This interview came from researching author David L. Craddock's Long Live Mortal Kombat, the definitive account of the MK franchise's creation and its global impact on popular culture, funding now on Kickstarter.
I spend a good deal of time thinking about how to write about games. More time than I spend actually writing about games, in fact, because even when I'm writing, I'm thinking about what I'm writing and how I'm writing what I'm writing. It's all very interlocked and confusing, and the opportunity to talk to someone like Dr. Carly Kocurek, someone who knows and shares that effort that is both a thrill and a mental burden, is a rare treat.
My interview with Kocurek came about by happenstance. One of Long Live Mortal Kombat's early readers wondered about the types of people most likely to frequent arcades in the heyday of Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter II in the 1990s. I was one of those people, but I was a kid, and at the mercy of the pocket change my mom or dad would give me to play while they ran errands. I wanted to know about the older patrons, the teens and 20- and 30-somethings who made trips to the arcade almost as frequently as they went to school or their jobs. More frequently, in some cases. That led me to Google, which led me to Coin-Operated Americans: Rebooting Boyhood at the Video Game Arcade written by Kocurek.
In Coin-Operated Americans, Kocurek examines the "golden age" of arcades through the late '70s to the North American industry's crash in '83, to the resurgence of coin-op gaming in the '90s. More specifically, she looks at the types of players who made these supposed dens of iniquity their second home, and how video games at large became known as a boys' club. She was more than up to that challenge. A full-time professor at Illinois Institute of Technology, Kocurek has a background in academic research with a concentration on the history of video games both as a business and a cultural movement. We talked about the pervasive view of games as being made by and for men, the practices of chronicling video game history, the supposed connection between violent games and real-life behavior, how her interest in research brought her to video games, and much more in this wide-ranging interview.
David L. Craddock: Before we talk about your interest in game design and gaming history, what led to your interest in academic research?
Carly Kocurek: I was always excited about writing, and I love history. I grew up in a family that spent a lot of time going to museums and stopping at historical landmarks and national parks and things like that. I was obsessed with American Girl dolls when I was a kid, and I've been able to write about them as an adult, which was fun. I've just always been interested in the past, and specifically, the way we live daily life, not necessarily political history or military history. Those are really important, and there are people doing great work in those areas, but I was fascinated by day-to-day things: What were sewing machines like in the 1920s? What did it mean for someone to get one? How did that change your life? It was probably huge.
I completed my undergraduate degree, and I majored in English and history. I worked a lot with a professor, Krista Comer, who wrote a book about surfing. She was mentoring me and kind of coaching me through grad applications as I was applying to programs. I was going to apply to English Literature programs, and she said, "You don't want to get a PhD in English. The stuff you're doing is not actually what Lit PhDs do. You're actually doing American Studies." I said, "Oh, okay," so I applied to 10 American Studies programs, and got into exactly one, and it was my least favorite choice.
But that was lucky because in a way, it was what I needed. I went to the University of Texas at Austin, and I'm from Texas. I'd always lived in Texas. I think part of why I wanted to go to out-of-state universities was because I wanted to see a different part of the country. But that didn't happen, so I went to school in Texas.
The American Studies program at the University of Texas has a really strong focus on cultural history. The program has faculty who have studied areas such as the history of photography, the history of plastics, which is such an interesting thing, and the history of the circus. That was studied by Janet Davis, who I worked with, and who ended up being my chair [the head of a university department]. I also worked with Elizabeth Engelhardt, who's now at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and who's a really big deal in food history.
I like to joke that coming out of American Studies is like being raised by wolves. I didn't work with games history people; I worked with other history people, and with almost no overlap in the decades we were all studying. But there was a lot of overlap in thematic and theoretical concerns, particularly research methods and things like that. I worked a lot with people in the anthropology department as well. They have a cultural studies certificate I completed. I also worked with folks in what was at the time the Radio, Television, and Film program; they've reorganized, and I don't know what the department is called anymore.
So, I have this kind of interdisciplinary background. That was a carryover from how I approached my undergraduate degree.
Craddock: How did that lead to you sharpening your focus to the video game industry?
Kocurek: I worked on a project about barbecue under Elizabeth Engelhardt, and that led to a book called Republic of Barbecue, and I realized I loved doing oral histories. I loved interviewing people. I'd been a student journalist, and I still interview people occasionally, like when I'm writing pieces for different magazines. I think people are so interesting and so weird. There's a great oral history book called Amoskeag that's about the Amoskeag textile mill, and the stories are fascinating, but it has this section at the beginning that I love and think about all the time, and it's about accuracy. People say things in interviews that aren't accurate, but they're also not wrong. They're inaccurate, but they hit on something.
“We often use monsters as targets in games: ‘We're shooting monsters, so it's fine.’ But the monster is never just a monster.”
The example they have is that the Amoskeag mill catches on fire. It probably caught fire several times; mills catch on fire all the time because there's always fiber in the air and machines and things. But at one point there was a big fire, and it was really disruptive. In at least one interview—I think actually in several interviews—people claim the mill closed shortly after this fire, within a year or something. That's not accurate; it was five, seven, maybe 10 years later, but it points to something, which is that the mill felt really different after the fire. It felt like it was in decline. That's why I love interviewing: You get that kind of emotional and impressionistic part of history that you will not get from solid facts like dates found in the mill's records. I might speculate, but I wouldn't know.
I mentioned to some of the faculty I was working with that I loved interviewing people, and they said, "You should interview people about video games. There's not a lot of oral history happening in that area, and there's definitely some interesting stuff to find." I've always been interested in gender and technology because I've always loved the internet. When I was young, the Internet was like a miracle. I grew up in the middle of nowhere, so it was extremely exciting to read things and talk to people in New York. It was just cool, and I loved it. I spent all my time online. I was so interested in the gender divide in technology. I was like, why doesn't everyone get to enjoy technology the way I do? I was interested in that, and in gaming.
This was the mid-'90s, and I'm working on a project about that time period right now. It's the height of the "games for girls" movement, this moment where you see games developed specifically for girls. There was a lot of conversation about that, and a lot of research about it. I t bumps up against the extreme masculinization of games, which you can see really palpably in advertisements from that period. That was when I was a teenager. I was very aware of it in some ways, so I started looking at the research that existed.
There's a book called From Barbie to Mortal Kombat, which is this landmark piece of research by Henry Jenkins and Justine Cassell. It has interviews with a bunch of developers from the time, and it was super-interesting to me, this exclusion of girls. I asked, why was it like that? That's always the history question: "Wait, wait, wait—why is it like that?" We had all this research about how women get excluded, and it's a problem, but how do they then get included? And why do we still think of games as for men and boys? That's a really interesting and thorny question.
“I went through around 10,000 pages of gaming magazines. There was this letter from an older woman who said, ‘I don't understand why you're acting like I don't belong here.’”
That became my dissertation, "Coin-Operated Americans," which is about video game arcades, the rise of competitive gaming, and how Cold War priorities got mapped onto video games early in the cultural imagination, and in the political imagination as well. That's where I started. I got interested in asking, "But wait, why is it like that?" It was a fun and exciting project. I interviewed people, I spent a lot of time in archives, I spent time in arcades. That was my starting point as a researcher in a really serious way, which is, I guess, the point of a dissertation: To get you started.
I do a lot of normal historical research activities like spend a lot of time in archives, and of course, interviewing people, but I also do things that fall more in the vein of American studies, cultural studies, and media studies. Things like look at films from the period and talk ideologically about, what is this doing? Why is this resonating? What are these stories that we're telling over and over again?
I'm fascinated by how much we talk about people that do tech things as if they're really young, and we'll keep doing this. Steve Jobs is dead, but we're still talking about him as this youthful figure in some ways, which is super-fascinating. These are not kids; they're captains of industry. We don't hold them to standards of accountability that maybe we should. It's so interesting and so problematic. I love technology enough to be like, "Oh god, oh god, oh god," all the time.
I always hope for the best but expect the worst. I've been looking at all this Metaverse stuff and I'm like, "Guys, we figured out this was bad in, like, 1994. You're not gonna invest in enough moderation, and it's gonna be bad." And of course, we get reports of sexual assault almost immediately, and it's like, "Oh, god, we knew this would happen. You didn't stop and ask anyone, and now it's happening."
Centipede creator Dona Bailey was the first woman to program a coin-op game at Atari, but her impact on the industry is often overlooked in favor of (typically redundant) reporting on her male peers and superiors. (Image courtesy of Vice.)
Craddock: One term that's a through line in your research is "techno masculinity." Could you define that term and explain how those words came together to form it?
Kocurek: That came out of a chapter I wrote that was primarily about Tron and WarGames. Those were two of the first blockbuster movies—and we can argue about how successful or not successful they were financially—but they're both really interesting in terms of the history of the film industry and the kinds of stories we tell in games. They both have male protagonists, and [those characters] are shown as very similar even though, ostensibly, one [Tron's Kevin Flynn] is a grown-up, but the movie lingers on his adolescence. They're shown as very middle class, youthful, always wearing jeans and bomber jackets, not suits. They are divorced from trappings of adulthood even when they are adults. Flynn owns an arcade, of course, and is the best programmer ever, but he left or was fired from his job. Tron is very confusing. I love reading reviews from the time because they conflict on what the plot was. I've watched it probably 50 times because that's what happens when you write about these things, and I'm still like, "This is bizarre."
I think my favorite detail in Tron is that the other heroes are Flynn's ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend. Those are the three heroes. There's no romantic resolution. I genuinely really like that, but it's also something that keeps him out of adulthood. His trajectory is not going to be stability or order in a way we expect. He gets his job back with the company; we see him arriving in a helicopter, where he's greeted by his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend, which I love. I'm happy for them. I hope they're all friends. But it's narratively strange. It's pretty distinct to that realm. There's a high level of interest in youth in these movies, and an extreme focus on technical proficiency. It's often self-taught or inherent technical proficiency. No one is like, "This kid went to MIT, and he's a genius." No, he's just a genius. Maybe he'll get to go to MIT now because he's a genius.
Matthew Broderick in WarGames.
The character in WarGames [David Lightman] is based on accounts of early hackers and kids. As an undergraduate, I coincidentally—because I had no idea where my life was going at the time—took a class from G. Anthony Gorry, who was the first person to get a PhD in computer science at MIT. And he told me he got into their system and was not supposed to be there, and they were like, "Yeah, come on in, here's your account." This was very early on, the proto internet. There's this glamorization of that behavior, and it sounds fun and exciting, but it's also about who has access to this. I love that there are often people doing low-level crimes or even high-level crimes, but it's treated as cute and fine. In movies, it's like, you almost started World War III, but then at the end you're the hero because you averted World War III, even though none of this needed to happen. They're youthful and seen as brilliant, and they break rules either charmingly or devastatingly, but it's always ruled as charming. They're almost always white or middle class. These are not kids hanging out in the back corners of pool halls. It's gendered, it's racialized, and it's heavily classed, and it bumps into all kinds of themes like anxiety about the economy, and the Cold War, because technology happens in part because we're in a race with all the other countries to be more awesome, and technology is what we need to do that.
We still see this rhetoric. This is not gone, and it also wasn't necessarily a new thing [in the 1980s]. We saw this with early ham radio operators in the early 1900s where, before this was regulating, coverage was, "They're so smart!" Susan Douglas talked about this a lot in her book, Inventing American Broadcasting. It's a kind of masculinity, but it doesn't quite look like what we think of as hegemonic masculinity in a more conventional way. There are not necessarily sports, the characters aren't necessarily team players, and they're often alone, often working contrary to institutional structures or outside of institutional structures, and they're framed as disruptors, which we absolutely fetishize.
Two volumes of the Influential Video Game Designers line of books co-editor by Kocurek and Jennifer deWinter. (Photo of Anastasia Salter courtesy of University of Central Florida; photo of Carly Kocurek courtesy of Elizabeth McQuern.)
You shouldn't break everything. Some things are okay. It's like, "Let's disrupt social services!" Maybe not? Maybe we need those? Maybe random people should not be calling in certain people for mental health concerns; they're not social workers or mental health experts. I have no qualifications in that area. And again, we see this over and over. I think we're finally turning the tide on how we talk about Elon Musk: He's a grown-up. We don't need to talk about him like he's 16 and really impressive. He should be held to adult levels of responsibility and accountability.
I've thought about this in terms of the work the Gates Foundation is doing. Lots of that is great, but Bill and Melinda Gates have tremendous amounts of money in a way that most of us can barely imagine. That money is leveraged through the foundation, and it's seen as for the common good, but who decides what the common good is? Some disruptions to education are very detrimental. That's what happens when you have people who have enough money to buy influence in realms that they don't have expertise or a meaningful stake in.
We have to be really careful and cautious about how much we think new ideas and new thinkers are always good. There's a lot of value to expertise and accrued experience. That's not to say we should never think about things in a new way. Absolutely, the technical innovations of companies like Microsoft or Apple can be really, really important, and many of them are great. But it doesn't mean everyone should get a free pass, or that we should not be thoughtful about how we evaluate these things. It's complicated because innovation can be wonderful. Innovation can also be stupid and terrible and destructive.
“Women are perfectly capable of working in technology. A lot of what we need to think about is why they choose not to.”
I think the idea of the techno masculine is tied up in ideas of technological progress and technological determinism. It's like, "technology is good, men make technology, therefore men who make technology are good." This is really entrenched and ideological; it's not thoughtful, it's knee jerk. And when I say it's ideological, we're all invested in it whether we like it or not. We all have a knee-jerk reaction. We're like, "Oh, neat!" You have to stop and try to unthink that. We have institutions and policies and practices and daily cultural exposure that is reminding us over and over of these values, whether we hold them or not.
Craddock: One thing I've noticed over the past 18 years of writing books about video games is, authors use certain verbs, adjectives, and nouns to convey excitement. I'm guilty of this, too. We're writing about "rebels" and "renegades" who sleep all day and stay up all night making video games and living on pizza and soda. That's often what happened, but it's like we can't help sexing up the writing to make it sound more exciting than it is. I've often wondered if that's because, deep down, we know we're writing about subjects that the mainstream considers nerdy and we're self-conscious about it. Foundational books like Steven Kent's Ultimate History of Video Games and David Kushner's Masters of Doom, influenced me and many others. They came out before video games grew into a multi-billion-dollar business, but we as authors want to be taken seriously, so our subjects are working around the clock and doing awesome things and making the greatest games ever. It's a level of hyperbole that may be systemic.
Kocurek: Yeah, there are some important things there. One is that, of course, people who are writing books have to sell books. The books are commercial products.
Kocurek: I'm held to that less because I'm working with academic presses. There are different expectations and structures there, but some of it is that you need to sell books, and some of it is—and I think this is true for me, too. I'm not exempting myself—people tend to write about things they really care about and are really excited about. I think that carries over into their writing.
Two volumes of the Influential Video Game Designers line of books co-editor by Kocurek and Jennifer deWinter. (Photo of Wendi Sierra courtesy of St. John Fisher College; photo of Jennifer deWinter courtesy of Worcester Polytechnic Institute.)
Some of it has to do with professional practices. There's a video game book with a generic title, The Video Games Textbook [by Brian J. Wardyga]. I think it's very good. It has a lot of good information, and it raises some interesting concerns. It's got lots of good practice questions for my students, but it has a claim in there about the first Easter egg in video games, and I am sure at least one of the books I've edited has this claim in it, too. The claim is that the first Easter egg is in Atari's Adventure, and it was made by Warren Robinett, who put his initials in a secret room. That's not true, but The Video Game Textbook cites Kent's Ultimate History of Video Games.
Craddock: That's a larger discussion happening in the gaming history community, going through Kent's citations.
Kocurek: Yeah, and he has a source, which is: A person said it. In the practice of journalism, that is correct. Kent didn't do anything wrong. A source said it, the source seems credible, so you put it in. But it's wrong, and it's been repeated now in all these other things, so it gains all this credibility. And I've contributed to that. [Author's note: Fellow game historian "Critical Kate" Willaert produced a YouTube video and article in 2021 debunking the claim that Robinett's Easter egg was the first secret in video games. You can read the article here.]
So again, I'm not picking on anyone, but we end up with these problems because we're following best professional practices for all of our disparate professions. But the best practices for journalism and history are different, yet they can feed off each other in a way that really entrenches this incorrect mistake. I also think there's a lot to be said about levels of access and what kinds of stories people will and won't tell you.
I've been thinking about this a lot, because I co-edited a series with Jennifer deWinter for Bloomsbury called Influential Video Game Designers. We have four books in the series. This is a small sample size, but so far 100 percent of the women we have written about have agreed to interviews, but zero percent of men have agreed.
By most measures, the men are more famous. I don't know why you wouldn't just talk to someone for an hour if they're writing an entire book about you to make sure that they're representing what you're saying. It's just interesting, learning who's willing to talk to us. It's hard for that to not feel sexist, because both the editors are women, and a lot of our writers are women. Are you just not willing to talk to us? Because you certainly do interviews regularly. Who has access to people, and what kinds of stories do these people tell?
Advertisements positioning video games as a family-friendly activity.
I have an amazing team of research students right now. I've done my interviews with people connected to the "games for girls" movement, and one of my students said, "I need you to tell me what order these sections go in because [the woman you interviewed] asked you to turn off the recording so many times." And I always do that. I want to hear the story even if I can't use it. But these things are really sensitive, and the risk for Nolan Bushnell is zero at this point. He's safe, but the risk for someone who's still trying to work in the industry, who's already had their career affected by advocacy for gender equity, for example, might be much higher. It's complicated.
I also think many people who have been successful in startups going back to the 1970s—and this includes games—they're often super-charming and super-charismatic. You meet them and you like them, and you're like, "Yeah, I totally believe this. It sounds credible." I'm not saying that people are lying. They're not trying to mislead you, but they're telling you their own history, not an accurate accounting of every single thing that happened. There are reasons for this, including how memory works. My memory is fallible, too. I'm not a camera, and even cameras are not 100 percent accurate in some ways.
Also, like when you're talking about a large organization, especially, but even when you're talking about an individual—I'm generally a nice person. Have I been nice to every person I've ever interacted with? No. Is there someone that could reasonably say I was a horrible professor and had a horrible experience in my class? Absolutely, and I would believe them. I don't think it means I'm a bad person, necessarily, but I probably messed up that time. So, not everything that happens is going to happen to every person I interact with.
A sampling of video game advertisements in the 1990s.
I think sometimes you get these really complicated histories where you're talking about, for example, Atari: Some people who worked there say it was amazing and they got to do all this stuff. They were at the research lab, and it was life changing to work there in a really positive, expansive, amazing way. Then you talk to someone who was a secretary who was sexually assaulted at work. These experiences happened at the same company. Those experiences affected both people in profound ways. It doesn't mean either of them is lying, or that the good experience someone had is now invalid. But it does mean we need to think really carefully about venerating [companies or individuals] without thinking about the full picture.
Because again, Atari was an amazing startup company. It was also a major player that controlled a huge percentage of the industry. They had a majority control of the US games industry to such an extent that the crash in '82 was not caused by E.T., but was caused in part by Atari.
“I think people want places where they feel like they belong. Because we live in a highly media-driven society, that gets mapped onto media.”
Craddock: Why do you think players tie their identities to certain companies and developers? Even to events, like the 16-bit console war, or even the "console war" that's supposedly happening now between PS5 and Xbox Series X. And why do they tend to be younger men?
Kocurek: I think there are a few things going on. I'm working on an article right now that's not finished. It's an academic article, so nobody will see it for a year or something. But I've been working on an article about the context of video game culture and Title IX, because I think we forget how abrupt the changes and upheavals of the '60s and '70s were. [Author's Note: Title IX was passed in 1972 to protect "from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance." More info can be found here.]
In 1972, X many girls took part in sports. Then Title IX goes in fully by 1976, and that number increases by literally millions. Now it's normal for girls to participate in sports, but it wasn't. There were there were very few formal programs, and the ones that existed were so under-funded. It's comical to read reports that say, for example, they put $8,000 into men's sports for every $1 they put into women's sports. If you look at state universities, it's really wild. It's easy to forget how profound those cultural and social changes were.
Roberta Williams announced her return to game design in 2022. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)
I think to some extent, and I talked about this in Coin-Operated Americans, that some of it is a retcon. Some of it is people's memories. Tweens and teens, especially historically, socialized in a gender-segregated way. It wasn't necessarily hostile; it was just a thing that happened. For example, you would have packs of middle school boys roaming arcades together. They might not remember anyone else who was there. They might say, "There were no girls there." And I say, "Were there no girls there, or were there no girls talking to you?" It would be really hard in your memory to pick those two things apart. You wouldn't necessarily know. That's an interesting baseline problem. I think many people are looking for a community, and I think that can be really positive or really destructive, and it can be both at the same time.
People want places where they feel like they belong. Because we live in a highly media-driven society, that gets mapped onto media. We've seen an absolute explosion in fandom. I think game playing is often not talked about as fandom, but I think it's useful to think of it as fandom, where your personal identity gets really tangled up in this thing. You're not just a Call of Duty player, you're all in on Call of Duty. Years ago, there was an interview with one of the lead folks who said, "Our players aren't gamers, they only play Call of Duty."
That's an interesting distinction to make, and especially now with eSports, where you see this even more, it's, "This person loves video games, but they really love this video game specifically." Most people who are really into conventional sports, they're not into all the sports. They're really into baseball, or they're really into basketball, and they follow one team closely.
Laine Nooney’s “Sierra On-Line Memories” collected oral histories from residents of Oakhurts, California, after Sierra On-Line relocated, leaving the town without a major source of employment. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)
Again, I think people want places they feel like they belong. If someone feels excluded or ostracized, and they find a place where they belong, that's going to feel really intense. But they may also feel like they deserve to protect it and to decide who gets to be there. I talk about this as an imagined or real exclusive enclave, and it's usually a gendered enclave in these cases, for men or for boys.
For years, the industry totally supported that. Those people weren't wrong in the sense that, yeah, gaming was being marketing for them. What does that do to you psychologically when you're being told over and over again, "This is yours. This is yours. This is yours," and then later, the messaging shifts to, "… and maybe it's for other people, too?" Maybe that feels bad. Maybe it feels like a personal attack. Or maybe when people say, "Hey, this game is kind of sexist," it feels like they're saying you're kind of sexist, even though you've never thought of yourself as sexist and don't mean to be sexist. That feels personal.
We see this around all kinds of things, and it's difficult. Often, these have to be really careful conversations at the point that you're talking to human beings. I don't think they need to be careful conversations when we're talking about organizations or games, because yeah, that behavior is kind of sexist. It just is. But that doesn't mean the movies I enjoy and am super-invested in are not problematic.
This is timely because [New Zealand director, screenwriter, and producer] Jane Campion just put, like, four feet in her mouth. [Author's Note: In early 2022, Campion received praise for speaking against a bigoted rant made by actor Sam Elliott, only to claim her accomplishments in film amounted to a greater achievement than what African-American tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams, who "don't have to play against the guys, like I do," have surmounted. Campion was lambasted for her the thoughtless remarks and issued an apology to the Williams sisters.]
“I think often we're hiring people for technical skills when we could hire for other skills and then teach them the technical part.”
I really love The Piano [written and directed by Jane Campion]. It is one of my favorite movies, but it is so ignorant about the racial dynamics of colonial New Zealand that I don't even know enough to pick it apart. But that movie has been hugely meaningful for me. I will probably watch it 100 more times before I die. There are other times when [troubling information] comes out and I'm like, I actually cannot enjoy this thing anymore. I watched Firefly over and over and over again when I was stressed out. It was brain candy, even though I knew it wasn't perfect. There's a place where everyone speaks Asian languages, but there are no Asian people, and this is the Wild West [in space]. Yeah, that makes perfect sense.
But I really liked Firefly. I watched it over and over, and then Gamergate happened, which is still such a mess that I actually have a hard time talking about it, and one of the Firefly actors is super-active in that. I watched an actor from a show I liked try to destroy someone's life on social media. Now I can't watch it anymore. Then, more recently, there's [Firefly creator] Joss Whedon just being horrible. I was done.
Jesyca Durchin, producer of Barbie Fashion Designer. (Image courtesy of LinkedIn.)
That's very personal. I'm not saying no one should watch Firefly. I'm saying I can't. Sometimes I think that when I say that, people find it upsetting, as if I find them [and their interest in Firefly] upsetting. No. It's okay. We all like things that are probably bad. I'm just telling you where I personally fall on that. I'm not giving you advice for your life or how you should interact with media. I think those are really personal decisions. Imagine you spent however many hours I spent watching that show. I felt very invested in it, but probably not as invested as someone who has gone to Firefly conventions and made Firefly cosplay, and met Firefly writers and actors, and written Firefly fan fiction. It might take more for me to walk away from that [level of fandom].
I really think it's useful sometimes to think about these as fandoms as places that people are culturally invested in. It's not just that someone's playing a game. Maybe that's where they've met their friends. It's where they get their social interactions and joy, and it's probably a part of how they think about the world and how they experience things. That's serious. I take things very, very seriously, and that means recognizing that these things are deeply meaningful for people and occupy an important part of their lives.
Craddock: What I found fascinating is that so many breakthroughs in technology were made by women, such as Ada Lovelace and code breakers during World War II, yet technology and gaming, which in this case is a subset of tech, became a space known as "by men, for men," even though it's not. How does that happen?
Kocurek: I find typing a really useful example of this. Typing was considered a feminized skill; for a while, only women knew how to type. But most secretaries were men at one point in history. General Washington's secretary was a man, but that labor became devalued and [easier to learn or access]. Back to typing: Women would take courses to learn how to type so they could get pink-collar jobs. It's treated as technical, but in a way that devalues it. Like, "This is a really important technical skill. Girls can do that," and pat them on the head.
In some ways, that feeds into your question of how women ended up working in coding early on. It was almost like weaving or typing. I mean, it is actually like both things in some ways, but it's treated as feminized labor until it becomes highly necessary and better paid. Suddenly, we're pushing all the women out, or many of the women out, or the work that women do gets treated as less important.
Carol Kantor, the game industry’s first research. Left: A photo of Kantor during one of her research projects at Atari. Right: A current portrait. (Images courtesy of Free Game Tips.)
Somewhere we see this with games that I find really fascinating is with marketing. When you look at the '80s, Carol Kantor, who was at Atari and was the game industry's first market researcher. She was doing groundbreaking research, really interesting stuff. But then when we talk about work in the industry, we often are only talking about roles that are technical in a conventional way. But who's actually deciding what gets made and sold? It's not the programmers. There's like a lot of high-level stuff happening, about what they're making and who they're selling it to.
We end up thinking about technology in a way that's narrow, and it cuts out many people who have a huge influence. I'm super-fascinated with Lila Zinter, who was, for years, the highest-ranked woman at any game company. She was VP of sales at Exidy and handled all their European business, but no one knows who she is. I mean, I know who she is, and people who've read my articles know she is, and people who worked with her absolutely know who she is. But when Exidy caused this big scandal with Death Race, who did they send to the interviews? Her. This very nice woman in a suit like talking to you about this game.
It's this really careful dance. Who's actually shaping how we're talking about games and selling them? There are a lot of women in that part of it, and it's easy to forget that because they're not the CEO, who we talk about. They're not the founder of the company, who we talk about. They're often not the person who made the games you know. But that doesn't mean there aren't women doing work. Nina Huntemann wrote about this recently with game technology: Thinking about hardware production, who's doing all the assembly work? Atari actually pointedly hired women because, based on something I read, they have smaller hands. Yeah, if you're doing super-fine assembly work, you'll probably do better if you have smaller hands. I would be terrible at it.
“The number of women in the workforce in 1918 was higher than the number of women in the workforce in 1950, but the wars were used to kind recalibrate back to a more conservative gender norm.”
There are pictures from Atari internal communication in magazines of the assembly line. A lot of those women were Black or Latina. That's not who you think of, but they were making your stuff. Who's managing the assembly line? I don't know. We don't know who those folks are. Part of what we're doing is we're thinking about labor in a narrow way, so we're missing who's actually doing the work, and we're missing thinking about what work is meaningful and what work is actually shaping technologies. It's interesting to have these like standout examples, like, "Here's the woman who invented this." That's cool. I love doing those stories. But I also think we need to shift how we're thinking about labor more broadly.
I edited a special issue of Feminine Media Histories a couple years ago, and Laine Nooney wrote a great piece [Sierra On-Line Memories] about Sierra and the economic effect of Sierra moving [out of Oakhurst, California]. It was absolutely devastating because it was the town's industry at that point. Sierra was a big company, and it pulled out. Laine was like, "I keep thinking of [Sierra co-founder] Roberta Williams as this really interesting figure, and she is, but simultaneously to being one of the few women game designers and this iconoclastic figure, she's a captain of industry. She's someone who had this devastating economic impact on this town that she lived in for a long time."
A lot of what we're talking about in terms of women and work, we need to rethink which work we're valuing. I also think it's worth being realistic about how many women were pushed out of the workforce, particularly after World War II. The number of women in the workforce in 1918 was higher than the number of women in the workforce in 1950, if I recall correctly. That's because there had been a lot of strides made, but the wars were used to kind recalibrate back to a more conservative gender norm. All the development post-World War II really plays into that. There's this focus on the nuclear family, tons of infrastructure developed to make people live in suburbs and single-family homes, and salaries continued to be calculated based on this idea of men earning incomes and women getting pin money, basically. All these things have a huge effect.
Carol Shaw, one of the industry’s first female programmers most famous for Atari’s River Raid. (Image courtesy of PioneeringWomen.org.)
I also think we can and should broaden what we consider as technology. Right before we started talking, I interviewed Jesyca Durchin. She was one of the producers of Barbie Fashion Designer. She has a patent related to coming up with how the fabric should work in Barbie Fashion Designer, which is cool. I'm reading this, and it's so interesting that when we think about this game, nobody's saying, "Oh, by the way, I came up with this groundbreaking printing technology," but that's what happened. Some media in that game, in terms of taking the characters and putting them instantly on the runway, had to be developed from scratch. There wasn't anything similar to that.
Sometimes the technologies people are interested in are fairly narrow, and so we miss all these other technologies. The textile industry is wildly interesting if you want to geek out about tech development. We're just like thinking about technology too narrowly, and we're missing things or we're dismissing things that are really interesting. We can dismiss this woman because she's a producer, but do you know what Shigeru Miyamoto's title is most of the time? Producer. Oh, is it only important when he's doing it?
Often, the stories of individual women who do things are super-interesting. I wrote a whole book about Brenda Laurel. She's an incredible designer and a really thoughtful researcher, but also interesting is that you have a company that's hiring a ton of women. Who were the artists? Who are the storytellers? Is the game the same if you have a different writing team? Absolutely not. Think back to Roberta Williams and her games. Jane Jensen became a designer at Sierra. She was a programmer before she came to Sierra, but she got there because she was a writer. That's what she went back to after she left games. So, when we think about technology, are we thinking about it in a way that leaves people out?
Kotaku’s 2020 feature, “Sex, Pong, and Pioneers,” centered on woman who worked at Atari in the ‘70s. (Image courtesy of Kotaku.)
And indeed, I think often we're hiring people for technical skills when we could hire for other skills and then teach them the technical part. Brenda Laurel learned to program while working on interactive fairytales because she got a job, and she got that job because of her background in theater and her interest in interaction. Then she learned how to code. It was fun. Jesyca Durchin is a producer, and that was what she wanted to do, and that's what she does, but she's been using computers since she was a child in 1978. She has a lot of technical expertise, even if it's not the kind people are expecting.
I wonder about, when companies say they're trying to diversify, why don't they just hire people for different skills? You need a lot of different ways of thinking about this. Can someone learn your basic system if they don't already know how to code? Probably. You're using an engine, you're not making everything from scratch. I wonder about these things.
Women are perfectly capable of working in technology. A lot of what we need to think about is why they choose not to. The pipeline doesn't leak in high school, it doesn't leak in college, it leaks mid-career, where women ask, "Do I want to work here for 30 more years? Oh, god," and then they leave. Maybe think about what's making it so miserable to work in your industry that people are leaving rather than trying to lure them in. Figuring out how to keep people is going to solve your problems better.
Craddock: I ran into a surprising story while researching my Mortal Kombat book. One thing I wanted to do was try to tell as much of the story behind Acclaim's "Mortal Monday" marketing campaign as possible, because no one had done that. I got hold of Rob Holmes, who co-founded Acclaim, and one of the first things he mentioned was that while "Mortal Monday" was a company-wide effort, Holly Newman, his director of marketing, was the unsung hero behind so much of it. "Mortal Monday" is fascinating to me because it was about more than a video game. It changed the perception of games in the mainstream from toys to a serious business, and lo and behold, a woman was the tip of that spear.
Kocurek: There are a lot of interesting things there. If you look at early marketing, a lot of it showed couples playing. Those ads were trying to sell upright arcade machines and cocktail machines as things you would have in a bar so people on dates would play them, presumably heterosexual people. This was the '70s, so homosexual people didn't exist in the marketing vernacular. But the point is the ads showed all these couples on dates, or at least looked like they could be on a date. With the consoles, ads showed families playing. Often, the joke was that even grandma will want a turn. If you're going to buy this hugely expensive thing for your home, this box that is going to monopolize your television, it probably needs to be for more than one person. That was early marketing before the North American crash.
Holly Newman, one of the masterminds behind Acclaim Entertainment’s “Mortal Monday” campaign in 1993. (Image courtesy of Holly Newman.)
In the crash's wake, the industry in some ways became a lot more conservative. They were afraid to take risks and make different things. They only wanted to make things that earned money, so you fell into this spiral of, "This thing made money, so let's make another one, and another one, and another one." You also had an industry workforce largely made of people who, by the early '90s, had played those games when they were kids and were saying, "I know what a good game is. It looks like what I like because I'm a gamer." They're not doing design research or market research looking for what might fill a niche. They're just refilling the same pot. It's a total red ocean thing. [Author's Note: Coined by Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne, "red ocean" and "blue ocean" are market terms that denote industries. A red ocean is an industry in existence, while a blue ocean is an industry that does not exist and is unexplored and not undeod.]
In somes, that's so foolish. It's really hard to make money in the same market where everyone else is, but this is what they're doing. Companies would lean into that: "Our market is boys eight to 12, or 10 to 15, or 12 to 17." It just moves up with them as they age, and the ads become sexually suggestive and pretty explicit sometimes. We can talk about the male gaze in cinema and the assumed audience: a man, kind of gross, around 17 or 18, and this product is seen as titillating. Our audience definitely is not a woman, and we haven't even imagined a woman because we don't know what women want. We're Sigmund Freud. It's really strange.
That's the moment where you started seeing "games for girls" stuff happening. I went through around 10,000 pages of gaming magazines from the '90s in a week. I was going through them as fast as I could, Xeroxing everything I wanted, and there was this letter on beautiful stationery, pre-lined, roses along the borders. It was from an older woman who loved video games and is one of my favorite artifacts of all time. She said, "I don't know why you talk about players like me and why you're so dismissive. You say we're not the audience. I spend more money than your audience does. I have more money because I'm retired and I play games. That's what I do, and I don't understand why you're actively pushing me out and acting like I don't belong here. You have one woman writer; are you going to push out her out when she gets older?"
“Video games are allowed to have violence, but only some violence, and the violence you're allowed to have is good and righteous.”
The answer is yes, actually. Probably. The editors wrote back and said, "We just mean you're not our target audience, but neither are all these other random people." It's so telling. The magazines are for young boys, the ads of young boys and young men. When women do kind of stumble in, they're treated as anomalous.
This really speaks to the successes and failures of the "games for girls" movement. A lot of what they're fighting against is not just [the perception that] nobody makes games for girls. It's, where do you sell them? Who's going to review them? Where will they be covered? Indeed, a lot of their success has come out of coverage not from the games press, but the toy industry, maybe, or magazines for parents, general coverage like Entertainment Weekly. It's very different. There was an article from a while ago, probably 10 years ago now, but it was the 10 most powerful people in games. One of them was the buyer for Walmart. I was like, yeah, obviously. At the point when physical copies [were the main product], the buyer for Walmart had almost unprecedented power.
Some of this feeds into why we had so many controversies in the '90s. One of the major distributors was Toys R Us. Well, are all games for children? I don't know, but they must be because Toys R Us is selling them. It's really weird to think about Toys R Us selling Doom. That's hilarious. A lot of that pushback was because games were marketed to children. There was a fascinating disconnect happening there. The infrastructure grows increasingly narrow, and then it's very hard to do something else. As Brenda Laurel points out, you've got this multibillion-dollar industry with an empty lot next door. Why would you not build on the empty lot? It's probably because you have to run your own plumbing.
Almost 30 years later, Mortal Kombat remains at the center of discussions concerning violent video games.
Craddock: One of your interviews mentioned that techno masculine values emphasize a youthful and violent masculinity that seems to go hand-in-hand with tech, and with video games. That was fascinating research for me, because one of Long Live Mortal Kombat's early readers shared concerns that my book could be seen as blaming Mortal Kombat for the more reckless and dangerous behavior some people I interviewed engaged in. What are your thoughts on the alleged link between violent video games and violent behavior in real life, and how did that link begin?
Kocurek: I want to be explicit and explain that I will never say that video games cause violence in some one-to-one way. That is not something I believe, and it's not what the research supports. Games often feature violence, and that's the part I find interesting, as well as who gets to be violent. You're allowed to be violent if you're like the police, or the military, or maybe if you're a cowboy in the Wild West, and we have therefore authorized vigilante justice. You're allowed to be violent if you're shooting aliens—hopefully they're not people, oh god. There are many [variables] like those that are used to determine what kind of violence we see as acceptable or unacceptable in media, and I see this a lot in games.
There is a heavy thread of violence because with these games, it's really about competition. And again, I'm not actually saying violence is bad. I'm just saying, yes, there's violence in a lot of these games, and the themes are often very violent. For example, Death Race was one of the first controversial games because, oh, you're running over people with a car. No, they're monsters. I mean, they're stick figures; make of that what you will.
At the same time that game comes out, there were dozens of other games about tanks, about shooting, about Wild West themes, which are obviously focused on guns. So you're allowed to have violence, but only some violence, and the violence you're allowed to have is good and righteous. You see this with film, too, where there are definitely violent films that were knocked, while others were, oh, that's fine. It's a war movie and there are body parts everywhere.
But monster movies or slasher films, we're going to side-eye that because there's a monster and it's hurting kids or something. It's really, really specific. There's definitely this normalization of violence, where it's, oh, of course you would set off World War III, of course this is hyper competitive, of course we're at war, we're always at war, we've always been at war.
There's a great book called Camera Politica that talks about Hollywood cinema in the early '80s; it looks at Red Dawn, Rambo, and all these different movies from that period. Those movies, in some ways, were more overtly nationalistic and conservative, but I think in some ways games are equally so, just not necessarily as explicitly. Certainly we've seen this more in recent years. Matthew Thomas Payne has a whole book about military gaming [Playing War: Military Video Games After 9/11] and things like that.
So, yeah, the violence is always there. What's interesting to me is when we think it's okay and not okay. Violence itself is not terribly interesting, but the discussion of it, what we decide is okay and not okay, is super-interesting. We often use monsters [as targets in games], like, "We're shooting monsters, so it's fine." But the monster is never just a monster. Is the monster a person? And what kind of person is the monster? Is the monster a different person? Are we now saying you can shoot the different people? We should be worried about that.
This interview came from researching author David L. Craddock's Long Live Mortal Kombat, the definitive account of the MK franchise's creation and its global impact on popular culture, funding now on Kickstarter.