Understanding Video Games text-book
Review of Van Burnham’s Supercade - A visual history of the videogame age (1971-1984).

Date posted: May 11, 2006
Updated: Oct 24, 2006

By Jonas Heide Smith (smith@game-research.com)

Title: Supercade – A visual history of the videogame age (1971-1984).
Author: Van Burnham
Full title: Supercade – A visual history of the videogame age (1971-1984)
Publisher: MIT Press
List price: $29,95
Pages: 448


To the academic, game history is of obvious and blatant importance. Present day games, of course, are products of historic decisions, trends, and developments and cannot be understood completely (or anything approaching completely) without knowledge of the constraints and experiences of the people and works which formed the medium.

The game historian’s bookshelf is scarcely populated. It is far from empty however, as a growing number of authors of various persuasions have contributed with different degrees of luck. While Steven L. Kent’s The First Quarter is ambitious it is also oddly organized and reads like a (too) long newspaper article, Leonard Herman’s Phoenix does cover a fair bit of ground, and J.C. Herz’ entertaining Joystick Nation is too subjective for scholarly purposes. Various authors have focused on individual companies or consoles, mostly from the perspective of business journalism, for instance Sheff and Eddy’s Game Over, Takahashi’s Opening the Xbox and Asakura’s Revolutionaries at Sony.

Van Burnham’s Supercade (recently published in paperback) does not pretend to be a scholarly account. It is a coffee-table homage to classical games from the supposed “Golden Age” of videogames. The author, having grown up in those delightful years, considers her book the first “to both illustrate and document the history, legacy, and visual language of the videogame phenomenon – an pay tribute to the designers, engineers, and programmers who ushered in a new era of modern entertainment.”

Thus, Supercade does not fill the vacuum of full-scale historical, trustworthily critical accounts. The book is mostly a nostalgic flashback but can obviously also serve to educate those who did not spend their formative years under flashing arcade lights. Additionally, the book features well-written contributions from authors such as J.M. Graetz, Nick Montfort, and Julian Dibell.

Also, the book - fortunately - is a pleasure to read. The layout is creative but does not interfere with readability and the artwork collected is both impressive in its own right and thought-provoking as the reader gets a good impression of the way games were framed and advertised during the Golden Years. As to historical accuracy, the book seems to hold up fairly well (to the extent that I am able to judge). However, one is not left with the impression that accuracy has been top priority. For instance, the famous “The Origin of Spacewar!” article by J.M. Graetz is not accompanied by precise original publication data. It is said to be a reprint of the 1981 version but as it speaks of “Compaqs” and “Palm Pilots” it is obvious that at least some changes have been made. Also, as games are described one by one the order of appearance does not always seem entirely logical.

All in all, Supercade is recommended for the game researcher’s bedside table if not for the office.

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