Rise Of The Videogame – Discovery

By John Walker on November 24th, 2007 at 6:32 pm.

For those lucky enough to be in the US (or indeed those who come by their television through mystical futuristic means), there’s a new Discovery documentary that should be on everyone’s TIVO/hard drive. Rise Of The Videogame.

rise of the videogame

Unlike so many programmes about videogames, Rise Of demonstrates a depth of research and work that lifts it above the usually banal, patronising rubbish that television normally produces on the subject. It interviews all the right people, knows to show clips of all the right games, and makes the assumption that you’ve already a basic knowledge of the subject.

The first episode (of five hour-long documentaries) explores the birth of videogaming, and takes the Cold War as its allegorical guide. After discussing oscilloscopes being hacked to play a tennis game, it moves on to the enigmatic Steve Russell talking about how he created Spacewar!, comparing the original nature of gaming (shooting things, missiles, explosions, etc) with the American culture of fear surrounding the tensions with the USSR; how it was, “Born out of Cold War anxiety and nurtured in the era of counterculture.”

Of course it touches the obvious bases, with detailed discussion of Pong and Pac-Man, but rather than awkward clips of the semi-famous recalling vague nostalgia, this has Atari founder Norlan Bushnell and Pong programmer Al Alcorn talking about their memories, and how they drove owners Warner mad with their relaxed approach to business, or Toru Iwatani recalling the remarkable story about how he deliberately created Pac-Man to attract female players, settling on a theme of eating after observing that one thing women had in common was that they’d order dessert after dinner. A slice taken from his lunchtime pizza later, and videogaming’s first icon was created.

Space Invaders creator Tomohiro Nishikado explains how he used the tempo of a human heartbeat to create drama in his game. Alexey Pajitnov tells the story of Tetris, and how the USSR came to make millions from his creation. It’s the right people doing the talking.

Episode 1 draws to a close with 1983′s US videogame crash, and the collapse of Atari, with wonderfully honest recollections from those in the company, before jumping ahead to the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War.

A little visually overwrought with its montage footage of real-world conflict, it’s otherwise a solid, informative and surpremely well “cast” documentary. If you’ve read around the subject, it won’t tell you anything new. But it’s fantastic to hear the stories from the people themselves. Episode 2 is very sensibly about the rise of Mario, next Wednesday.

More info at discovery.com/videogame.

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13 Comments »

  1. Theory says:

    Decent telly? Decent American telly? I think I need to have a nice sit down.

  2. Dan Bruno says:

    I just watched the first episode last night. It was indeed very good.

    Their website lays out what’s coming up.

  3. Simon says:

    I’m sure that I saw this on Discovery here in Australia months ago…

  4. blitzio says:

    This was pretty good.

  5. Meredith Basingwary says:

    This was excellent. There’s still time for Discovery to ruin it with their usual tabloid pseudoscience balls though…

  6. Homunculus says:

    What’s nice is that all of the major protagonists from the genesis of the medium are still around to expound on the topic. The high point was definitely an octogenarian Ralph Baer trash-talking an equally venerable William Harrison whilst playing Pong on their thirty five year old Magnavox game console.

  7. Kieron Gillen says:

    Homunculus: Jim and I were talking about this earlier this year, actually, when Richard Joseph died – the media’s still young enough to have the vast majority of the major players still around, meaning deaths hit you at a really odd angle.

    So, yes, definitely the time to try and do a definitive history.

    KG

  8. Chris says:

    The first episode was good, although yeah, I think there was a half hour of content stretched out to be an hour long show. Lots of stock footage and filler (oh, and including Centipede gameplay in the short montage of games while telling us how “until then, arcade games were played almost exclusively by men” got a chuckle), and nothing new if you are familiar with industry history, but a decent start.

    Now that they’ve laid out the groundwork, I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.

  9. Anti-Bunny says:

    John Romero AND Paul Steed. Good lord.

  10. Niekon says:

    I missed the original airing of the first part of this documentary but managed to track it down playing a day or two later and finally got around to watching it last night with my wife. I was impressed and she was impressed. Something rather difficult since we tend to disagree on documentaries.
    Cannot wait for the next part of this series… and will definitely be on the lookout for the DVD set of this series in a month or so.

  11. Brainfish says:

    I watched this a few months ago on Discovery in the UK after finding it by accident. Very enjoyable.

  12. DigitaleWelten says:

    Is there any chance to watch this online?