Video game histories tend to follow an achingly familiar structure. They start with Pong and the Atari years; they do the console wars between Nintendo and Sega; they cover the success of the PlayStation and the dawn of 3D visuals. All the technological waypoints are slavishly ticked off, but rarely does anyone stop and ask: why do we even play video games? What do they mean?
These questions were very much on the mind of writer and artist Edward Ross when he began work on Gamish, a non-fiction graphic novel about the history of games. Five years ago, Ross wrote the acclaimed Filmish, an enthralling illustrated romp through cinema from George Méliès to The Matrix, whose accessible comic-strip presentation was a Trojan Horse for a wealth of in-depth film theory. With Gamish he uses a similar approach, constructing a loving, pastel-coloured visual narrative around titles such as Metroid, Doom and Papers Please, exploring not just the timeline of games but also the culture that makes and consumes them.
Inspired by BBC’s Moviedrome series, in which cult movies were introduced by film-makers Alex Cox and Mark Cousins, Ross interrogates games as a critical theorist rather than a tech fan – but like Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics, he draws himself within the works and events he covers, giving the narrative a personal feel. It is fascinating, revealing and thoughtful.
Although it’s billed as a history of video games, Gamish takes us back much further. “When I started the research, I wanted to discover the starting point of video games,” says Ross. “Obviously you’ve got Tennis for Two and Space War, but where did the technology come from for that? So I went back a bit further to early computers, and found that Alan Turing wrote a chess programme, and the very earliest video games were checkers and tic-tac-toe. So I was like, OK, where do they come from? And I just kept jumping further back. I looked at the history of chess, which is really fascinating, then you get to the very first board games, which used pebbles, bones and stone tablets.”
One wonderful thing about the book is how Ross’s consistent drawing style allows us to see games – and game characters – removed from their technical constraints. It’s possible to compare, say, Streets of Rage and Gears of War without being distracted by the huge differences in visual quality that screenshots would accentuate. “Part of the power of translating films and games into a different medium is that you get to divorce them from the raw form they come in and I think that helps people have more of an analytical eye,” says Ross. “If you juxtapose Space Invaders beside Uncharted in a documentary, they appear worlds apart. The huge advantage of illustrating in one consistent style is you can tie these things together and it doesn’t jar.”
Moving games away from the technology that enables them also allowed Ross to ask questions about things that players often take for granted. “Video games are so tied to the technology they were created for, and also to the literal angle from which we view them,” he says. “Why does a game designer go for a first-person rather than a third-person perspective in a particular game? I realised that first-person games like Gone Home and Firewatch are designed around empathy towards other characters. In Gone Home, you’re not empathetic towards the player character, but towards her sister – the tension is about what happened to her. In Life Is Strange though, which has a third-person perspective, the empathy is designed to fall on [player-character] Max. Those choices are really fascinating and important, but it’s something we rarely talk about or formalise.”
Importantly too, Gamish considers the cultural implications of games and how they represent us. Ross looks at the centrality of the white male protagonist throughout video-game history and at the bigotry directed at characters and players outside of that demographic; there are sections on embodiment and trans gamers, on autobiography in game design, and on the hidden politics of shooters. “When you’re talking about games being this universal experience, you can’t then avoid talking about how our experiences of these playspaces differ,” says Ross. “When certain ideas and ideologies are foregrounded in mainstream games, you’ve got to discuss how that then affects people from different backgrounds.
“Sadly there’s still this belief that games belong to certain sort of social group, and certain people and other people are excluded from or feel excluded from them. I want to make the argument that this is outrageous and wrong. It’s so intrinsic to human nature to play, and so natural – you’re just being daft if you think that this is your space and not someone else’s.”
The key message is that play has been a central element of human creativity since the beginning – and that video games are now part of that. It was the playful nature of early humans that helped them refine hunting techniques and in 1962, it was the playful nature of the MIT researchers who wrote Spacewar! that helped them programme rocket trajectories. “Time spent in Minecraft and time spent doodling on a piece of paper – those are the same thing,” says Ross.
Ultimately, what the book shows is that there is an increasing diversity of people discovering game development as a form of communication – and that this is one of the most exciting and important developments in the history of the medium. “We’re getting more artists and academics who are making games,” says Ross. “There are really interesting things going on right now and it’s great to be able to give a glimpse of it … From the outside, video games can seem completely indecipherable. I’ve had game designers tell me that the book will be a really good gift for them to show people what they do for a living.”