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"Everybody thinks they're a historian" - Alcorn

Creator of Pong reflects on the preservation of gaming history, the damaging effects of secrecy, and the problem of entrepreneurship

Last week, the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences honored Ralph Baer and Al Alcorn, naming them this year's Pioneer Award recipients for their contributions to the history of video games. Alcorn was able to accept his award in person, but Baer's recognition was posthumous, the "Father of Video Games" having passed away in December.

Baer's death underscored both a sad fact and a rare opportunity currently facing this industry. The people who built this medium from nothing will not be with us forever, but while they are, there is a unique opportunity to both recognize them for their accomplishments and learn from their first-hand experiences.

Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz on the day of the AIAS Awards, Alcorn said he'd like to see something akin to the Computer History Museum, a Mountain View, California-based non-profit organization that has been preserving and celebrating electronic advancements for decades.

"In some sense, I think the industry's doing too much, where everybody thinks they're a historian."

"In the game business, there are several amateur, small operations popping up," Alcorn said. "It always amazes me how much interest there is in this stuff. And because of that, a lot of the real artifacts are getting spread thin, in places that aren't real museums... In some sense, I think the industry's doing too much, where everybody thinks they're a historian. And they can damage the field by doing that, by not really curating properly what they've got, by not making it available for others to look at. So there are places where I think it could do better."

The game industry does have a handful of non-amateur operations (the AIAS last week announced its own partnership with The Strong museum in Rochester and its International Center for the History of Electronic Games), but Alcorn conceded that the tech industry has a leg up on preserving its history that the game industry hasn't been able to match.

"Some of these techy nerds made a whole lot of money--Gordon Bell, Bill Gates, and whatnot--and they were willing to put their money behind what they thought was important," Alcorn said. "So they created it. Because it took a lot of money. That's been done for the computer world, and that's what it would take for somebody in the video game business. And it's getting kind of late. They'd better get off their ass and hurry."

"I've seen the very destructive and damaging effect of too much secrecy."

Alcorn took particular issue with some of the historical reporting he's seen, saying it's "a little disturbing" to see people shift narratives away from actual events. He pointed to the recently Kickstarted documentary World 1-1, saying it did an excellent job of interviewing pioneers like himself and Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, but questioned the filmmakers' decision to include their recollections alongside those who were passing along stories second- or third-hand.

"It just really griped me to hear this guy telling about what it was like at Andy Capp's Tavern when we put the first Pong machine in there," Alcorn said. "He wasn't even alive at the time. I was. Nolan was. We were there, and we were telling the story. But this guy starts to move the story off, like why? And I was like, 'Wait a second, this is how history gets made.'"

Another obstacle to the historical preservation effort in games has been the culture of secrecy in the industry. Alcorn said that Atari's only secret was that it had no secrets. But as games have become bigger business, the corporations in control have tightened the reins on information. It's an attitude Alcorn believes isn't just harmful for preserving the past; it can also undermine companies in the here and now.

"I've seen the very destructive and damaging effect of too much secrecy," Alcorn said. "I worked at Interval Research for a couple of years, a think-tank funded by Paul Allen with 120 of the finest PhD scientists working on advanced technologies, and it was all very secret. And I think that was damaging. When you're working on something truly new from an invention standpoint, showing it to other people, somebody might say, 'We tried that before and it didn't work because of this.' But no, you're going to keep it a secret and spend billions of dollars and rediscover the same thing."

"If your ideas are so fragile that somebody can just steal them, maybe come up with a better idea."

Alcorn acknowledged that theft is a problem if a company is too loose with its work. However, companies with pride in what they do--and maybe a little ego--should be confident enough to show off what they have.

"If your ideas are so fragile that somebody can just steal them, maybe come up with a better idea," Alcorn said.

Large businesses acting out of fear isn't exactly a new phenomenon in the games industry. Alcorn said it's been around almost since the beginning, when the fledgling medium crashed in the early '80s. Alcorn described the crash as a low point, saying Atari "just blew the whole thing up and ruined one of the best franchises on the planet."

"To watch that happen from a close distance was really painful," Alcorn said. "[Parent company] Warner thought that video games were gone like the hula hoop, that the fad had passed. I don't think Atari could go much further with what they had degenerated into, a non-risk-taking company. They were completely risk-averse in an industry that to this day is such that if you don't obsolete your product, somebody else will. And if you don't understand that, you're going to die."

It's ironic that Atari's death was caused by a terminal case of risk aversion, as Alcorn said the company thrived for the exact opposite reasons.

"At Atari, we were young, and we were risk-takers," Alcorn said. "You gotta understand, we came out of the '60s, the time of the Vietnam War. I personally went to Berkeley--reading, writing, revolution--so there was a kind of, not reckless, but certainly a risk-taking attitude we had. The Cold War was going on, they were literally building bomb shelters, and there was a threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over us that the young people don't know today.

"People go and say, 'Well I'm going to be an entrepreneur.' Well what does that mean? I think you have to understand some field of interest first."

"When we started Atari, there wasn't the fad of entrepreneurs. Nobody knew what the word meant. We couldn't get a bank loan. Meeting with the VCs was easy because there were like half a dozen of them, period. And they initially wouldn't talk to us. Today, between angels, VCs, and Kickstarter, it's almost too easy to get a company started. And Kickstarter starts plenty of things that should never be started because they're never going to work."

That assessment might be a bit harsh, as Alcorn conceded that the original Atari team was told the same thing when they started out.

"When you hear that, it means one of two things: Either it's going to be great, or they're right," Alcorn said. "So that part is the same."

And while there's certainly no shortage of people taking risks with start-ups in Silicon Valley these days, Alcorn is a bit wary of entrepreneurship as a goal.

"People go and say, 'Well I'm going to be an entrepreneur.' Well what does that mean? I think you have to understand some field of interest first," Alcorn said. "Nolan got here because at the University of Utah he worked at an amusement park and understood coin-op pinball machines, then saw Spacewar and put the two together. But he didn't set out to be an entrepreneur; he set out to be a businessman. You have to have a really good basis in something, understanding a customer's need."

Bushnell has that strong foundation to go along with a vision of what the gaming industry could be. Alcorn admits it's a vision he didn't originally share. When asked what the most unexpected aspect of the industry has been for him, Alcorn simply said, "Its success."

"I have to confess, it wouldn't have happened if it weren't for Nolan, because he was this crazy man. I told my wife, 'He wants to build 100 Pong machines a day! He's nuts! No one's going to buy them. We don't have the money, the capacity to do this.' And the fact that it took off and people played these things astonished me... I thought it was something we might sell a total of 1,000 or so of these things. The initial goal was to do designs for Bally and other arcade companies as licensed products and to cash checks. It didn't work out that way."

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Latest comments (3)

James Berg Games User Researcher 5 years ago
Great interview, thanks!
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 5 years ago
Excellent article. Sadly, I'm afraid It's only going to get worse. Thanks to some folks armed with little knowledge of actual history and whatever they cobble from incorrect online sources, I'm seeing content produced that's so historically inaccurate to be now called "loosely based on true events" (like any Hollywood biopic).

And nope, most game companies aren't helping when they don't bother tracking and keeping records, old game code and other "artifacts" with intent to preserve them for posterity.
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Anthony Gowland Director, Ant Workshop5 years ago
He definitely has a point regarding the mis-recording of recent history.

Yesterday I visited the Games Masters exhibition (currently in Scotland) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Game_Masters_(exhibition) It's really great, but there was a particular piece about the Secret of Monkey Island and Tim Schafer written up and displayed on the wall as fact that a single tweet to Tim confirmed was completely false.

When even museum exhibitions aren't doing simple fact checking, how can anyone expect that the history of the games industry will be recorded accurately?
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