Gaming - the British invasion

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In the 1960's the so-called Britain Invasion transformed pop music through the Beatles, the Stones and lots more. In the 1980s, the British did the same with computer games and today the UK is the world's second largest consumer of video games and the fifth biggest producer of video games.

In the Thursday lecture series at TNMOC earlier this month, Tristan Donovan traced the quirky history of Britain's fascination with video computer games.

Britain was one of the first to conceive of computer games. Alan Turing dreamt up TurboChamp computer chess in 1948 although it was some years before it was implemented. Nimrod displayed at the Festival of Britain in 1951 was the first computer game to be played by the public, and Noughts and Crosses soon appeared on EDSAC.

But then all went quiet in the UK and it was left to the US to create the games industry and lead the way on game development right up to the dawn of the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the low-cost home computer boom in 1980s Britain provided a training ground for would-be British games makers. In particular the sub-£100 Sinclair ZX80 provided a spark to growth, followed of course by the BBC Micro and others. Suddenly you were more likely to find a computer in a British home than in an American home, a situation that persisted into the 1990s. However, software was thin on the ground, so enthusiasts took to writing their own programs and games were a natural draw.

In post-punk, recession-hit Britain, cottage industry was to the fore and with it came a lot of inspired quirkiness. With so many unusual British-made machines to cater for, the US producers showed little interest in competing with the UK game makers and Britain started to become a world leader in producing games for home computers. Hobbyists dominated and odd-ball games thrived: Fat Worm Blows a Sparky, Frak, Head Over Heels, Revenge of the Mutant Camels, Deus Ex Machina.

British inventiveness and experimentation rippled out to other countries in a way that echoed the British Pop Invasion of the 1960s. Other countries started making games for the UK market and British games makers were asked to work for large companies like Nintendo. Even today you are likely to find creative British games developers in the large US games makers.

Tristan Donovan's book Replay: The History of Video Games gives the full story.

With a penchant for unusual and entertaining topics that gain high 'good read' ratings, Tristan has also written Fizz: How Soda Shook up the World, and his latest book is Feral Cities: Adventures with Animals in the Urban Jungle.

Don't miss other fascinating talks in the TNMOC Lecture Series. Sign-up for early notification of lectures: just email with Lectures as the subject line.

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