Coin-Operated Boys: An Interview with Carly Kocurek

Carly Kocurek’s Coin-Operated Americans: Rebooting Boyhood at the Video Game Arcade (Minnesota, 2015) examines the origins of modern video game culture in the “classic” arcade era, spanning the release of Pong in 1972 and the industry’s first major collapse in 1983. She traces the formation of the “technomasculine” during that period, as the arcade became increasingly defined as the province of young men. Cultural representations of gamers, from a photo spread in Life magazine to big-budget films like TRON and WarGames, both reflected and fueled video games as an emerging masculine medium.

As a result, video game culture has been at best indifferent, and at worst violently hostile, to the concerns of women gamers. However, Kocurek argues, the impact of technomasculinity has been felt well beyond the world of arcades and consoles, especially since digital media has come to play an ever-greater role in our daily lives. In this context, women are shut out of lucrative jobs in Silicon Valley, while female “social justice warriors” receive death threats on Twitter and Reddit.

Since the release of Coin-Operated Americans, Kocurek has continued to write about women in the video game industry; Bloomsbury released her book about feminist game designer Brenda Laurel this February. In this interview, Kocurek talks about researching video game history, the problem of toxic masculinity in digital space, and her larger body of work on gaming in American culture.

In Coin-Operated Americans, you write about how video game arcades and video-gaming culture during the 1970s and early 1980s became associated primarily with boys and young men. Why is it important that we understand this story?

Cover, Coin Operated Americans (Amazon)

Games are a mass medium, and to me, to have a mass medium associated with one subset of the population doesn’t make obvious sense. I wanted to know how that came to be, and that really was the driving question of the book. This has a lot of implications for the present and for how we think about the industry now. At present, we know that adult women make up the single largest gaming demographic, but they’re still often treated as anomalous or as interlopers. Further, even with pushes to diversify over the past few years, women make up less than 25% of the industry’s workforce, and racial diversity is also quite poor. If we understand the cultural narratives that make these things seem fine and normal, we can figure out how to intervene more effectively.

You write about a set of “technomasculine” values, emphasizing a youthful and violent masculinity associated with digital technology, as the product of early gaming’s historical moment. Where do we see technomasculinity show up in our culture today?

I think we see this a lot in how we talk about tech entrepreneurs both in real life and in fictional narratives. The Social Network deploys some of this in its fictitious portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg. The ideas here also underlie a lot of the working conditions that are accepted in the games industry and in the tech industry; if we assume workers are young men without families, then things like crunch time seem less terrible somehow. There’s some spin that the working conditions are like this just because these people are so young and so driven, not because they’re being subjected to working conditions that lead to a tremendously high rate of burnout and that penalize people with families. A lot of what technomasculinity does is naturalize a certain image of who technology is for, who games are for, and that can lead to a shocking level of entitlement and a willingness to police participation in gaming culture in a way that can be frightening.

It seems like writing a history of video games would post some unique challenges, as machines and the software they run break down over time. And yet, as we move further into the Digital Age, computers will more and more be part of our history. What were some of the archival problems that you encountered, and how did you work through them?

I was really fortunate in that I was able to find every game I needed for the project, even Death Race, released in 1976 by Exidy, which is relatively rare. However, I did travel extensively to take advantage of archives and library collections. Most of the research was carried out while I was in Austin, but most of my archive comes from the Library of Congress, the Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, New York, and from the Harold Washington Library Center here in Chicago, which is probably one of the most amazing public libraries in the U.S. I also went to arcades like Funspot in Laconia, New Hampshire and Barcade in Brooklyn, New York, and I spent a lot of time in Pinballz in Austin, which is such a great arcade. I also went to arcades a lot of other places. Basically if I was traveling, I’d look for arcades.

These games are starting to break down, and emulation isn’t quite the same as original content. We’re also hitting a point where people are dying, and I think it’s critical to preserve papers, interview people while they’re still available, and otherwise document this history as best we can. So much of research is happenstance and begging. People remember they have things and forward them to me, or I figure out some closed or personal archive has a copy of a magazine I desperately need, and I email and just beg them to scan it. I’m really at the mercy of collectors and archivists a lot of the time, and usually they’re great.

Atari arcade game. (Padilla/Flickr)

You’ve also worked with students to collect oral histories of video game arcades in the Chicago area. Where do you see this research going in the future?

I don’t have a long-term goal for it other than to continue collecting. I really like having students do hands-on historical documentary work, and this is such a great city for it. In the long run, I’d love to get more interviews with people who have worked as route operators or in repairs. It’s been a very interesting process to track people.

Lots of people probably think about video games as a diversion, but you co-edited a special issue of Syllabus Journal on “Teaching with and About Video Games.” What makes video games a useful teaching tool, both in and out of the classroom?

My background is in American studies and media studies, so I always think we should study anything people are spending time on. The Popular Culture Association sometimes uses this kind of jokey slogan, “If it’s not popular, it’s not culture.” I think the inverse is true, too: If it is popular, it’s culture. And culture is always worth tending to. I think a lot of things we teach in the humanities are skills for analysis and critical thinking that can be applied a lot of places. The more we’re giving people tools to dissect and understand the world around them, the better we’re doing. Games are part of the landscape, and it’s important to understand them, too.

What projects are you working on now?

Right now, I’m working on a book about Ultima for the Landmark Video Games Series with Matthew Thomas Payne, and I’m also revising a tabletop game that’s intended to be a tool for processing grief. That one’s been a bit slow going, because I find the testing emotionally taxing, but I’m hoping to have the design wrapped up sometime this fall.

Speaking of game design, you’ve also created your own video games, from a short Twine game about painting your nails to a longer interactive fiction game about women’s reproductive health care choices. How does your work as a game designer mesh with your work as a historian of gaming?

Brenda Laurel (Wikimedia Commons)

I got very interested in design practices through my research, especially because I realized game design didn’t especially professionalize until quite recently. People come into it from a lot of different places and have a lot of very divergent approaches. I wanted to understand more about how design worked, so I figured I’d design something. Choice: Texas was the first project I ever made for release, working with my friend Allyson Whipple. It was an ambitious project, maybe foolishly so, but we were pretty pleased with it in the end. I teach game design at the undergraduate level, and it’s one of my favorite things to teach. Jennifer deWinter and I also cofounded and co-edit the Influential Video Game Designers series for Bloomsbury, and that series is very much concerned with game design as a historical topic. My book on Brenda Laurel for that series, Brenda Laurel: Pioneering Games for Girls, just came out in February.

The harassment of women who have spoken out about gender equity in gaming — and about feminist issues more broadly — can make it hard to keep up hope that things will get better. Do you think that video game culture can get better? Where do you see opportunities for positive change?

I always think things can get better — they can also get worse. This isn’t some clean march towards progress, and not everything that’s happening now or at any point in the past is bad. We’ve certainly seen an increase in the number of women in the industry over the past decade, and we’re seeing increased interest in diversity from a lot of game and tech companies. We’re also seeing some major missteps that companies should be very, very embarrassed by. There are fun things happening, though, even in places that might seem silly. Game Developer Barbie, for example, was designed with real input from women who work in the industry. The Girl Scouts have a badge that was also developed in collaboration with industry. I like these kinds of things a lot, but I think we need to remember that it’s not adequate to train women into jobs that will land them in work environments that are really hostile to their presence. So, a lot of change needs to be happening from inside the house, so to speak. It’s not enough to get women into their first job. The pipeline problem suggests they’ll leave in a few years. We need to retain women into their second, third, and fourth jobs, to make sure they’re recognized for their work and given opportunities for growth and leadership.

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