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Videogame Heritage Society : A Subject Specialist Network

Month: June 2021

The VHS Guest Blog #1: “Collecting the Guildford Games Sector” – Sarah Fairhurst

Sarah Fairhurst is the Collections Manager at the Guildford Heritage Service.

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When I started as Collections Manager for the Guildford Heritage Service just over 18 months ago, I had no idea that Guildford was home to such a famous videogame sector. Guildford to me was the centre of rural Surrey life, surrounded by rolling hills with its famous castle and sett-laid high street.

Guildford High Street, Guildford Borough Council Heritage Service
Guildford Castle and bowling green, Guildford Borough Council Heritage Service

However, I soon learnt that Guildford was actually nicknamed the ‘The Hollywood of gaming’.

This name was ‘coined’ by Guardian journalist Stuart Heritage in an article in 2014, as Guildford has been home to a large number of successful gaming studios since the 1980s. Not being a ‘gamer’ myself, it was unsurprising that I didn’t know about this digital side of Guildford’s Economy. What is perhaps more surprising, is that many people living in Guildford and the Borough are also unaware of its existence.  

From the founding of Bullfrog Productions by Peter Molyneux in 1987, over 70 studios have emerged in Guildford – making over 200 games and releasing over 4000, and employing over 1800 people, making up over 10% of the UK game industry workforce. The video games industry is worth almost $90 billion globally. The UK videogames market reached a record £7bn in 2020.

With this history in mind, the importance of collecting objects to reflect the thriving videogame sector in Guildford soon became obvious to me. Although the museum had previously made a great start by collecting four games from the Fable series (Lionhead Studios) and carrying out an interview with Peter Molyneux, it was also clear that this was only the tip of the collecting iceberg!

Fable Anniversary, Guildford Borough Council Heritage Service; Lionhead Studios
Fable: The Journey, Guildford Borough Council Heritage Service; Lionhead Studios
Fable III: Limited Collector’s Edition, Guildford Borough Council Heritage Service; Lionhead Studios

As well as creating a permanent videogame collection, Guildford Heritage Service has scheduled a videogame exhibition at Guildford Museum for next summer, to coincide with the 2022 annual Guildford Games Festival, for which Guildford Borough Council has been one of the headline sponsors since its first year.

Fable III, Guildford Borough Council Heritage Service; Lionhead Studios


Questions questions…

Before I started this collecting project, I had so many questions.

What should we collect? Do we only collect videogames or other material? Should we collect physical games or digital versions? How do we collect these?  Did it matter that I wasn’t a ‘gamer’?

Luckily, I was put in touch with Sam Read who runs the fantastic Guildford.Games website and is part of the Guildford Gaming Festival team.

We created a list of the 229 games made in Guildford by each studio – highlighting which games we could potentially buy on eBay with our small acquisition budget. 

To date we have purchased 14 games by Bullfrog.

Part of our Guildford Games List
Some of our eBay purchases, Syndicate Wars; Bullfrog Productions
Some of our eBay purchases, Genewars, Magic Carpet, Theme Park World; Bullfrog Productions

I met with Iain Simons, Claire Mead and Claire Boissiere (Jumpship), of the National Videogame Museum, who kindly supported us in best practices in videogame collecting.

With their expertise we were able to firm up our collecting policy. Guildford Heritage Service will only collect physical versions of games – to collect digital versions and code is still an unknown and complicated area. We will focus on collecting games and material from studios with a GU postcode. This will enable us to collect from studios slightly outside Guildford, such as Godalming, as these are still viewed as part of the Guildford gaming scene. We also want to collect any associated gaming material such as artwork, merchandise, audio files and photographs, and to carry out interviews with different people within the sector, to capture first-hand experiences.

Some more of our eBay purchases, Dungeon Keeper 2; Bullfrog Productions
Populous; Bullfrog Productions
Flood; Bullfrog Productions

Over the last few months, I have been contacting each games studio still in operation on our list via email, explaining the collecting project and what we are hoping to achieve.

We also have a blog post on the Guildford.Games website about the exhibition which led to the donation of ‘The Movies’, by John Silke, previously of Lionhead Studios.

The Movies; Lionhead Studios

Many individuals and games studios have since been in contact offering to donate material to our collection, or to loan to the exhibition. However, we know there is still a long way to go and many more studios and collectors to contact.

Although we have the 2022 summer exhibition to aim for, this will be a long-term project. We hope to build long term relationships within the Guildford games sector that will enable us to continue to collect new games when they are released in the future. 

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If you have any games or materials produced by Guildford studios that you may like to donate or loan to Guildford Heritage Service please get in touch atHeritageServices@guildford.gov.uk

Netflix’s “High Score” – The Pop History of Videogames

This American-centric documentary offers little new understanding of that nebulous term “videogame history”, but it does present a fascinating perspective on the ephemeral impact of the medium in popular culture.

do not be surprised if the next series will be called “Level Up”

Netflix’s six-part mini documentary series is rather unimaginatively called ‘High Score‘, and the rest of the series is equally unimaginative in its basic retelling of videogames in the United States through the late-1970s to the early-1990s. Those expecting to see the Magnavox Odyssey and other cult classics will be left disappointed.

The series is consistently celebratory in tone. This praising tone and argument is constant throughout the series. It’s not alleviated by the overly-peppy narration from Charles Martinet. For the cynics amongst you, this will grate extremely quickly.

missing pieces: High Score bypasses systems of historical and cultural significance

There is a fixation in High Score on consistently reinforcing the argument that videogames and the videogame industry are an overwhelming force for good. In some cases, this tone is welcome; there are some particularly nice moments revolving around inclusivity.

Most of the series is one giant argument that “games are important”. This does not strike me as something that still needs saying. And – if we are being wholly critical – the series ultimately argues that videogames are primarily important because they make massive amounts of money, and maybe not because they represent something more significant.

Consequently, the documentary’s scope is narrow. While it purports to be a series about broad videogame history, it is exclusively talking about American history. There is barely a mention of the impact of videogames in a European context. All the achievements of Japanese game developers are judged by their impact on the American market. Violence in videogames is contextualised by American congressional hearings in the 1990s; the popularity of specific videogames are reinforced by human interest stories about how plucky and talented American kids were able to make their names through the industry.

This series is a monoculture. Perhaps a duoculture at best.

a more global take on videogames would have been interesting

Yet, perhaps unwittingly, the series reemphasises the view that videogames are more significant than just embodying the physical discs or cartridges that we play or see on a screen.

The documentary calls upon parataxts regularly. These materials about videogames that exist outside of videogames are employed in interesting ways that reaffirm a cultural impact that lingers long after the game is over.

For example, the creator of Space Invaders Tomohiro Nishikado details his hand-drawn design books for the sprites in the game. Artistic illustrations of jellyfish and monsters are then also shown in their bit form, demonstrating the design processes of creating the game on screen and formatting images into bit-art. To a lesser extent, John Romero similarly explores early enemy designs for DOOM, and Yoshitaka Amano is extensively interviewed regarding his initial intricate illustrations for the iconic monsters within the Final Fantasy series.

Furthermore, TV adverts and one-off shows about public videogame events are extensively cut into the documentary. This isn’t breaking with documentary tropes. But their use highlights that gaming history should also include how the industry marketed these new systems, and how they attempted to use the medium of TV and print to proliferate them.

By demonstrating this material alongside the creative work of developers, the series promotes the notion that videogame history does encompass something more than just the cartridge and the system it is played on.

It will be interesting if Netflix build upon this documentary further, especially with some acknowledgment that videogames are truly global, and not just for American audiences.

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