In the fall of 1980, the remote, rural Gold Rush town of Oakhurst, California, became home to Sierra On-Line, a computer game manufacturer that emerged as one of the most successful and iconic game companies of the 1980s and 1990s. Forty years later, Sierra On-Line is long gone from Oakhurst, but its operational and labor infrastructure remain strangely present—a civic palimpsest composed of repurposed buildings, regional archives, local memorials, and the fraying memories of its citizens. This article explores the undocumented dimensions of the computer game industry's supply chain during the final decades of the twentieth century, focusing on the emotional labor and maintenance work involved in sales, customer service, and technical support. Unfolding in three scenes—each pinned to a financial crash, each oriented to the experience of a different female employee—the article traces the material and affective networks that made gaming possible and computers thinkable as machines of everyday life in the late twentieth-century United States.
Late in the summer of 2013 I traveled to Oakhurst, California, an unincorporated town splayed out across the foothills of Madera County along California State Route 41, just at the southern edge of Yosemite National Park (fig. 1). On the last day of my trip I drove out to Oakhurst's Fresno Flats Historical Park, a community site established in 1975 in homage to the area's nineteenth-century settler-colonial Gold Rush roots (fig. 2). In a landscape rife with salt-of-the-earth history, these sorts of regional memorials dot and fleck every one-stoplight town along the highway. The 1970s and 1980s were the boom years of civic pride in Madera County, as the aging grandchildren of loggers and ranchers began gathering oral histories and commemorating landmarks.
Yet by 2013, these locales were mostly forgotten, the stuff of grade-school field trips and the occasional wedding reception. Those who had long served as the guardians of small-town memory, the founders of the dusty parks and ramshackle museums, were all thirty or forty years older now—their bodies too broken down to continue necessary repairs, their hands shaking and shivering as they leafed through archival documents, their memories shot through with forgetting. The park's guided tours had long since dried up; only a “caretaker” resided on the premises, an old-timer sitting in an air-conditioned cabin who could hand you a pamphlet or give you directions. Mostly, I just saw people stop by to use the park's unlocked bathrooms.
But if there was no docent to play warder to this park to ensure I wasn't trying to jimmy my way through every locked door and sagging chain-link fence (which I certainly was), I did have to confront a very different kind of gatekeeper: a centennial plaque holding empty court at the park's sunburnt grassy entrance (fig. 3). Dedicated by E Clampus Vitus, a regional fraternal order once founded to care for miners' widows, the plaque iterated Oakhurst's most defining testaments to national significance over the past hundred years. Most prominently, the town held a key location on the supply trails that once siphoned tools, liquor, and mules up to the northern mines and lumber sites heading into the mountains. Second, Oakhurst was the founding location of Pizza Factory, a restaurant franchise boasting more than one hundred establishments in five Western states. And last, the plaque dubbed Oakhurst “the birthplace of computer gaming.”
Through the 1980s and 1990s, this scuffed corner of California was home to Sierra On-Line, one of the earliest computer game developers in history, and for much of those two decades one of the largest such companies in the world. It's a story that begins in 1980, when Ken and Roberta Williams, an unassuming young couple from the dismal suburbs of Los Angeles, rolled into eastern Madera County, bought a house, and began running a software company out of their home—handling calls, duplicating disks, shipping orders (fig. 4).1
Within a decade, the company would reach $29 million in revenue and become one of Oakhurst's largest employers, alongside the regional telephone company and the county government.2 Up until the early 1990s, every box, every disk, every package was printed, sleeved, and shrink-wrapped right in Oakhurst by the hands of self-declared “mountain folk.” There'd been a soft promise some forty years ago that the dawning of the Information Age could turn the economic sinkhole of Madera County into a “Little Silicone Valley,” as one headline declared in the June 22, 1983, issue of Oakhurst's local newspaper, the Sierra Star (fig. 5). If you want a sense of how that worked out for the town, just note how they spelled “silicon” wrong at the top of the town paper.
A slip of an “E” in 1983 is a modest object, but it does a certain kind of alchemical work that's hard to find in the history of games, which is to say that it translates an industry often measured by quarters dropped, Xboxes sold, or cartridges manufactured by tying the unfolding of that industry to a place, to a landscape older and denser than simply the industry itself. And that's not a historical image of this industry you tend to get from either popular or academic accounts. The retro vernacular of games tends to fixate on famed inventors, the evolution of brands, and dramatic commercial sagas.3 And despite a rising tide of academic game historians, work on the history of the game industry remains troubled by the lack of availability, access to, or even existence of corporate financial or other operational records—a historical bind routinely compounded by the trade secrecy of the business and a lack of industry support for historical preservation. Games evade archives, their magnetic substrates decay in a matter of decades, and their brilliant movements, motions, and mechanics have long been dazzling distraction from a more grounded question: How did this industry actually happen?
When it comes to questions of how video games went from hobbyist inventions to mainstream commodities, video game history has typically sought answers from those presumed most responsible for bringing hardware or software into existence: company founders, lead programmers, and, perhaps most notably, game designers. This tendency to fixate on those individuals presumed “closest” to a work, an innovation, or a company follows long-established patterns in the histories of both technology and entertainment, wherein the inventor, the director, or the author is figured as the source of historical truths inherent in the act of creation (what Michel Foucault would term the “chimeras of the origin” and Friedrich Nietzsche would describe as the “metaphysical extension which arises from the belief that things are most precious and essential at the moment of birth”).4 In Sierra On-Line's case, such forms of homage to the creator myth routinely coagulate around the murky magnetism of Roberta Williams herself, notable as one of the longest-running and most prolific female game designers of the twentieth century.5 In my own earlier work on Williams, “A Pedestal, a Table, a Love Letter: Archaeologies of Gender in Videogame History” (2013), I tried to approach Williams as an object of history rather than a figure who needs saving by history. In other words, I had questions: Why did so many enthusiasts, journalists, and historians seem content to acknowledge her solely on the historical condition of her biological sex? What might this tell us about how gender operates as a category within game history? And what techniques might we employ to leverage ourselves out of such well-worn grooves of historical expectation?
As ambitious and important as those questions were for my research at that time, the order of things is relevant here: that paper, initially composed in the early summer of 2013, preceded my first visit to Oakhurst. It was after arriving in Oakhurst that the tenor of the questions opened up. You see, Oakhurst's dream of a rural economic renaissance—it never happened. In 1993 Ken and Roberta Williams relocated their corporate operations to Bellevue, Washington.6 In 1999 the company closed its last Oakhurst office—Chainsaw Monday,” the old-timers call it.7 There's no folksy tale here of how a mom-and-pop shop set the stage for what is now a $152 billion dollar global industry.8 It's just ruins, yet again, left behind in roads and buildings, boxes of documents rotting in people's garages, the empty meeting room of a town paper where they let me sit and trawl the archive. This town remembers Sierra On-Line—if it remembers it at all—not as a site where female game designers flourished or beloved adventure games were born, but as a place that gave people jobs, an operation that indelibly altered, both in its coming and its going, the economic life of the town. As fans, journalists, and academic game historians alike have been eager to install Williams as a vibrant auteur and pathbreaking game designer, her creative function has been privileged to the neglect of an industrial reality: Roberta Williams was the co-owner of the means of production.
Told from the point of view of Oakhurst, the history of Sierra On-Line is fully coherent with the larger trajectory of US deindustrialization, and furthermore offers a powerful antidote to any conception that the Information Age was equally distributed in its potential to restore US economic authority under the aegis of the personal computer. This is a history located not by chasing down Sierra's stable of nostalgically glorified game designers, nor even Ken and Roberta Williams themselves—considering that their shareholder status ensured they received nearly $100 million after they sold the company for just over $1 billion in 1996.9 Rather, it is a history revealed by attending to the conditions of labor, the technics of work, the gaps in organizational charts, the people who never found another job in games after the company relocated or laid them off. It is a history that demands a reckoning akin to what Carly Kocurek called for in her 2017 essay “Ronnie, Millie, Lila—Women's History for Games: A Manifesto and a Way Forward”:
We have countless examples before us of failures not of history, but of historiography, or our own inability as professional historians to separate ourselves from cultural systems of value that make us disinclined to look closely enough to see the work that, by design or by neglect, goes unseen. … I am not calling for a feminist history of games, although I welcome one; I'm calling instead for a history that is adequate, that seeks both the forest and the trees, that does due diligence. I'm calling for a collective history that is at the very least good enough.10
In an effort to rise to the occasion of Kocurek's “due diligence,” this paper turns away from the luminous subjects of video game history's creative canon and instead follows the work of three women who were employed in the operational backend at Sierra On-Line—for it was in following the work that I found the women. Similar to how the history of computing long overlooked the contributions of female programmers because software development was not considered “computing,” the myriad roles women played in the administration and management of the early US game industry have largely been overlooked due to the game history's central fixation on those sites of labor that are both associated with creative expression and technological mastery and in which men were (and continue to be) occupationally overrepresented.
In constructing this paper, this way, I aim to shake out whatever presuppositions we may carry about what the industry looked like. I draw attention to crashes over profits, women over men, administrative and emotional labor over technical. These three accounts will thus offer a labor-oriented frame for documenting key moments of transformation, growth, and fracture within the US computer game industry during the final decades of the twentieth century. First there is the story of Marie Cavin, whose employment in sales at Sierra On-Line in the early 1980s reveals the mangle of distribution networks, supply chains, and economic incentives that moved product to retailers, and gives context to the eventual software industry shakeout that followed on the heels of the North American Video Game Crash of 1983. Second, the activities of Liz Jacobs, Sierra's customer service manager, testify to the undocumented emotional labor offered to consumers in order to smooth the adoption of personal computing into their everyday lives. Jacobs worked at Sierra from 1987 to 1993, a period marked by a recurrent struggle to systematize and streamline the infrastructures necessary to help consumers feel comfortable with these new technologies. Last, Cindy Vanous will usher us into the mid-1990s computer game industry. Her employment across technical support, web development, and eventually game copywriting at Sierra straddled a series of chaotic company mergers and high-end acquisitions reflective of larger trends in economic speculation surrounding the emergent commercial internet. Altogether, these three narrative accounts offer a sweeping sense of an industry that grew almost in spite of itself; simultaneously, each woman's particular condensation of technological practices and historical conditions reveals something about a time period largely regarded as merely interstitial to our present-day circumstances of computational ubiquity.
Few have ever tried to find and speak to the people—and often, to the women—who did the work of keeping the game industry aloft—not making games but selling them, servicing them, troubleshooting them. As this paper will articulate, the consequences of failing to understand the transformations unique to this industry, its multitude of supply chains, and the organization of its labor is not just a missed opportunity to fill in a historical gap at the production end of games. Rather, it risks a misrecognition of what, and who, made gaming possible and computers thinkable as machines of everyday life. So forget what you think you know, take nothing for granted, and leave your video games behind. This is video game history for the rest of us, as told through everyone and everything we left out the first time around: the towns gone bust, the workers whose names never ran in the credits, the details of memory forgotten.
MARIE CAVIN: SALES REPRESENTATIVE, 1982–84
In 1981 Marie Cavin heard a rumor that the rich guy in town, the guy who owned a company that had something to do with computers, was looking to buy a piece of land. And Marie Cavin thought she had just the place, so she called up that guy, Ken Williams, and talked him into buying a plot bent along the Fresno River. And from that exchange, a job offer came, in September of 1982, on the sole basis of Williams's impression that Cavin seemed good at selling stuff. She took the job out of a mix of curiosity and necessity—the deep snows of the eastern mountain region froze the housing market every winter, so she needed something to do, even as she claimed to know nothing about computers. Which is how Marie Cavin—thirty-seven, divorced, and a mother of three, a real estate agent who had previously worked as a telephone operator—became a sales representative at Sierra On-Line, ushering Ken Williams's little company to at least $10 million in sales in 1983.11 Ken Williams asked her once how she could sell products she didn't even play or seem to understand. Her answer betrays the tactics of obfuscation common to women of competence. “It's real simple,” she told him. “I ask them how many they want.”12
Cavin worked at Sierra only two years, but that time span was the very moment Sierra On-Line (and the rest of industry) went from clumsy start-up to established company, a critical component of which was the formalization of software sales and distribution. The selling, and eventual overselling, of consumer software and the industry crash it would catalyze is one of the stories embedded in Cavin's brief time at Sierra. At the time of Cavin's employment, microcomputing's relationship to the video game “industry” was still indeterminate. While histories of early 1980s gaming conventionally organize the industry into coin-op arcade, console, and microcomputing (what we would today call personal computing), this is actually an anachronistic framework.13 From the late 1970s through the early 1980s, those entrepreneurs creating entertainment software for the microcomputing sector did not consider themselves allied in a game industry. Rather, their allegiance was to the microcomputer as a programmable tool and an independent industry, as distinguished from dedicated machines like consoles and coin-ops, which could only play games. Software developers like Sierra On-Line wanted to mainstream the microcomputer as a technology. There weren't quite game software companies yet, not formally, just companies that made many types of software, games included. But games were not incidental to the rise of microcomputing. No other genre of computer software was so expressly designed to exploit the constraints of its hardware—to show off, in essence, what a computer could do. For a purchasing public that still found software and hardware an uncertain expense, games were the ultimate proof of concept. So while Sierra On-Line was rapidly cranking out word processors, digital dictionaries, and financial planners, it was actually Frogger that was cutting the company checks.
Cavin's job, in this system, was to be the joint between production and distribution, which was itself the supply chain link between publishers and retailers. Distributors profited by leveraging the intricacies of the supply chain at low margins across large volumes: they bought software in bulk from publishers, paying a significantly lower price point for more substantial orders, then sold that product to retailers on a slim markup across tens of thousands of individual units.14 When distributor representatives called to place orders at Sierra, Cavin was the person they spoke with; it was her job to take and negotiate orders with distributors, always with the aim of increasing Sierra's sales through aggressive volume-based discounts or exclusivity deals with specific distributors. On the production side, Cavin made sure Sierra On-Line's operations manager anticipated correct order volume, purchasing needs, and shipping deadlines. In numbers, she sold units in tens of thousands at a time when the installed base (the number of units of a product or platform actually owned and in use) of home and office computers was around 8.7 million (though not all of them would have been compatible with Sierra's software).15 The formalization of distribution was very recent in the microcomputer sector at this time—starting in the late 1970s, it was typical for computer stores to order software direct from the developer in small units, or buy from whoever showed up at their door. So while distribution began as small independent businesses, mostly bound to the United States and Canada (with some European operations), it became the fastest-growing distribution business in the nation by 1983.16
While Marie Cavin may have told Ken Williams she simply “asked her distributors how many they wanted,” her actual work process was a web of tensions nested in being the company's human fulcrum of supply and demand. “I did it all,” she tells me. “I set up trade shows. I decided what shows. I decided who we would distribute to. I decided what products they would get. I decided what they would pay for them.” When Sierra obtained the lucrative magnetic-media rights to Sega's arcade hit Frogger in 1982, the leverage made her one of the most desirable connections in the business that season—not the programmer, not the president, but the saleswoman.17 “Any place I went I was the queen because of Frogger. Everybody wanted it, and I was the source.” Her sense of independence bends along with a pleasure in power, of getting to pick and choose whom she made deals with. The soft capital of favors and perks undergirded the movement of goods in this industry, and the human relationships at work, however manufactured, helped ground the incalculability of the entire enterprise through a particular kind of financialized kinship.
One of the most important changes in the marketplace while Cavin was at Sierra, and critical to understanding the eventual crash, was the rise of a cheap, hybrid class of microcomputers that took cartridges like a video game console but could also support floppy disks like a regular computer. Atari's 8-bit microcomputer, the Atari 800, was likely the most iconic in this regard, but this shift toward convergent hardware design also encompassed the Commodore VIC-20 and Commodore 64, the Coleco Adam, and Texas Instruments' 99/4A. In theory, these hybrid machines promised the best of both worlds for consumers: no more choosing between a computer that used disks or a console that used cartridges. In practice, however, these machines conflated roles in an already-congested market by creating a whole subset of machines needing both cartridges and floppy disks for the same individual platform. Lacking software interoperability between any of these different microcomputers, or between computers and consoles, meant that each software format, for each hardware type, had to be custom programmed and physically manufactured. With Frogger, for example, the magnetic media rights and the cartridge media rights were split between Sierra On-Line and Parker Brothers; between them, these two companies produced fifteen distinct physical versions of the same game (fig. 6).
As a programming expense, the costs were fairly manageable, but the fact that each platform required a unique manufacturing of the ROM or the floppy disk that carried the game software meant that, even though there might be more copies of Frogger circulating in a generic sense, publishers were selling a lower volume per platform across a fractured hardware market. Furthermore, the cost of goods for manufacturing a cartridge was five to ten times than that of a floppy disk, and unlike floppy disks the format could not be reused.18 Altogether, the material realities of software production at this moment in time meant less money was being made at every stage of the supply chain. But all this was above Cavin's pay grade, so she just kept pushing orders. As she put it to me thirty-two years after the fact: “All you could see was a tomorrow that was endless.”
In other words: everything about the industry at this moment was optimized for economic freefall. It would be known as the Software Shakeout, that moment in 1984 when every software producer took a huge hit on piles of unsellable plastic.19 What is perhaps most chilling about it is that the microcomputer industry had just watched the video game console industry itself go through its own irreparable downward spiral, in the famed 1983 North American Video Game Crash that broke the back of titan Atari.20 While this connection may seem obvious in hindsight, the lack of concern was a testament to how thoroughly unconnected the microcomputer sector saw themselves from the game industry. As Brøderbund cofounder Doug Carlston wrote in his memoir of the early software industry, “The computer software people watched all the carnage in the video game industry with considerable complacency. Nineteen-eighty-three turned out to be a banner year for most of us. … [We thought] these video game-based businesses were still seen only as software dinosaurs, mired in a market without a future, turning out trivial products for increasingly sophisticated consumers.”21
Thus, what happened in the computing industry wasn't the work of one monolith, like Atari, tightening the noose for everyone else. It was a crash of aggregate complicity. It wasn't Marie Cavin's fault, but rather the fault of all the Marie Cavins—the salespeople at every other company, along with the distributor reps on the other end of every phone line, the CFOs who weren't analyzing the financial statements, the company founders and venture capitalists who believed the market was so expansive, it could absorb all the products being poured into it. Sierra On-Line would lay off nearly one hundred of its 130-some workers.
Cavin, however, was just fine. She skipped out on Sierra before the P&Ls bled, having made a name for herself as one of the biggest dealmakers in the industry. She had been approached by some of the world's largest book and software distributors, including Softsel and Ingram, and needed little convincing to move into a position with better salary and recognition. She stayed in the software industry for ten more years, and the whole time never left Oakhurst. Eventually she went back to real estate. The flow of her life not only contradicts game culture's long-standing emphasis on makers and owners as the crux of the industry, but also disproves that such devotions are lifelong, or have anything to do with games. Marie Cavin was enamored of her industry because of its scale, its speed, its sociality—the idea that you were an astute participant in the industry that was changing everyone's lives. Games were just the commodity that fostered such a particular way of being. Her account grounds sales and distribution as political nodes in this industry—a place where the cyclical trends of hardware and software development required negotiations between profit, risk, and economic interdependency as part of the long chain of interaction between creation and consumption.
LIZ JACOBS: CUSTOMER SERVICE MANAGER, 1987–93
If Marie Cavin gives us a sense of what it took to get games to market, Liz Jacobs is instructive regarding what it took to get games home. In 1987, Liz Jacobs, age thirty-four, arrived to her first weeks of work at Sierra in the midst of some kind of executive chaos. Sierra was on the verge of an IPO through most of that year, the culmination of three grueling years of work by Ken Williams to stabilize his company post-Shakeout as a leader in computer games.22 And it all came undone on October 19, when Black Monday blew a hole through the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Sierra itself would be fine, but the global financial crash necessitated a postponement of the company's IPO.
No archival document nor trace of memory annotates when Liz Jacobs showed up, before or after the botched IPO. But either way, it seems the tumult must have served as a cover of sorts for the innocuous Jacobs, who had just been newly anointed as Sierra On-Line's customer service manager. It was job she desperately needed after moving to this “podunk” town (as she called it) with her husband, complicated only by the fact that she had never used a computer. When asked about her computer skills in her interview, she simply smiled and lied and hoped to sort it out later, and then once later came, she determined to stay late every night with the programmers, rattling them with questions. As Jacobs recalls, when she started, “I could barely turn the bloody thing on. Well, I can assure you within sixty days, I could turn that baby on … and I learned very quickly that our service levels were terrible.”
Customer service was a domain of the consumer tech industry that emerged informally, when hardware and software consumers of the late 1970s and early 1980s would hit a bug or an incompatibility and just call the phone number on the package. Most of these businesses were small enough that a call would usually put them directly in touch with whoever had programmed the product. This was how Ken and Roberta Williams ran support when Sierra On-Line was operating out of their home in 1980. But as the customer base grew to the tens, then hundreds of thousands over the 1980s, companies had to specifically hire employees to keep up with telephone calls and written correspondence. As early as 1983, Sierra had ten employees handling about 375 calls a day, but there was no sense that this was integrated with the overall vision of the company.23 In this earliest instantiation, Sierra simply titled this department “product support”—emphasis on the commodity, not the relationship.
Jacobs entered this state of affairs with no familiarity in consumer industries, or the often casual internal operations of entertainment software production in particular. From her perspective, as an outsider looking in, what she saw was a lack of purpose and professionalism. She remembers: “I [was] the only one who wore a dress to work at that point. … [Everyone else] had just ended drinking beer in the warehouse during business hours.” Jacobs's sense of pride in appearance and behavior had been honed by years in management at the Internal Revenue Service; she describes her past self to me as “little miss corporate.” She couldn't change what her staff wore, but she could change how they worked, and this is where Jacobs's story lives: in the growth of customer services as partnered with, not incidental to, the growth of the games and computing industries during this time. Regarded symptomatically, customer service was the stress test of rising consumption at the moment computers went from early-adopter curiosities to mainstream domestic appliances—one way, much forgotten, how the computer became personal.
The first few years of Jacobs's employment marked a transition out of the early adopter phase, when computers were estimated to be in one-tenth of US households, into the early-majority phase of the product adoption process.24 Gone was the terminology of the microcomputer; the arrival of the IBM PC in 1981 served to standardize “personal computer” as the layperson's term for these machines. Yet despite the friendlier lingo, many first-time buyers were discovering that computing in the home required new technical competencies they didn't have. For these consumers, customer service departments were the first stop in navigating this opaque terrain. Across the country, people picked up their phones and acclimated to the new technology with the help of strangers. So to have terrible service levels—busy phone lines, or no one answering—was an obvious liability at a moment when US personal computer adoption was being hyped as an accelerating industry.
In order to address this, Liz Jacobs had to deal with an infrastructure problem; she could hire and train all the staff she wanted, but if customers couldn't get through, it wouldn't much matter. Customer service operated on the material substrate of the telephone exchange, which meant that access was a very physical problem, as illustrated by a particularly noteworthy customer service crisis that happened during Jacobs's first year. On the day after Christmas in 1987, the flood of calls into Sierra from people who had received games as presents jammed telephone exchanges up to two hundred miles away in Sacramento. As Sierra wrote in their customer newsletter the following year, “By the end of March , Sierra had answered over 60,000 requests from as far away as Europe and the Middle East.”25 Customer service was burdensome, expensive, and laborious, but for a game software company that thrived on return customers spending money on highly discretionary leisure items, it was not optional. The struggles of customer service were a measure of both the technical and the emotional work required to shepherd the computer into domestic space.
Beyond managing infrastructure concerns, Jacobs made efforts to both systematize and automate as much of her employees' work as possible. First, she divided her department into three areas: general customer service, technical support, and hints, which were a component of customer service unique to game companies and particularly to Sierra. This division served to optimize and routinize its service performance. Rather than having someone explain how to make a boot disk on one call, then answer game hints on the next, she wanted employees to specialize their knowledge by throttling what kinds of questions they dealt with. By separating that work, Jacobs was then better able to track how many hours were absorbed by what tasks. She discovered that giving hints was Sierra On-Line's single largest burden of customer service, a fact tightly related to Sierra's position as the industry leader in adventure games, or narrative-driven experiences in which players explore a world and solve puzzles to reach the end of the story. For example, locked doors, deadly monsters, or impassable deserts might bring the progress of game play to a halt; in an era before the proliferation of internet access, “stuck” players could push through by calling Sierra and obtaining the information they needed to find keys, obtain magic weapons, or locate a hidden oasis. Moreover, a game's puzzles didn't typically change, and game design was such that puzzles often had to be completed in a specific order—meaning, from Jacobs's position, hints were ultimately just decision trees, which meant they could be automated. In the fall of 1989 Jacobs unveiled an automated hint line tied to a 900 number, simultaneously tying off one of the biggest drains on customer service staff, producing a secondary revenue stream for Sierra, and allowing Jacobs to focus on providing top-tier technical support.26
Under Liz Jacobs's tenure, Sierra On-Line's customer service reputation grew to one of the most admired in the industry. Sierra finally got to hang its shingle on the NASDAQ in 1988 after all, and for the next few years its revenues doubled annually, just as projected.27 They hired producers, professional artists, a creative director who had an Emmy; they acquired smaller game companies like they were setting jewels in a crown; and Ken Williams wrote missives about the future of interactive entertainment.28 But in a way perhaps telegraphed by the great phone line blowout of Christmas 1987, it was all a little much for Oakhurst to bear. The town's one-lane highways were counterintuitive for a shipping department. Executives and creatives didn't want to move to a town they'd never heard of. And as the industry grew more competitive, Oakhurst felt like a world away. The new internal stresses of being a publicly traded company began to make Sierra unravel. Programmer walkouts. The rattle of unionization. A mass layoff held in the local movie theater—the only place large enough to seat the whole company for popcorn and pink slips. From where Jacobs was positioned—not at the top, but high enough to see—she began to apprehend a company that owned its owners more than the other way around. So she wasn't surprised when the announcement came down in 1993 that corporate operations were moving to the Seattle area. She chose not to follow. She got six months' severance and sat in a boat for a summer, drinking and laughing with friends, and when fall came, she did what she'd always done before—she found another job, in another industry, and eventually made her way to another town. Her time at Sierra reflects a crucial shift in games, whose growth hinged on the incalculable qualities of technical and emotional labor that was never seen, only heard.
CINDY VANOUS: TECHNICAL SUPPORT AND GAME WRITING, 1994–99
In moving from Liz Jacobs to Cindy Vanous, technical support provides a connection that will help us jump the geographical distance to Sierra On-Line's six-hundred person corporate headquarters in Seattle, 1994. Or more specifically, to a four-story office just south of Bellevue, Washington, where Cindy Vanous, twenty-six years old and an entry-level tech support engineer, guided customers over the phone through the intricacies of partitioning hard drives. This wasn't Oakhurst. Her view out the window by her cubicle was a panoramic wall of freeway, right where Interstates 90 and 405 crossed, then bent, around the building's back. Even on the phone, suited up in her headset, behind plaster and glass, there was always the hum of traffic. The first thing Cindy Vanous wanted me to know about her was that she'd always loved games.29 Her dad had worked in a chain hotel that had a Space Invaders cabinet in its gift shop. All she wanted as a little girl was to drop quarters and save planet Earth. She tells me that game “was made of wow.” She and Brendan, her high school boyfriend turned college husband, had bought up all the computers of the 1980s—the Amiga, the Apple II, the IBM PC. She was working in Seattle as a technical editor when a friend's bragging about his new job at Sierra On-Line finally broke Cindy with jealousy. She'd grown up playing Sierra's most famous titles: Ultima II, King's Quest, Gabriel Knight. Her friend encouraged her to apply to tech support, because after all, her job already had the word “technical” in the title. So when Vanous dropped off her résumé, she included one special skill she'd never found reason to mention before: she had completed Sierra's 1990 release King's Quest V in two and a half days without using a hint book. Two weeks later, she was on the phone telling people how to make a boot disk.
Cindy Vanous would stay at Sierra for roughly five years in salaried and contract roles, but in contrast with figures like Marie Cavin or Liz Jacobs, what she gives us isn't just a perspective on support as a form of technical and historical labor. She transitioned into different roles, from tech support to web administration to game writing; she was shuffled across departments, desks, and floors. Rather than exemplifying a branch of industry, her story is expressive of a mode of laboring in the context of unprecedented, overcapitalized, and largely mismanaged corporate growth. This was the case at Sierra, which would become a subsidiary of no less than five different companies from 1996 to 2004. This was also a trend across the industry, as successful game producers were getting snapped up and traded like cards among international holding companies and transnational media conglomerates. The vast proliferation of mergers and buyouts over the mid- to late 1990s and early 2000s was a crucial historical phase of the computer game industry, although one that has never been treated as such by the field of game studies. What accumulates in Vanous's account is a history without record: titles of projects worked on for years but never published, names of managers who disappeared overnight, the slippery companies that apparently owned them.
Much of what was driving the enthusiasm for game acquisitions was the predicted impact of internet convergence. Beginning in the mid-1990s, the mainstreaming of new features like CD-ROM drives, multimedia software, and modems had pushed computers into the popular news cycle. In 1994 Vice President Al Gore famously popularized the term “information superhighway,” while NBC TV host Katie Couric declared the internet was “becoming really big now” on the Today Show.30 According to the Pew Research Center, 36.6 percent of US households had a home computer by 1997, and more than half of those were equipped with modems (the fact that Pew was even gathering statistics on computing indicates that tides were turning).31 On the cusp of an exponential rise in internet access within the United States, personal computing was becoming both popular culture and speculative investment.
But as someone in the trenches, Cindy Vanous had a point of view on her work in tech support marked by the low-level intricacies of people and problems. She understood that she “wasn't there necessarily to solve technical problems. I was there to solve social problems that happened to have a slightly technical aspect to them.” Her days were spent understanding and dealing with the needs of customer “types”: there were the kids, of course, calling after school, and also what Vanous called the “housewife hours,” the weekday time after lunch but before the children came home, when stay-at-home moms would call in. There were the people who just wanted someone to talk to, and folks who were just “a little scared of the computer.” In their downtime, tech support staff traded stories of their toughest problems or weirdest calls—Cindy Vanous's was from a farmer whose PC was in a glass room inside a chicken hatchery, meaning the noise she thought was static over the phone was in fact thousands and thousands of chickens. Computing was both utterly weird and completely mundane; what tech support grunted through, eight hours a day, was how the boundary of technical problems always gave way to a social underbelly.
But the granularity and repetition of this work, as well as how far down she was in the organizational chart, meant her role was also a place where the company's dramatic corporate transitions went largely unnoticed. In February 1996, little tchotchkes emblazoned with the letters CUC appeared on Vanous's desk. There was no big announcement; Sierra had simply been bought by a direct marketing company called CUC International.32 The final acquisition price was around $1.06 billion, making this one of the earliest big-league cross-industry acquisitions to happen in games, one motivated by synergistic projections about the future of converging gaming and e-commerce platforms through the personal computer.33 If names changed on doors or letterhead, Cindy Vanous didn't notice because it changed neither the corporate structure as far as she experienced it nor anything about the software she was troubleshooting.
Over the remainder of 1996, Vanous hopped from tech support to web administration (she was the person who put animated GIFs on Sierra's first website) to game writing—a set of moves she was able to make partly because Sierra was hemorrhaging more experienced employees, reportedly due to low pay. What she was experiencing in this context was a set of management practices around game development the likes of which were unprecedented in the computer game industry. In the 1980s and 1990s, if a game was pitched and approved and production started, it typically finished. But rapid turnover and a revolving door of senior vice presidents left projects languishing without oversight, and Cindy Vanous's pattern of movement across games reflects this. From 1996 onward Vanous was repeatedly brought onto games deep into production but lacking story or copy or dialogue. She juggled countless simultaneous tasks: working quality assurance, writing email newsletters, and polishing game copy, forever getting punted to whatever was determined as the latest priority. She couldn't remember, on some of her projects, who her boss was. What Cindy Vanous experienced was a highly localized expression of wide-scale industry dysfunction, as cascades of consolidation and so-called synergy disrupted the safeguards of institutional knowledge.
At last, midway through 1997, Cindy Vanous thought she was getting her break. She was made lead writer on a project called Raven's War, the first game she ever got to work on from day one. And yet, in the background, another corporate merger was taking place. In 1997 Sierra's parent company, CUC, became Cendant following a merger with HFS Incorporated.34 But beneath the veneer of optimistic corporate transition a catastrophe was brewing, one that in my hours of conversation with Vanous barely rose to the surface. Vanous's fixation on her team and her task was so consuming, it warped the field of memory. In April 1998 Cendant announced that CUC executives had been cooking the books for years, overstating CUC's earnings by more than $250 million in 1997 alone—making this the largest accounting scandal in US history prior to Enron.35 Sierra had been just a part of the scam, and the Cendant merger as well, to keep manufacturing shareholder value. Stock values cratered, losing 80 percent by the end of 1998. These events generated more primary documentation of Sierra's history than any prior game or corporate transition, but at the level of Cindy Vanous, what she remembers is that the Raven's War team just kept working, expecting at any point, the management would show up to help them transform a year's worth of work into a game. Instead, Cendant put its games division on the auction block and sold the whole bundle to a French telecom before the close of the fourth quarter. The writing, as they say, was on wall. Vanous pivoted off the team, and shortly thereafter out of Sierra, while management tasked the game's engineers with cannibalizing the tech for future projects. Raven's War would be a write-off.
Years later, Cindy Vanous would wind up at Microsoft as a copywriter, an appropriate turn for someone who sat through Sierra's twilight. In the late 1990s and early 2000s Microsoft absorbed numerous Sierra employees away from the faltering company as it spun up its new Xbox division, making Microsoft the first US company since Atari to bring a successful game console to market. During this time, the kinds of stories Vanous experienced at Sierra became common in bars across Seattle and Los Angeles and Silicon Valley. They each came with different details, but, like a tech support call, they all shared a general character. “Everyone was burned out at that point,” Vanous remembers. “It didn't matter what company you worked for. There was no consistent management to realize there was a problem. A lot of people left and never came back.” From Cindy Vanous's vantage, we glimpse the history of an industry illustrated not through its success, but through all the things that came to not matter—the projects cancelled, the mergers gone bust, the details that can't be remembered.
Everyone swelters in August in New York, and in the summer of 2014, I was no exception. It was a Friday, and I was set to defend my dissertation about Sierra On-Line and video game history on Monday. I was sitting at my kitchen table, editing my defense speech and fiddling on Twitter, when a retweeted link to a website—www.sierra.com—fell into my feed and I froze. The web page it brought me to contained solely a thirteen-second video (figs. 7, 8).36 On-screen, white clouds dissipate to reveal a 3D-rendered mountain climber trudging through snow, back to the viewer and arm covering their eyes as they approach a sagging, pseudo–Half Dome in the distance. Suddenly the climber takes off toward the mountain and the camera cranes back, into blackness, as the letters S-I-E-R-R-A fall into place against the sound of thundering metal. Sierra was being resurrected.
It turns out that long after Cindy Vanous left Sierra, the company was sold and re-bundled and sold again, each time losing a branch, casting off workers, being winnowed down and down and down until it was just a stack of intellectual property rights passed between European and US companies. That chain had finally ended at the door of Activision, one of the world's largest game software publishers, who took on Sierra as part of a merger in 2008, reassigned or let go every last Sierra employee, and shoved the IP in a filing cabinet.37 The company was finally closed (one of the things I'd thought made it a good case study for a history dissertation)—until 2014, when Activision determined to launch its own boutique indie game division that would specialize in publishing small-scale downloadable content across major digital distribution platforms like Xbox Live, the PlayStation Network, and Steam. It would do so under the name of the nostalgic Sierra brand.
This is living history of the strangest kind. Sierra's relaunch is exemplary of the pressures contorting the game industry at this moment. Digital distribution, the rise of “indie gaming,” as well as global mobile markets and the presumptive virtues of long-tail economics have dramatically altered who plays—and who works—in games.38 You don't need a Marie Cavin if games are something made for download rather than needing to be manufactured. You don't need a Liz Jacobs if customer support can be displaced onto the consumer through user forums. You can't track the labor of Cindy Vanous in the same way when tech support is outsourced to off-site call centers in other states or other countries. My experiences tracking Sierra On-Line across fields archival and literal has thus forged an opportunity where the methodological change of tack is precisely what allows for the production of something like a critical genealogy of the game industry—work that documents not just changes in production over time, but also how and on what terms the inexplicable rise of the video game industry serves as a lesson on how we do history in the age of obsolescence.
What “due diligence” might mean is reckoning with the ways in which the histories we tell of individual games, designers, platforms, and companies must exceed the scope of the thing itself. Over the course of Sierra On-Line's thirty-some-year existence, it shared in nearly every major transformation that shaped the formative years of the video game and personal computing industries more broadly. I am not merely speaking of transformation in the naive technological sense, of computational bursts visualized by our ever-shrinking media storage devices—from the five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy disk to the cloud, as it were. Rather, I am speaking to the great congestion of events that impacted the game industry but were largely galvanized by conditions beyond the industry's control and therefore outside its historical record: the widespread ingestion of venture capital, protracted battles over piracy and copyright violation, the rise of high-level programming languages, the standardization of the internet, the cultural mainstreaming of computer use (especially by women and children), the thickening of “gamer” and “hacker” as identities. In other words, accounting for Sierra On-Line, and the industry, in this way—by following the work and listening to the women—transforms the mythology of an iconic company into a historical index of the contentious relationships consumers had with computer technology during the decades that were central to the computer's transition from opaque machine to desktop helpmate.
So in Sierra, in Oakhurst, in this birthplace of computer gaming—the kind of claim only civic pride can make because it is so patently untrue—we find a deep time and a local context to an industry so often sketched in the caricature of its past. To put it one way, gaming is the first form of computational technology most of us ever touched—the first time, in many cases, a computer was ever “in our hands.” Video games are a condensation of digital media's most significant cultural and theoretical properties, from labor to materiality, global economics and computational ubiquity, representation and virtual identity, down to design, distribution, the evils of e-waste. These are all part of a use cycle of the global video game industry, a multiplicity that has no monolithic center, no representative feature, especially not once we formulate on planetwide scales. The level of convergence games enact with other media is a phenomenon unto itself: games are constrained by no essential medium of transmission, and can operate across digital and analog substrates. If an account of this industry proves anything, it is that the value of studying games—be it their representations, consumption, or production, from vantages either contemporary or historic—should not be that we are led back to games, but that games lead us somewhere else.