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Heterodoxy in Game History: Towards More ‘Connected Histories’

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Abstract

Drawing on the author’s research into fragmented, heterogeneous ‘local’ contexts, this chapter explores analogies between local/global game histories and micro and macro (or global) approaches to history, to imagine a heterodox game historiography, conceived as one which undermines old orthodoxies whilst refusing new ones.
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M. Swalwell (ed.), Game History and the Local, Palgrave Games in
Context, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-66422-0_12
CHAPTER 12
Heterodoxy inGame History: Towards More
‘Connected Histories’
MelanieSwalwell
Microhistorians have been compared to trufe hunters in contrast to
those who, like parachutists, survey wide vistas.
Francesca Trivellato
I want to begin by returning to the earliest research I conducted on digital
game history in 1980s New Zealand. I had learnt of a signicant amount
of New Zealand-made game hardware and locally written software that
was little known outside the country (or inside, for that matter (Brown
2003)). Two things were immediately clear to me. First, that the history I
was helping to surface contradicted the established wisdom—the then
orthodoxy—of game history, that pretty much everything of note was
either North American or Japanese. Second, that much of the material
history of digital gaming in New Zealand was hybrid, having thoroughly
mixed origins. This last fact is explained by the trade policies New Zealand
M. Swalwell (*)
Transformative Media Technologies, Swinburne University of Technology,
Melbourne, VIC, Australia
e-mail: mswalwell@swin.edu.au
222
had in place until the mid-1980s, to keep large quantities of imported
goods out. Despite this, the game artefacts I was researching spoke of
constant contact with the ‘outside’ world. Local content was not ‘100%
pure’—as the nation’s tourist marketing slogan goes. The ‘local’ was
already in the 1980s a pan- or trans-local. Imported arcade boards would
be housed inlocally built cabinets and the Sportronic console utilised the
popular General Instruments AY-3-8500 chip. Even Kitronix’s ‘Malzak’
(1980)—a wholly New Zealand-made arcade game, with locally made
cabinet, artwork, buttons, and joysticks, coded from the ground up on an
Apple II—is a ‘clone’ of the international hit, ‘Scramble’ (Swalwell and
Davidson 2016; Swalwell 2015).
These dual realisations lead me to simultaneously focus on the specici-
ties of the New Zealand situation—where it accorded with and where it
departed from extant histories—and to problematise the ‘localness’ of the
case study. I noted that while it might be tempting to treat the local New
Zealand game production scene as if it grew up separately from produc-
tion elsewhere in the world, such an unproblematic ‘local’ approach was
unable to adequately account for the complexity of factors that contrib-
uted to the industry in the 1970s and 1980s. The New Zealand case study
provides a very clear example of the interaction between local structural
factors, wider non-local conditions, and imported componentry com-
bined with local opportunism.
My earliest foray into the game history subeld thus saw me asking how
the localness of game history ought to be conceived (M.Swalwell 2005).
It’s a good question, one that we should continue to ask. Some fteen
years later, I want to look back and ask—and try to offer an answer to the
question that was often demanded of me—what is the critical potential of
locality for computer and game histories? I suspect that an answer lies in
another question that I desperately wanted to be able to work on, namely
how the New Zealand case study compared to other nations, but this was
a question that wasn’t really possible to answer in 2004. I was able to
compare the New Zealand case to what I could read or glean about the
USA, Japan, and occasional other elsewheres—such as in Jaro Gielens’
compendium about handhelds, Electronic Plastic (2000), and shortly
thereafter Graeme Kirkpatrick’s article on Meritums in Poland (Kirkpatrick
2007)—but there wasn’t enough in-depth scholarly research to allow me
to satisfactorily answer this question. Hopeful, I applied for funding for a
multi-national project, but of course no one was prepared to nance such
a project in the 2000s. But the landscape has changed, and so we should
M. SWALWELL
223
be prepared to heed this and challenge ourselves to answer these questions
about game history’s critical potential, now.
As I see it, the ‘local’ game history project—if we can call it that1—is an
attempted corrective to some of the problems with the rst draft of game
history, which had many limitations and omissions. In this chapter, I con-
ceive of the emergence of a game history concerned with the local as being
in transition: from something resembling micro-histories to more ‘con-
nected histories’. I want to use the discussion about microhistory that’s
been had for some decades to challenge game historians to ask, what
comes next? What comes after local case studies? Taking inspiration from
Carlo Ginzburg’s classic study, I argue that ‘local’ game history is hetero-
dox: often focusing on the outlier examples from the ‘periphery’, it under-
mines orthodoxies. Heterodoxy has the potential not just to throw up
divergent accounts, but to also throw into question what we thought we
knew about the ‘centre’. However, the two sets of concerns need to be
brought together somehow. In this essay, I briey introduce microhistory
and its debates, before asking, after historians Peter Burke and Francesca
Trivellato what it might mean to move towards more ‘connected histories’
(Sanjay Subrahmanyam in Trivellato 2011)? My concern is not so much
with whether game histories concerned with the local are microhistories as
with what can be gleaned from the debate as it has played out over the
decades. Ultimately, my aim is to ask what comes after the very necessary
attention to local specicity?
Debates onMicrohistory
The epithet above is apparently a riff on Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s
characterisation of historians as either trufe hunters or parachutists:
microhistorians are compared to trufe hunters, contrasted with the global
historian-parachutists, surveying supposedly wider vistas (Trivellato 2011).
Debates over the local in game history bear some resemblance to debates
about microhistory (‘micro’ indicating the scale of analysis). ‘Local’ game
history involves undertaking research that is located in a specic time and
1 We have a list of 100+ subscribers and have been hosting panels at conferences for at least
15years, so I think it is credible to talk of this as a project, though afliation is loose. There
is no agreed set of terms, nor any unied positions. The fact that game history scholars have
independently arrived at similar approaches to research objects yet not undertaken any steps
to formalise association suggests that this may well be a common project.
12 HETERODOXY IN GAME HISTORY: TOWARDS MORE ‘CONNECTED…
224
place, as indeed does all historical research, but perhaps dened somewhat
more specically. ‘Local’ game history might be analogous to the trufe
hunter side of Le Roy Ladurie’s dyad, but it would be too simplistic to see
these as mutually exclusive positions.
Carlo Ginzburg’s famous microhistorical study The Cheese & the Worms:
The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller provides one of the best known
examples of microhistory, and it is useful also for troubling the implied
binary of the characterisation between trufe-hunters and parachutists.
The book is written around the inquisition of a seventeenth-century
Italian miller, Domenico Scandella, also called Menocchio, who is tried by
the Catholic Church for heresy, tortured, and burned at the stake
(Ginzburg 1992, xiii). Detailed court records exist because the Church
required that a transcript be made. Menocchio—a self-taught but intel-
lectually voracious reader—developed “his own startlingly eccentric cos-
mology”, at odds with Church doctrine. ‘Microhistory’ speaks to the scale
of Ginzburg’s analysis, though in Menocchio’s case it also speaks to the
detailed study of an individual’s life.
Over the past several decades, there has been a debate over micro and
macro (or global) approaches to history. Glossing this debate, Trivellato
writes of microhistory: “It digs out details [usually about the lives of indi-
viduals] that are signicant enough to undermine the foundations of
grand narratives, but struggles to replace them with new ones” (Trivellato
2011). It is slightly confusing for a non-expert in this area that micro and
macro are presented as if they are opposing sides in a battle. What is clear
is that the disappointment being voiced with microhistory is separate from
the admiration for scholarship such as The Cheese and the Worms; the criti-
cisms are clearly directed at different projects, that don’t manage to pull
off this blend of micro and macro. Ginzburg’s thesis is clearly substantial
(Burke calls it “eye-opening” (Burke in Levi 2001, 115)). From his in-
depth investigation centred on one man, Ginzburg goes on to develop “a
general hypothesis on the popular culture ([or] more precise[ly], peasant
culture) of preindustrial Europe, in the age marked by the spread of print-
ing and the Protestant Reformation—and by the repression of the latter in
Catholic countries” (Ginzburg 1992, Preface to the English edition, p.
xii). Such an approach clearly marries the proverbial ‘trufe hunting’ with
more panoramic insights. But for the purposes of a chapter on game his-
tory, there’s no need to get too bogged down.
Thankfully, beyond the somewhat confusing characterisation of the
micro as obsessed with minutiae lies some more nuanced positions.
M. SWALWELL
225
Historians Burke and Trivellato have separately discussed some of the crit-
icisms and limitations of microhistory, and pondered the ways forward.
Specically they ask whether the micro and macro, the local and the global,
can helpfully be connected? In 2001, Burke asked “whether the law of
diminishing returns” had set in, that is, whether “more than a quarter of
a century after the [microhistory] pioneers, [it might] be time to stop?”
(Burke in Levi 2001, 115). He noted that the appropriate response was
probably “it depends”, and went on to observe a major historical problem
that is illuminated by microhistorical techniques, namely, “the possibility
that events viewed under the historical microscope, rather than the naked
eye, appear to take place for different reasons” (116). Burke ags the pos-
sibility that historians need to learn to live with complementary but
incompatible concepts and approaches—the microhistorians coexisting
with macrohistorians.
Whether or not this will happen, we ought at least to be asking ourselves, as
some historians, sociologists, and anthropologists have been doing, whether
or not it is possible to link the microsocial with the macrosocial, experiences
with structures, face-to-face relationship with the social systems or the local
with the global. If this question is not taken seriously, microhistory might
become a kind of escapism, an acceptance of a fragmented world rather than
an attempt to make sense of it. (Burke in Levi 2001, 116–17)
Possible solutions Burke offers for “linking the local to the global might
be to give more attention to the different kinds of ‘broker’ or ‘gatekeeper’
between communities and the outside world. Another might be to move
backwards and forwards between the two levels…” (116–117). These
solutions will sound familiar to many game historians.
Francesca Trivellato, a historian of early modern Europe and the
Mediterranean, has written a nice survey article on debates between micro
and macro perspectives. Trivellato argues that a microhistorical approach
has signicant potential for global history, but that this remains underex-
ploited. She says that whilst Italian microhistorians repeatedly grappled
with the challenge of how to conceive of the relationship between micro-
and macro-scales of analysis, they never outlined a coherent theory.
Trivellato also observes that “The persistent friction between micro- and
macro-analyses raises questions about the degree of generalization that
can be drawn from single case-studies…” (Trivellato 2011). She sets out
to review some of the ways that microhistory and global histor y can
12 HETERODOXY IN GAME HISTORY: TOWARDS MORE ‘CONNECTED…
226
intersect, or more correctly how global history can borrow and adapt from
microhistory (as she says she has done in a study of Jewish merchants in a
Tuscan port city and their far reaching networks in the early eighteenth
century), arguing that microhistory has considerable potential for global
history. She also cites Giovanni Levi, the Italian microhistorian, who:
argued that ‘historians should not generalize their answers; the real deni-
tion of history is that of a discipline that generalizes its questions, that is, a
discipline that poses questions which have a general signicance and yet
recognizes that innite answers are possible, depending on the local con-
text’. (Cited in Trivellato 2011)
Provocations forGaMe history
To bring this back to game history, several points are salient. The micro/
macro debate is not an exact t for game history, but there are some
insights we can consider as provocations. Levi’s observation about gener-
alising questions rather than answers seems apposite. And the single case
study issue is worth acknowledging as a challenge. In what remains, I want
to expand the discussion a little to draw on a perspective from the cognate
area of computer history, before turning to some exemplars from current
work that suggest ways in which ‘local’ game history might be able to
move towards more connected histories.
First, the micro/macro question: in hindsight, I realise that I have—
almost intuitively—been searching for larger contexts in which to situate
my New Zealand research for many years. As already mentioned, I have
long held that it is not particularly helpful to treat the entry of specic
variant locales in game history—or digitality, more generally—as just a
phenomenon of the local. But this is to state the matter negatively. We
need to turn the proposition around: to state positively what divergent
case studies concerned with locality make possible to think and theorise in
game history, generalising our questions—after Levi.
The issue of getting beyond single case studies is one on which Corinna
Schlombs has previously reected in relation to the historiography of digi-
tal computing, which faces some similar challenges to game history. In
computer history, Schlombs writes, there is a default North American per-
spective which is perceived as the standard that all other national histories
follow. In her 2006 Think Piece, ‘Toward International Computing
History’, Schlombs writes that there are ‘formidable barriers’ which make
M. SWALWELL
227
international historical research expensive and time consuming (Schlombs
2006). For Schlombs, the main ones are “language differences, access to
archival and other sources, and the demands of mastering multiple national
histories” (108). She recognises that it is too hard for one scholar to be
across everything, and her three suggestions for ways for ward include: (1)
writing local histories of computing in countries other than the USA; (2)
undertaking comparative studies (helpful for “derail[ing] technological or
economic determinist arguments by demonstrating how social, political,
and cultural factors shape technology”); and (3) studying interactions
between countries. This, she notes, has still tended to rely on the nation
state as the unit of analysis, but it need not be the case. “By adjusting the
scale of analysis, historians can ask new questions about the social, eco-
nomic, and cultural context of computing” (Schlombs 2006, 107).
Getting beyond single case studies in game history presents a similar
difculty. Yet despite the challenge, I sense that it is something that many
historians concerned with locality are already doing, at least to an extent.
I have been deliberating for some time as to whether doing ‘local’ game
history actually means ‘comparative game history’. The answer must be a
denitive ‘yes’. A game historian with a local focus is expected to articulate
how their local case study compares to historical accounts from the USA,
UK, or Japan to make the signicance clear to non-local audiences, a bur-
den not demanded of scholars from the ‘centre’. I have been fortunate to
be able to immerse myself in two surprisingly different local game history
contexts (Australia and New Zealand), placing these in international con-
text. However, I accept that this is relatively straightforward—at least as
regards the USA and UK—given no extra language skills are required.
Whilst recognising that this expectation of comparative competence is not
evenly shared at present, I agree with Wolf that a comparative dimension
is likely to be important in the next phase of game historiography
(2015, 12).
One strategy that Schlombs surprisingly doesn’t mention for getting
beyond the single case studies problem—and around the language chal-
lenge—is collaboration. For instance, I am engaged in a collaboration
with Letícia Perani to examine the operation in New Zealand and Brazil of
Taito, the company behind that most iconic ‘Japanese’ game, ‘Space
Invaders’. This was prompted by an ex-Taito-tronics programmer
telling me:
12 HETERODOXY IN GAME HISTORY: TOWARDS MORE ‘CONNECTED…
228
Taito Brazil had a large number of “Galaxian” boards, so pretty much the
next phase up from “Space Invaders”, and what we did in the R&D depart-
ment in Taito New Zealand was to convert—to rewrite a couple of the clas-
sics of the time—to run on “Galaxian” hardware, because again, at the time
pretty much every new game came out with a new set of PCBs.
The programmer’s recollection suggests that there are whole unexplored
histories that the New Zealand material provides a way into. A 1975
advertisement Perani discovered in Cash Box indicates that Taito had
ofces in several locations around the world besides Tokyo (Chicago,
Antwerp, Sao Paulo, Sydney), in the pre-digital era when it sold and leased
a range of coin-op machines (Taito 1975). While this could be considered
in terms of an early instance of a global company, at the moment we are
focusing on the trans-local connections between New Zealand and Brazil.
Co-authoring with Perani means that the product of our research will be
shaped by our respective intimate knowledges of the local social and cul-
tural contexts, as well as circumventing the challenges each would face
undertaking research in another country (in my case, in Portuguese).
Collaboration is thus another strategy for dealing with the single case
study problem.
To extend on this point, I am impressed by the network of European
scholars who are managing to effectively pool their knowledge through
engagement with each other’s research: the existence of several researchers
working on Central and Eastern European game histories—helped by a
conference series, the Central and Eastern European Game Studies
(CEEGS) conference—is building a rich set of interrelations and knowl-
edge that enhances everyone’s work, a sort of a collaboration by stealth.
While it is hard to periodise accurately (without knowing how much
research exists in languages other than English), with roughly fteen years
of critical game historical work behind us, generalisations—beyond single
case studies—are starting to become possible in some regions. With a criti-
cal mass of game historians interested in the local—distributed around the
globe and networked2—the barriers to developing more connected histo-
ries are lower than they ever have been.
2 I started the Localgamehist listserv with Jaroslav Svelch in 2014. With more than 100
members, the listserv is a network where one might nd collaborators. The listserv is also
acting as a collaborative knowledge pool and resource where new types of questions can be
asked, allowing for greater contextualising of local phenomena. For instance, Jaroslav Svelch
asked about ‘Hacker’ games; games with real-life contests. Maria Garda asked about the old-
M. SWALWELL
229
Drawing another example from computer history, Petri Paju and
Thomas Haigh’s recent article on IBM in Finland (2018) further illus-
trates the point. “The history of IBM”—they argue—“is the sum of a set
of intertwined narratives taking place on national, regional, and interna-
tional levels” (5). Paju and Haigh note that while the story of a particular
international subsidiary might usually be assumed to be of primarily local
interest—as a footnote to the American experience—they aim to demon-
strate to business historians the usefulness of approaching the stories of a
large multinational corporation from its peripheries (4, 26). The Finnish
account is rich with detail not only about IBM’s interrelation with Finnish
national history, but also the involvement of the local ofce in pan-
European activities, sales to the Soviet Union, and exchange with IBM’s
‘international’ culture of sales, management, and research. Paju and Haigh
suggest their account demonstrates the value of “studying the develop-
ment of intermediate levels of exchange and identity, between national
subsidiary and global corporation” (27).
The questions some game history scholars are asking also seem to be
heading towards convergence—as Levi suggests—particularly in research
related to users across multiple local sites (Borthwick and Swalwell, this
volume) and tracking software distribution (Wasiak 2014; Albert 2020).
Asking similar questions will make it simpler to relate the idiosyncratic
histories of various elsewheres to other locales and better known histories.
Some are researching multiple locations by stealth. While user group
newsletters and magazines have long been recognised as rich historical
sources, Borthwick’s archive of Sorcerer user group newsletters from three
continents and ve countries makes possible a different set of research
questions than do such sources from a single place, which have more usu-
ally been studied. Gleb Albert is also conducting what is effectively multi-
site research in relation to ‘crackers’ and informal software distribution. As
he summarises, a range of developments in microcomputer reception:
have been researched in case studies over the last decade. However, in order
to analyse how these developments inuenced each other, it might be pro-
ductive to do it in a case study that takes a focus on transnational entangle-
ments. After all, home computerisation did not take place simultaneously all
est known use of the ‘indie’ term in relation to games and so on. Svelch also started to tap
the combined linguistic resources of the list to ask how much literature on local game history
there is in languages other than English and how much we may be missing because of the
language barrier. See https://lists.inders.edu.au/mailman/listinfo/localgamehist
12 HETERODOXY IN GAME HISTORY: TOWARDS MORE ‘CONNECTED…
230
over the globe, but rather it was a process that developed (and, on a global
scale, is still developing) for several decades, and its manifestations in par-
ticular countries were always bound to developments and events occurring
outside the respective countries’ borders, as the triumphant march of the
home computer took place against the backdrop both of a new wave of
economical globalisation and massive changes in world politics. (Albert 2020)
Albert writes that the cracking scene “acted transnationally from the
beginning. However, it was not ‘global’ in any meaningful sense”. He sets
out to undertake an examination of the contacts between the ‘centre’—
which he designates as those countries which constituted core regions in
the cracking scene (USA, Canada, Scandinavia, Finland the Benelux state,
Great Britain, West Germany, France, Austria, and Switzerland) —and the
‘peripheries’—dened as a range of regions which lacked either technical
know how or the access to international software distribution, to get their
hands on new software. ‘Transnational entanglements’ is a wonderfully
rich concept, and Albert’s investigations are even more appreciated
because of his “bias towards the developments in Eastern Europe due to
the availability of sources and my knowledge of languages”, though he
also “strives to employ sources from other parts of the world, particularly
Latin America and the Middle East, insofar as they are available” (Albert
2020). On the question of sources’ availability, Albert’s initiative to gather
the material traces of the demoscene in the online archive ‘Got Papers?’ is
also signicant here. Crowd-sourcing the remains of the culture of physi-
cally posting disks around the world and hosting this in a repository avail-
able online mean that the potential extent of the coverage is considerable,
evidenced by the fact that a scholar from Switzerland (with a bias to
Eastern Europe) can point to historic correspondence received from
Adelaide—a city in Australia—and suggest a collaboration. The ‘Got
Papers?’ archive offers a way of locating informants in a particular country
who may be difcult to nd (many are not open about belonging to the
scene because of the questionable legal status of some of its activities).
Ultimately, the archive will make it possible to get a much clearer picture
of just how entangled users were, transnationally, in the point-to-point
snail mail era (Albert n.d.). These are analyses on a simultaneously micro
and macro scale. We have barely scratched the surface of the inter-relations
between different locales, but such analyses provide encouraging evidence
that game history is now moving beyond just the granular, micro scale to
more connected histories.
M. SWALWELL
231
heteroDox histories
The ‘local’ game history project has been one corrective to an early stage
history that had a number of deciencies. Game historians have now doc-
umented many other histories away from the ‘centres’, de-centring (or
otherwise complicating) the histories of those nations that were previously
placed at the centre. This was a necessary rst step. In this chapter, I have
argued that debates in which accommodations are attempted between
microhistory and global history are helpful for thinking about how ‘local’
game history scholarship might move towards more connected histories,
which would be the next step in this journey. To conclude, I want to offer
an answer to the question I raised about what the critical potential is of
‘local’ game history.
Scholarship concerned with the local has helped the eld of game his-
tory get out from under the weight of received wisdom, the orthodoxy
that was inherited. I drew on Ginzburg’s microhistorical study because it
brought microhistory together with heterodoxy, a concept that I nd par-
ticularly resonant for game history. Ginzburg describes Menocchio’s views
as ‘heterodox’ in both general and precise ways. Generally, Menocchio’s
views differed from the then accepted cosmology (19), but Ginzburg’s
second use is more precise: Menocchio’s ‘heterodox opinions’ go against
the Church’s orthodoxy (21), and it is this which leads to his conviction
as a heretic. What do we mean then, by saying that a game history con-
cerned with the local might present knowledge that is heterodox when
compared with mainstream history? What difference does an account of
Taito told from the perspectives of Brazil and New Zealand make? Such
histories would be heterodox in that the new perspectives they generate
are not only counter to orthodox (or mainstream) game history, but
because they also disturb what we thought we knew about the ‘centre’,
revealing—in some cases—that histories are not quite as certain or stable
as they may have been made out to be. Local histories provide alternate
perspectives, but joined up, connected histories highlight absences far
more effectively. For instance, Patryk Wasiak’s study of grassroots software
exchange between Europe and the USA revealed some surprises for me
about the culture of software in the USA (Wasiak 2014). And my study of
homebrew game development in 1980s Australia and New Zealand asks
where the game history research on microcomputing is in the USA
(Melanie Swalwell 2021)? The point is not to replace one set of grand nar-
ratives, orthodoxies, or heroes with another. Rather, when we are attentive
12 HETERODOXY IN GAME HISTORY: TOWARDS MORE ‘CONNECTED…
232
to specicity, different histories become possible, including of the ‘cen-
tres’. The move towards more connected histories is a sign, I suggest, of
the maturation of game historical scholarship. It is good to be beyond the
chronicle stage.
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12 HETERODOXY IN GAME HISTORY: TOWARDS MORE ‘CONNECTED…
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