Tristan Donovan's book Replay: The History of Video Games is arguably the most entertaining overview of the industry that has yet been written. Charting the growth of games from the genesis of modern computers in the Second World War right through to the explosive return of bedroom coders in the last few years, it's exhaustive, detailed, and full of fascinating asides. Eurogamer caught up with Donovan to learn more about his work.
Eurogamer: What made you realise the world needed another book on the history of games?
Tristan Donovan: What got me thinking was that I bought a copy of Steven Kent's book, which was the first one to really try to be a complete history of games. I respect that, but it's very American in its focus.
The Spectrum didn't exist. The Amiga didn't exist. All my personal gaming history as someone who grew up in the UK just didn't exist from the perspective of that book. That got me thinking that there was still an untold story here. I don't think it was particularly good on Japan, either. It's very US-centric.
I started thinking that someone should do this. After a couple of months of thinking that, I figured that, well, I'm a writer, I've written about games, why don't I do it? It came out of that, really. I felt there was a better history of videogames to write.
I've also always had a problem with the way game history is represented. It's very much kings and queens: you have different console generations and that's the dynasty that you follow.
But, you know, that's just hardware. That's not the magic of games. The magic of games is the entertainment they offer – the actual creative work that goes on those platforms.
To me, this console-based approach was a bit like writing a history of music where you first write about vinyl, and then about cassette tapes, and then about CDs and then iTunes. That doesn't tell you anything about how music evolves. These were the things I wanted to, I suppose, correct. Or at least push gaming history more in that direction.
Eurogamer: So when you add Europe into the mix of gaming history, and when you approach the subject from a more creator-based position, how does the history change?
Tristan Donovan: Well first of all, it makes it a lot more difficult to write. That was my first lesson. But I think what you end up doing is looking for themes. You end up not necessarily looking for what was the popular game, but for which game might be influential to game designers, or the things that were outside games that fed into people's thinking.
You realise trends are a lot more fluid and you lose that logical progression that's a little bit artificial. You get things like Maze, which is arguably the original FPS, which came out in the early 1970s. Then you have a few things which go in that direction in the late 1980s. And then eventually you get Doom, where it really kicks off.
But the thing is, you've suddenly got this long, expansive evolution process for a thing that everybody says kicked off with Castle Wolfenstein. It's actually a slow progression that just eventually gains a lot of momentum.
So you find a lot of these storylines actually cross over and get mixed up. The difficult thing is to try and make sure it all makes sense. It's really like talking about prog rock, synth, and 80s glam metal: they all cross over, but they've all got different points of origin and pathways.
Game history becomes a lot more like that, and you realise videogame genres aren't so distinct. It's a lot more creatively messy than people give it credit for.
Eurogamer: People always say that Japanese games tend to have a very distinct local flavour. Can the same be said about European games?
Tristan Donovan: Yes and no. Very early on the markets all did their own things and they all went off in their own directions. So you had France with these geo-political text adventures, us with Jet Set Willy and sheer insanity, and Germans with managerial, strategy types games. Of course, you still had these arcade games and other titles that just transcended all that and appealed everywhere.
But then as the games industry's globalised, that's become less and less visible. Japan seems, in a way, to be one of the last strongholds of national identity in games.
You still get the odd flavour, though. Fable, for example: that's definitely English, and Grand Theft Auto. Underneath all the trappings, there's this slight anti-consumerist message, which is quite a British way of looking at things. Quite a left-wing approach. It would be quite easy to play GTA and not pick up on that, but it's definitely in there.
Eurogamer: Your book starts with the Cold War and then the ENIAC computer...
Tristan Donovan: That's right – the ENIAC was the first programmable computer.
Eurogamer: All games histories start in different places. Kent starts back in the 1880s, I think, with the founding of Nintendo. You start in a fairly dramatic style, with the exploding of the first atomic bomb. What made you choose that specific point?
Tristan Donovan: Clearly you could go back further to early games, but that seemed to be going back too far and it would require too much extraneous explanation. You'd need four chapters on the history of board games and of pinball games. I just needed to narrow it down.
The background to the Cold War was quite important to gaming history, in terms of the types of themes people picked up on like the whole obsession with the space race and games like SpaceWar! and Missile Command, and then also from a technological standpoint.
A lot of technology emerged from the Cold War arms race. Things like the microprocessor and other things, which came about in part due to military funding. This kind of historical context matters.
It's useful to explain how computers started. One of the things I didn't realise until I started doing the book, for example, is that until the mid 1970s, games weren't made using microprocessors or programming. It was hardware.
People built actual circuits to make games, which is why emulators tend to have difficulty with things before then: there's no code, it's all hardwired. So having a little bit of background on how computers evolved was quite useful.
I came quite late to deciding what to begin with but once I knew all this stuff, it made sense to go back to the 1940s. Where it actually begins is a topic people will argue about forever. I don't think there was a first videogame: it evolved.
Ralph Baer will disagree with me - he made the first one. Nolan Bushnell, he might say he did too, but it's a never-ending debate. I do think you can see the origins back in the 1940s, though.
Eurogamer: Speaking of origins, one of the things in your book which I'd never heard of before was NIMROD. The thing I thought was interesting about that was the audience for it: this was almost a great social work that the whole country was meant to get behind, and yet it was essentially a videogame. Can you tell me a bit about that?
Tristan Donovan: NIMROD came out of the Festival of Britain, which was this big post-war project to lift the spirits of Britain after the Second World War. London was still rubble and the country was still on rations, so you had this very austere start to the early 1950s. The Festival was to say, "Look, there's a new technological future and a new cultural future, and tomorrow's going to be so much better than today!"
One of the parts of that was computers. So NIMROD was created by John Bennett. He worked for a company that was asked to create a computer exhibit. People hadn't had any contact with computers and didn't know what they did, so he made a very simple game called NIM that this computer could play to introduce people to the machines. He wanted to get across that computers do maths, basically.
People thought it was fun and a little bit scary, as the machine was nine feet tall and towered over everyone. So there was this period in the 1950s where people made games, but they were always to explain what the machines could do.
They weren't for fun. They were made for artificial intelligence research or something of a similar nature. People didn't like the idea of using this technology for something frivolous.
Eurogamer: Aside from these quirky pieces of history that people may not be familiar with, you cover some of the more famous moments in videogames too, with things like Pac-Man fever and the story behind Tetris. As you started to put together the pieces of the book, what were the big themes that started to emerge?
Tristan Donovan: I did have a bit in the book about games becoming art but I ditched it in the end, as it was starting to become my opinion rather than history. That said, there's this idea Wagner has, called 'gesamtkunstwerk'. It's basically a concept he had about opera being the art of all arts: it brings together costume design, singing, music, writing etc.
So I had this probably very pretentious ending in mind where I was declaring that videogames had become that: a summation of all these arts, like animation, camerawork, play, storytelling.
Obviously movies can say they bring a lot of that together, but games arguably have a better case. So that was the over-riding theme I had, that we were moving away from the ten-cents-for-30-seconds-of-entertainment idea.
There's also theme of things becoming more complex, and of the rise of big business and this multi-billion pound industry we're in. You could argue that has sucked all the creativity out of games, but things like the emergence of the indie games scene right at the end change that - they're really a response to the problem of the scale of the industry exploding outwards.
Eurogamer: Given how splintered and diffuse the industry is now, with big releases like Call of Duty and then Facebook games, browser games, iPhone games... do you think it's even going to be possible to write the history of the next 60 years? Are games moving in too many directions?
Tristan Donovan: I think they might be. It's very hard to see these things when you're in the middle of them. That's why in the book I avoided writing about things like Facebook games. They're so new. The idea of trying to write a history of something that's still happening is crazy: it's going to be wrong in six months.
It could just be our perspective at the moment means we can't see the trend, but you may be right: it is getting so diffuse. Again, it would be like trying to write a history of music. How do you start? There's just so many forms. How do you find coherency?
It was hard enough with Replay to catch a sense of coherency towards the end. I guess in the future, you'll see histories of genres more, of various types of games. I think gaming history will have to become more specialised, just as it has with every other medium.
Eurogamer: Two final questions: pick one character from your book without whom videogame history would have been radically different, and pick one person who's perhaps a little obscure but whom you'd like people to learn a little more about.
Tristan Donovan: For the obscure person, Muriel Tramis, a French game designer. She did most of her most interesting work in the 1980s. She was the European equivalent of Roberta Williams.
She came from the French island of Martinique in the Caribbean and moved to France in the 1970s. She had an ancestry that involved slavery and she set out to make these text adventures that talked about slavery, Creole culture, and that sort of thing.
To do that in the mid-1980s, to do something so highbrow in games when we were all playing Jet Set Willy, I think that's amazing. She got recognition from the French government for her cultural impact, and it's a real shame she's not really making games anymore.
A fascinating character, and it's a shame that the language barrier made interviewing her difficult. It's incredible to see such highbrow stuff at such a primitive time, though.
Eurogamer: And now for the pivotal figure?
Tristan Donovan: I'm always tempted to go for someone that people won't expect, so I'm going to say Ray Kassar, the much-hated chief executive at Atari. There are lots of reasons why.
Firstly, before he took over at Atari, it still wasn't a household name. The VCS was popular but it wasn't the runaway success it later became, and it was under his management that Atari and the VCS became this gigantic thing that defined the perception of videogames in the early 1980s.
On top of that, it was his unkeen attitude towards developers that led to Atari employees quitting and forming Activision, which created the first third-party publisher. We remember Atari because of what Ray Kassar did, and not what Nolan Bushnell did.
Obviously Bushnell started the ball rolling and created the industry, but this idea of Atari, which became the model of how you run a games studio – it's all crazy and everyone stays up all night coding – that all started under Kassar's regime.
He also commercialised games under his leadership and, ultimately, didn't invest in the research and development Atari needed, which so unwittingly caused the great industry crash. There were other reasons for that, like the rise of video recorders, but it really shaped games in its own way, making the audience much more hardcore and opening the way for Nintendo.
So Kassar's a much-maligned figure, but a perfectly nice man to talk to, and he was a corporate chief exec: he was there to turn Atari from a start-up into a global goliath. He did it – he couldn't sustain it – but he helped to get the whole thing started.
Tristan Donovan's Replay: The History of Video Games is out now, priced at £12.99. You can save yourself the price of an iPhone game if you pick it up at Amazon.