WARNING: This story may shatter your reverence for some video games you played as a youth. Approach cautiously!
If you’re of a certain age, you’ve likely logged many hours playing video games; the good, the bad, and the clunky. While scientists began experimenting with machines that could play games as early as the 1940s, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the video game market took off with the development of home consoles. Like the furor over comic books in previous generations, critics have argued that video games are addictive, pollute the minds of young players, may cause physical damage, breed isolation and inspire violence. Despite these protestations, the global video game market size was estimated at $195.65 billion in 2021 and was expected to reach $220.79 billion in 2022.
Video games have now been around long enough for folks to look back and reflect upon see of the games they played as kids. There were challenging games, iconic games and plain old bad games. These bad games are the focus of video game creator and longtime player Michael Greenhut in his new book, A Selective History of 'Bad' Video Games: Unfulfilled Potential, Interesting Mistakes and Downright Clunkers (White Owl, 208 pages, 2023) (https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/A-Selective-History-of-Bad-Video-Games-Hardback/p/22418). [Full Disclosure: Michael is my second cousin.]
A Selective History looks at 40-+ unsuccessful video games created during the first few decades of the industry’s existence. Greenhut explores why these games failed, whether or not they truly deserved that label, and makes suggestions as to what could have made them better.
I recently interviewed Greenhut about his book, as well as the state of the industry as it relates to misogyny (#gamergate) and racism.
Bill Berkowitz: What motivated you to write A Selective History of 'Bad' Video Games: Unfulfilled Potential, Interesting Mistakes and Downright Clunkers?
Michael Greenhut: Some dads take their kid(s) to baseball games. Me? I take my son on virtual adventures through some of my favorite childhood video games -- everything from Atari through Super Nintendo and slightly beyond -- as well as a number of time-forgotten games that I found interesting enough to keep going back to. Of course, we're just two guys sitting behind an old retro game screen, but I like to imagine us going inside the worlds of these games as father and son, exploring them, running from baddies, all that stuff.
I started to realize that I had things to say about these games, especially the "bad" ones, since people have heard plenty about the good ones. I'd never tried my hand at professional nonfiction before, so I figured, why not pitch some ideas around to some geek-themed publishers and see what sticks.
BB: What constitutes a bad game, and what are some of the games included in the book?
MG: I picked the games for a number of reasons: some of them are truly bad; some had potential to be good games but fell short; and some just never got the recognition they could or should have gotten.
One truly bad game was Shaq-Fu — you play Shaquille O’Neal as a martial artist fighting against monsters in one-on-one tournament style fights from another dimension. Picture the backstory of “The Golden Child”, with Shaq instead of Eddie Murphy, and some of the most ineffective fighting mechanics you can have in a fighting game. You get the picture. There were actually a number of terrible fighting games like that in the 90s, many of which were just trying to capitalize off Street Fighter 2’s success.
Then you have interesting but mechanically confusing games like ET and Tax Avoiders (yes, there was an action platform game about tax dodging). ET’s main issue was the hit box for the player — instead of falling into holes when your ankles move over them, you fall into holes when any part of your body moves over them, even the tip of your head. This made for a LOT of falling.
And then there were lost gems that were perfectly good games that somehow failed to make a mark or have a legacy (Crystalis, Cosmic Ark) — and I try to figure out what it was about those games that made them “forgettable” by the mainstream gaming community.
BB: What games have you played and created?
MG: I've always enjoyed playing retro games, old Sim games (Sim City, Sim Earth, etc.), and story driven RPGs (think early Final Fantasy and Suikoden). My experience in actual game development is mainly casual games, educational games, and otherwise offbeat games for scientific studies or clients who don't usually commission games.
The highlights are all on my website. (www.michaelgreenhut.com). While I'd love to create more of the kind of games I like to play, most of those jobs are with AAA companies, which tend not to offer the work-life balance I'm looking for. I do have one story-driven action role playing game (RPG) that I'm designing and creating on my own, but I don't have enough art resources or time to work on it more than once in a blue moon.
BB: As a veteran gamer, and game creator, why do you think multi-player games are often so toxic and misogynistic? Did you find that in any of the games you talk about in your book?
MG: That's a great question. The toxicity and misogyny is not confined to multiplayer games. Being a white guy myself, I can only say what I've observed from the outside. Zoe Quinn, designer of the narrative web game Depression Quest, faced a lot of rape and death threats when (baseless) rumors spread around that she used favors with game journalists to gain positive reviews.
Something similar happened to a couple of other women in the industry (Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu), and they were all doxxed (attackers giving out their home address) and forced to flee their homes. The #gamergate movement was born from these sexist trolls. Regardless of whether or not these people did anything questionable, the rape and death threats are a telling a sign of misogyny as anything. James Bond wouldn't get them if he "charmed" his way to good reviews,
you can bet on that.
Traces of misogyny and racism seem to exist all across video game fandom, including game development groups on Facebook. Just try posting something in support or solidarity of women game developers or black game developers in almost any of those groups and you unleash a
torrent of derision from fragile white (and some non-white) male gamer bros. You'll get called racist for excluding white people or men. You'll get "racism/sexism isn't a problem" from people who aren't part of the group in question. You'll get "I care about the quality of the games and not people's skin color" -- which overtly sounds fair enough, but dismisses the idea that the quality of their games could be overlooked by some journalists because of who they are and who their audiences are. In other words, you don't get to say whether or not that's happening unless you're part of the group in question.
I'm no psychologist, so I can't say for sure where it comes from, but In my youth, I was a lonely, solitary, socially anxious gamer geek. Some of the anger and frustration from that can be easily
misdirected toward people who you think unfairly reject you and are more successful than you -- women fit both of these criteria for a number of lonely male gamers. That's just my guess.
While I don't have much about this in my current book (this is mostly nostalgia and game design commentary), I have a second book that I'm shopping around about Video Game Villains, and a short
section near the end about "socially relevant villains" that touches on a bit of this.