Review Fix chats with author and video game collector/historian Michael Thomasson, who discusses his book, “Downright Bizarre Games: Video Games that Crossed the Line,” detailing the creative process and how he’d like it to affect readers. Thomasson also lets us know what else he’s up to, including a cool homebrew development project.
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Review Fix: What inspired Downright Bizarre Games: Video Games that Crossed the Line?
Michael Thomasson: It seems that video games get a bad rep sometimes. With games like Night Trap, Grand Theft Auto and other violent titles dominating most of media coverage of the industry, the debate always seems to focus on the negative aspects of our favorite hobby. The tired inquiry, “Do video games cause violence?” has dominated the coverage for decades now. I think back to when I started to play games, and the simple truth is that when I started playing it was to have fun. I’d find myself laughing a lot, often with my peers. For me, video games bring joy into my life, and along the way I’ve played a lot of games that made me laugh harder than others. I wanted to focus on the humor behind the games, whether it was intentional, or not. I wanted to celebrate the odd and uncanny, especially since such titles rarely make it mainstream. There are plenty of history books, and while they do the job, many are a dry read and while informative, do not necessary entertain.
Review Fix: How is it different from your other work?
Thomasson: I’ve written for many magazines over the years, and was the primary writer for both volumes of the Encyclopedia of Video Games college textbook series. I worked as part of a team that compiled The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, and while they were all great books and did exactly what they set out to do, they were not a direction that I would have taken. Let’s face it, sometimes fact-based historical books are a bore to read. I envisioned a fun book about a fun hobby. I wanted to educate through humor – I figured that such a book would actually be read other than just added to a stack.
Most of the other book projects I’ve worked on were plain in presentation. I simply wrote the text, and the publisher did the rest… usually resulting in columns of text with an image dropped in here and there. I figured that a dynamic hobby should have a dynamic looking book, so I hand-crafted every page to look like a mural or magazine cover. Downright Bizarre Games: Video Games that Cross the Line was a true labor of love.
Review Fix: What was your research method like?
Thomasson: Well, I used to be a software analyst for a rental chain in the late 80s to mid-nineties, so I attended all the big software trade shows regularly. I was in McCormick Place in Chicago every summer for the Consumer Electronic Show (CES), and out west for most winter CES gatherings. While I did the usual digging while working on the book, it was mostly to refresh my memory, as I lived, owned, and played all the games in the book as they were released.
Review Fix: Did you speak to any of the developers?
Thomasson: Sure… back in the day. I met with David Perry and others on the show floors. Keith Robinson was even kind enough to write the foreword for the book. He recently left us, and I believe that his entry was his last written contribution to the industry after a long and varied career.
Review Fix: Why is preserving video game history important to you?
Thomasson: All history is important, but since video games are my passion and what I know, I kind of fell into the preservation side of it. When IBC Digital brought me on as a historian for MTV’s VideoMods show, I thought that I was the luckiest person in the world! Next thing you know, I’m teaching college video game history courses and have done so for almost two decades – long before it was considered en vogue to do so. I’d hear my students parrot back misinformation and I’d cringe as the new generation seemed to know it all… but didn’t! That is when I knew that it was time to act.
Review Fix: You’re recognized as one of the most, if not the most, important video game collectors of all time. What does that mean to you?
Thomasson: Not a whole lot, frankly. There are certainly others that have enormous collections, as well. While the whole circus over the Guinness Book of World Records was exciting at the time, I only had it certified so that I could publicize and market it to be sold to help my family. The fame came as a result of a need, not as a want. I never wanted to title that was thrust upon me. Overall, I prefer to sit quietly in my own corner and play video games. When the news went viral, I had friends that were upset with me because they had known me for years, been to my home several times, and had no idea that I had been secretly hoarding and preserving gaming history in my basement!
Review Fix: How important has it been to work with Leonard Herman?
Thomasson: Well, I owe my career to Leonard Herman and Chris Cavanaugh. The latter started up a magazine called Classic Gamer Magazine in the late 90s. In the premiere issue, the publication was giving out an autographed copy of Herman’s Phoenix book and I wanted it very badly for my collection. I was piss poor at the time, not even able to afford meat to eat, so winning the contest was my only ticket to obtaining the book. I had to ridicule myself to win it, by submitting multiple entries of video game haiku! Yeah, you read that right, I wrote Japanese-style poems built on three lines of five, seven, and five syllables to get the thing. I actually submitted many video game haiku to assure that I’d win. I’ll never know for sure, but the first issue had a small print run, so I may have been the only person that even entered. The things one does for the love of the hobby, right? Otherwise, I would never have become a poet laureate. Later Cavanaugh hired me to do the cover artwork for the periodical, and by becoming staff, I ultimately met Lenny at a trade show in Vegas.
Furthermore, Lenny introduced me other gaming pioneers, such as Bill Kunkel and Ralph Baer. As a result, I was able to work on several projects with my childhood heroes – how cool is that?! I owe Lenny a great deal of gratitude, and have tried to repay his kindness over the years by providing cover artwork for his Rolenta Publishing division. We have become good friends and our families vacation together annually. Funny how business interactions can grow into so much more when a familiar passion is shared amongst two or more parties.
Review Fix: What’s next for you?
Thomasson: I’m currently finishing up my entries for an anthology titled The Routledge Companion to Media Technology and Obsolescence. I’ve agreed to write yet another column for a new upstart periodical to be known as Old School Gamer Magazine. Of course I’m still teaching video game courses at the college, and publishing new games for GDG’s Homebrew Heaven.
Review Fix: Anything else you’d like to add?
Thomasson: Downright Bizarre Games: Video Games that Cross the Line currently has a flawless 5-star rating on Amazon, but among the praise, I get regular inquiries wanting to know why a certain particular game was not featured in the book. It was actually by design. If you look at the index, you’ll notice that the book only covers console games released within the United States. While I am taking a break from writing about strange games for a bit, in a year or two I plan to address all the computer, import, and coin-op games in a second volume.