‘The History of Civilization’ Updates, 10 Years Later

Tuesday, July 18th, 2017

Sid Meier's Civilization I for MS-DOS Screenshot

Ten years ago today — on July 18, 2007 — Gamasutra published my in-depth history of the creation of Sid Meier’s Civilization called The History of Civilization. (Here’s my original VC&G post on the topic.)

My article was originally intended to be part of a series of articles — conceived by Simon Carless, if I recall correctly — that would cover the histories of the then-recently announced “Game Cannon.” (I wanted to do a piece on Tetris next, but I could not figure out how to get an interview with Alexey Pajitnov.)

Treating video games as legitimate cultural artifacts worthy of preservation and study was a very novel idea at the time. My work, and that of others, over this past decade has made this idea far more mainstream, although there’s still a lot of work to do.

My Civilization article still gets a lot of attention. Gamasutra re-promotes it every once and a while, and it has been cited in books, other articles, and more. So imagine my embarrassment as I tell you, right now, that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing back when I wrote it. I was never formally trained as a journalist; I learned my craft and absorbed lessons as I went along.

The lesson I learned from the Civilization piece was to never make assumptions. The History of Civilization was only the second big history narrative piece I’d written in my career, and I remember being nervous about making a few assumptions about things that I did not firmly know to fill in gaps in the narrative.

I did not have the time or budget to interview more one person fully the article (Sid Meier, though I asked Bruce Shelley questions via email), so I wondered: How on earth do I fill in those knowledge gaps? I just went with what made the most sense, and I was lucky that it did not lead to any problems. Today, many journalists still do this, and it’s a terrible practice.

Since that time, I typically go way way way over budget with interviews and research so that I never, ever have to make any assumptions in the storytelling process. As we speak, I’m about three months late on a big feature because of this obsession of mine. It’s not an economical way to do business as a freelancer, but at least my editors know I can deliver an accurate product.

Does that make The History of Civilization a bad article? No. It’s still a good piece overall, although I would do things differently if I wrote it today.

…But there is this nagging issue, always in the back of my conscience, of a very long email that Bruce Shelley sent me about it just after it was published.

And that, my friends, will be the first of several updates related to this article that I collected have for you today, in three acts:

I. Bruce Shelley’s Notes on the Article
II. Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley in the Flesh
III. History of Civilization Translated into Chinese

[ Continue reading ‘The History of Civilization’ Updates, 10 Years Later » ]

The Origins of Chuck E. Cheese

Thursday, June 8th, 2017

Nolan Bushnell and Chuck E. Cheese

I mentioned this in my most recent Retro Scan, but I figured this was worth repeating in its own post.

Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre launched 40 years ago last month — on May 16, 1977. To celebrate the anniversary, I wrote a long feature about the origins of the pizza chain for FastCompany that they published last week.

In the piece, you can learn about how Chuck E. Cheese was originally supposed to be a coyote, read about rat-related intrigue, and glean some of the visionary genius of Nolan Bushnell, who saw the chain as a way to bring arcade video games to the mainstream — as well as scratching a fundamental itch of human nature. It worked.

Hope you enjoy it.

Hear Benj on the Retronauts Podcast

Tuesday, May 16th, 2017

Retronauts Episode 98 Mac Games

Since February, I’ve been appearing on episodes of Retronauts, a long-running retro gaming podcast traditionally hosted by Jeremy Parish and Bob Mackey. Retronauts traces its origins to the now defunct 1UP.com, but it has moved along with Jeremy wherever he goes.

And that includes a move across the country: About five years ago, Jeremy relocated to sunny Raleigh, NC from San Francisco. After resigning from his editor-in-chief position at USGamer.net late last year, Jeremy decided to rely on Patreon to fund Retronauts as a full-time project.

Retronauts East Apple II Games ArtworkThere’s only one problem: Bob Mackey is still located on the west coast, and Jeremy can’t afford to fly out there every time he wants to record a show. So while Bob still creates episodes on the west coast, Jeremy started up a “Retronauts East” wing of the show featuring a local crew of regulars.

Fortunately, I am a Raleigh native, and I still live here. So the Retronauts East roster includes both myself and Ben Elgin, a Hillsborough, NC software engineer and a veteran of Jeremy’s Gamespite forums.

Since then I’ve been on five episodes (with another micro episode on the way), and it’s been a blast. Jeremy is a gin aficionado, and we typically drink a gin and tonic before or during the show, which is why you may hear high-resolution ice clinking in the background.

Here’s a run-down of the episodes I’ve appeared on so far:

Episode 87: Apple II Games
Episode 91: Early Sega Arcade Games
Episode 95: Early Batman Games
Micro 59: Atari Swordquest
Episode 98: Mac Gaming in the 1980s

There’s more to come. So stay tuned and enjoy.

[ VC&G Anthology ] Video Games Turn Forty (2007)

Monday, May 15th, 2017

Note: this article was originally published on 1UP.com on May 15, 2007 under the title “Videogames Turn Forty.” (Original URL: http://www.1up.com/do/feature?pager.offset=0&cId=3159462).

Since 1UP is no longer with us, I decided to republish the article here for historical reference. I have learned quite a bit about video game history in the decade since this was originally published, and naturally some of my conclusions have changed. But this is still a great overview of the work done by Baer, Harrison, and Rusch in the 1960s. I plan to republish my other 1UP articles on VC&G as well in the near future. — Benj

Video Games Turn Forty 1UP Screenshot

The nineteen-inch screen flashed in waves of blue and black as two normally reserved professionals threw themselves into a competition destined for the history books. Mashing furiously at hand wired buttons, each battled to be the first winner of a unique contest never before played by man: the contest of the video game.

VC&G Anthology BadgeIn 1967, a bold engineer with a vision led a small team to create the world’s first electronic games to use an ordinary television set as a medium. Wary of naysayers from within, the video mavericks sequestered themselves behind closed doors, and for good reason: they worked under the payroll of Sanders Associates, a giant Cold War defense contractor.

As hippies on the streets of San Francisco stuck flowers in the barrels of guns, three men in snowy New Hampshire crafted the future of electronic entertainment deep in the heart of a commercial war machine. In May of 1967, the world’s first video games — as we know them today — made their quiet, humble entrance into the world.

[ Continue reading [ VC&G Anthology ] Video Games Turn Forty (2007) » ]

The Untold Story of Atari Founder Nolan Bushnell’s Visionary 1980s Tech Incubator

Friday, February 17th, 2017

The Story of Nolan Bushnell

Up now on FastCompany.com is my latest piece in a series of deep-dives into little-known tech history. (I wrote this last year – it’s been simmering on the backburner for quite some time.)

My article is about Nolan Bushnell’s Catalyst Technologies, a pioneering high-tech incubator in the 1980s:

In the annals of Silicon Valley history, Nolan Bushnell’s name conjures up both brilliant success and spectacular failure. His two landmark achievements were founding Atari in 1972–laying the groundwork for the entire video game industry–and starting Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre in 1977. But there’s another highlight of Bushnell’s bio that has long gone undocumented: pioneer of the high-tech incubator.

In 1981, Bushnell created Catalyst Technologies, a venture-capital partnership designed to bring the future to life by turning his ideas into companies. In the era of the TRS-80, Betamax, and CB radio, startups funded by Catalyst pursued an array of visionary concepts–from interactive TV to online shopping to door-to-door navigation–that created entire industries decades later. “I read science fiction, and I wanted to live there,” Bushnell explains.

In researching the history of Catalyst, I found that it was far more successful than most people think, and that Bushnell’s post-Atari track record, despite several high-profile failures, is not as bad as one might assume from the negative media coverage he once garnered. It’s time to reconsider his post-Atari legacy, in my opinion, and this article is the first stop in doing so. Hope you enjoy it.

Ms. Pac-Man Turns 35

Friday, February 3rd, 2017

Ms. Pac-Man Arcade Flier Flyer

35 years ago today, Ms. Pac-Man made its worldwide public debut during a press conference held by Namco at Castle Park Entertainment Center in Sherman Oaks, a neighborhood of Los Angeles. Ms. Pac-Man launched on February 3, 1982.

In 2011, I interviewed three of Ms. Pac-Man’s creators in depth for a planned feature I was going to write about the game’s 30th anniversary. That project fell through, and although many journalists have written about Ms. Pac-Man since then (and its creators began giving public talks years ago), I found that my old interviews still contained fascinating nuggets of information on the game that had not yet come to light.

So I turned all of my source material on Ms. Pac-Man into an oral history, which FastCompany.com just published. It’s likely that just about everything you’d ever want to know about Ms. Pac-Man’s creation is covered there.

On VC&G, I would like to talk specifically about how I discovered the release date for Ms. Pac-Man, since I’d like people to correct the information that’s out there. (Prior to the publication of my article, sites stated the launch date of Ms. Pac-Man anywhere between late 1981 and January 1982. Wikipedia still says “January 13, 1982” as the launch date — I’ve asked Ms. Pac-Man’s creators, and none of us can figure out where it came from.)

While I found evidence in a single newspaper arcade advertisement that Ms. Pac-Man was anticipated as early as January 31, 1982 (possibly from a test location), Bally Midway formally announced Ms. Pac-Man to the world during a press conference on Wednesday, February 3rd, 1982. A key newspaper report confirms this:

Newspaper Article Describing Ms Pac-Man Launch Date

That’s an article from the Los Angeles Times dated Thursday, February 4th, 1982. It mentions the press conference happening on Wednesday of that week — hence, Feb 3, 1982.

Here’s another article Ms. Pac-Man announcement article newspapers reprinted verbatim widely across the US. It is based on the article above and sent out as a wire report for syndication:

Newspaper Article Describing Ms Pac-Man Launch Date

Anyway — what a game, what a story. I hope you enjoy reading about how a band of plucky New England upstarts created the most popular arcade game in U.S. history.

VC&G Patreon Launches Today

Sunday, January 8th, 2017

Today’s the big day. I just launched a Patreon Campaign with the aim of supporting my history work.

Click here to become a Patron of Benj Edwards and VC&G.

Also, I am doing a livestream Q&A at 1:30 Eastern today.

Here’s some of the info from the Patreon page repeated below for future reference.

[ Continue reading VC&G Patreon Launches Today » ]

The VC&G Christmas Collection (2016 Edition)

Thursday, December 8th, 2016

Vintage Computing and Gaming Christmas Xmas Megapost

It’s that time of year again: the Yuletide. Over the past few years, I’ve been posting an annual collection of all the Christmas-related tech material I’ve written (both for this site and for others) into one place for easy reading. Below, you’ll find list of off-site Christmas slideshows, other features, and of course, plenty of Retro Scans of the Week.

I have a soft spot for Christmas, having been raised with the tradition, so this list is for me as much as it is for everyone else. After going through these things again, it’s amazing to see how much Christmas stuff I’ve posted over the years. I hope you enjoy it.

[ Continue reading The VC&G Christmas Collection (2016 Edition) » ]

Ed Smith and the Imagination Machine

Friday, September 2nd, 2016

Ed Smith and the Imagination Machine

Just today, FastCompany published my in-depth history of Ed Smith and APF Electronics.

APF was responsible for several video game consoles in the 1970s (like the MP1000) and a personal computer called The Imagination Machine. Ed Smith was the primary electronics designer for the MP1000, and he has quite a story to tell.

I think you guys will really enjoy the piece.

Thirty-seven years ago, New York-based APF Electronics, Inc. released The Imagination Machine, a hybrid video game console and personal computer designed to make a consumer’s first experience with computing as painless and inexpensive as possible.

APF’s playful computer (and its game console, the MP1000) never rivaled the impact of products from Apple or Atari, but they remain historically important because of the man who cocreated them: Ed Smith, one of the first African-American electronics engineers in the video game industry. During a time when black Americans struggled for social justice, Manhattan-based APF hired Smith to design the core element of its future electronics business.

What it took to get there, for both APF and Smith, is a story worth recounting—and one that, until now, has never been told in full.

The IBM PC Turns 35

Friday, August 12th, 2016

Benj's IBM PC 5150

35 years ago today, IBM launched the IBM Personal Computer — the first-ever IBM PC. While it was simply called the “IBM Personal Computer” back then, we now know it more commonly by its model number, 5150.

PCWorld recently asked me to do something to celebrate this anniversary, so just a few days ago, I took apart my personal IBM PC 5150 and documented the process on my workbench. And back in 2011, I wrote some other articles about the IBM PC on the occasion of the machine’s 30th anniversary.

In fact, I’ve done a lot of coverage of the IBM PC over the years, so I thought you guys might enjoy seeing a collection of all of them in one place. Here we go.

Features

IBM PC Retro Scans of the Week

IBM PC-Related VC&G Posts

There may be more lurking out there, but that’s quite a bit of reading if you’re interested in the IBM PC.