Gaming the Iron Curtain
How Teenagers and Amateurs in Communist Czechoslovakia Claimed the Medium of Computer Games
- Computer History Museum Prize, 2019
How amateur programmers in 1980s Czechoslovakia discovered games as a medium, using them not only for entertainment but also as a means of self-expression.
Aside from the exceptional history of Tetris, very little is known about gaming culture behind the Iron Curtain. But despite the scarcity of home computers and the absence of hardware and software markets, Czechoslovakia hosted a remarkably active DIY microcomputer scene in the 1980s, producing more than two hundred games that were by turns creative, inventive, and politically subversive. In Gaming the Iron Curtain, Jaroslav Švelch offers the first social history of gaming and game design in 1980s Czechoslovakia, and the first book-length treatment of computer gaming in any country of the Soviet bloc.
Švelch describes how amateur programmers in 1980s Czechoslovakia discovered games as a medium, using them not only for entertainment but also as a means of self-expression. Sheltered in state-supported computer clubs, local programmers fashioned games into a medium of expression that, unlike television or the press, was neither regulated nor censored. In the final years of Communist rule, Czechoslovak programmers were among the first in the world to make activist games about current political events, anticipating trends observed decades later in independent or experimental titles. Drawing from extensive interviews as well as political, economic, and social history, Gaming the Iron Curtain tells a compelling tale of gaming the system, introducing us to individuals who used their ingenuity to be active, be creative, and be heard.
"Jaroslav Švelch's Gaming the Iron Curtain is a compelling demonstration of the possibilities of writing histories of gaming that are bottom up and from the margins, moving beyond industry-based histories toward a focus on social, cultural, and political histories. A lively and vivid account of how gaming cultures emerged in Cold War Czechoslovakia, Švelch describes the emergence of an 'informal' economy where would-be gamers smuggled hardware, hacked and reprogrammed games, jury-rigged their own joysticks from everyday materials, and circulated titles through grassroots networks, making up for the scarcity of their local markets and bureaucratic indifference to domestic uses of computers. This book will interest not only games scholars but anyone who wants to better understand how people made do within the Soviet bloc.”
Henry Jenkins, coauthor of By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism
“This extraordinary book on 1980s computing culture provides an unexpectedly vivid window into social relations in late socialism and the dysfunction of Czechoslovakia's political institutions. Through the memories of early computing enthusiasts and close examination of the ephemera they lovingly saved, Švelch brings to life a lost world of do-it-yourself hobby clubs, early game design, and even homemade computer peripherals that is a welcome addition to the growing field of digital game history and is also a must-read for anyone interested in everyday life in the final decades of European Communism.”
Kimberly Zarecor, Associate Professor of Architecture, Iowa State University; author of Manufacturing a Socialist Modernity: Housing in Czechoslovakia, 1945-1960
“Gaming the Iron Curtain is a surprising addition to the ever-growing body of work on everyday life in the Eastern bloc. Švelch's fascinating study proves yet again that developments in the West were not without their counterparts in the East. Using a wide range of sources and historiographies, Švelch reveals the hidden world of computers and gaming in late Communist Czechoslovakia.”
Paulina Bren, Adjunct Associate Professor, Vassar College; author of The Greengrocer and His TV: The Culture of Communism after the 1968 Prague Spring and coeditor of Communism Unwrapped: Consumption in Cold War Eastern Europe
“At once necessary and original, disciplined and deliberately disorienting, informative and crackling with gamer intelligence, Gaming the Iron Curtain expertly guides the reader through the peripheral thickets of gaming subcultures in Czechoslovak hobby computing in the 1980s. Švelch sketches the political complexities of Czechoslovak computing cultures and uncovers how unknown Central European homebrewers dreamt up new meanings of 'Hello, world!' in the Soviet bloc. A welcomed and pioneering work.”
Benjamin Peters, Associate Professor, University of Tulsa; author of How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet
“This fascinating book introduces the reader to the undiscovered lives of microcomputing and gaming communities in 1980s Czechoslovakia. For the first time, Švelch draws up the history of hobbyist gaming clubs that worked under the radar of party authorities. This thoroughly researched and enjoyably delivered story is woven into a tapestry of dynamic changes in politics, technology, foreign trade, agriculture, leisure, and everyday life in a way that will contribute a great deal to a more subtle and less stereotyped image of late socialism.”
Anikó Imre, Professor of Cinematic Arts, The University of Southern California; author of Identity Games: Globalization and the Transformation of Media Cultures in New Europe