This week, we met with Jeanette Garcia, co-creator of World 1-1, the first film in a documentary series on the history of video games. The film focuses on the rise and fall of Atari in the 1970s and 1980s, featuring interviews with the major players of the time—Nolan Bushnell, Al Alcorn, Dona Bailey and so on—as well as several other commentators.
We sat down to discuss how games are portrayed in the film and to gain a deeper insight into the fascinating advent of video games.
Why do you think it’s important to learn the history of video games?
Just like the art of the novel, the invention of photography and later the emergence of moving images in film, video games is an art form that has influenced our culture and identity. It’s important to know where and how it all started, especially given that video games have such an interesting history emerging out of war. It came out of experimentation, a desire to amuse and entertain after some very dark times, and grew to become one of the leading forms of art and entertainment. Not only that, but like any other art form, it has changed and taken many shapes and I think it’s vital to document that evolution.
Speaking of changing shapes, it seems like a lot of the developers from the film thought of games like software instead. Why do you think that is?
Well I think that the main reason some of them continually refer to the games as software was because as creators, they were the programmers and dealt with the code. Although they were dealing with very limited hardware, especially by today’s standards, they pushed to create quality programming that could operate on the system that they had to work with. To me, I think they use that vocabulary because to them, it was more than what most consumers saw. They viewed the games as intricate programs that required a lot of patience and creativity in order for them to work properly.
How do you feel that might have impacted how games were made?
I think the way they thought of gameplay was very limited and in order to challenge gameplay further, you needed more help from the hardware.
I don’t think it would’ve changed what they made if they had considered them games. A lot of them tested them and enjoyed playing them, so I do think that a part of them did view what they were creating as a game. In their creative process, they definitely approached it in more than one way. They saw it as art, expression, the technology that made it all happen, a challenge, but it was also a very fun end product that was meant to draw people out of the humdrum and suck them into the screen. I think they attempted to be as immersive as possible, which comes across in a lot of the statements from those in the film. They wanted people to be mesmerized and drawn to their game, not only in terms of the aesthetic, but also because players had fun and wanted to keep playing.
You mention that they saw their games as art. What do you think they were trying to express?
Some expressed their imagination whether by taking every day common events or concerns, like Dona Bailey’s Centipede, and transforming them into vivid and entrancing experiences. Or by building a world with portals and warps like Franz Lanzinger’s Crystal Castles. Or by creating a complex backstory like Howard Scott Warshaw’s Yars’ Revenge. Others wanted to build on what was done and give it their twist or their own vision as we see with Garry Kitchen’s port of Donkey Kong. There were also programmers that wanted to show how creative they could be with the technology by pushing its limits and creating something unique and fun like Owen Rubin’s Major Havoc’s game within a game and idle animations. Or Adventure from Warren Robinett with his rooms and items, which had not been done before. We can see just how incredibly creative and innovative this group was, which I think is part of every generation and it’s one of the things that I admire from them the most. They were not only artistic, but behind that visually appealing presentation was also a lot of technological ingenuity.
A lot of the developers also didn’t classify themselves as gamers, then or now. Why do you think that is?
Although it was part of their jobs to play them, many of them enjoyed making games far more and really spent the majority of their time on the technological side of it rather than playing games as entertainment. Others gravitated later on in life toward developing other forms of technology like Joe Decuir’s interest in the internet and later Bluetooth technology and Steve Mayer’s interest in film editing software. We spoke to some of them who expressed that they no longer see games as they did then and had sort of grown out of it or had chosen to make very particular types of games such as mobile games or memory games because of their practicality and how they might benefit people. One person in particular admitted that the last video game they played was The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which they were really captured by, and they loved it so much that they were afraid to get hooked on games and not leave their home or do anything else. None of this comes across in the film because we had to focus on the history then, but we do have a lot of more content that didn’t make it in there and plan on including in future disc versions.
Did anyone else mention if they’ve been working on any serious games?
Well, Nolan Bushnell has a company called Brain Rush that works on learning games and actually partners up with schools and faculty to make them. A few others were working on other projects but they weren’t ready to really talk about them publicly yet. We are excited about the prospect of them making more games and seeing them released.
So what’s next for World 1-1?
We want to move forward in the history and look into what came next. A lot of people turn to Nintendo as the savior of the horrible crash of 1983 that appeared to have permanently destroyed the video game market. We would love to tell that story, but as we all know, Nintendo does not let just anyone in. We know that they would want the right person to tell their story. Nintendo wouldn’t be the only thing we would cover, since PC gaming was also a huge component to that era. And with Nintendo’s grand entrance, we also have its major competitor, Sega, an epic rivalry for superiority in consoles and games. What will happen in terms of production of World 1-2 really depends on the support of viewers and the success of this film. We are passionate filmmakers who also love video games. We want to continue to tell this story, but we want to be sure that we do it right and unfortunately that will take funding, the trust of some very important people, and a bit more time. For now, we are focusing on getting World 1-1 out there by having it screened at as many conventions as possible and chatting with people about it. Ultimately, we want to bring the film to disk, but it is available digitally on VHX right now.
This film is in part very close to our hearts. Although we aren’t game developers, we are independent filmmakers (a total crew of two people). Seeing the determination, ingenuity, and resilience of these pioneers and how humble their beginnings were, really speaks to us. It shows us that if you are truly passionate about what you do, retain that creative free spirit, and give it everything you have and keep going no matter how hard it might be or how impossible it might seem, you can make it happen.
To learn more about World 1-1 and keep up with the series and other fascinating video game news, visit their website or follow them on Facebook and Twitter. You can also currently purchase the film digitally at VHX or, if you’re in the mood for travel, see a screening at the Sacramento Indie Arcade Gaming Expo this April.