Cast-offs from the Golden Age
By Melanie Swalwell
Design by Erik Loyer

Author's Statement

In 2004, I was invited to undertake background research for a museum exhibition "GamePLAY", on the history, art and science of digital gaming in New Zealand. I was to focus on finding the New Zealand dimension and/or context for each of these areas, something that presented a challenge for me as an outsider: I didn't have my own experiences or knowledge gained from growing up with this history happening around me, in this place, and it was sometimes tricky to sort out the quite understandable desire to have a local focus, from any inclination towards national exceptionalism. This stipulation, however, turned out to be something of a gift. Had I not been required to look into these New Zealand specific questions, it is unlikely that I would have pursued the overlaps between the local and the non-local -- issues such as the dates that particular international games systems arrived in New Zealand -- to the extent that I did.

What I found was that there were significant differences between the accepted accounts of games history -- typically told from U.S. or Japanese perspectives -- and the history of digital games in a place like New Zealand. Researching a history of a place distant from these 'centres' offers the opportunity to realign some of the taken for granted 'facts' or references in surprising, and sometimes quirky, ways. Two quick examples serve to illustrate how different things look when viewed from the 'periphery'. "The crash" is a well-known games history phrase, referring to the 1983 downturn in the industry. In New Zealand, however, "the crash" is almost always a reference to the 1987 stock market crash, which had significant implications for the country, and sent a number of companies -- including some involved in videogame production -- under. And although Atari was in serious trouble in the U.S. in 1983, New Zealanders didn't discover the delights of the 2600/7800 systems -- released in the U.S. in 1977 -- until the mid 1980s, when the stock was likely dumped here cheaply.

Setting out to search for material pertaining to the local situation, I quickly found that there was little standard textual material on the subject, and even less in the way of material artefacts housed in New Zealand cultural institutions. This meant that I had to get creative and innovate as far as research methods were concerned. Ephemera collections quickly proved to be one of the best sources of information about games in New Zealand: the bits and pieces that many people wouldn't consider worthwhile, stuff like old advertising catalogues that is usually discarded, yielded a wealth of rich, primary source material. Asking people I knew and met what their history with digital games was, also proved useful. Often, people I approached doubted that they would know anything of significance, but sometimes what they would tell would introduce new angles or even whole areas that I hadn't realised I needed to inquire about. (This was also one of the great joys of visiting paper-based ephemera collections: their ability to seduce and productively pull one off course.) Over time, snippets from one conversation have become meaningful in the context of others. One of the best sources, of both ephemera and personal knowledge has, of course, been private game collectors, those individuals with the foresight to collect what the rest of us throw away.

"Castoffs from the Golden Age" utilises samples of the ephemera I have sourced from both public and private collections, together with a range of other fragments to reconstruct and dramatise the research process for the user. The user is invited to step into the shoes of the researcher, seeking after information that will allow them to achieve their goals. Of course, research isn't only about completing goals: also part of the process and the experience are the moments of excitement at a serendipitous discovery, the frustration at dead ends or confusion at knock backs received, a wondering about where to turn next, or the sense that there are just too many avenues of inquiry to pursue. Finally, there is the interpretive work of piecing together fragments gleaned from a range of sources. To have been able to experiment with analogues between a researcher's process of conducting research and making sense of the resultant information, and the experience of users of multimedia has been one of the great pleasures of this project.

To conclude, a few reflections on the computer in all this are warranted. In the summer of 2005, I trialled using a qualitative software package to keep track of the very many sources, pieces of information and insights, and how they were linked, because sometimes there is just too much to keep in one's head. Though the promise of the computer as aide memoire is enticing, I found my commitment to entering every piece of data didn't last long: I realised that it was no guarantee against my forgetting the (for me) all-important links between various fragments and ideas, and though having them stored in a computer was comforting, it didn't speed up the process of my working them through. I know this now about my practice, nevertheless, it was an interesting exercise and one that brought the figure of interlinked nodes vividly to life for me. I also know now that even when I forget one of these links or a piece of information, it is likely that I will come back to it, if by a different path, owing to the rich network of connections of which it is a part. By contrast, I like very much that we have not presented the many disparate ideas and fragments of which this piece is comprised in this way, as a highly structured and interlinked series of nodes. Rather, it is individual users who will bring these nodes and built up networks forth, via the resonances they feel, the sense they make, and the connections they draw as they navigate the work.