Play Stuff Blog

Paper, Please: What I've Learned (So Far) from Three Decades of Video Game Fanzines  

In May I had the good fortune to spend two weeks as a research fellow at the Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play, which sits atop the too-tempting playground of The Strong National Museum of Play. My objective: to capture, using only my iPhone, every last page of Chris Kohler’s collection of 300+ fanzines. Note to future fellows: a two-minute stretch routine will help prevent back pain!

Now an editor at Kotaku and formerly of Wired, a teenage Kohler got his start in video game journalism as the creator of Video Zone, a fanzine he published from his home in Northford, Connecticut. His humble 10-page newsletter––filled with game reviews, comic strips, and humorous editorials––was but one node in a network of handmade publications that stretched from the Xerox machines of Bangor, Maine, to Santa Ana, California.

Journey's End fanzine I was unaware of this zine-trading network until last year, when Kohler donated his collection to the museum. In 1993, the year Kohler first published Video Zone, I was all of 12 years old, younger than the youngest editors, or “faneds” as they were known to one another. None of my friends were faneds, and the magazines I read, GamePro and Electronic Gaming Monthly, declined to cover this emerging subculture. I wouldn’t learn of its existence for another two decades. In other words, I didn’t know what to expect when I first proposed to study and reconstruct the history of video game fanzines. Though I brought to the project a longstanding interest in zines and a taste for the idiosyncratic, I had to concede that my project was exploratory and that its ultimate significance would only emerge after a long period of immersive study.

Six months later, my project is still in its infancy, and what it will eventually be I cannot yet say. But I no longer worry about significance, only doing justice to the richness of the archive. Video game fanzines, and the print culture of which they were part, constitute a vital but overlooked chapter in the history of games, affording a glimpse at the inner lives of players and the culture of gaming’s second and third generations. Whereas science fiction and comic book fanzines attracted the attention of academics as early as 1973 (Frederic Wertham, of all people, wrote a scholarly book on the subject), analyses of game zines are nonexistent outside of irregular columns in long defunct magazines such as VideoGames & Computer Entertainment. In fact, it was a column in the February 1990 issue of VG&CE that would inculcate electronic gaming fandom. Penned by Arnie Katz, now recognized as the father of video game journalism, the column enjoined readers to take a more active role in their hobby or, as he put it when we spoke in June, “to create a community as opposed to a group of unconnected consumers.” Among his recommendations was an activity that Katz knew well as a faned himself: publishing fanzines. With the permission of his editor, Andy Eddy, Katz began a regular column called “Fandango” in which he reviewed nascent game zines, offering constructive criticism and serving as a kind of guru, passing along the customs and practices of the fan culture in which he learned his trade. In January 1991, for example, Katz beseeched readers not to merely imitate “prozines” but to include information about themselves. “Since fanzines are a medium of personal expression,” he explains, “a bit of biography about the people behind the pages is always highly interesting to the reader.” A year later, in a January 1992 column, he introduces readers to fanspeak, the specialized jargon of fandom, describing an early faned, Lance Rice, as “GAFIA,” or getting away from it all, after Rice announced the end of his Subversive Sprite, one of the first wave of publications inspired by Katz’s rallying cry.

Katz once described his role as “a cross between Leonardo da Vinci and Dr. Frankenstein,” and his fanzine progeny reflect this polarity. Some fanzines were derivative; many displayed the crudeness of the teenage boys who comprised most pro- and fanzine readers. But while badly spelled rants abound, many fanzines host thoughtful commentaries, such as Noah Dziobecki’s column on sexism in games (Zineophilia #1, 1995) and Ann Simpson’s examination of the mythological origins of various game tropes (Journey’s End #16, 1998). These are amateur efforts but strictly in the sense of the word’s French-language origins (“one who loves, lover”). At a time when few took games seriously, these fannish efforts firmly locate games within a wider framework of literary and intercultural inspirations.

Hardcore fanzine Furthermore, it’s clear that fanzines, regardless of quality, helped gamers to form community in the years before consumer internet services began to supplant this analog social network. What’s more, fanzines helped authors conceive of themselves not just as consumers but as agents and subjects, as “genuine human voices outside of all mass manipulation” (Wertham via Nyberg, 1973). You can see this in the best fanzines, the long-running ones in which faneds settled into their roles, discovered their voices, and replaced imitative features, like game tips and news updates, with personal reportage, social commentary (Hardcore #1 features an anti-abortion essay), and DIY exhortations such as Jess Ragan’s primer on learning BASIC to program games. Published in Project: Ignition #9, Ragan’s tutorial makes the personal political: “[P]eople don’t seem to realize that they don’t have to let the industry take care of their gaming needs, nor should they.”

So fanzines are first and foremost historical documents, primary sources that help us understand game history not as marketers would have us remember it but as sites where ordinary experience was recorded. I’m eager to detail that experience in full, even if it represents a self-selecting and therefore incomplete picture of player culture in the 1990s. But I hope to go further than reading these zines as mere time capsules. I’m interested in the gift culture which seems to have spontaneously appeared as some faneds took umbrage with those who tried to monetize their writing. Pat Reynolds, for example, would only trade Fantazine for a letter of comment or a fanzine in kind. I’m also fascinated by “embodied community,” a term coined by Alison Piepmeier to describe a “particular kind of connection between zine readers and creators” in which the “visual and sculptural elements [of zines are] components of their meaning” (Girl Zines, 2009). In other words, their very handmadeness, their slow travel through the mail, the way writers customize individual copies for recipients––these aesthetic and physical qualities are part of what zines mean and how they create meaning in their readers.

Fantazine fanzine

Right now these are little more than notes in a growing Google doc, rivulets of thought cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives. But I’m pleased and gratified to put an early shape to these ideas in order to present my preliminary findings at MAGFest in January 2019. I was invited to share my work by the organizers of the Music and Gaming Education Symposium (MAGES), who will next year inaugurate the first in a continuing series of programs on video game history. I would not be in a position to participate were it not for the generous support of The Strong museum, without which my project would be little more than a clutch of burning questions.