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A report on the Leisure Electronics and the emergence of video games International Conference in Lausanne (2-3 June 2024)

By Roxane Borgeaud

On 2 and 3 May 2024, the Gamelab UNIL-EPFL had the pleasure of welcoming several researchers to explore the early history of videogame practices. Video game culture was built up in a variety of cultural contexts, including arcades, electronic toys and paper magazines, but also through amateur practices such as programming. Co-organized with the Confederatio Ludens research project, these two days covered a wide range of topics, while highlighting the richness and creativity of various initiatives locally, in Europe and beyond.

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Sophie Bémelmans and Pierre-Yves Hurel during the opening speech

Despite a capricious weather, the first morning opened with an opening speech by Pierre-Yves Hurel and Sophie Bémelmans. They explained that the conference started with they realised the importance of understanding the evolution of video games beyond narratives about a digital revolution. Work on ancient video games from French-speaking Switzerland had led to considering electronic games often using diodes instead of screens (Nimmer, 1968; Testez vos réflexes, 1977), providing links between leisure electronics such as radio ham, slot-racing, or modelism (planes, boats, trains), and the later emergence of local video game cultures.

We then welcomed first keynote speaker Alex Wade (Birmingham City University) who gave a talk titled «Genealogies of videogame production, consumption and distribution in the English Midlands». Then, the first session not only retraced the heritage of iconic figures such as Tetris (with Regina Seiwald, from the University of Birmingham), but also examined how the social context influences the evolution and circulation of games, with the example of Nu’Pogodi (1984), presented by Ani Gabrielyan (University of Lausanne) and Thibaut Vaillancourt (University of Konstanz / Paris Nanterre). Closer to home, Michael Conrad, from the University of St. Gallen, shed light on the impact of the BASIC language on practices in Germany before the fall of the Wall in the 1980s.

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Regina Seiwald

The afternoon was devoted to questions of archiving and preservation, with Judd Ruggill and Ken S. McAllister, who made the long journey from the University of Arizona. Their main question was «how do archiving issues inform local practices in the early days of video games?». These important questions also concern other video game-related objects, such as paper magazines and fanzines, as well as community and fan movements.

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Judd Ruggill

The second part of the first day was devoted to programming, and in particular to practices in Switzerland between the 1980s and 1990s, with Adrian Demleitner (Bern University of the Arts). The arrival of the personal computer at home led to a boom in creative practices and the development of numerous amateur video games, prompting us to rethink the wealth of initiatives that emerged on Swiss territory during this period.

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Adrian Demleitner

At the same time, attention to objects such as Sony’s PSP handheld console, as well as to industrial logics through the history of Intellivision by Mattel (an American company specializing in electronic games as well as toys), showed how video games also rely, beyond local initiatives, on a booming toy and game industry. The first day ended with a choice of activities for the more motivated participants, followed by a dinner at a pizzeria in the city center, which reunited 25-30 people.

The second day, just as rich as the first, began with an analysis of the first electronic leisure games in Portugal (1980s), here from a gender perspective (Luciana Lima and Tehri Marttila, Interactive Technologies Institute, Lisbon). Larissa Wild and David Krummenacher from the Zurich University of the Arts presented a list of criteria to tackle the task of delimiting « national » game corpora. Ewa Swietlik from the University of Luxembourg highlighted the contributions of fan communities to museum and heritage organizations. Or how retro-gaming and its narrative have helped shape the framing of today’s games. We also had the pleasure of welcoming Boris Krywicki (Liège Game Lab), who made an enlightening contribution on how games are perceived through journalistic investigation.

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David Krummenacher and Larissa Wild

The final afternoon was devoted to discourse, particularly through paper-based media such as the manuals found in home games (Michael Wagnières, University of Lausanne). While the main aim of these manuals was to teach players the skills they would need to progress in their adventure, the manual, now absent from our contemporary games, is also a valuable research tool for tracing the emergence of practices.

Readers’ letters to the specialized press are another interesting object to explore, presented here by Robin Bootes. These letters were providing a link between individual practices and a wider fan base. Then, Francis Lavigne and Clément Personnic (LUDOV, Université de Montréal) highlighted the effects and discourses that emerged with the transition from 2D to 3D on Sony’s PlayStation console.

Eventually, Maria Garda (University of Turku) gave the final keynote, titled «Late but not least: lateness in video games history».

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Maria Garda

In the closing speech, Guillaume Guenat and Pierre-Yves noticed that people from the United States, Québec, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Belgium, Luxemburg, Portugal, Finland, Poland, and Switzerland took part in this conference and that this diversity allowed to «de-essentialize, de-standardize our representations of video games, their place in society, and our own histories». Based on the papers presented during this conference, they concluded that

[…] we have reached a point where we can serenely observe how video games are absolutely intertwined with other media and artistic forms in this world. It is not about denying their particularities nor erasing the magical moments they offer us, but rather refusing, in a way, to make them the sole point of entry. This is undoubtedly also a sign of maturity in the field.

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Guillaume Guenat and Pierre-Yves Hurel during the closure speech
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In the evening, the weather cleared

These two days were followed, for the brave, by a short excursion the next day to the Musée Suisse du Jeu (Swiss Museum of Games) in La Tour-de-Peilz. An opportunity for our guests to stretch their legs a little, while visiting a place dear to the GameLab for the preservation, research and, of course, dissemination of the various forms that board games can take.

We would like to thank everyone who made these two days so enriching and stimulating, to our speakers and moderators, and of course to our two keynote speakers, Alex Wade (Birmingham City University) who opened the event, and Maria Garda (University of Turku) who brought it to a fitting close. And a big thank you to the Institute of Social Sciences and the Department of Language and Information Sciences from the University of Lausanne, the Swiss National Science Foundation, and the Swiss Museum of Games, who supported us, welcomed us, and made this event possible!

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