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Old gaming magazines tell the awkward tale of an industry growing up

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Games academic and developer Cameron Kunzelman is re-reading old issues of Electronic Gaming Monthly, and you can come along for the ride at his Tumblr.

In 1989 EGM was born in Lombard, Illinois. The magazine covered all manner of digital gaming for 20 years before it closed its doors in 2009, an event memorialized in the very first episode Robert Ashley's beautifully wrought series A Life Well Wasted. It's since come back to life as a website, called EGMNow.com

For two decades, EGM maintained a focal position in the games media landscape. In the time before the internet, the periodical was a vital conduit for American readers interested in the hobby. In the ensuing decades, those physical magazines have all but vanished. Kunzelman was searching for old copies when he came across an entire decade's worth — from 2000 to 2010 — and bought the whole lot.

"EGM was the magazine I read growing up," Kunzelman told Polygon. "I wasn't a Nintendo kid growing up and the local grocery store didn't carry Nintendo Power. They had Tips and Tricks, Expert Gamer, and Electronic Gaming Monthly.

"EGM was the only one I stuck with — my grandmother bought me a subscription every year for two or three years, so I read that magazine religiously."

Kunzelman's Tumblr has become a place for him to collect and comment on what he finds in those magazines. Looking back on them now, you can actually see the field of games journalism forming itself, sometimes awkwardly, there on its page. But for every anachronism there are bits of prescience, and scattered throughout every issue are articles that could have been written yesterday.

"You can see the skeleton of what has become 'gamer culture' living in that magazine in a strange nascent form," Kunzelman said. "There's both subtle and overt sexism, which still exist in virulent and violent ways. There's this presentation of the gamer as edgy, as loving violence, as totally enrapt in the newest technological achievements in games. And this image has gone down in history as a stereotype of ‘gamers,' and it is often a stereotype worn with pride by the gamers themselves.

"On the other hand, beside this cultural skeleton that we still have, there are the things we have forgotten. EGM ran a lot more letters and features than I remember about women in gaming, both as players and as developers."

EGM_137_letter
A letter to the editor from the December 2000 issue 137, nearly 14 years ago. Kunzelman's comment below.

For instance, the response to the reader above seems strangely callous, especially given the tone of the feature on women in the games industry written just a half year before.

"Not every girl dreams of being a video game cheerleader, dressing the side of an arcade machine while her boyfriend lays Heichachi and Law to rest," writes Lauren Fielder in EGM 131. "Nor does every girl dream of becoming the screen-borne leather-clad miscreant or dismantled damsel in distress."

"I like historical grounding," Kunzelman said. "Most cultural industries have a very hard time dealing with the past because those cultures produce themselves so quickly. ... Reading EGM is a way to historicize and to understand and illustrate that gamer culture's concerns and problems have existed for nearly three decades. Even more, they've remained relatively unchanged."

Cultural issues aside, Kunzelman says that his exploration has also been interesting for him as a developer in that he has been able to uncover games that have been lost to us, entire franchises and universes that just haven't joined us here in the present the way that Mario and Lara Croft have.

EGM_131_feature

"There are just lots and lots of games that have been lost to time or that I was never aware of that I can now try to rescue from time or re-experience," he said. "More and more Reading EGM has convinced me that the franchises that we are in love with today might not be the best games of their time, but rather just the games with the most extensive PR campaigns.

"To a certain extent, our nostalgia for games was bought in the pages of enthusiast press magazines, not in the sense that it was ‘pay to play' but rather that those games were just able to fill up pages and pages of the magazine with their advertisements."

There are a few places on the internet that try to maintain an archive of physical games magazines, most with questionable legality. You can find some old issues of EGM at retromags.com, or a more eclectic assortment of enthusiast titles at oldgamemags.tumblr.com. Those who grew up in the U.K can try outofprintarchive.com. There is also a huge digital repository of Computer Gaming World to be found in the cgwmuseum.org.

Edit: Rumors of EGM's death appear to have been greatly exaggerated. Not only was it sold back to it's original founder some years back, you can still get home delivery.