The artist and photographer Taryn Simon once opened an exhibit with a now-widespread observation: “Archives exist because there’s something that can’t necessarily be articulated. Something is said in the gaps between all the information.” Simon gets at something important here, I think. We tend to think of the gaps in archives as, at best, markers of where we need to “fill in” the historical record in the pursuit of some absolute, final body of total knowledge. But gaps can also be instructive, generative—they can tell us about priorities and processes, ownership and knowledge. Sometimes the best way to approach a gap in the archive is to listen to it, let it guide your thinking toward greener pastures. So I couldn’t be happier that two weeks in the Strong’s archives killed my project.
Allow me to explain. I had scheduled a trip to The Strong to study the formation of porting practices by doing a deep dive into the museum’s impressive Atari holdings. My original impetus was the observation that porting practices did not spring into existence fully formed. If you examine the original materials for the Atari VCS’ “killer app”—Space Invaders—you’ll see remarkably little recognizable iconography from the arcade original. I wanted to know how Atari had gone from making ports of arcade games that failed to establish a visual marketing continuity to essentially relying on an endless parade of “arcade quality” ports to sustain their home market. But as I pored over the beautiful technicolor fantasies-in-progress of the Cort and Barbara Allen Packaging Collection and the movingly foundational design documents of the voluminous Atari Coin-Op Division records, I became increasingly despondent. There was nothing here that seemed to cast any light on porting practices at all. I had picked porting as a historical topic primarily because it was a practice that was hugely important to the home console market’s formation yet about which we know almost nothing. I had been determined to understand this invisible form of design labor. But after my first week, I had to admit that perhaps that invisibility was less of an opportunity than I had hoped.
When my first week of research came up completely empty, I despaired of writing the dissertation I had only just proposed to my committee a scant three months prior. So I resolved to spend my second week digging into another topic I had come across in my preliminary research: the early (read: pre-iPhone) cell phone gaming space. If the connection between porting and mobile games seems obscure, that’s because it is. The “disruptive” success of the iPhone has so thoroughly dominated historical narratives around mobile games that we know relatively little about cell phone games through the 2000s, despite their having laid the groundwork for Apple’s success. Before the iOS and Android duopoly, handsets proliferated wildly as cell phone manufacturers scrambled to corner the explosive growth of the mobile phone market. This meant that companies who wanted to turn a profit in the mobile space had to port to dozens—or even hundreds—of handsets within very tight time frames in order to hit the market on-schedule. I had figured the labor dynamics behind this industrial-scale porting would help provide a very different kind of porting than one might have found 30 years earlier at Atari.
So, I spent my second week pursuing a different line of inquiry by scouring The Strong’s collections for any materials related to mobile gaming. I quickly ran into another gap: The Strong simply didn’t have any archival materials devoted to this particular space (understandable, given that nobody has yet given it much historical attention). Instead, I branched out. In the Ron Dubren Collection, I found a wealth of papers documenting the Tickle Me Elmo creator’s work on starting a pay-per-minute touch-tone trivia service in the 1970s and 1980s. The Philip E. Orbanes collection contained wonderful original papers documenting in great detail the way executives and researchers at Parker Bros. had discussed the future of handheld gaming as far back as the late 1970s and early 1980s. But the greatest finds came from my poring through a decade’s worth of Game Developer and Game Informer magazines, as well as a wealth of one-off magazines and guides containing information about mobile platforms like the N-Gage, the mobile content happening at industry conventions, and retro-gaming retrospectives on mobile games. As I furiously tore through these new materials (figuratively, of course), my famine problem turned to one of feast: where I had worried I would have to little to say on porting during my first week, I quickly realized that there might be too much to say about early mobile games during my second.
The long flight back to Bloomington from Rochester gave me ample time to think about my project’s pivot which, I realized with some surprise, I was actually more enthusiastic about than I had been about my original project. And I began to realize how I had arrived at this new plan by giving up some control to the archive, by letting the archive itself guide me from one topic to another by choosing not to struggle against the gaps. The mobile theme had gaps as well, but where the porting gaps were total—less gaps than voids, really—the mobile gaps were suggestive. They pointed outward in every direction, begging the observer to follow paths into the history of landline phone games, handheld gaming, and parallel game industries.
I should point out that this is not necessarily a reliable strategy in all cases. Historians must resist the myth that we can let objects speak for themselves, for instance. And historians and archivists have written volumes on the need to fight back against the archival voids where the historical records of marginalized communities belong. But archivists and historians of, say, colonized peoples have learned to let the gaps in archives speak in the language of negative space to tell a story about the values and powers that archives possess and the ways that imperial states define the human.
I will not pretend that mobile games are quite so weighty or so important a topic as colonization, of course, but that does not mean they don’t have their own value. They can tell us about how people’s experience of space changed in the late 20th century, and about a different kind of colonization: the colonization of people’s attention by increasingly bite-sized experiences designed to fit ever-more snugly into the shrinking pockets of empty time in most Americans’ daily lives. I hope that through this project I can also help fill in a few archival gaps while I’m at it—provided people working in 2005 still kept paper records of much of anything.
By Logan Brown, 2022 Strong Research Fellow, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN