Mission & Goals of the William A. Higinbotham Game Studies Collection
The recent inclusion of video game hardware and software within collections held by cultural institutions dedicated to the historical preservation of material and digital artifacts is of great importance for the documentation of historical innovation in computer engineering and hardware and software design. It is of equal significance to the history of video games, especially as said inclusion furthers an understanding and appreciation of technology within a social, cultural, and educational context.
The William A. Higinbotham Game Studies Collection invests in and is dedicated to:
- collecting and preserving the texts, ephemera, and artifacts that document the history and work of early game innovator and Brookhaven National Laboratory scientist William A. Higinbotham, who in 1958 invented the first interactive analog computer game, Tennis for Two;
- documenting the material culture of electronic screen-based game media.
In addition to game hardware and software, game-related ephemera is collected, which consists of: video and computer game magazines; game catalogs; strategy guides; game boxes and cases; game instruction manuals; video and arcade game promotional materials; game memorabilia; photographs of arcades; and original publications on video game history and culture.
At Stony Brook University, the William A. Higinbotham Games Studies Collection contributes directly to the study of video games as popular culture and to their historical longevity, particularly within a U.S. context through our documentation of Tennis for Two as well as our curatorial strategies. Video games have made a profound impact upon popular culture. According to the Electronic Software Association, 67% of households within the United States play video and/or computer games. The average age player is 34 and has been playing games for well over a decade. Gamer demographics have also shifted significantly as women and girls constitute 40% of gamers while, in 2010, 26% of gamers are over the age of 50. Economically videogames have contributed hugely to the global economy with U.S. sales estimated at $10.5 billion in 2009. Culturally, video games have radically reshaped our engagements with play, social experience, daily life, art, learning, new media, and our understandings and practices of popular culture. Video games have become our everyday life as we experience them on our phones (42% of Americans play games on their mobile devices), online, at home, and increasingly within institutions of higher education.
In terms of video games within institutions of higher education it is worth pointing out that games have surpassed the scholarly interests that students once held for popular culture in the traditional media of film and television. Our students, both undergraduate and graduate, are increasingly eager to study games. This scholarly interest is best evidenced by new degree programs and dedicated courses that have developed in recent years at U.S. universities. Major academic publishers have also developed book series to support academic interests in games. Despite many rich areas of intellectual interests, the emergent field of game studies has dedicated little attention to critical video game historiography. Game history remains restricted to populist texts and descriptive chronicles. Considerations of the changing status of games as artifacts and aged technologies and the growing community of game archives and preservation initiatives, especially in the wake of the Library of Congress’s “Preserving Virtual Worlds” project, and with University game labs, collections, and archives – Stanford University, University of Texas (Austin), University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign), and Stony Brook University – on the increase, game studies aversion to history is no longer obtainable. It is within such cultural institutions that the popular culture of video games and their history is being written, collected, exhibited, studied, and preserved. It is precisely within this context that the WHGSC aims to make a contribution to how game history is produced.
A philosophy that the WHGSC curators share is that through preservation strategies and curatorial models we gain a wider understanding of the video game not restricted to the game program, game-player interface, and display technologies. We come to see games as complex artifacts whereby every “part” – game engine, source code, platform, game schematics, console design, storage media, controllers, circuits, chips, boards, wires, buttons – as well as ephemera such as software box-art, arcade cabinet art, and marketing materials, to cite a few examples, possess significance and value for the documentation of social experience and popular cultural history. As such, we adopt a “material culture” strategy common to museums that collect video game artifacts like the Strong National Museum of Play (Rochester, NY) and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. The WHGSC manages the material and ephemeral forms of video games as historical artifacts of popular cultural heritage so that students and researchers will have direct access to “original” hardware and software and to game ephemera, best expressed in our 2000 volume video game magazine collection, for purposes of scholarly study and learning.
The archive supports the educational mission of Stony Brook University through its commitment to acquiring unique curricular resources that are accessible in perpetuity for the purposes of research, teaching, and learning across the University’s diverse colleges and schools.
When conversation regarding a video game lab at Stony Brook University began, the goals were modest: to offer a simple space where students could experience vintage gameplay in conjunction with video game culture and history classes being offered at the university. However, over the past two years, we have refined the goals and vision of this popular culture project through a scholarly and archival collaboration culminating in the William A. Higinbotham Game Studies Collection. We envision the WHGSC existing as a positive contribution to the SBU community, the greater SUNY and NYC-based university system, and scholarly and amateur video game archivists, researchers and journalists well beyond the region via the collection’s webpage. Specific projected outcomes include:
- a research hub for the history and work of early game innovator and Brookhaven National Laboratory scientist William A. Higinbotham, as well as for the material culture of games, including consoles, handhelds, peripherals, cartridges and box art, magazines, popular press and scholarly books, etc. Our collection is the only video game archive in the greater New York City area, and is easily accessible via public transportation to scholarly researchers from NYU, Columbia, Yale, Princeton, the CUNY system, and other institutions. Stony Brook University's prominent location near NYC makes the collection a desirable research location for academic, journalistic, amateur and independent scholars nationwide. The collection's website will also provide freely accessible historical and archival data;
- a fully functioning lab where faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates can access vintage consoles for research and entertainment, many of which are largely inaccessible to individuals due to cost, rarity and obsolescence. In addition to this lab, SBU Special Collections houses a host of material documents available for examination. Funds raised for this collection would also be dedicated to developing an open-access community and university gaming space in the SBU library with access to current generation gaming systems;
- an institutional archive that can integrate its offerings with the handful of other university-affiliated video game archives such as those at Stanford University, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Our collection is unique in that it is specifically curated toward the material collection of gaming artifacts, and therefore offers a specialist vantage for video game historians while offering a significant contribution to the emergent community of University game collections.
The groups that will benefit from the William A. Higinbotham Game Studies Collection are tightly connected to our projected outcomes. These groups include:
- undergraduates at Stony Brook University and the larger SUNY system involved in learning about and researching video games. Video games are excellent devices for educating students on challenging subjects such as cultural meaning, modes of representation, the significance of technology in everyday life, and historical methods. Students from all majors, regardless of their professional goals, benefit from learning about games in an academic setting that honors games as objects of play while questioning them as cultural artifacts. Furthermore, the WHGSC serves as an accessible research space for undergraduate students who imagine themselves working in academic games studies or video game production industries;
- graduate students, faculty and researchers engaging with the technological and cultural history of gaming systems and their material culture. The WHGSC provides a dedicated lab space for playing authentic consoles on individual CRT TV screens. In addition to the lab component, Stony Brook University's Special Collection holds and makes accessible all the material artifacts correlated to the devices, from boxes to user manuals to 1970s, 1980s and 1990s game magazines. These resources are valuable primary document materials that have largely been ignored by major institutions, universities and libraries;
- the WHGSC will also collaborate nationally with other cultural institutions that collect, preserve, conserve, archive and exhibit videogame artifacts. While this collaboration will included the University archives/collections mentioned previously, the WHGSC has also established ties with the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York, the International Center for the History of Electronic Games at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester New York, and the prestigious Lemelson Center at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, home to the Ralph Baer archive.
In conclusion, the WHGSC will offer excellent digital and material research opportunities to a diverse range of interested parties: for undergraduates, the WHGSC may be the first opportunity they encounter to seriously engage popular culture; for graduate students, faculty and researchers, the Collection is a trove of rare and under-examined material artifacts; and for the larger local and national community, the WHGSC is a subtle link between collective interests in video games, technology, material culture, and popular culture. It is our hope that with furthered funding we will be able to properly care for the holdings and expand the significance of the William A. Higinbotham Game Studies Collection.
William A. Higinbotham
After reading an instruction manual that accompanied a Systron-Donner analog computer, William Alfred Higinbotham was inspired to design Tennis for Two, the first computer game to utilize handheld controllers and to display motion. It was also the first game to be played by general public, in this instance, attendees of “visitors day” at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) in 1958. Learn More »