April 8, 2005
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
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.
In 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:
- Perhaps it’s interesting that the names of video games get special typography, although this might not be too surprising for a book on the subject. They’re typeset in small caps. This is the same typography that is used for the brand name “Cornnuts;”* in the “Required Reading” section,* the names of books are typeset in italics.
- Photographs of the Missile Command cabinet * show not only a screenshot, and not only the button and trak-ball controls, but also how player’s hands are positioned on these controls.
- Several lists of twenty “top games” for certain months included, presumably indicating top money-makers, although I could find no source for these lists or hints about what principles were used in ranking games. For June 1980,* for instance, Asteroids, Galaxian, and Space Invaders top the chart, but the rest of the top 10 are less familiar names: Rip Off, Deluxe Invaders, Astro Fighter, Tailgunner, Space Wars, Star Hawk, and Night Driver.
- Early instances of what we now call “cut-scenes” are described in “Intermissions: The Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man Mid-Game Entertainment” (PNG image of page spread). *
- The “Trivia” section describes how the name of the coin-op game King Tutankham was shortened from “King Tutankhaman” because that name “is too long to fit on the title board in the large type style the company wanted.” * This reminded me of Robert Pinsky converting Fulke Greville’s sonnet 100 from Caelica into tetrameter to make it fit on the 40-column screens that Mindwheel used, although here the constraint had to do with the size of the arcade cabinet, not anything digital or computational.
- A section called “The Directory” * claims to list all “153 video games created so far,” and provides a brief description of almost all of them. They are sorted into the seven quasi-formal categories described at the beginning of the book: Driving games; bottom movement games; free flight games; maze games; horizontal offense/defense; head upward, obstacle games; and bizarre games.*
- “Is There Life Beyond the 243rd Key?” describes how a “split screen,” with garbage on the right-hand side, manifests itself after a huge amount of Pac-Man play; a photo of the screen in this state is included. The article states that “the programmers of Pac-Man don’t want you to play forever,” but this effect is pretty clearly a bug.
- There are several pages about the origin and functioning of the trak-ball,* with tips for use (“Wipe off the Trak-Ball before use…”).*
- Several articles deal with the social and physical environment of arcades. There is discussion of the “packing factors” of games* (how many people can watch a person playing a particular game) and how to place your token on a machine to indicate that you are next in line.* A four-page article, illustrated with photographs, describes the stances that different players take in front of arcade games.* There’s also an arcade etiquette manual, “The Unwritten Rules of Video Play … Written,”* and a he-said she-said guide to male-female interaction at arcades, actually called “Arcade Etiquette.”*
- A very simple three-part player typology is given, based on level of experience and obsession: extreme players (a.k.a. “vidiots”), ideal (i.e., well-balanced) players, novices. *
- One page explaining the difference between hardware and software* (at the end of the clothing-oriented “Video Wear” section, amusingly) is about all the technical detail that is provided about video games as computer systems.
- A section on arcades* explains where to look for them and how different sorts of venues differ; there’s also a list of overall high scores from Twin Galaxies, accurate as of September 3, 1982 at 11pm; a directory of arcades throughout the United States; and photographs of the obverse and reverse of a token from Space Amusement Family Arcade.
- A “Video Lexicon”* glosses terms purportedly used by gamers.