Of Bare Chested Men and Violence: Barbarians and War in 1980s games and press coverage

by Aurelia Brandenburg and Adrian Demleitner

This text traces a joint inquiry into a loose link between bare chested men as protagonists and the depiction of violence in 1980s video games. For this analysis, we collaborated from our respective perspectives from historical and design research. Aurelia Brandenburg has a background in history, digital humanities and gender studies and Adrian Demleitner in software studies and design research. Our focus was on the reception as well as visual semantics of video games that used barbarian- or soldier-themed characters.

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Chunky Game Booklets – Part 2: Story Booklets

by Beat Suter

Instruction Manuals – accessible and for everyone, but now obsolete

Most games in the 80s and 90s came on discs or CD-ROMs in artful cardboard boxes and contained an insightful instruction manual. The printed booklet was essential for teaching how to play the game, telling a story or prologue and making a player familiar with the computer system the game was made for. Instruction manuals were clear and detailed, often even extensive. The Swiss games of the 80s and 90s relied on them as much as any other game. These instruction manuals showed an interesting diversity of approaches from story booklets over cartoons to extensive strategy guides.


Part 1 — A Serious Manual
Part 2 — Story Booklets
Part 3 — From Strategy Guides to Downsizing the printed matter – coming soon


Continue reading Chunky Game Booklets – Part 2: Story Booklets

Chunky Game Booklets – Part 1: A Serious Manual

by Beat Suter

Instruction Manuals – accessible and for everyone, but now obsolete

Most games in the 80s and 90s came on discs or CD-ROMs in artful cardboard boxes and contained an insightful instruction manual. The printed booklet was essential for teaching how to play the game, telling a story or prologue and making a player familiar with the computer system the game was made for. Instruction manuals were clear and detailed, often even extensive. The Swiss games of the 80s and 90s relied on them as much as any other game. These instruction manuals showed an interesting diversity of approaches from story booklets over cartoons to extensive strategy guides.

Part 1 — A Serious Manual
Part 2 — Story Booklets – coming soon
Part 3 — From Strategy Guides to Downsizing the printed matter – coming soon

Part 1A Serious Manual

“It is about Hannibal, but you already knew that … didn’t you?”

This is how a quick intro for the game Hannibal of 1993 starts, most likely written for people who did not buy the game through official channels. There was a prolific piracy (or warez) scene in those days: Not everyone could afford to buy the games from the stores. So, a lot of people didn’t use the boxed originals but copied them. This was possible because most of the games came on floppy disk(s).

The intro continues in a jovial manner resuming and shortening the storyline:

“Hannibal has a little argument with the Romans and cause he gets angry very fast, he just decides to wipe out he entire Roman Race. Naturally this didn’t work, so now you get this change (chance).” (Lemonamiga, with original mistakes)

The quick doc is written by a gamer called acid queen. What they mean seems to compare more to a behavioral description of a gamer than a reference to history: Hannibal gets angry very fast and decides to wipe out everybody. Since this did not work in history, you get the chance now in the game.

The next two lines refer to the booklet that accompanies the game when bought from an official dealer in a game box (presumably for DM 99 or CHF 80):

“If you want the FULL story-Line, just by (sic!) the Manual of the Game, or go to a Library ( A place where they Keep Books they Say ).” (Lemonamiga)

The early game developers of the 80s in Switzerland often started as Crackers. They cracked legal games, altered their intros, and distributed copies with their extra animations and messages among friends and within the warez community. In general, a manual or a quick intro was not included. But some pirated games were sold by warez groups and had some quick info for the game on a flyer that was folded over the duplicate floppy disk and stuck in a small plastic envelope. Without this quick instruction it was sometimes difficult for the player to find out how to operate the game.

The official games came as cardboard boxes that were printed on the outside and contained a booklet as well as the disc(s) (Figure 1). Packaging designers used the large surface area of the box to draw additional attention to the game with their artwork. The cover usually featured a color printed concept art, and the back often contained a short promotional write-up of the game and some screenshots or drawings. Content creators took the opportunity to fill the game boxes with various things like goodies, fictive texts, posters, and stickers.

Figure 1: Hannibal (1993) came like most games of that time in a cardboard box with artwork, floppy disks, a couple flyers with additional information and an insightful booklet as instruction manual. Source: Photo Suter.
Figure 1: Hannibal (1993) came like most games of that time in a cardboard box with artwork, floppy disks, a couple flyers with additional information and an insightful booklet as instruction manual. Source: Photo Suter.

The Thorough Booklet

The Hannibal booklet comes in the official game box with floppy discs and features a completely different standard of information and writing than the quoted ‘quick intro’. The booklet has 48 pages with two columns per page and a colorful illustrative picture of Hannibal’s elephants traversing the snowy alpine mountains (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Booklet for Hannibal (1993). Source: Photo Suter.
Figure 2: Booklet for Hannibal (1993). Source: Photo Suter.

It starts with a polite and friendly welcome that assures you the developers took a serious approach to create a strategy simulation that is based on thoroughly researched historical context for Hannibal’s campaign to invade the Roman empire.

“Herzlich Willkommen

Zu Ihrer neuerworbenen geschichtlichen Strategiesimulation. Wir haben uns bemüht, für Sie dieses Spiel so interessant und geschichtlich realitätsnah zu gestalten, daß Ihnen mehrere Wochen Spielspass garantiert sind.” (Hannibal 1993 Einleitung)

“Welcome

To your newly acquired historical strategy simulation. We have tried to make this game so interesting and historically realistic for you that you are guaranteed several weeks of fun.“ (Translated by author)

After an initial general introduction by the Starbyte team, the next pages come with a simplified box graphic and explanation of the UI (User Interface) (Figure 3), showing that the game works with maps, a large text window for events and action news on parchment paper.

Figure 3: User Interface outline as shown in the manual. Source: Photo Suter.
Figure 3: User Interface outline as shown in the manual. Source: Photo Suter.

Mouse control and GUI were rather new at the time, they needed to be explained in detail. Beneath the map window, you find a wind rose, two buttons for switching maps and 10 other functional buttons, all of them appropriately illustrated. Beneath the parchment news window, you find a time indication button that tells you when the playing events take place – e.g., 1. June 218 B.C. All of this is shown in a in-game screenshot of the described UI (Figure 4).

Figure 4: User Interface as seen in the game with map display (top right) and event news (top left). Source: screenshot Suter.
Figure 4: User Interface as seen in the game with map display (top right) and event news (top left). Source: screenshot Suter.

Starbyte has taken great pains to approach this booklet as seriously as possible. The target audience was probably not only the well-known young gamers, but everyone interested in history and historical events or in rather thorough strategy games. The next four pages are filled with detailed descriptions of what happens when you use the nice menu points 1 – 9 on the lower left. Menu point 4 for example let you send your armies into a winter camp if you use the button after 1. November and forwards the time to 1. April next year, showing you also in the news window, what was the outcome of all negotiations that took place during the winter period.

Context

And here, after 12 pages, the actual instructions for the game already come to an end. On the next page, the explanations of the historical references begin. First, four pages are devoted to the city of Carthage and its development. 

This is followed by a description of the Punic Wars on four pages again. Finally, the showpiece is a ten-page biography of Hannibal with a photography of his bust (in stone). The warlike events in Hannibal’s life – as well as before and after – are described almost without any gaps, so that the reader gets an excellent guide for his game. Unfortunately, the whole booklet remains without references. 

Explanations of historical battle tactics follow on the next 8 pages. The individual battle formations are depicted by means of diagrams (Figure 5) and the individual different fighters with characteristic drawings. Two additional photographs also embed this explanation in an authentic historical context. The historical references are rounded off with a two-page chronology of the events from 247 to 183 B.C. 

Figure 5: Battle formations as sketched in the manual. Source: Photo Suter.
Figure 5: Battle formations as sketched in the manual. Source: Photo Suter.

And finally, before the copyright page, there are two pages of tips and tricks, which are intended as helpful gameplay advice and should make the players‘ gameplay a little easier if they want to accept these tips. Tip 6, for example, advises:  “Plündern sie Städte nur, wenn sich ihre Armeekasse dem Ende zuneigt, und die Imperiumskasse nicht genügend enthält.”(Hannibal 1993, p.44), “Only pillage cities when your army treasury is low, and the empire treasury is running out soon.” (Translated by author) And tip 10 says dryly: “Es ist nicht ratsam, Rom mit weniger als 200’000 Soldaten anzugreifen.” (Hannibal 1993, p.45). “It is not advisable to attack Rome with less than 200,000 soldiers.” (Translated by author)

In the end of the booklet, you find three empty pages to take notes – a common sight in game manuals of the 80s and 90s. Mostly, they needed to add some more pages to have an odd number for the printing process. But some games came with code that you could write down on those pages or you were able to make a note about an in-game secret, an easter egg or remember an unforeseeable choice or a cheat code. But gamers that loved those manuals would never write down anything on those pages, they rather memorize cheats or write them down on a separate paper.

Cost saving

The paper itself was often thin or otherwise cheap. The printing was not supposed to be too expensive. So, publishers saved cost on paper quality (Figures 4 and 5) and with a smaller size of the printed text. The Hannibal booklet used thin paper and put two text pages on one in a small font size (possibly 8) in two columns. Only the cover was better quality and featured a surprisingly colorful illustration (Figure 2).


Recommended citation: Beat Suter, “Chunky Game Booklets – Part 1: A Serious Manual”, in: Confoederatio Ludens, https://chludens.hypotheses.org/996, 30.10.2023.

Confoederatio Ludens at the Games & Literature Festival in Marbach

by Eugen Pfister and Adrian Demleitner

From 28th to 30th June 2023, the German Literature Archive Marbach has organized a conference on “Games & Literature. On the literacity, research, collection, and archiving of computer games”. The idea for this conference came because, since 2019, the Literaturarchiv has been collecting not only German-language literature but also digital games if they “contain narrative structures to a high degree.”1 In the words of the call for presentations: “The substantive reasons for this decision are numerous, but, fundamentally, computer games have long been part of our cultural memory, which must be archived appropriately and examined in relation to established cultural forms.”2 Accordingly, the self-imposed goal of the conference was to discuss with international colleagues issues of collecting and archiving digital games, as well as research questions concerning the nexus between digital games and literature. Even if the claim turned out to be a little too ambitious in retrospect, a very exciting and fruitful exchange took place. Over three days, more than thirty colleagues from three continents presented their research, and we were honoured that our project was represented by four colleagues: The second day was opened by René Bauer and Beat Suter from the ZHdK with their keynote “Considerations for Archiving Games. From the Perspective of Game Design”. And on the third day, Eugen Pfister and Adrian Demleitner from HKB presented our joint historical database of games developed in the DACH region up to 2000: “Why we thought it was a good idea to build a DACH games database.”

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  1. https://www.spiegel.de/netzwelt/games/deutsches-literaturarchiv-marbach-sammelt-kuenftig-auch-computerspiele-a-1255563.html []
  2. https://www.dla-marbach.de/forschung/verbund-marbach-weimar-wolfenbuettel/tagung-literature-games/ []

Print runs of German Gaming Magazines 1980-2000

by Aurelia Brandenburg

Gaming magazines are certainly an important part of the emergence of gaming culture(s) since the 1980s. There is, however, a difference between the importance ascribed by expert or fan circles and the actual distribution and, thus, the potential impact of a magazine. “Retro culture” tends to have a nostalgic bias. This means that it is useful to re-examine the basis on which significance is attributed to certain magazines. For this, I created a dataset consisting of sales and distribution data of nearly twenty German gaming magazines between 1980 and 2000. The dataset in full is available online through Zenodo (DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.10009428) and a Google Sheet, and this blog post serves as an accompanying documentation of its sources and my own reasoning behind the magazines included and the table structure, same as some rough findings and visualizations based on the data collected.

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The “Computer” exhibition of Lausanne. Part 2: “Esprit Romand” and the “Röstigraben”

by Pierre-Yves Hurel


Context : This paper is part of a dossier about “Computer” exhibition.  

In the first one, I presented my methodological choices, the corpus studied, and the main periods of “Computer”.
– In this second one, I address how this show was integrated into a context of regional rivalry
a series of articles to be published over the coming week


The “Groupement Romand pour l’Informatique” (G.R.I.), which presents itself as a group of computer “users” (“utilisateurs” in French), stands behind the “Computer” trade show in Lausanne. Its website (gri.ch) states actually, that the group has been meeting since 1971. They understand themselves as true “users” of IT, but the term should be understood as it was before the era of home computing: G.R.I.’s aim was, and still is, to energize the market and enable the big local players to remain competitive. A short article published in the Journal de Genève (JDG) on June 15, 1971, reports on the initial meeting of around one hundred people “representing companies, administrations, associations and schools” from all over French-speaking Switzerland. The stated aims of this independent non-profit association were to “promote and develop information for specialized circles and the general public”, develop training, distribute documentation, “participate in the definition of information technology” and, finally, “protect the interests” of its members in the IT field. Continue reading The “Computer” exhibition of Lausanne. Part 2: “Esprit Romand” and the “Röstigraben”

Working with Amiga Floppy Disks in Historical Video Game Research

by Adrian Demleitner

Like most humanity scholars and historians, we work with historical materials that we compile into a corpus. How does this approach apply to researching digital-born media, such as video games designed for the Amiga computing system?

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The “Computer” exhibition of Lausanne. Part 1: A first overview

This paper is part of a dossier about the “Computer” exhibition, taking place in Lausanne 1978-2004.   This dossier includes a series of articles to be published over the coming weeks. In this first one, I present my methodological choices, the corpus studied, and the main periods of “Computer”.

by Pierre-Yves Hurel

In what specific cultural and technological environment did video games emerge in French-speaking Switzerland? What are the regional particularities that need to be taken into account here? How was the computerization  covered by the local press? To answer these questions, I decided to study the media coverage of the “Computer” exhibition. The show was held biannually, then annually from 1978 to 2004 in Lausanne-Beaulieu. Enormous halls then were home to the world’s and local computer industry’s finest, spread out over multiple stands equipped with computers, goodies, and explanatory leaflets. In between the aisles, senior executives came in search of “IT solutions” and curious onlookers came to discover the newest “cutting-edge” machines.

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Our delegation in Seville for DiGRA 2023

by Yannick Rochat, Larissa Wild, Pierre-Yves Hurel, Sophie Bémelmans and Eugen Pfister

A project like Confoederatio Ludens requires that we regularly attend conferences in order to present our results, gather constructive feedback, and keep an eye on what our international colleagues are discovering. This year, the annual conference of the Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA) – the main research community in game studies – happened in Seville, Spain, on the site of the universal exposition of 1992. We sent 6 delegates to the conference: Sophie Bémelmans (UNIL), Pierre-Yves Hurel (UNIL), Mela Kocher (ZHdK), Eugen Pfister (HKB), Yannick Rochat (UNIL) and Larissa Wild (ZHdK). Here is an overview of their week.

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CH-Ludens Kick off. How the Sinergia came into being.

by Eugen Pfister

How it all began

Our SNSF-Sinergia project unites a dynamic team of 20 researchers across four university locations in Switzerland: The Bern Academy Of the Arts, the University of Bern, the University of Lausanne and the Zurich University of the Arts. We come from different cantons and countries as well as from different research directions and – not but – we are united by a common research interest: The study of the history of digital games in Switzerland.

It is a huge privilege that we can – and in fact are supposed to – do in our project exactly what has driven us in our individual research for years, but now as a collaborative team. Our goal is, therefore, on the one hand, to learn as much as possible from each other and find fruitful ways to synergise with our different methods and research questions. On the other hand, we are considering digital games as a cultural technique that will contribute to a better understanding of the digitalization of Swiss society throughout the past century. Our project will run from February 2023 to January 2027.

On February 2, 2023 we (that is almost all of us) met in the rooms of the HKB for the kick-off of our project. Some of us had known each other for a long time by then. These personal and professional networks proved to be essential in the genesis of the project. I had known Yannick Rochat for five years at that point and among other things we had written an essay highlighting the need for this research in Austria and Switzerland in January 2021. Together with him, we first came up with the idea of submitting a proposal for the SNSF Sinergia funding scheme. In turn, I already knew René Bauer, Mela Kocher and Beat Suter from the internationally renowned gameZ & ruleZ conference, to which they had invited me to give a talk in 2019. Our colleagues from the ZHDK probably have the most comprehensive knowledge of the history of digital games in Switzerland. René and Beat accordingly wrote a three-part essay on the topic for my blog as early as 2021. Finally, I met Tobias Hodel and Addrich Mauch at a Game Studies Community meeting at the University of Bern in February 2021. Shortly after the event, I asked them to join us. I also had the enormous luck to have Arno Görgen at my side as a colleague and partner for more than six years. Inside this constellation, we have been working on the preparations for the application since 2020.

I believe one of the great strengths of our project is the extremely strong dynamic of mutual curiosity and openness in our team, which we also emphasized in the cover letter for our application. In our regular preparation meetings, it became apparent again and again how organically our group worked together. Our research complemented each other perfectly and in doing so we were united by a common interest.

Continue reading CH-Ludens Kick off. How the Sinergia came into being.
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