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Harold Goldberg's All Your Base are Belong to Us and the Cultural History of Video Games as Emotional Story of American Entrepreneurship

Screencap from Sega's Zero Wing
Screencap from Sega's Zero Wing

"All Your Base are Belong to Us" famously circulated as an Internet meme a decade ago. Originating as a poor English translation (from Japanese) of dialogue in Sega's 1991 video game Zero Wing, the phrase has a new life as the title of Harold Goldberg's cultural history of the video game industry. Goldberg is appearing at Book Soup on June 4th to discuss and sign the book.

One of the strangest things about video games is that no one figured out how to make money from them until the 1980s, even though the technology had long been available. What's your view as to why it took so long for video games to catch on?

At first, games were curiosities. The Brookhaven National Labs scientist William Higginbotham proved there was an interest with his Tennis for Two, made on a lowly oscilloscope in the late 1950s. Visitors came from miles around to check it out on Long Island. But it was never made to earn piles of money, just to stir interest in science.

When Ralph Baer's Magnavox Odyssey was released in the 1970s, no one knew how to market the system. Magnavox had Frank Sinatra do the commercial, which was completely unhip.

Atari's Nolan Bushnell was savvy at certain forms of marketing, from creating buzz to setting a high price for games at your local store. Bushnell had a big, audacious personality, and he was fearless.

When Electronic Arts was created in the 1980s, founder Trip Hawkins hired a slew of MBAs to help him make it successful. He had just the right balance of creative types, whom he considered to be artists on the level of movie and music stars, and smart business types. The business took off from there.

One of the most colorful stories in all of video game history is that of the 1983 Atari video game burial [when Atari semi-secretly buried thousands of copies of low-selling games, including E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, at a remote landfill in Alamagordo, N. Mex.]. You mention the story in the book, yet it seems that there are conflicting accounts as to whether the dump actually took place. Were you able to determine the veracity of the story?

It certainly seems true from all the interviews I conducted. And I've been hearing that story from video game executives and journalists since I started writing about games in the early 1990s. Anecdotally, in the 1980s here in New York City, I would see stacks of E.T. games in the cheap-ass stereo store bargain bins on 14th Street. They were selling for ten cents each and no one was buying them at that price. So it makes sense that Atari and Warner Bros. had to get rid of them in one fell swoop.

Your book zeroes in on certain game designers who were able to make great leaps forward with games that had the largest impact on the game industry and pop culture as a whole (Nolan Bushnell's Pong, Shigeru Miyamoto's work for Nintendo and Ken Levine's BioShock, among others). What criteria determined who you focused on?

I wanted to focus on games that not only were iconic, they helped to move video games up the steep ladder toward conquering pop culture. I wanted gamers to flock to the book first and then I wanted people who hadn't played since Pong to pick it up to see where we've come. And then I wanted people who just enjoy a good story to read the book as well. That's the reason I chose primarily American stories -- comedies and tragedies and roller coaster rides of entrepreneurship that are fairly compelling to read. People break down in this book. They become millionaires a hundred times over. They become ill from endless overwork. And, perhaps most saliently, they have changed the way we live.

Some newer trends in gaming, such as Microsoft's controller-free Kinect, seem gimmicky. Do you think Kinect foreshadows a more sweeping change in gaming?

The Kinect seems gimmicky because most of the games made for it, thus far, are derivative. Microsoft is miming the stellar success of the Wii. But we'll see that some core games, like the portions of the upcoming Gears of War 3, will use Kinect, and that may feel less gimmicky.

Most recently, mobile games have taken off like crazy. What is the return on something like Angry Birds, for example?

The return on a game like Angry Birds is immense. It's probably even a more handsome a payday than was the return on [the low-budget, high-grossing] The Blair Witch Project in film.

But, like Blair Witch, that kind of staggering profit is really quite unusual. There are tens of thousands of iPad games out there. It's hard to rise above the fray. Yet Angry Birds may make people want to check out another great, independently-created game for the iPhone or iPad.

The people who make those games remind me of the smart people in small groups who worked on console games in the 1980s. They're closely knit, they think coding is akin to art and they are changing the nature of the way we play games.