Back in 2005 I wrote a master's thesis on the history of digital gaming with a special focus on former East Germany. Whenever I mentioned the thesis people were really interested: "There were games in the GDR? Really?" "What sort of platform did they play on?" etc. Which is why I decided, more than four years after I handed it in, to contact a small publisher to ask if they were interested to issue the thesis as a book. They liked what they saw, I rewrote some parts to account for the the more current history of games, and this month the book was finally released.
So what exactly is the book all about?
It juxtaposes the different development stages of digital games in East Germany and the Western world, giving special attention to the "subsumption" of information technology under the structure of East German social and economic policies. The socialist administration of the GDR prevented private initiative, and instead followed the principles of a planned economy and central control, pivotal developments within the field of information technology. Therefore digital games cannot be explained without a thorough examination of this frame of reference. This approach is supplemented by statements – gathered through interviews – of several contemporary witnesses involved in the production of digital games in the East and West.
For the purpose of a better overview and a coherent structure the thesis is divided into three parts, each of which a period of Western digital game history is contrasted with a period of East German history marked by historical turning points. Because one can identify several of these turning points both in game history and East German history which happened approximately at the same time (e.g. introduction of Pong coinciding with major changes in social politics under Chairman of the Council of State Erich Honecker) this makes for a structuring which does not separate the two groups of themes but moreover, by embedding East German game history into a bigger scope, allows to examine how Western innovations influenced the creation and production of digital games in the GDR.
Consequently the main focus of the thesis lies on the three gaming platforms ever to be produced in East Germany – the BSS01, the KC-computer series and the Polyplay – respectively their integration into the propaganda machine of the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany.
The BSS 01 (Bildschirmspiel 01), the GDR's first and only console was introduced in 1980 by the Halbleiterwerk Frankfurt (Oder). Its development however already began in 1977 – on behest of Karl Nendel, Secretary of State in the Ministry of Electronics, whose decision was influenced by the VIII party congress of the Socialist Unity Party in 1971 at which Erich Honecker announced the intention to improve the populationʻs supply of consumer goods in order to enhance the loyalty of the East Germans to their state (a move still influenced by the trauma of the 1953 uprising). Based on an American General Instrument's AY-3-8500 chip the BSS01 was basically a "Pong" clone whose prohibitive price of 500 East German Marks prevented it from appealing to a mass market: due to the fact that the GDR was placed under the COCOM embargo, which forbade the import of electronic devices into the Eastern Block, the main components had to be smuggled at enormous costs which were passed on to the consumers. These are the key points of the description.
True to Honecker's promise to amend the supply of the population with technical consumer goods the earliest models of the KC (Kleincomputer) series were introduced in 1984. Also based on Western technology – their core being the so-called “U880D“ circuit, the first microprocessor system of the GDR and a complete copy of the “Z80“ system by the Californian company Zilog – they quickly became the main platform for computer games. The thesis describes the different development stages of these computers, especially the circumstances of their initiation within the scope of the effort to establish a semiconductor industry and explains how they were utilised by citizen programmers (particularly in terms of content creation) as well as the state which, for example, even released official game collections (mainly consisting of variations of Western arcade games).
The pinnacle in terms of digital games in the GDR was introduced in 1986 with the Polyplay arcade machine which derived its name from its production facility, the VEB Polytechnik Karl-Marx-Stadt (Chemnitz) as well as the fact that its memory was capable of storing up to eight games. The thesis analyzes the history of the Polyplay's origins; it moreover focuses on the content of the games on offer respectively deals with the question of what motivated the creation of this specific subject matter as well as the social component of the Polyplay, for example the fact that it could be played in the East German parliament.
The thesis closes with an overview of the integration of digital games into the East German administration in which three aspects are addressed: The GDR presenting itself to the world as a country which is capable of producing high technology and supplying it to its citizens; the attempt to have digital games contribute to the development of a socialist personality as well as the ostentation of an alleged moral superiority opposite to the West (in view of the mostly non-violent content of East German games as opposed to the violent "Star Wars" games of the capitalistic enemy); finally, and most importantly, the attempt to attract urgently need personnel for the vital microelectronic industry with the help of digital games in order secure the economic survival of the GDR.
Writing the whole thing was really fun, it was almost like modern archaeology. Not only the technology and the games themselves are interesting, but also what their use can tell us about East German society.
Unfortunately the whole book is written in German. However, if I find the time I might write up a more exhaustive summary or maybe even a journal article. If you're still interested – or can appreciate the charitable cause of supporting starving writers – the book can be bought here.
PS If you want to try some Poly Play games here's a German website where you can play Flash versions of them.