The William A. Higinbotham Game Studies Collection

[ By Raiford Guins on May 26, 2014 | Filed under: Blog | Tagged with: , , , , , , ]
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The William A. Higinbotham Game Studies Collection (WHGSC) at Stony Brook University is dedicated to documenting the material culture of screen-based game media in general and in specific, collecting and preserving the texts, ephemera, and artifacts that document the history of a 1958 computer simulation designed by Higinbotham that, over the years, has become known as Tennis for Two. The collection is managed and curated by Head of Special Collections and University Archives, and University Archivist, Kristen J. Nyitray, and Associate Professor of Culture and Technology, Raiford Guins.

The word “documentation” must be stressed here especially in regards to Tennis for Two. Higinbotham and his associates designed a game consisting of component parts like the Donner Scientific Company’s Model 30 analog computer (which was a vacuum tube computer) and a DuMont cathode-ray oscilloscope display device already found onsite at Brookhaven. After Tennis For Two’s display at the 1959 (it was displayed in ‘58 and ’59) Visitor’s Day the game was de-assembled and its parts returned to the lab’s other research projects into atomic energy. Moreover, Higinbotham never considered patenting the game on account of BNL being a Federal Institution but also on account of regarding the game as a novelty to calm Cold War anxieties about Big Science and, in his own words, “to help liven the place up”. As a result very little physical evidence exists of the game. Related primary documents include: original schematic diagrams for “Tennis Programming” and the game’s “Electronic Switch”; two photographs one of the 1958 Visitor’s Day display and one of the 1959 display when the name was given a title card bearing the name “Computer Tennis”; and Higinbotham’s personal notes and 1976 deposition for the court case involving Philips Magnavox. Unlike the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA the WHGSC does not possess any artifacts of Tennis For Two resembling Al Alcorn’s prototype to PONG. In the absence of any original hardware, we devote our labor to managing an online information resource for the continue documentation and to support research on Higinbotham’s analog computer game. In addition the team has recently produced a documentary entitled When Games Went Click: The Story of Tennis For Two (2014) and I have written about the collection and Brookhaven Physicist Peter Takac’s recreation efforts for Tennis For Two in Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife (MIT Press, 2014). I hope to add to the story of the game via my next book, Serving History: A Pre-History of a Computer Simulation Eventually Known as Tennis For Two.

In addition to Tennis For Two, we have a sizeable collection of game hardware and software for teaching and research purposes. However such items are not our primary emphasis in terms of active collecting and collection management. Our institutional resources enable us to maintain an extensive collection of video game periodicals and rare books (nearly 3,000 items). Such materials are absolutely crucial for the critical study of video game history as they have become primary sources for understanding game technologies within their original historical and cultural contexts. Given that the academic field of Game Studies did not exist in the late 1970s and early 1980s magazines like Atari Age, Play Meter, Electronic Fun With Computers & Games, Videogaming, and Vidiots as well as inexpensive paperbacks on video game culture and strategy guides are now invaluable resources for historical research.

This is the contribution that the WHGSC makes to the historical study and preservation of electronic games.

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