Posts Tagged ‘books’

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.

-Jens

PS If you want to try some Poly Play games here’s a German website where you can play Flash versions of them.

Note: this post has some spoilers about Ender’s Game, so if you haven’t read it yet, don’t read this post. Just go out and buy it and read it, because it’s amazing. But don’t take my word for it;  I mean, the 1986 Hugo Award and 1984 Nebula Award are hard to argue with. It’s not even that long of a book. You can probably finish it in a lazy summer afternoon at the cottage, if you put down your iPhone for long enough. You can buy it on Amazon right now for, like, seven bucks.

This weekend, I finished re-reading Ender’s Game for the first time since I originally read it ten years ago and was blown away by how well the author, Orson Scott Card, predicted the future from the early 80s.

I say the early 80s, but it could have been earlier. Card’s first version was published as a story in a science fiction magazine in 1977. He later fleshed this out to a full-fledged novel in 1985 (according to the copyright information in my copy of the book), and made some more minor changes in 1991.

And when I’m talking about how Card predicted the future, I’m not talking about Ender’s Desk (which is described exactly like an iPad) or even the Ansible, a device capable of near-instantaneous communication over vast distances (not that far off, really). I’m talking about how he predicted the rise of blogging and the influence social media can have over culture and politics.

While most of the plot of the book follows young Ender Wiggin, youngest of three children, as he goes to Battle School at the age of six to learn how to be the commander of a fleet to fight invading aliens, a sub-plot involves how his sociopathic, but brilliant, brother Peter, and more empathetic, but equally brilliant, sister Valentine, are left home on earth.

Under the leadership of Peter, the two of them start contributing to “forums” on the “nets” using pseudonyms, or characters:

“They began composing debates for their characters. Valentine would prepare an opening statement, and Peter would invent a throwaway name to answer her. His answer would be intelligent, and the debate would be lively, lots of clever invective and good political rhetoric. Valentine had a knack for alliteration that made her phrases memorable. Then they would enter the debate into the network, separated by a reasonable amount of time, as if they were actually making them up on the spot. Sometimes a few other netters would interpose comments, but Peter and Val would usually ignore them or change their own comments only slightly to accommodate what had been said.”

The next paragraph describes how Peter tracked how their work was being read and shared, and reads almost like a description of media monitoring in 2010.

As the two keep writing, their influence grows, their articles get syndicated, and they begin to get involved in serious policy discussions. Since its all online, no one knows that it is actually just two genius children.

Implausible? Yes. Impossible? No.

While I doubt that our global politics are being played like a game of chess by a couple of kids, I think Orson Scott Card’s prediction of the way an ordinary citizen can get involved via the internet and become a serious, real-world influence is a great bit of future-casting.

Reasons like that are why I love reading science-fiction, be it old-school Heinlein and Asimov, 80s cyberpunk, or the post-human stuff that’s all the rage these days. Science fiction is a framework for thinking about what could happen; it’s a way of looking forward to finding out who is going to be right.

Have you read Ender’s Game? Were Peter and Valentine the original bloggers?

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(Note: I originally wrote this post back in March, while I was on vacation, but forgot about it in my drafts and just got around to finishing it now.)

One of the things I like most about vacations is that there is plenty of time to get away from the computer and just sit down and read a few books. In the spirit of Darren Barefoot’s Capsule Movie Reviews, I’m giving you a few quick reviews of some books that I’ve recently read.

Charles Stross — Halting State

One of the reasons I like science fiction so much is because of the prescient way it has of looking at the future. Although Halting State was written in 2007, the main plot involving the theft of some virtual goods in exchange for real world cash is remarkably similar to the recent events that transpired around thousands being stolen from EVE Online. Halting State earns a 7/10 from me. It loses one point on my scale because the Scottish accents of the main characters were written phonetically, and that always frustrates me.

Allen Steele — Coyote

This book was actually terrible for a number of reasons. For one, I had a hard time believing that anyone could plan a colonization expedition so poorly, both in terms of equipment and personnel. I know that it is fiction, and that a perfectly planned mission wouldn’t have had the same sense of drama, but you would think that the author would at least ensure his colonists remembered to bring proper shelter on their mission.

For the most part, I found that that this book was trying to be a tale of exploring a new world and founding a new socio-political system, but it came across as entirely too Yankee-centric and derivative of the far-superior Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. I’m rating this one 3/10.

Neal Stephenson — Anathem

Neal Stephenson is a master storyteller and his latest novel, Anathem, is further proof of this. Without revealing too much (just read it!), the book is about a world with a society of monks who live in seclusion from the rest of society and technology in order not to be influenced by what they call the “saecular” world. Like all of his books, it goes a lot deeper than this, and I really don’t want to say more for fear of spoiling a beautifully written story. 9/10

Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner —  Freakonomics

This is one of those books that I always felt I should read, so when I found a copy I gave it a shot. I was sorely disappointed, and although I realize that they did some interesting studies and that it was well written, it didn’t really teach me anything except that “there is a hidden side of everything”. 5/10

Iain M. Banks — Matter and Look To Windward

I’m throwing these books into a double review, because they are both part of Ian M. Banks’s series of books set in the “Culture” universe. The Culture is a galactic race of post-humans that live for hundreds of years, live in an utopian society essentially free from worry, and travel the stars in enormous ships or orbital colonies housing hundreds of billions of people. The main characters are the sentient minds of the ships in which the humans live just as often as they are humans, but this isn’t one of those “robots are taking over” stories. Rather, the action takes place on the edges of the Culture society where they interact with (and try to direct the development of) societies and alien races less evolved. Despite the enormous scope of these settings, Banks focuses on a few characters. The books are filled with big, huge ideas as well as human-scale drama, and make for a great read. The entire series of Culture books by Banks gets a solid 8/10 from me.

Yeah, I read a lot of sci-fi. Any other good book recommendations for me? Summer is the time to get some reading in.

-Parker

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