Informally, discussions about the video games industry in 1980s Britain often raise the ‘backdrop of Thatcherism’, despite the little ink that’s ever spilt on the matter. I’m never surprised when industry outsiders quickly form the impression that computer games were a Thatcherite endeavour. Nor am I surprised at their assumption that everybody in the industry was cut from the same Thatcherite cloth. A game such as Harrier Attack captured the post-Falklands Conflict flag-waving that the PM capitalised on. In 1983, Clive Sinclair received a knighthood in the birthday honours list on her recommendation. Let’s even think of basic principles here. The very idea that anybody would, or even could, start a small company and become successful in a few months was the embodiment of a shift from heavy industries to the SMEs that she championed. Yet in my time in the industry, I saw no consensus on Thatcherism, only a DIY ethic that was influenced by it.
The first point – dissensus – can be explained through a satire programme in the UK called Spitting Image. One of the most enduring images of Margaret Thatcher is that of the programme’s puppets of her. These evolved over the years into a sort of shrieking Mafiosi. They perfectly identified the duality of her (from softly spoken to thunderous in an instant) and her era (whether in the conflict over the Falklands or the power of unions). And Spitting Image gave her to us, we developers, as an impersonation among many. I worked in one software house where we regularly impersonated (the Spitting Image version of) Reagan, saying ‘Okey-dokey, Ed’ instead of ‘OK’. This phrase was one of the first things we sampled once we bought a Microvox (after, of course, farts and burps). We even learned to say it backwards, sampled the attempt, reversed it, and duly adopted the phlegmmy-sounding ‘Ocky-docky, Eckt’ as our new way of saying ‘OK’. But this digital manipulation of Spitting Image shouldn’t be mistaken for either an homage or a political sympathy. The point here is that our politics were mixed-up, naive, even apathetic.
It’s true that some of us had endured homework by candlelight during the years when strikes and unions held Britain in a headlock. But it’s also true that some of us were uneasy about the escalation in cold-war rhetoric from Thatcher and Reagan. There were a range of political attitudes forming both among and within us that didn’t easily fit into the boxes that the politicians and journalists of the day insisted on. Furthermore, we were mostly aged between 16 and 24, and had virtually no interest in politics. The new comedy that Spitting Image was part of was the critical voice that the parties in opposition lacked. Thus, sampling Thatcher’s American counterpart was jocular, as sophisticated as we got, and hardly partisan to any cause.
Not that Thatcherism wasn’t an influence. There was an attitude that a lot of money could be made should you capture the imagination of the buying public. And that’s my second point: there was a sense when we entered the industry that we could do things ourselves. Some people have tried to convince me that there’s a connection between this DIY mindset and the punk scene prior to the games industry. Hobbyists making games is thereby associated with utopian and alternative cultural movements. The trouble with this noble view is that it owes more to theory textbooks than reality. The DIY in games development wasn’t about making a better world – it was about making a living. In more than four years I never met or heard of a single person with either a punk background or influence. I knew a designer in the late eighties who was into cyberpunk. But his interest was in style and sci-fi.
No: the DIY spirit to making games owed something to Thatcherism. There was a certain confidence and drive to stand out by inventing counter-intuitive products that were commercially risky. And Thatcher was an enabler and cheerleader for the small businesses that took those risks. But none of this would have mattered without the desire that a few thousand remarkable people had to transcend the acute limitations of the technology they worked with. Making those early machines do anything meant doing it yourself. And paradoxically, the limitations were productive. It was still possible for one person to create a product while the machines were small enough. It’s surely in this individual that any debate over the Thatcherite legacy for gaming lies. Can they be equally imagined as a Hurdian, Portillistan, or Kinnockian individual? Or would games and technology have pushed on in the same way regardless of who was in power? How surprising it is that so little ink has been spilt on these subjects.
Words and illustration copyright © Marwood Packard 2013.
Jeff Lee was a programmer and photographer in the games industry in the 1980s. Previously wrote under the pen name ‘Marwood Packard’.