The “Computer” exhibition of Lausanne. Part 5: When video games are no event.

par Pierre-Yves Hurel


Context : This paper is part of a dossier about the “Computer” exhibition, taking place in Lausanne 1978-2004.  

  • In the first part (link), I presented my methodological choices, the media corpus, and the main periods of  the “Computer” exhibition.
  • In the second part (link), I have shown to what extent the show became part of a regional rivalry.
  • In the third part (link), I listed the companies attending the “Computer” fair and showed its clientele.
  • In the fourth part (link), I showed the deep ambivalence of the targeted audience and the slow intrusion of cultural aspects in the exhibition.
  • In this fifth part, I will be studying the place that video games occupied at the fair.

As we’ve seen in my previous articles, video games were not exactly in the focus of attention of the “Computer” exhibition in Lausanne. At a first cursory glance, you might even think they were missing completely. And yet, on closer inspection the show does seem to have been, somewhat despite itself, a moment of dissemination for video games in French-speaking Switzerland.

The (very rare) mention of games

In 1978, when explaining the emergence of the personal computer across the Atlantic, and listing the possible uses of microcomputers, Jean-Michel Vaucher indicated (in an article that, with hindsight, was particularly lucid !) that there were, “of course, plenty of game programs” and “fans of computer games” were mentioned in the margins in 1988, in a rather pejorative way, described as an unfaithful public, in comparison with professional computer users. And, despite the presence of “video games” in 1992, Emil Jucker declared that he did not want to attract such “multimedia game addicts”. The idea of playing on the computer was apparently diametrically opposed to the idea of a professional audience of the trade fair organisers.Thus there were only three mentions of video games between 1978 and 1992.

The shift of interest towards the domestic sector in 1994, justified in particular by the success of micro-computing in the United States, now that “everyone plays games” could be seen in the press, as five articles mentioned games in that year: there was talk of “electronic games for the youngest”, and “games” were listed among the attractions of the “Computer at home” section. When “a mother” visited the show, she explained that she was looking for “games” , but also that her offspring’s computer should not be filled solely with “stupid games”. In one of the few articles in our corpus with more of an editorial tone than a factual one, the journalist laments that French-speaking Switzerland was “screwed” [“foutue” in the original] because it missed the moment to participate in the multimedia success, of which “games” were seen as a part; “The Swiss are watching the steamroller pass by with open mouths and flailing arms. Go ahead, bloody hell!”

Here, video games are equated with American domination of the computer industry.

In 1996, as Corinne Bloch reports on the words of young visitors to the show (who, incidentally, seem to fit in perfectly with the figure of young teenage entrepreneurs in the tradition of Silicon Valley’s parvenu myths), mention is also made of “a multitude of games” and the possibility of finding at Computer “the ultimate in educational games”. Even more astonishing, a box is dedicated to games not to be missed. These include Mortal Kombat III, Alone in the Dark and Simicty.

A unique case in our corpus: a box names games “not to be missed”. Every other column is dedicated to games considered more educational. (Source)

There are no more mentions of digital games until 2001: “Patrick Lehner, 42, is the General Secretary of the Groupement romand de l’informatique and the Director of Computer-expo”. When asked to list the websites, he visists regularly, he mentioned “ea.com”, where he looked for “patches [for his] games”. Computer’s new boss was a gamer. In 2003, we read that the “training and a console tournament with 300 participants [taking] place on April 30” were discussed in the paper. Video games suddenly advanced from vulgar pastime to an interesting bait for the public, which was supposed to rescue a struggling trade show.

It is worth noting that all in all only one mention (1992) refers to “video games”. Journalists used instead terms like “game programs”, “multimedia games”, “electronic games” or “computer games”. What’s more, references to these games were few and far between, and apart from one dedicated article, games were perceived as a marginal phenomenon of digitalisation. The question arises as to whether games were even present in any form at the computer trade fair before 1994. We will take a look at the illustrations of the press coverage to continue our investigation.

Games as illustration

While there was no mention of video games from ’78 to ’88, a photo accompanying an article in 1986 is very intriguing. It shows (thanks to Yannick Rochat and friends at the Musée Bolo) the game Q*bert (Gottlieb 1982), running on an IBM Protable PC from 1984.

Two young people playing Q*bert on ICM PC in 1986 in Lausanne (source).

In 1992, another photo shows a group of men sitting around a computer whose screen displays a 3D space. While it is impossible to determine whether this is architectural software or Point’n Click.

Recognize this game? Let us know! (Source)

Also in 1992, two “budding users” [ “utilisateurs en herbe ” in the original] appear to be drinking a soda in front of a computer in the “Computer at home” department. Here too, it is hard to know what’s on the screen: a video game? a graphic demo?

Recognize this game? Let us know! (Source)

So, it seems that, even while video games were absent from the media coverage studied, they were present on location. Presumably, it occasionally provided good illustrations for agency photojournalists – probably more so than management software. However, no one in the editorial team felt the need to comment on the presence of games: it was not an event. For the show organizers and journalists alike, games were just not the point. This is representative of the controversial perception and portrayal of computers in the mainstream. Many committed protagonists of digitalisation, such as the organisers of the computer trade fair, were eager to distinguish the serious work tool from the computer from frivolous toys. Ambivalence was not permitted.

Para-games and the digitization of culture

Aside from classic video “games” and the few artefacts recognizable in the photographs, there were however other interesting mentions, that seem to be at least partly rooted in playful practices or discourse. Concluding his resumé of “Computer 93“, Luc Domenjoz writes in a playful tone: “Finally, if you want to relax a bit, you can sign up to fly the fabulous flight simulator that Silicon Graphics is presenting on a giant stand at the Palais de Beaulieu. Just a reminder that computers still know how to mix seriousness with fun.” Chances are it is actually what the dedicated French wikipedia page calls the “Hornet” system, a simulation system developed by Namco and Magic Edge in 1993. A “giant” system, in fact, measuring 4.70 meters in length. Very little information on this model is currently available online. It was probably (thanks to Björn-Olav Dozo for the food for thought) a simulator that was presented at various major trade shows attended by investors, with the aim of demonstrating the “simulation” capabilities of the computer behind the architecture. It is not presented as a game in the original article. It seems plausible that a game was available the same year on an “interactive terminal developed on Smaky”.

Was this the model on display in Lausanne? (Source)

Some local artists’ works were also included in our corpus, but their (non)playful dimension remains to be assessed. In 1991, a creation prize was awarded to a piece of music called “Mégalaxe” – the work of several engineers from the BSI (Bureau de service et d’ingénierie in Lausanne) “created in collaboration with the dancer Brigitte Jardin”. It was presented as follows:

“It is a blend of art and technology, combining the simultaneous use of computer resources with a data acquisition system, with a pedagogical approach. So much so that ‘dance creates sound and rhythm creates music’ “.

On first reading, I was tempted to see this as a contemporary art device in which playfulness would appear to be secondary. However, a separate article in the 24 heures newspaper tells us that the choreographer associated with the project intended to awaken children’s musical awareness, and the photo illustration and caption below suggest that it was partly playful for these young audiences.

Caption: “The Mégalaxe, which generates sound from movement, is a big hit with children, who already call it “the magic curtain”. (Source)

Two other projects presented in an article from 1996 draw our attention:

“The CD-ROM will be widely represented, with “Dimension Pixel” in particular, which reproduces the catalog of an exhibition presented in 1995 at the Musée des Arts décoratifs. This digital disc offers a journey into the world of computer graphics, with films and images produced at the ECAL. “Lousonna”, a multimedia project by the Musée romain de Vidy and the ECAL, is a three-dimensional model of the Roman site of Vidy.”

This short paragraph first shows the local attraction for the development of “multimedia” projects. Were these objects potentially playful, and did they feature gameplay?

In a report from the “Actualités sur la Télévision de la région lausannoise” from 1995 we can see the a “game over” screen (at 11:30) in one of the works in the Dimension Pixel exhibition. Perhaps this is a reference to videogame codes within a non-interactive film? As for Lousonna, it is hard to know whether its intention was purely to create an animated film or a visitable reconstruction. In any case, the project appears not to have been completed. (In 1999 issue of Uniscope  financing difficulties were mentioned).

While not all of these examples are video games in the strict sense of the term, these hybrid objects are, in our view, evidence of a gradual integration of the computer’s playful/ludic dimension into the cultural realm. They also reveal a certain synchronicity between a local and an international scene. The video game Versailles 1685 (Cryo Interactive Entertainment), published in France in 1996, for example is often cited (at least in France) as a pioneering example of a new wave of “ludiciels” (entertaining software). This confirms that, at the same time, the French-speaking part of Switzerland was also experiencing a similar desire to renew its relationship with culture.

Two local games: Aventura and Blupi

Finally, within the corpus of 170 press clippings, two explicit mentions of local video games were found. The first (chronologically) is Aventura I (Jean-Claude Schopfer), mentioned lapidary as winner of the 1990 Crédit Suisse prize. The event did not elicit a dedicated article in any of the newspapers studied. I had to turn to the “Nouvelle revue de Lausanne” to find a paragraph describing the game:

“(…) it is an adventure game in which the player must find a labyrinth where the evil Malcor is hiding. To free the world from this evil being and save the people of Factar VII, the player will have to travel a long path strewn with pitfalls. Equipped with a few trump cards at the outset, the vigilante will have to use his deductive mind and know how to make the right choices at the right time.”

There are traces of the game online, as well as its downloadable ROM. This information can now be found on Swiss Games Garden, the Swiss video game database. Of the fifty entries competing for the Credit Suisse prize, half were the work of enthusiasts. It is to be hoped that – if archives exist – other local games can be found there.

Aventura I is an adventure game inspired by the Ultima series and published for the Atari ST.

Finally, in 1994, the first mascot from a Swiss video game, Blupi, was mentioned in the text and represented in the image when he appeared in the first “Computer at home” space. A short paragraph was devoted to it:

“Smaky is not sectarian. The publishers of the main software running on the only 100% Swiss computer have decided to adapt them to the PC compatible world. These include the Blupi series for children, and Crésus, an accounting program including VAT for Switzerland.”

Although the computer screen is not visible, there’s little doubt as to what it is displaying: the “smaky” background stickers indicate that the picture was taken are at the Vaud computer stand, and Blupi’s silhouette can be seen in the lower left foreground. It is accompanied by the Blupi news magazine. (Source)

Conclusion: when the event is not the video game

We still don’t know much about the place that video games occupied in the aisles of Beaulieu during the various editions of the “Computer” fair. What we do know, for the time being, has passed through the filter of involved acteurs talking to the newspapers, and then through the filter of the newspapers studied. In any case, there were indeed a few video games present at the show, without it seeming to be a focus for the people involved. The fact that video games were an ‘afterthought’ at best reminds the contemporary researcher that his or her  interest in what has now become the world’s leading cultural industry is certainly not evident in the 1980s and 1990s in the Romandie.

Three (non-exclusive) hypotheses could be put forward to understand this lack of interest in video games:

  • The “technical” hypothesis: it is common knowledge that video games, especially in the early days, served only one fucntion, i.e. as technical demos for the capacity of computers. It is quite possible that the presence of video games at “Computer” could therefore be explained in part by the exhibitors’ interest in getting their message across quickly. Showing a fast-paced, colorful gamea demonstrate its power, without the game being the subject: once the customer is convinced of this aspect, utilities can be demonstrated.
  • The “cultural and social hierarchization” hypothesis: as I’ve shown with the evocation of certain contemptuous terms for games and gamers, video games have long been associated with a pointless activity, disturbing the tranquility of business meetings, even dangerous for young people. If video games had been synonymous with culture and the arts, a video game award would undoubtedly have been perpetuated. Here, on the contrary, the awarding of a prize to Aventura I seems to be an exception.
  • The “practical understanding” hypothesis: as Marielle Stamm states in Anne-Sylvie Weinmann’s portrait of her, she has never been wildly passionate about IT. How, then, to explain her status as the leading journalist in the field in French-speaking Switzerland? By an interest in life as it changes, in the impact of the arrival of a new technology on different sectors of society. During a public lecture given in 2019 at the University of Lausanne, David Javet asks Jean-Daniel Nicoud about having witnessed the emergence of the first video games in French-speaking Switzerland. “I used to play them for fractions of a minute,” he replies politely. Although the two testimonies are different, they echo each other: at the exhibition, the computer is not an event, but a vehicle for transformation. As for video games, they are present, but unconsidered. This lack of interest is a key to understanding our times and practices, and will need to be explored further in the future.

Recommended citation: Pierre-Yves Hurel, The “Computer” exhibition of Lausanne. Part 5: The “Computer” exhibition of Lausanne. Part 5: When video games are no event, in: Confoederatio Ludens, https://chludens.hypotheses.org/676, 25.04.2024.   Header Image: Author unkwown, coming with the article by Denise Jeanmonod, “L’informatique romande : de Plan-les-Ouates à Corcelles en passant par la Vallée de Joux”, 22.04.1986, Journal de Genève.




Cite this blog post
Pierre-Yves Hurel (2024, April 25). The “Computer” exhibition of Lausanne. Part 5: When video games are no event. Confoederatio Ludens. Retrieved June 13, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/w9vo

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