Michal Hlaváč, Sybila Soft, 1986

In the ’80s in Czechoslovakia, a Soviet-dominated state under a communist regime, a small contingent of gamers were cannibalizing ping pong balls, drawer handles and calculator keys to use as track balls, joysticks and buttons.

At that time, video games were “the least censored media in the country,” according to Jaroslav Švelch, author of Gaming The Iron Curtain, who explained all of this to a group of students at the NYU Games Center last night. Švelch has spent ten years researching how teens and amateurs in communist Czechoslovakia glommed onto this emerging and notably unregulated medium to express themselves.

A youth computing retreat in 1987
Photo: Vlastimil Vesely (Gaming The Iron Curtain)

Under communist rule, there was very little movement of people, goods and technology between the Western world and Eastern Europe. Industry was owned by the government and public life was dominated by communism, Švelch described in his talk. The Czechoslovakia home computing industry would need the explicit approval and support of these out-of-touch, older politicians. That meant the burgeoning industry of home computing, and therefore gaming, was heavily restricted in Czechoslovakia. No companies within the country published games and hardware was very difficult to come by. Passionate computing hobbyists spent several months’ paychecks (or went to the black market) to import the cheapest type of game-compatible home computer at the time, the ZX Spectrum. They’d hide them in boxes of chocolate to get these computers through customs.

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A homemade keyboard on a ZX Spectrum. Built by Silvia Kolesarova
Photo: Gaming The Iron Curtain

To meet and share computing knowledge in Czechoslovakia, Švelch explained, hobbyists needed the permission of a government group, like the paramilitary organization Svazarm or the Socialist Union of Youth. “Authorities just didn’t realize it was a medium that could deliver messages,” said Švelch. “Games at that time were all made as amateur projects. There were no games made by the government, by the party. There were no games made by commercial subjects. It was all enthusiasts, amateurs, making games not for profit but to entertain other people, to say something, to express themselves or just to experiment.” These games, adorably, existed on cassette tapes.

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A 1980s Czechoslovakian Indiana Jones game
Image: Gaming the Iron Curtain

What kind of games did they make? Many, apparently, were inspired by Indiana Jones. One game designer adapted a traditional Czechoslovakian game that’s essentially Tic-Tac-Toe on a large sheet of graph paper into what Švelch described as “open-world Tic-Tac-Toe.” What Švelch calls “hyper-local” games also emerged, in which friendly designers confronted each other in text-adventure virtual worlds, diffusing their opponent’s bomb in his home or commenting on some neighborhood affair.

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The state loomed large for Czechoslovakians, and fittingly, it was the subject of several of their amateur games. Text adventures on the ZX Spectrum were an excellent and unmonitored medium for self-expression. One of the more subversive games commented on the Velvet Revolution, a non-violent protest that took place in November 1989 against the Community Party’s rule.

9/11/1989
Image: Gaming the Iron Curtain

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“Only two days after this demonstration, if we are to believe the loading screen, a game came out anonymously called 17 November 1989,” said Švelch. “In this game, an important theme is being covered: Access to information.” At that time, he continued, newspapers and television were dominated by the state and, for the most part, the information on those platforms could be described as propaganda. “In this game, your goal is to find video recording equipment and record what’s actually happening—the protest, the police brutality—and then send the tapes to Western journalists.”

In another text adventure called RECONSTRUCTION, published anonymously, the player can only light up a dark tunnel by setting a copy of Marx’s Capital on fire. In Gaming The Iron Curtain, Švelch writes, the book’s “one- sided and dogmatic misreading was at the heart of the Communist Party’s Marxist- Leninist ideology. When burning, the tome ‘emits the light of progress.’”

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In an e-mail after the lecture, Švelch explained what these subversive, small games might mean thirty years later. “Today, political and activist games tend to be seen as a new, somewhat radical idea. But if we dig deeper, we find out that games had always had the potential to protest and to be used by activists,” said Švelch. “In most capitalist contexts, this potential was overshadowed by commercial entertainment production that has mostly complied with the status quo by saving the princess or defeating intruders. Excavating this history of game-based activism can encourage people to think of activist games as something that can and should be done.”