April 8, 2005

Defending the Galaxy

by Nick Montfort · , 4:39 pm

Notes on Defending the Galaxy: The Complete Handbook of VideoGaming
edited by Michael Rubin
written by Michael Rubin, Carl Winefordner, and Sam Welker
illustrations by Rudy Young and Jeff Webber
photographs by Michael Rubin
Gainesville, Florida: Triad Publishing Company
224 pp.

I recently borrowed Defending the Galaxy from Paul Shaffer, who not only is currently the Eniac curator here at Penn, but also happens to have worked for Scott Adams of Adventure International back in the early 1980s as a play-tester.

In a nice list of video game firsts published in the February 1984 issue of Computer Games magazine, Defending the Galaxy is listed as “The first ‘complete’ guide to video gaming (manners, maladies, dress, etc.)” We might take this declaration with a grain of salt, because the list happens to be drawn up by Michael Rubin, the editor of Defending the Galaxy. But it turns out to be an interesting book, for reasons that may not be obvious at a glance.

A video game stance from Defending the GalaxyIn terms of format, the book is somewhat reminiscent of a magazine or a sort of small-scale Whole Earth Catalog. The book might have been shelved in “humor” when it was published. By cracking jokes and making then-current cultural references instead of doggedly focusing on the games themselves and how to get high scores, it documents the context of video gaming in ways that other books from the era don’t.

Many of the snippets that are included are clearly present for humor value, or just as filler, and don’t aim to inform the reader about video games. For instance, page 143, intended for the college-bound games, has a list of drinking ages by state, and, illustrated for some reason with a picture of a scientific calculator, “5 schools not known for their computer science departments.” (Number 1 is the Rhode Island School of Design.) This item makes a little more sense when you consider that that “15 great schools for computer science” is on the facing page — that article, curiously, lists only nine schools. Another example is the “Videology” section that reworks astrology by replacing the traditional signs and constellations with video game characters and symbols.* There is a whole section on “Video Wear,” mostly about clothing, with a sidebar on how suitable Op (Ocean Pacific) surfwear is for the arcade.*

The book does a bit more than just offer amusement, connecting formal video gaming to “real life” in places, sometimes more or less explicitly: “Gaming means battling a force that will inevitably do you in — a silicon sickle that will always reap you in the end.” * Here are a few points of interest: