My First Book: Gaming Behind the Iron Curtain

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.

I'm Done! Adventures in Ph.D. Land

As some of you may have noticed I didn't contribute much to BlogCampaigning lately (Editor's note: Yeah, I noticed). Not only was I busy working in my new job but I also prepared for my last Ph.D. exam: the oral disputation of my thesis. Once my supervisors completed their written reports on my thesis, I was a given a date to orally defend it. I had 15 minutes to introduce my thesis to a panel made up of my supervisors, an observer for the protocol, lecturers and other students (it was a "public" event, i.e. any student of the school could attend the disputation). After the 15 minutes were over, my supervisors and the observer asked me questions regarding different aspects of – and issues with – my work.

Overall, the whole procedure lasted a bit longer than an hour. Once everything was over, I was awarded a "magna cum laude".

However, officially I can't call myself "Herr Dr. Schröder" yet, the reason being that I didn't yet publish my thesis. This is a usual procedure at German universities, you are only awarded the doctorate once you can proof that your work is available to the public. There are different ways to meet my university's requirement in this regard; however, the most common way is to publish the thesis as a traditional book. Dead trees it is!

The problem is not so much finding a publisher, but rather a publisher with a good reputation – and reasonable prices. The thing is, you have to pay them. There's a constant and huge supply of dissertations, and let's face it, most academic books won't sell like hotcakes. So you basically have to buy yourself into a (reputable) publisher.

So far I have been offered contracts ranging from 0 to 4,000 Euros. If you don't really care about your future renown in the academic world, you might as well go with the lowest offer. However, given that these publishers and their print-on-demand model will spam the market with pretty much everything – including course papers – don't expect much credit for you work. I heard of a uni that won't hire lecturers if they published their work with one of those vanity press companies.

As you can imagine, if the publisher is somewhat renowned, this is also reflected by their prices. These (ideally!) also reflect their services and the advertising measures they plan to undertake. Will they, for example, send out review copies? Which measures do they undertake to announce the publication of your work? Do they offer help in regard to proofreading or formatting your thesis? Can you reach your publisher by phone? (Apparently some publishers regard personal contact as obstructive to their work flow!) Which other marketing issues are planned and do they make sense?

I came across a publisher that was offering to advertise new academic releases on hip postcards. Somehow I doubt that this will help to increase sales. As much as I think that I wrote a good thesis that – for an academic work – is of comparatively broad appeal, I don't think that that this measure will encourage the public to spontaneously buy a 173,000 word book. Basically, it seemed like a good excuse to squeeze out some more money from their authors.

(Considering that my thesis was completely in English, publishers from the English speaking world also seem like an option. The problem is that some of them ask you to change parts of your work to give it more mass appeal [the ones I talked to anyway.] Unfortunately that is not an option as my uni's Ph.D. regulations state that you have to publish exactly the same text you handed in.)

The publisher I'm likely to go with seems fulfills most of the important criteria: Their author's support is good (personal phone calls!), they have several (sensible) marketing mechanisms in place, their prices – while high – are still comparatively reasonable, and they would also make my work available as an e-book; something I attach great importance too considering that my thesis is also of appeal to the Australian market.

There's also some light at the end of the financial tunnel. Some of the money you have to pay to get your work published is offset by the amount you get when you register with the VG Wort, a collecting society for authors. Since your work will get photocopied etc. you get reimbursed via a one-off payment – currently this would cover about two thirds of my costs. However, you only get this money the year after your book is released.

Of course I would also like to make my work available on the net but this is a bit of an issue – most academic institutions still highly value the cultural capital attached to traditionally published books and don't appreciate them being available for free. I will, however, try and find out if I can publish parts here on Blogcampaigning. After all, I want as many people as possible to read my work.

PS If you want to know more about writing a doctoral thesis make sure to check out the illustrated guide to a Ph.D.


The Amazon Kindle Review From BlogCampaigning That You've Been Waiting For

I got an Amazon Kindle for Christmas this year, and it has been really enjoyable to use. It's as light as a small paperback book, the screen has the visual characteristics of regular novel paper, and it can store quite a bit. For someone like myself who frequently has a few books on the go, the Kindle makes it easy to have them all with you in one slim package. (I'm currently reading Galileo's Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami, and The Night's Dawn Trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton. I'd like to say I'm also reading Jens Schroeder's dissertation on the Kindle, but he only sent it to me in PDF and that type of document doesn't display well on the device—sorry, Schredd.) Add to that the convenience of being able to very easily add books to your collection (I went on a $50 spree in about five minutes when I first got it), and it makes for a nice little package.

Some of the other features I like about it are the ability to quickly search through the text. Although this isn't a mind-blowing feature, I can definitely see myself using this when it comes to writing a blog post on a few books I've read recently, and I want to find key passages. Similarly, you can very easily add notes to yourself and browse them later, a feature that may come in handy for those doing reviews or research and not wanting to do all their reading on a computer screen or with a notebook in hand.

As a very avid Blackberry user, I find the keys on the Kindle are spaced a little bit too far apart, making the keypad difficult to use. Since the Kindle is mostly for reading and note taking for me is rare, this is a minor gripe.

The lack of other flashy features that something like the iPad might have is something of a feature in itself. With the Kindle, I'm able to focus on the book I'm reading without being tempted to switch into other programs, or check something else.

I've also been letting my roommate Annie borrow it now and then. Annie's job is making clothing for the puppets on the TV show Glenn Martin, DDS. She also makes leather purses, and although she always buys the latest issue of Wired Magazine (normally the UK edition), she rarely reads it online. She never wants to own a Blackberry, and when I told her what I did for work, she asked me if I was a spin doctor.

Her thoughts on the Kindle? She feels self-conscious using an expensive piece of electronics in public (even after I pointed that the Kindle probably isn't high up on the must-have list for thieves).

The two of us also agree that until everyone has a device that can handle e-books, sharing books is a pain the ass. She has a few books downloaded on the device, and so do I. With one device, it means only one of us can read our books at the same time. I've been pretty good at sharing with her, but I know there are sometimes when she wishes she could read it on the train on the way to work while I'm already out of the house with it, having a coffee and reading my favourite book.

"I think there will always be a place for paper books and magazines", Annie said when I told her I was writing this blog post. "They'll just be a lot more special, like those Phaidon art books."

I tend to agree with her when she says that, and I said as much in a blog post about the magazine industry a while ago. Just as MP3 players have made it easier to share and enjoy music while increasing the demand for box sets and live music, I think e-readers will do the same for literature. While everyone will have freely available articles and books on their devices everywhere they go, true collectors will spend hundreds of dollars on super-glossy, limited edition runs of books and magazines.

But that's really all an aside... at the end of the day, the Kindle is a great device.

How long until we read everything on e-readers? Have you got one? Will there still be a place for books and magazines?


OR Books: The New Frontier of Publishing

I have been listening to a lot of NPR's On The Media podcasts on my way to and from work.  A few weeks ago the show focused on the past, present and future of books, and ultimately the publishing industry as a whole. The November 27th podcast, "Book It", talked about the rising number of new books hitting the shelves every year, and how this number would inevitably increase with the influx of scanned content, e-books, and do-it-yourself publishing. This "content overload" (half a million books published each year) has led to the invention of new business models for publishing and selling written work. One publishing company looking to capitalize on this shift is OR Books, an alternative publisher that is highly selective, publishing only one or two books per month. There are a few things that set this type of model apart from the HarperCollinses of the world. First, they sell directly to you, the consumer. By cutting out the middleman (i.e., Chapters and even Amazon), they are able to keep costs low and print-on-demand or sell content as e-books. Getting rid of storage and additional print costs means less expensive books for you.

Second, by keeping overhead costs low, OR Books is able to offer writers between $50,000 and $100,000 worth of publicity for each book. As co-owner John Oakes puts it "you're more likely to see a Unicorn than a non-celebrity author who has had that kind of publicity commitment from his/her publisher". They are also experimenting with digital channels like Facebook, Twitter, and online publications like BoingBoing and Alternet.

Third, because OR Books is focusing on one or two books per month, the consumer can foster an expectation of the quality and progressive content published. John and his co-founder Colin Robinson have previous experience in politics, history, cultural analysis, popular science, and various forms of literature, including science fiction and translation. They intend to continue to rely on their publishing expertise in these areas.

So far, John notes the experience has "been thrilling, really, to see how quickly consumers have embraced this concept. We've had many thousands of orders, with only a few people even raising the question of why we don't sell via Amazon or any other retailer" While this changed December 1st, when their latest book, Going Rouge, hit stores, it seems like both consumers and producers of the written work stand to benefit from publishers like OR Books.

On a personal level, I often have a hard time sorting through the millions of books to choose from, and will definitely check back on OR Books' site for their "book of the month".

Still not sold? Check out their video:

The Future Of Newspapers

You absolutely have to watch this video about Microsoft's Photosynth if you want to understand what Mark Evans is talking about when he says that will be the way we can browse through an online newspaper in much the same manner we do a paper newspaper. (watch the video before reading more!)

However, I think that Photosynth will be much more than that. I think that it will probably revolutionize the way we do any of our online work. Done correctly, ordinary websites wouldn't require any clicking in order to navigate them. Users would simply zoom in and out, and I'm sure that it would even be able to add fields. One corner of a giant 'image' could be a users inbox, while another could be Wikipedia. There is a lot of possibility here.

I realize that a Photosynth-style web is probably still a long way off (as most computers probably don't have the processing power or connection speeds necessary to make it work) but we all know how quickly technology is changing.

I'm probably going to be dreaming about some sort of Photosynth-Facebook super-mashup tonight...