Wednesday, May 15, 2024

A book from 1983 that is a thesis on modern video games

The late David Sudnow was a jazz pianist who developed a teaching technique that is still being used today. He was also a sociologist who was a professor at University of California.

Aaaand he briefly became a video game addict in the early 80s and wrote a surprisingly erudite book about the experience, Pilgrim in the Microworld, which has been republished as Breakout: Pilgrim in the Microworld. (As the revised title pretty much tells you, the game that he became obsessed with was Breakout)

On almost every level, Pilgrim is a fascinating read. From both a historical point of view and from the fact that so much of his observations still resonate today. I find it kind of amazing to read a book published in 1983 examining the emerging world of video games that isn't trite or condescending.

Much of the book is written in a casual and breezy style, making it easy to understand a lot of what Sudnow is trying to get across. He goes into very exacting details about both Breakout and hardware needed to play it. At the time, he would have had to do that because his audience wouldn't necessarily be familiar with them. But it's really handy now because it's an archeological dig in technology for us.

More than that, both Sudnow's world of being a musician and sociologist are on full display as he writes about video games. He compares learning and playing video games learning and playing jazz. But it is when he goes full sociologist that the book gets deep. Sudnow clearly did not view video games a passing fad or a shallow hobby. Instead, he viewed as an emerging socio-economic construct that had staying power and influence.

For me, the point where Pilgrim flips from being an amusing historical retrospective to an actual academic study is when Sudnow starts discussing the economic realities that make video games even possible. Not the technological realities, although he definitely acknowledges those. Instead, he dives into the economic factors needed to make video games ongoing. Video games can be seen as a hobby, as entertainment, as an art form. But for video games to exist, above all else, they need to make a profit. 

And this blatant and obvious observation is one that I feel like I don't hear in video game studies. Sudnow doesn't just say they have to make money but looks at the sociological elements required. Particularly since, in many ways, it was new product that had different requirements to fit into society. I would be curious to know what he thought of both the Great Video Game Crash of 1983 and Nintendo restoring the home market in 1986.

I went into Pilgrim expecting a time capsule. Instead, I found a deep dive into ideas that have only grown in relevance.

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