Jaroslav Švelch | Keywords in Play, Episode 20

“Keywords in Play” is an interview series about game research supported by Critical Distance and the Digital Games Research Association.

Jaroslav Švelch is an assistant professor at Charles University, Prague. He is the author of the recent monograph Gaming the Iron Curtain: How Teenagers and Amateurs in Communist Czechoslovakia Claimed the Medium of Computer Games (MIT Press, 2018). He has published work on history and theory of computer games, on humor in games and social media, and on the Grammar Nazi phenomenon. He is currently researching history, theory, and reception of monsters in games and his monograph Player vs. Monster: The Making and Breaking of Videogame Monstrosity is forthcoming from MIT Press in 2023.

As a joint venture, “Keywords in Play” expands Critical Distance’s commitment to innovative writing and research about games while using a conversational style to bring new and diverse scholarship to a wider audience.

Our goal is to highlight the work of graduate students, early career researchers and scholars from under-represented groups, backgrounds and regions. The primary inspiration comes from sociologist and critic Raymond Williams. In the Preface to his book Keywords: a vocabulary of culture and society, Williams envisaged not a static dictionary but an interactive document, encouraging readers to populate blank pages with their own keywords, notes and amendments. “Keywords in Play” follows Williams in affirming that “The significance is in the selection”, and works towards diversifying the critical terms with which we describe games and game culture.

Please consider supporting Critical Distance at https://www.patreon.com/critdistance

Critical Distance is a community-supported project. Support us on Patreon, and join the discussion on Discord!

Production Team: Darshana Jayemanne, Zoyander Street, Emilie Reed, Bettina Bodi.

Audio Direction and Engineering: Damian Stewart

Double Bass: Aaron Stewart

Transcription: Charly Harbord


Darshana: You’re listening to Keywords in Play, an interview series about game research supported by Critical Distance and the Digital Games Research Association.
As a joint venture, Keywords in Play expands Critical Distance’s commitment to innovative writing and research about games while using a conversational style to bring new and diverse scholarship to a wider audience.

Emilie: Welcome back to keywords in play. In this episode, I’m talking to Jaroslav Švelch, author of ‘Gaming the Iron Curtain’ and assistant professor at Charles University Prague. ‘Gaming the Iron Curtain’ touches on so many unique keywords, like the difference between a crack, a port, a conversion and a copy, or what amateur or hobbyist production means. And I think a good way to sum it all up is that it’s trying to develop a strategy for studying and understanding all of the unofficial activities that can be involved in game creation and game production. So yeah, thanks for talking to us.

Jaroslav: Yeah, thanks for having me.

Emilie: One thing that this book really highlighted to me was that a lot of the ways that games are discussed kind of take the presence of official distribution channels and a commercial gaming industry as a given, could you kind of start and introduce your work by giving some context on the period that’s discussed in your book and how these assumptions didn’t necessarily apply?

Jaroslav: Yeah, that’s a good question. Although it’s a complex one. The book is about gaming and making games in 1980s, Czechoslovakia, which was a country behind the Iron Curtain. And there were a lot of limitations there. So, there was no private enterprise. And you know, the movement of goods and ideas and software between the West and the East was limited. You know, you couldn’t just go into a store to buy a computer, or a console, or video game, like almost all distribution of hardware and software was, to some extent, unofficial. So, when somebody wanted to buy a computer, for instance, they would have to travel, usually to the West. And to do that you had to have a special permit. So, a lot of people couldn’t do that. So, they ask their friends who could get the permit to actually go to the West and bring a computer over. So, it was complicated and it was also very expensive for people in Czechoslovakia to get computers on the Western market. And another thing was, you know, the distribution of software, and there was just, you know, no official commercial distribution. So, people would circulate games on cassette tapes, there was a lot of what we could today call piracy. But at that time, it wasn’t really understood as piracy, it was understood more as a necessity as a kind of sharing of software, among people. Western games were being circulated in this way, but also domestic games. So, when people made games, in Czechoslovakia, in the 1980s, they would not expect, you know, getting rich out of it, they would not expect selling them for money. But they would just, you know, give them to the community. And, you know, what they got out of it was mostly, you know, some kind of recognition, some kind of fame, some kind of satisfaction of having, you know, other people play their piece and reacting to it, but there was no money to be made. So, me, I think these are kind of like the basic, like, differences from how the official distribution worked.

Emilie: The term domestic seems kind of important there because that was something that also really struck me in the examples that you talked about in the book is that so much of it was based either in, in the home where they were kind of producing these things in their spare time at home, or in kind of local computer clubs that were, you know, kind of much more casual than having a specific job in the gaming industry, or even, you know, kind of seeing yourself as like an entrepreneurial like, indie developer today.

Jaroslav: Yeah so, people will, of course, they will make their own games. It’s true that they didn’t really have the entrepreneurial ambition, because it was just impossible. But at the same time, I think they took a lot of inspiration from, you know, Western programmers from Western companies. So, you know, a lot of the people who would make games in Czechoslovakia would have these kind of Western sounding labels, like you know, Cybex Lab Software, which stood for cybernetic experimental laboratory. So, they use these English words, but at the same time, they didn’t really have the pressure of the market concern, you know, like making games that sell so, so in a way, they were a bit more, you know, free from the, you know, like the commercial imperative of selling games. But you know, there were also a lot of limitations. You know, one of them was obviously the accessibility of the computers. And you know, like, when you didn’t have friends or relatives, who could travel to the West, you could join a computer club, where you could share a computer with someone else. Sometimes these clubs had their own computers, sometimes people would bring their computers into the clubs. So that was another kind of way of bypassing these limitations. And the clubs are also important because they were a place where one could share knowledge. So, in order to make games, you have to have some kind of knowledge of programming, and, you know, game design and stuff like that, maybe not maybe game design wasn’t that important at that time. But programming, essentially, and programming textbooks just weren’t really available at the time. So, people would learn programming from their peers, from their, you know, older friends, or kind of more knowledgeable friends. Some clubs had, you know, photocopied copies of, you know, Western books, or literature, and things like that. So, I think that the community was very important in helping people overcome these limitations as well. So, these weren’t, you know, companies in the sense, in a sense of, you know, the, the Western computer game industry at that time, but yeah, these were like, grassroots kind of DIY communities in many ways. Most people were playing games from unofficial copies. And I remember to this day, you know, having cassette tapes at home, you know, with games, and there would be, you know, these kind of inlays in the cassette tape box that were written with a pencil or with a ballpoint pen, and you would have like, the list of things that are on the tape. So copying was a huge part of, you know, having a computer and playing games at that time. And just from my personal experience, which was a bit slightly later, than the period that I’m writing about, because I started using computers and playing games regularly in the early 90s. But what I remember is that we spent a lot of time just sitting in front of our computers and copying stuff from tape, and to tape, maybe even more time that we actually spent playing games. And it was fun, you know, we were sitting around at some, someone’s apartment, you know, and we were just chatting about different things and copying games, it was somehow important, I think, for people to kind of have their own copies and have them at home, even, even though you know, like, those games weren’t particularly good.

So, that was a huge part of the practice of gaming at that time. And then, you know, the ports and conversions and all these things that people could do with the code. Yeah, these were different practices. And I’m, it’s a bit of my pet peeve, the difference between ports and conversion. Sometimes it’s used interchangeably, but the term ports originates from the concept of portability from, you know, from computer science, which basically means that you can reuse most of the code on a different platform. But it wasn’t the case for many eight-bit games, because of the differences in hardware, like very often, you would just have to write the game, again, from scratch, if you wanted to have a version of it on a different platform. And that applies to, you know, commercial development in the West, many arcade conversions were just written like completely from scratch but also applies to these kind of vernacular activities, DIY activities, people would make conversions of games for one platform for another platform. There was a special demand for conversions in Czechoslovakia, because some of the platforms that were being used here, were obscure. You know, some of them were domestic, domestically produced computers, some of them were, you know, foreign-made computers, but still kind of obscure, so that the people who have those obscure platforms can play the popular games, somebody had to convert them. Sometimes, you know, porting was also possible, like when the two machines were kind of close enough that you could take the code from one to the other but it was not particularly frequent, I would say because games are that time were mostly written, especially commercial games were mostly written in machine code or in assembly language. And this is just very machine specific. So, you know, like, there were some cases where you could do the porting quite efficiently. But on many occasions, you couldn’t.

Emilie: I also found it really cool how you tied it into like you’re saying earlier with, you know, with making your own copies and kind of making, you know, the inlays, for the specific cassette tapes that each represented, you know, that specific person who made the copy, like their drawing, or their, you know, notes on what was in that tape, these all kind of become personal and creative ways of, you know, engaging with the work, whereas I think the attitude towards the stuff from a more official games perspective is more that it’s like, it’s either just like, ripping off the original material, or, you know, it’s just not very good. It’s kind of tangential to the actual work of like game development. I thought that was really interesting how the difference in these terms kind of represents the different relationships that people had to this work.

Jaroslav: Yeah, I agree. Absolutely, and you know, I think that the understanding of what the game is, and what making a game means was quite different at that time, in this particular context. So, you know, when somebody took a Western game, like ‘Manic Miner’ that was a huge hit in, you know, in the UK, and then most of Europe in 1983. So, some, some person in Czechoslovakia would take this game, and make a conversion for another computer. And, like, they felt like they made a new game, basically, because they made a new program. And back, then, you know, I think people didn’t really understand this as copying. They just go, okay so, you know, there’s this template for a game that’s, you know, British, and I’ll just remake this game for another computer. And it was a creative process. And it was, it was difficult, you know, it took some time. And they really felt ownership of this thing. And they signed it. And, you know, they got recognition for it. So, it was it was considered a creative endeavour, definitely.

Emilie: Yeah, and that kind of gets into what you talked about in the later chapters is, I don’t know, I guess I don’t want to say wholly original, because a lot of them were kind of based on the existing code of like text adventure games, for example, and kind of looking at how those worked. But there was, in the later chapters, you mentioned, more of a tendency to use these games as vehicles for either kind of personal expression; so, you know, representing their own, you know, their own life, their own apartment as an area of the game or, you know, their own interests, or also as particular forms of political expression. And I think both of these tendencies are kind of things that we associate with like the kinds of more serious games or art games, or recent indie game movements.

Jaroslav: I think there’s, there’s a big difference between the current indie games about current issues and the games that I’m looking at from the 1980s. Because today, there is already an existing discourse about, you know, serious games and games for change. And I think many people share the belief that games can be, can be used to, for political activism, and for personal expression, and so on. So, there are some conventions of how to do it and there is a certain kind of appreciation of how it’s being done. I think that the games from the 1980s are much more kind of DIY and vernacular, I think they’re very rough around the edges, you know, many of them kind of barely function, it seems that they were kind of made in haste by people who really kind of wanted to say something, you know, especially the, the political games. I think that they are very direct, oftentimes, you know, very angry, you know, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of kind of conceptual thinking going into how do I make this game efficient? And how do I express my opinion in the best possible way, but I think it’s more about still having an idea and just going with it and doing it very fast. Just generally, making a game in the 1980s it wasn’t that difficult if you were making a text adventure game or something like that, you know, like you had a template already, that you could follow, and you could make a game reacting to the current events and in a matter of days, you know, maybe a week, maybe two weeks, but it wasn’t that much work. So, I think you can see it on the games, you know, that they were, they are really kind of immediate.

Emilie: The distribution and kind of the audience that existed for these games also played a big role in, you know, how they were made and how you know, what people got out of them, especially in terms of the ones that are political, or the ones that are like, specifically, you know, meant to communicate something about that person’s life or experience.

Jaroslav: I think it’s easier to explain an example of games that were autobiographical and talking about, you know, the author’s personal experiences. And these games were usually intended for an audience of, you know, friends, and, you know, the closer community. So, when I interviewed some of the people who made these games, they basically said, you know, our audience, that was basically our friends, but then, you know, they also kind of spread into the broader community. In many of these games, you would have these references to particular people, you know, that they would put in, just to make fun of kind of mutual friends and so on. But, surprisingly, you know, these would travel quite well, throughout the community, in the whole Czechoslovakia. I think that one of the reasons is that it was a pretty kind of monolithic culture, you know, especially like, when we look at the people who played and made the games, these were mostly kind of young men, in a very kind of ethnically monolithic country. So, I think that everybody understood the same jokes, everybody had a very similar experience of going to school, going to a computer club, and so on. So, this travels really well, even though it was kind of autobiographical. These games that inspired other people to do the same thing. And I have a hypothesis, it’s no, I cannot really prove it. But I think that the political games, the protest games, and the activist games kind of grew out of this, a tendency to make games about one’s personal life, because, you know, like, once you are already making games about, you know, your own apartment and your own school. And it’s not a huge leap to make a game about, you know, what’s happening, you know, you know, in Prague, when there’s like an anti-government demonstration or something like that.

Emilie: It’s interesting to see that, you know, the most useful thing in a lot of cases, and following up on these was like, a copy or like, you know, just kind of the name that was incidentally added to the programme. So, if people really want to dig deeper into the examples in the historical material, I found that like, really, really cool about the book, and something that isn’t necessarily what you see a lot of, in, you know, the more official game history that kind of more follows, you know, companies and things that are made by like, very official teams of tens to hundreds of people. So, yeah, that I just really appreciated that about the book. And then I guess, towards the end of it, you go into some other countries or contexts that are also marginal to the mainstream game industry and how those areas, you know, they need to be more investigated, obviously, but they also might feel a lot of similarities or overlap to the types of experiences and the types of, you know, culture and distribution around games that you’re describing. Since you published the book, is there any further like, emerging research in that area, or areas that you are particularly interested in pursuing?

Jaroslav: Um, yeah, I think also a lot of work has been done on, you know, other regions and other, you know, other places. I mean, obviously, for me, like the, the region that I understand the best is Central and Eastern Europe, you know, the kind of former Soviet Bloc, and there’s been a lot of research on Poland, for example, you know, by people like Maria Garda, and it’s interesting to kind of see the differences and the similarities between the two countries. I mean, I think that from the point of view of the West, you know, this was all part of the Soviet Bloc, but at the same time, you know, this, these are really different countries and they were different countries. So, it’s, it’s interesting to kind of see all these kind of shades of differences, because Poland was actually a bit more liberal at that time, in terms of these limitations that I was talking about, you know, like the trade restrictions and things like that. Also, you know, there have been, you know, there are other places that deserve more research, definitely. There’s lately been some really interesting research on, on South Korea, and how the software industry and hardware industry in South Korea basically started with basically cloning a Western hardware. So, it started out as a set of these kind of DIY operations that were very similar to what was happening in, in the Soviet Bloc. There is, there are some, some, some, you know, examples from other countries. Unfortunately, we don’t know that much yet about, you know, the, the Middle East, for instance, about the history of gaming there. South America hasn’t really been that well covered. I, myself would love to do more work in the future on the Soviet Union, which, you know, it’s, it’s a huge country, and a lot of interesting stuff happened there in the 1990s. So, you know, definitely, I think, my impression is that when I tell this story, or the stories that are officially in the book, that many people identify with these stories, even though they’re not from Czechoslovakia, so they might be from Singapore, they might be from Spain, which I mean, had a commercial game industry, but a lot of people made DIY games, and there was a lot of kind of informal distribution as well. You know, people from South America, so a lot of people can identify with these, with these narratives. So, I think that it doesn’t really speak only about a regionally specific experience, but also more broadly about going to marginal or peripheral experience, because a lot of people in the US and you know, in the UK, also kind of had pirated copies of games. And they might have also kind of made, you know, like, DIY, freeware, and shareware games. And I think that the, the practices and the, the attitudes, and the aesthetics were in, in many ways similar.

Emilie: That’s really cool and I definitely agree with that! Even as someone who grew up in the US, I kind of related to certain parts of the book, just in terms of, you know, the stuff that I associated with, you know, as games or as software that I found interesting as a kid is, you know, sometimes it was just kind of, you know, the random stuff that was around and kind of shared for free, rather than, you know, always the most official, you know, kind of usually the most expensive and hard to get type things as well. So, yeah, that was really interesting. Where can people follow you? If they’re interested in finding out more about your work? And, you know, do you have anything recent that you want to shout out as well,

Jaroslav: I think that if you’re interested in the book, there is a website at ironcurtain@ svelch.com, where I have lots of material, there are photos that didn’t make it into the book and there are links to some other research that I’ve done on the topic. You know, like, if you consider the book, the album, in kinda, you know, music industry terms, then there are like a lot of singles and a lot of B-sides around it, because I’ve just done a lot of research on it. And, and I’ve published it in other, you know, through other venues as well. So, you know, all these kind of links should be on the website and a lot of material. There’s also a translation of one of the activist games, about Indiana Jones on Wenceslas Square protesting. Well, I’m here, basically just getting beaten up by the communist police and beating up the communist police at a, an anti-regime demonstration that has been translated into English and you can play it also, you know, through the website. I have a Twitter account, which you can find quite easily I think I’m not too active, but clicking on it, whenever there’s something new some kind of new publication or something, I want to share it, I usually announce it. And I’m currently working on something that’s quite different. I’m finishing a manuscript of a book about video game monsters. So, it’s about you know, how monsters entered the medium of video games and how video games as a medium kinda changed how we understand monstrosity and otherness. So, it’s a bit of a departure, but it’s also you know, kind of one of mine, one of the topics that are very dear to me, so I’m hoping that I will finish it and it will be published soon. It should come out next year on MIT Press.

Emilie: All right, great. That was super interesting! Thank you so much!

Jaroslav: Thank you.

Darshana: We hope you have enjoyed this episode of Keywords in Play. For more great ideas around games check out criticaldistance.com. Or take a dive into the DiGRA archives at DiGRA.org.