Gaming the Iron Curtain: How Teenagers and Amateurs in Communist Czechoslovakia Claimed the Medium of Computer Games

Gaming the Iron Curtain: How Teenagers and Amateurs in Communist Czechoslovakia Claimed the Medium of Computer Games

by Jaroslav Svelch

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Overview

How amateur programmers in 1980s Czechoslovakia discovered games as a medium, using them not only for entertainment but also as a means of self-expression.

Aside from the exceptional history of Tetris, very little is known about gaming culture behind the Iron Curtain. But despite the scarcity of home computers and the absence of hardware and software markets, Czechoslovakia hosted a remarkably active DIY microcomputer scene in the 1980s, producing more than two hundred games that were by turns creative, inventive, and politically subversive. In Gaming the Iron Curtain, Jaroslav Švelch offers the first social history of gaming and game design in 1980s Czechoslovakia, and the first book-length treatment of computer gaming in any country of the Soviet bloc.

Švelch describes how amateur programmers in 1980s Czechoslovakia discovered games as a medium, using them not only for entertainment but also as a means of self-expression. Sheltered in state-supported computer clubs, local programmers fashioned games into a medium of expression that, unlike television or the press, was neither regulated nor censored. In the final years of Communist rule, Czechoslovak programmers were among the first in the world to make activist games about current political events, anticipating trends observed decades later in independent or experimental titles. Drawing from extensive interviews as well as political, economic, and social history, Gaming the Iron Curtain tells a compelling tale of gaming the system, introducing us to individuals who used their ingenuity to be active, be creative, and be heard.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780262038843
Publisher: MIT Press
Publication date: 12/25/2018
Series: Game Histories
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Jaroslav Švelch is Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Information Science and Media Studies at the University of Bergen and Assistant Professor in the Department of Media Studies at Charles University, Prague .

Table of Contents

Series Foreword xi

Preface xiii

Acknowledgments xvii

A Note on Translations and Pronunciation xix

Introduction xxi

1 Micros in the Margins: Computer Technology in the State Socialist Society 1

Toward Normalization 3

Beyond the Quiet Life 5

A Revolution That Was Normalized 9

The State of the Computer Industry 12

Electronization Programs of the 1980s 15

Men, Women, and Machines 18

Side Roads to Micros 21

Who Needs a Home Computer? 27

Farm Computers and the Courageous Clone 31

2 Hunting Down the Machine: Trajectories of Microcomputer Domestication 35

A Machine That Obeys 39

Wandering Programmers 42

Spectacle from the West 45

Importing the Standard 47

The Shiny Side of Retail 50

A Room of Its Own 53

3 Our Amateur Can Work Miracles: Infrastructures of Hobby Computing 63

Cybernetics for Youth 66

Repurposing the Paramilitary 71

Activist Meshworks 74

Tolerating the Man's World 77

Build Your Own Peripherals 81

Amateur Entrepreneurs 85

Starting a Computer Fanzine 87

Samizdat Research Institute 90

4 Who's Afraid of Cameplay? Czechoslovak Discourses on Computer Games 99

Playing with Computers 102

Forbidden Pleasures 104

Bringing Games under Control 109

Computer Came Advocates 112

The Appreciation of Tomahawk 116

5 Lighting Up the Shadows: Informal Distribution of Game Software 123

From Yugoslavia with Cracks 126

The Unregulated (Non)medium 133

Lightning-Fast Sneakernet 135

Homemade Tape Culture 139

(Mis)understanding Games 143

A Cottage Arcade Industry 147

6 Bastard Children of the West: Establishing a Domestic Coding Culture 153

Czechoslovak Homebrew Scene 157

Ports and Conversions 164

What Became of Flappy 167

Forging the Shooter 171

Second Lives of Indiana Jones 174

Hacking Games 178

7 Empowered by Games: Games as a Means of Self-Expression and Activism 185

Hello World! 190

Adventure in Your Home 192

Spreading Unofficial Culture 196

Small Subversions 199

A Protest of Sorts 204

Taking to the Streets 206

Conclusion 215

Bricoleurs and Tacticians 218

We Have Always Been Indie 219

Toward Comparative Histories 221

Preserving the Peripheral 223

Epilogue: After the Curtain Fell 227

Computers and Games in Transition 229

A Belated Cottage Industry 232

Homebrew Lives On 234

The Game Industry Today: Adventures, Army, and Automation Where Are They Now? 238

Appendix: Important Dates 241

Glossary 243

Notes 247

Bibliography 315

Index 345

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Jaroslav Švelch'sGaming the Iron Curtainis a compelling demonstration of the possibilities of writing histories of gaming that are bottom up and from the margins, moving beyond industry-based histories toward a focus on social, cultural, and political histories. A lively and vivid account of how gaming cultures emerged in Cold War Czechoslovakia, Švelch describes the emergence of an 'informal' economy where would-be gamers smuggled hardware, hacked and reprogrammed games, jury-rigged their own joysticks from everyday materials, and circulated titles through grassroots networks, making up for the scarcity of their local markets and bureaucratic indifference to domestic uses of computers. This book will interest not only games scholars but anyone who wants to better understand how people made do within the Soviet bloc.”

Henry Jenkins, coauthor of By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism

“This extraordinary book on 1980s computing culture provides an unexpectedly vivid window into social relations in late socialism and the dysfunction of Czechoslovakia's political institutions. Through the memories of early computing enthusiasts and close examination of the ephemera they lovingly saved, Švelch brings to life a lost world of do-it-yourself hobby clubs, early game design, and even homemade computer peripherals that is a welcome addition to the growing field of digital game history and is also a must-read for anyone interested in everyday life in the final decades of European Communism.”

Kimberly Zarecor, Associate Professor of Architecture, Iowa State University; author of Manufacturing a Socialist Modernity: Housing in Czechoslovakia, 1945-1960

“Gaming the Iron Curtainis a surprising addition to the ever-growing body of work on everyday life in the Eastern bloc.Švelch's fascinating study proves yet again that developments in the West were not without their counterparts in the East. Using a wide range of sources and historiographies, Švelch reveals the hidden world of computers and gaming in late Communist Czechoslovakia.”

Paulina Bren, Adjunct Associate Professor, Vassar College; author ofThe Greengrocer and His TV: The Culture of Communism after the 1968 Prague Spring and coeditor of Communism Unwrapped: Consumption in Cold War Eastern Europe

“At once necessary and original, disciplined and deliberately disorienting, informative and crackling with gamer intelligence,Gaming the Iron Curtainexpertly guides the reader through the peripheral thickets of gaming subcultures in Czechoslovak hobby computing in the 1980s. Švelch sketches the political complexities of Czechoslovak computing culturesand uncovers how unknown Central European homebrewers dreamt up new meanings of 'Hello, world!' in the Soviet bloc. A welcomed and pioneering work.”

Benjamin Peters, Associate Professor, University of Tulsa; author of How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet

“This fascinating book introduces the reader to the undiscovered lives of microcomputing and gaming communities in 1980s Czechoslovakia. For the first time, Švelch draws up the history of hobbyist gaming clubs that worked under the radar of party authorities. This thoroughly researched and enjoyably deliveredstory is woveninto a tapestry of dynamic changes in politics, technology, foreign trade, agriculture, leisure, and everyday life in a way that will contribute a great deal to a more subtle and less stereotyped image of latesocialism.”

Anikó Imre, Professor of Cinematic Arts, The University of Southern California; author of Identity Games: Globalization and the Transformation of Media Cultures in New Europe

Endorsement

“This fascinating book introduces the reader to the undiscovered lives of microcomputing and gaming communities in 1980s Czechoslovakia. For the first time, Švelch draws up the history of hobbyist gaming clubs that worked under the radar of party authorities. This thoroughly researched and enjoyably deliveredstory is woveninto a tapestry of dynamic changes in politics, technology, foreign trade, agriculture, leisure, and everyday life in a way that will contribute a great deal to a more subtle and less stereotyped image of latesocialism.”

Anikó Imre, Professor of Cinematic Arts, The University of Southern California; author of Identity Games: Globalization and the Transformation of Media Cultures in New Europe

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