I've written in a previous post about my work with the William A. Higinbotham Game Studies Collection. However, this past year's acquisition of a Seed grant, which supports initiatives between Stony Brook University and Brookhaven National Labs, has enabled the WHGSC to finance a documentary on the creation and re-production of Tennis for Two, the 1958 analog tennis game that is one of the earliest computer games.
Tennis for Two (or, T42) has a cumbersome history. It was a one-off game--built by the Instrumentation Division for a Brookhaven National Labs Visitor's Day (all the rage at government institutions during the Cold War!), played at various Vistor's Days through 1959, and then dismantled. The game was all analog technology--it ran no "program" so to speak. Its physical wires and relays were the program, and you could hear the click of the relays switching back and forth during play, a material sonic progenitor of the later digitized bleeps and blips of computer sound. (For more info on Higinbotham and T42, click here) The amazing Peter Takacs, a BNL physicist, is leading an effort at Brookhaven to rebuilt T42 from authentic parts gleaned from Ebay and other sources. Peter even hauled the whole beast down to the Museum of the Moving Image last fall for a special event on the origins of video games (the pictures provided are from this event). We set the thing up, vacuum tubes and analog Donner computer and a rat's nest of wires and all, but couldn't get it to work properly. There's some unresolved issues somewhere in the design that causes the ball to drop below the X-axis of the ground line--not that anyone cared. Attendees had a great time just standing in the presence of such a machine, and clearly enjoy fiddling with it, even if they couldn't have a proper "match".
But all this will be covered in the documentary! I'm operating as a production assistant for the project. Raiford (my advisor) and I met with the film production company, Vladar Company, yesterday afternoon, and I'll be co-writing the treatment with Raiford over the next week. After that, I anticipate ceaseless emailing to organize schedules, scripting questions for the interviews, being on deck for the day-long shoot later this month, and then having input on post-production. I'm looking forward to all the new skills and experience I'll garner from this, and hope to put them into action for my own documentary project one day (I'm keeping it under my hat for now!).
I really admire the intentions of this project: one of the larger services of the documentary is to provide museums, archives and other cultural institutions with something they can show as part of their game history collections. Most game history exhibitions start with Ralph Baer's Brown Box Odyssey. That very fact as alot to do with all the footwork Baer has done establishing himself as the de facto "Father of Video Games" and building Brown Box replicas for just about every institution that wants one. Baer has certainly made laudable contributions to game history, but thoughtful history also shouldn't be hung up on the idea of "origins", "firsts" or "beginnings". Part of the goal of the T42 documentary is to acknowledge the multiple, manifold histories of games, the many beginnings that contribute to a varied and diverse game culture. You can see then how this project fits quite cleanly into my research interests--even though I don't write about T42, I also have a passion for getting at the histories, experiences, affects and objects that get left out of the all-too-trite video game "timeline".