ’84. The other day I got them all out and analysed their
contents and on the evidence, CU has changed and you no longer cater for the older, more
serious reader…your target readership must now be the 12-20 year olds and the younger end of
that group rather than the older. I have decided it is time to bid a reluctant farewell to what was
once a fine magazine. (CU 37 October 1986, p. 5)
This letter is by no means a lone voice. From the perspective of slightly older readers
who had enjoyed games as part of a panoply of software that introduced them to comput-
ing the new discourse seemed empty and even unpleasant. Some of these letters bemoan
a new comic-like quality to the magazines, which reflects the focus on younger readers.
The response to such complaints could be vitriolic. Other readers encouraged the
magazines in the new direction: In CU 34, a letter refers to people complaining about the
new tone in the reviews as ‘miserable, jumped up little nerds’ (CU 34, July 1986, p. 5).
In CU 35, another chides one of the magazine’s reviewers for being more interested in
how a game was programmed than in actually playing it (CU 35, August 1986, p. 7).
Henceforth, gaming discourse establishes a direct connection with the new ‘gamers’ and
repudiates the older ‘tech-heads’, who are now often viewed with derision.
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The shift in the way the magazines treat the issue of childhood and the relation of
games to children and adults is neatly encapsulated in two articles on the theme of com-
puters and education. An article in CU 19, in March 1985, describes a school that has
opted to buy Commodore computers rather than BBC Micros, despite the relative lack of
educational software for those machines. The over-riding theme of the article is the lack
of resources in UK schools at this time. The only reference to games is a kind of denial:
‘I spoke to some of the pupils and found that, contrary to popular belief, many were
interested in more serious applications for their computers than games’ (CU 19, March
1985, p. 56).
A few years later in Zzap! 75, in July 1991, there is a review of educational games
software package, ‘Fun School 3’ (1991). The article appears to address parents, with a
headline asking if the program might ‘turn your kidz into Oxford brainboxes’. The tone
is light and by the first paragraph, the reader is invited to ‘imagine all those parents stack-
ing their offspring’s shelves with more and more software’, so it is no longer clear that
the intended reader is an adult. The article then announces that selling computers and
software because of their educational benefits ‘amount(s) to one of the biggest con tricks
of all time’ and proceeds to assess the program in terms of how well it plays.6 At this
stage in the development of gaming discourse even ostensibly educational games must
measure up as games. The reviewer’s criticisms focus on the lack of a joystick option;
graphics that ‘fall short of arcade standards’, and the absence of enemies who might be
shot down as a result of giving correct answers. The article unabashedly claims that
school would be more fun and more effective if it was more like a game, which ‘…might
go a long way to improving exam results’ (p. 37).
The difference between the two articles is the presence in the second of a discourse
that structures the perception of the author. In the first, games are barely visible. In the
second, gameness invites an attitude that can be used to assess games but also applies
to other activities. This reflects a confidence lacking in the earlier magazines about
what games are, who is interested in them and where they stand in the wider culture.
For this to have happened, gaming discourse had to find a way to contend with various
kinds of stigma that were applied to games as part of the burgeoning computer culture
in the early 1980s.
Stigma and pathology
In the early 1980s, computer enthusiasts were often portrayed as socially awkward
machine-obsessed males, lacking in personal hygiene (Levy, 1984). In this context,
games were rarely singled out for attention but appeared as part of an array of practices
associated with a single stigmatized group. In their role as agents in the construction and
maintenance of a computing community, the magazines had to counter these negative
portrayals. Their dominant tactic was humorous embrace of the negative representations,
especially the idea of a pathology associated with computer use.
Under the heading ‘Afflictions of our times’, an article in CU from November 1983
plays liberally with health and illness metaphors to describe a range of ‘maladies’ to
which the ‘dedicated buff is acutely vulnerable’, the most common of which is ‘buffini-
tis’. A series of conditions are described including ‘Frogger syndrome’, which involves
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Kirkpatrick 9
game-induced lack of attention to road safety and ‘artificially induced debugger syn-
drome’ (AIDS), which is caught by sharing program cartridges. There is also ‘joystick
hand’ – symptoms include ‘a wild-eyed eagerness to finger rigid upright objects (e.g.
unripe bananas)’ (CU 3, November 1983, p. 41). It is important to notice that the article
does not distinguish gamers from other ‘buffs’.
A second tactic involved serious articles that presented computing as a responsible
new profession. For example, the creation of the Guild of Software Houses (GOSH), in
Autumn 1983, is reported in terms that counter prevalent negative views of the industry.
An article in CU 1, acknowledging that the software industry is perceived as profiting
from gullible users, hails the foundation of GOSH as the ‘conscience of the software and
computer industry’ (September 1983, p. 6). Here computing is presented as making itself
A third tactic arises specifically in connection with games. Early magazines some-
times frame the intense engagement of gameplay as positive behaviour. An article in
CVG 33, July 1984, illustrates this, describing the achievement of a university student
who showed ‘amazing stamina and dedication’ by playing an arcade game for charity for
30 hours. According to the report, the feat only ended when the games cabinet collapsed,
with the controller shearing away in the player’s hand. This could have been constructed
as an instance of crazed addiction and a few years later it surely would have been, but the
magazine is concerned to present it as commendably well motivated.
Paradoxically perhaps, this kind of positive representation of gaming as virtuous,
even socially responsible activity actually becomes less salient in the magazines as gam-
ing discourse becomes more autonomous. After mid-1985, metaphors of addiction
abound in game reviews. Gaming discourse imports terms from drug culture, so the ter-
minology of this appraisal differentiates as well. Games get you ‘hooked’, ‘blow your
mind’, are ‘for loonies’, can turn you into a ‘games junky’ and the better they are, the
more there is a hint of risk associated with playing them. The key development here is
the way that gaming discourse incorporates the pathologizing terms that had been used
to label computer culture and makes them into signs of authenticity.7 A true game is
addictive and a real gamer is an avowed junkie (see Figure 1).
As the symbols of pathology are embraced, however, the stigma previously associated
with them is displaced. As gaming finds new friends in the world of pop music and youth
culture, it denies its association with computing and applies negative stereotypes to peo-
ple in the computing fraternity. The stigma of addiction is excised and displaced onto
‘tech-heads’, ‘nerds’, older gamers, females, anyone who ‘doesn’t get it’ about games.
The exchange of views in letters pages about the content and quality of game reviews
discussed in the previous section illustrates this point.
Interestingly, when the issue of addiction is broached in a non-rhetorical way in later
issues, the focus is always on computer addiction, even as the addictiveness of games is
lauded and celebrated. In August 1987, one of the team at CVG did a television interview
on the ‘addictiveness of playing computers’ – not games (CVG 70, August 1987, p. 12).
In an exchange in the letters pages of Zzap! 77 (September 1991, pp. 25–26), a reader
expresses what appears to be genuine concern that they may be ‘a computer addict’ and
the editorial response is re-assuring, including advice on how to make casual conversa-
tion. There is some gentle mocking but the most striking thing is that games are not
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10 new media & society
mentioned. At this point, in the early 1990s, it is taken as given that they are addictive but
this is not a problem, while being addicted to computers might be.
Here we see the logic of gaming’s field: It presents gaming as breaking with the
stigma of abnormality and pathology, which beset the pre-existing computer culture, yet
finds itself incapable of locating games anywhere else. Just as gaming breaks with child-
hood but fails to make itself grown-up, so gaming discourse attempts to shed the associa-
tion with pathological computer use only to end up framing its activity more strongly in
terms of addiction. The re-positioning is real but the destination is somewhere between
the original cultural location and the one aimed for.
One further effect of the structural transformation of gaming discourse is to move
reflection on the bodily impact of gamesplay from consideration of instilled habits,
which, as we saw above, might carry over to other contexts with humorous results, onto
a series of negative symptoms peculiar to gamers, especially their hands and thumbs.
Hence, we get references to ‘konix hand’ (Zzap! 63, July 1991, p. 42) or ‘firebutton fin-
ger’ (CVG 70, August 1987, p. 30). The content analysis shows that references like this
to physical harm become more common in the second half of the decade, with three such
in the first two samples, 11 in the second two. This reflects the fact that prior to this, the
issue of the gamer habitus had not been resolved. Addictive games are the ones that
require expert use of the hands in frenetic movements informed by intuitive knowledge
of the controller. Once this has been established as the normal repertoire of the gamer, its
negative consequences in calloused thumbs and finger-tips can be registered.
Drug/mind metaphors
Bodily harm
Figure 1. Results of content analysis counting occurrences of ‘addiction’; metaphors invoking
drug abuse and altered mental states; educational benefits of computer use; and references to
bodily harm associated with excessive use, 1983–1991.8
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Kirkpatrick 11
Gaming succeeds, then, in making itself cool and in breaking with the stigma of com-
puter use. But it does so only to entangle itself more deeply in the rhetoric of gameplay
as pathology. The strategy of humorous distancing is therefore recycled, now specifically
in connection with games. In April 1992, CVG readers were offered a quiz that would
enable them to determine if they were a ‘Games fan or a sad man?’ The questions consist
of comic scenarios with the reader asked to select from a list of possible actions. For
The school bully has his sights set on you! Do you:
a) tell him that bullies are cowards
b) keep well out of the way – you don’t want any trouble
c) Remove your shirt and swallow a power pill before performing a roundhouse kick and
whacking him over the head with a beer barrel? (CVG 125, April 1992, p. 29)
Adding up their points, readers can sort themselves into one of three categories. The first
has probably only picked up the magazine by accident instead of their ‘usual copy of
Diesel and Electric Tram Monthly’ and is not a gamer. The second ‘aren’t too far away
from becoming a hot games freak’. The third is an authentic gamer:
Unbelievable! If a man stopped you in the street and asked for change for the phone, you’d
probably eat a mushroom, grow to twice your normal size and jump on his head! You’re a
games fan and you’re fab! Don’t ever forget to get your copy of CVG, though, otherwise you
may begin to dribble and wear your underpants on your head … (CVG 125, April 1992, p. 29)
It is notable that the greatest contempt here is reserved for the ‘tram enthusiast’, which
is indicative of the continued derision aimed at technology hobbyists. ‘Games freak’ is a
construction that echoes the terminology of drug culture. The authentic gamer is here
cast in terms that confirm a positive association with mental pathology ‘dribbling’.
These metaphors circulate more freely, the greater the emphasis on humour in any given
article, while even quite dry reviews continue to describe games as ‘addictive’. The posi-
tive significance of this term within the discourse on games is different from the trou-
bling one it has in connection with technical items outside gaming’s field.
The limits of play
The changes described above to the logic of gaming’s field occurred in close relationship
to technological and commercial changes in the 1980s. Viewed in this perspective, the
magazines played an important role not just in promulgating gaming culture and identity
but also in policing gamer behaviour and producing the kinds of consumers that were
needed by the industry. The crazed and addicted gamer is, strangely enough, also a nor-
malized subject. The magazines managed a tension between gaming discourse and the
other strategy being pursued by the games industry at this time, which was to seek
respectability. Even as the British games industry tried to present itself as ‘responsible’,
its success depended upon the development of a cultural field that invoked ideas of trans-
gressive practice, danger and risk to young people.
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12 new media & society
Here it is important to notice the material economic and cultural context of games
production in Britain in the early 1980s. The majority of games for home computers prior
to 1984 were made by small independent firms and individual hobbyists who formed the
basis of a lively culture of copying and sharing, which the magazines contributed to in
their early years. CVG and CU both devoted about 20% of their pages to lines of code,
which readers copied into their machines to make games. Zzap! gave away free tapes
containing games throughout the 1980s. Firms seeking to make money from games had
to find a way to ‘own’ their products, which was difficult so long as games were circulat-
ing freely in a culture based on copying. The formation of GOSH in 1983 was part of the
response. Lobbying the UK government, GOSH was instrumental in securing legal
restrictions on copying in the 1984 video recording act, which made it technically illegal
for anyone to copy a game or other software program.
In return, though, the industry had to concede that games would be subject to classi-
fication, on the same basis as films, if their content included sex, excretion or violence
towards animals.9 This mattered because the very definition of what counted as a game
was being changed by the emergence of gaming discourse, which foregrounded games
with dubious, addictive contents. Gaming discourse comes into existence, then, in an
environment that is being shaped by commercial forces and legal authorities. The diver-
sity of early, home brew games production gave way to a narrowing of the market around
specific genres, guided by the production of gaming sensibilities and tastes. Developers
and publishers had to feed the demand for ‘mind-blowing’ objects, while at the same
time convincing legislators of their respectability.10
The magazines struggle with the closing net of legal restriction around the culture of
copying. In the middle of the decade, we find letters and occasionally even editorials
maintaining the important difference between kids exchanging cassettes in the play-
ground and organized criminal piracy. The tone in these discussions was ambivalent,
reflecting the magazines’ dependent position in relation to game producers. In the course
of 1985–1986 copying of games and especially the practice of selling copies on is
labelled as ‘piracy’ and increasingly cast as a threat to the industry. Notwithstanding this,
the magazines are themselves deeply implicated in the culture of copying and sharing.
Moreover, they depend at least as much on the affinity they have with their readers on
this issue as they do on the games companies.
The attempt to label and criminalize ‘wrong’ kinds of activity as piracy is related to
the consolidation of gaming as a commercial activity, which also occurs in 1985–1986.
It was only in 1985 that the language through which ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ approaches to
computing and software were identified really began to solidify. In CVG 32, June 1984,
the word ‘hacker’ was used in its original sense of creative computing, to advertise pro-
gramming jobs.11 The first international hacking conference took place in 1985 (Swalwell,
2012), which coincides with the emergence of gaming, both of them becoming more or
less autonomous cultural fields with their own logics at this time. With the new legal
protections mentioned above, games were now clearly defined as commodities and this
was exploited by larger companies often backed by capital and games from the United
Alongside them, other developers and publishers consolidated, so that the tiny adverts
for games companies up and down the United Kingdom, which filled the magazines in
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Kirkpatrick 13
1983, give way to fewer larger ones for industry survivors in 1985–1986. Hundreds of
independent producers, who accounted for the majority of games production just a cou-
ple of years earlier, disappeared in late 1984 to early 1985.
In a letter published in Zzap! in May 1986, a programmer objects to the increasing
cost of games and relates this to the market dominance of a few corporations, whose only
motive ‘is their sheer greed for profit and power’. He continues,
… they deserve every bit of piracy that eats away at their mountains of ten pound notes.
Now many people will write in saying, ‘Yes but software pirates are only in it for the money
too’. This is true and I condemn those who churn out 1000s of copies of pirated games. They’re
almost as bad as the mega-buck corporations. (Zzap!, 13 May 1986, p. 8)
The solution is ‘small-time back bedroom programmers getting together to sell their
programs at a sensible low-profit making price, all over the country’, organized into ‘a
software collective’. The magazine dismisses this vision as ‘idealistic nonsense’ but
remains ambivalent on the piracy issue. This reflects the fact that it is navigating the
growing set of restrictions on copying and sharing on one side and the reality of how
their readers use games on the other.
The campaign against piracy grows throughout the second half of the 1980s. In
October 1987, CVG (72, p. 144) ceased carrying small ads for second hand software. In
August 1991, Zzap! announced that new legislation now limited them to two free games
in their covertape (Zzap! 76, p. 23). This attempt to reform the gamer habitus, to adjust
perceptions so that gamers would view games as commodities, was never likely to suc-
ceed and its failure is reflected in the continuing ambivalence of the magazines. They
continue to carry adverts for the Action Replay, for example, which was sold as a cheat
device but enabled users to port games between platforms and to make illegal copies,
even as they disavowed copying as an illegal practice.
As we have seen, the computer gamer was formed through a process of differentiation
from the ‘computing fraternity’. This involved aggressive repudiation of the wider com-
puter culture and the deployment of negative stereotypes to establish a boundary between
gamers and ‘nerds’. In other words, as gamers embrace their own stereotype, which
involves ‘addiction’ and social dysfunction, they also assert a kind of cool that they pos-
sess in virtue of being young and having what Consalvo (2008) calls ‘gaming capital’,
which they acquire from successful participation in the new field. While gamers may be
addicted ‘freaks’, their investment in this field ensures they are superior to computer
obsessives. This derives from the cultural position attained by the new field, close to pop
The new gamer identity acquires some of its sheen from the negative comment
applied to games at this time. Being a gamer is more appealing in proportion as games
are portrayed in the wider media as something dubious and gaming acquires some of
its vocabulary from other suspect areas in the culture. The language of addiction, ‘hits’
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14 new media & society
and ‘blowing your mind’ was imported into gaming culture. Gaming was framed as
youthful, male and rebellious in a way that echoed the media’s portrayal of rock music
a generation earlier.
The authentic gamer could not be just anyone: this identity had to be one with selec-
tive appeal (cf. Consalvo, 2008; Crawford, 2012; Dovey and Kennedy, 2006). To an
extent, it had to be attractive to some people because it troubled and gave concern to
others. In producing this subject position, then, gaming discourse interpellated gamers
by reassuring them of their normality, of the ‘naturalness’ of gaming as a pastime and its
intrinsic value. It reassured them about these things while responding to popular media
coverage that, in various ways, stigmatized gamers and gaming as problematic. Yet this
could not be done through simple repudiation of the negative labels, since part of the
appeal of being a gamer lay precisely in the antagonism with those who condemned gam-
ing as pathological. The authentic gamer is produced through a subtle interweaving of
negative stereotypes with assertions of validity.
This ambivalence is manifest in the use of metaphors of illness, pathology and depend-
ency to appraise gaming. Addiction, which was used to stigmatize computer buffs, gets
turned around into a positive value. Gaming discourse trades on the idea that games play-
ing is like drugs. Presenting as a new risk enables games to find a place for themselves
in teenage culture. The rhetorical construction of games as ‘mind blowing’ and of players
as ‘arcade junkies’ must be read in this light. Gaming inherits the language of an earlier
sub-culture to describe its products in terms that make them appealing because they are
transgressive. Just as with the drugs culture of the 1960s and 1970s, ‘squares’ don’t get
it but the authentic ‘head’, now ‘gamer’, can be addicted and enjoy it.
Finally, gaming discourse appeals to the creativity of players, encouraging them to
believe that the only limits are those of their imaginations. This is the culture of the bed-
room coder, the kids sharing tapes in the playground and even the hours spent copying
games programs from the magazines into home computers, which is how many learnt the
basics of programming. At the same time, gaming discourse participates in shaping
the legal and commercial environment that prohibits hacking and creating games without
the relevant permissions. The dynamics of this shift as gaming’s field becomes estab-
lished, technology changes and the law applying to digital artefacts grows more com-
plex. None of these factors causes the others – they are entwined with and act on each
other throughout. This article has tried to present the notion of gaming as a cultural field
that framed these practices and managed them through a distinctive logic in which a play
with the pathological became the sign of a new normal.
The author would like to thank Sarah Carling, Cheryl Martens, Theodor Araby-Kirkpatrick, Paul
Brown, Velli-Matti Karhulahti, Maria B. Garda and three anonymous readers for their help in the
production of this paper.
This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial or
not-for-profit sectors.
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Kirkpatrick 15
1. For Canguilheim (1989 [1966]) too this is a reflexive process: ‘Rule begins to be rule only in
making rules and this function of correction arises from interaction itself’ (p. 241).
2. The sample for the content analysis covered the following issues and periods: Commodore
User (CU) 1–4 (September to December 1983), 38–41 (November 1986 to February 1987);
Computer and Video Games (CVG) 32–35 (June to September 1984), 70–73 (August to
November 1987), 100–103 (March to June 1990); Zzap! 11–14 (March to June 1986), 75–78
(July to October 1991).
3. The other content analyses focused on game evaluation and the question of gender.
4. More precisely, reference to technology is increasingly used as a marker of how well a game
comports with gamer preferences but without detailed description of programming issues or
technical details.
5. From 1985, the PC World Expo in London, an important annual event in the computer indus-
try, excluded games companies for the first time (Zzap!, 6 October 1985).
6. The content analysis shows there are fewer references to education in the magazines later in
the decade, with 10 in the first two samples and just 1 in the two after 1985 – see Figure 1.
7. In CU 2, October 1983, p. 22, a review concludes, ‘The game is totally addictive, but great
fun’. The ‘but’ would be completely out of place in later reviews.
8. There is a dip in the count for addiction and altered mental state references in the sample from
end 1986 to early 1987. The sample consists of four issues of one magazine and so its impor-
tance should not be over-stated and needs to be viewed in the context of the overall change in
tone of the magazines described here.
9. The 1984 Video Recording Act exempted games from ratings except in these cases. The first
game to receive a rating was Dracula (1986).
10. Kline et al. (2003) highlight the same tension in their discussion of the legal and commer-
cial battles between console producers in the 1990s. Gaming and computing magazines also
played an active role at this time, as discussed by Cassidy (2002) and Consalvo (2008). In
these studies, the key terms of gaming discourse are taken for granted but they were estab-
lished earlier, in part through the agency of the magazines being discussed here.
11. For the definitive account of the changing meanings of ‘hacker’, see Chandler (1996).
12. According to an article in CU (34, July 1986, pp. 53–55), about one quarter of the European
market in software in 1986 was held by ‘US Gold’, who specialized in converting games from
American console cartridges onto tape and disc for UK and European home computers. The
US console industry had collapsed in 1982–1983, meaning the rights to these games were
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Author biography
Graeme Kirkpatrick writes on critical theory, technology and computer games. His recent books
include Computer Games and the Social Imaginary (Polity Press, 2013), Aesthetic Theory and the
Video Game (Manchester University Press, 2011) and Technology & Social Power (Palgrave,
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