Video game reporting makes up a healthy segment of the internet in this day and age, but back in the early 1980s no one was even sure if anyone cared enough to read video game news of any kind. In those early days of the industry, magazines like Video Games Player were not just bringing the latest news to the burgeoning fan base, but also helping to shape video game culture into what it is today—even if the writers and editors didn’t know it.
To find out what it was like to be working on the front lines during the earliest days of video game culture, we spoke with prolific children’s author Dan Gutman, former editor-in-chief of defunct underdog gaming magazine Video Games Player.
First released in 1982, Video Games Player was one of only a handful of magazines catering to arcade and video game culture at the time, and it is a fascinating time capsule from a bygone age of gaming, and publishing. The first issue alone featured news, game company profiles, hints and tips, jokey bits about arcade culture, and even a contest in which you could win a year’s supply of quarters (which would have been a dream at an arcade, and not just a cruel prank). Video Games Player essentially got to invent its own form, during its short four-year lifespan.
Gutman told us all about the magazine’s roots in the smut business and how he still doesn’t know anything much about video games.
How did you get started with Video Games Player?
I honestly didn’t know anything about video games, and I still don’t. I was working on a girly magazine. A skin magazine called Stag. Chip Goodman, son of Martin Goodman, who started Marvel Comics back in the 1940s, he used to publish all these men’s adventure magazines like, “I Chopped Off My Arm To Survive The Nazi Death Camp,” sort of thing. When Playboy came along in the early ’50s, those magazines either had to become skin magazines or go out of business. So Stag went from being a men’s adventure magazine to a sex magazine.
Coincidentally, I had been in graduate school in New Jersey, studying psychology and hating every second of it, so I decided to move to New York, where all the starving writers go. I answered an ad in the New York Times for writers of what was called “men’s sophisticate” magazines. I didn’t know what that meant, but it was basically a euphemism for “sex magazine.” I ended up writing an article for Stag magazine. It was about professional wrestling. It was the first thing I ever published.
I’d moved to New York, I needed some money, I didn’t know what to do. So I contacted the editor who I had written this article for, and I said, “Look, I’ll sweep your floors, I’ll do anything. I’ll work for free!” And he hired me!
This was 1980. I worked at the magazine for a few years and learned the whole magazine business as a result. But i didn’t want to become a pornographer. This was a time when my publisher, Chip Goodman, was trying to legitimize himself by branching out into non-sexually-related magazines. The Pac-Man phenomenon had exploded in 1981. I went to my publisher one day and I said, “How about we start a video games magazine? I’ll do it in my spare time.” Because I saw that as a way to get out of porn.
He said, “Sure, you can do it in your spare time. I’ll finance one issue and see how it goes.” I knocked myself out working at Stag during the day and doing Video Games Player at night. And I put together the magazine almost single-handedly.
Having said you didn’t know much about video games, what was your editorial vision for the magazine?
In the beginning, arcade games were really big. There was the Atari 2600 with a home system, ColecoVision came out, Intellivision came out. There were a few other home video game systems, but they were very primitive compared to what we have today. So we pretty much focused on the arcade world. We just tried to chronicle the new games coming out, and the people who were into it. We’d interview people who designed the games, or kids who had scored a million points on Centipede or whatever.
In the first issue of Video Games Player, there are a lot of similar features to those found in men’s magazines (Playboy-style comics, a centerfold poster in the middle, etc.). How much influence did you take from men’s magazines?
Yeah. There was that centerfold there. I think it was Zaxxon, because it was a beautiful game at the time. Some of the cartoonists who we used for the men’s magazines, I enlisted them to do some video game cartoons too.
[For the magazine images] my plan was to photograph the game screens, and run the photographs in the magazine. My art director convinced me that photographs of the game screen would not look very good and we needed to hire an illustrator to draw the games. There was a big arcade right [in Times Square] called Playland, so I took [the illustrator] there. This was before computers, so she sketched everything with a pad and pencil. I said, “This is what Donkey Kong looks like. I need the monkey here and I need the barrel here, and I need the Mario here. Draw that.” I brought along a bunch of quarters and gave them away to kids so that they could play the games and she could see what it looked like.
What was the response from readers? Did they want more news? More tips on how to win?
I don’t think they wanted tips on how to win, because at the time there was some best-selling books out that basically walked you through some of these games. Pac-Man and so on. We did provide some tips and hints in the magazine, but mostly I think people wanted news. They wanted to know what was coming out, what companies were working on.
Did the magazine pick up a loyal readership?
Like any magazine we got letters from readers, saying they liked stuff or didn’t like stuff. It wasn’t an overwhelming number. Honestly I don’t think the magazine was all that successful. With circulation or with advertising. It was a little quickie thing that was put out by a small company, and if a company like Esquire had decided to put out a video game magazine, they would have gone all in, and put a lot of money into it. But this was just a little two-bit publishing company.
Did you come to a better appreciation for video games while running the magazine? How much did you immerse yourself in video game culture?
I tried to get into it. I played the games, because you had to to familiarize yourself with the field you’re in. But the funny thing is, when you’re an editor on a magazine, no matter what the field is, people view you as an expert no matter how much you know or don’t know. I didn’t know squat, but everybody acted like I was an expert because I was the editor-in-chief of this magazine. I don’t think I ever really felt the need to become an expert because I wasn’t really into the technology myself. I’m interested in sports, and old technology, and history.
What happened when the magazine folded?
Well I had these credentials as an editor-in-chief, and I basically used that to write articles in the computer field. I had a syndicated newspaper column [on computers] for about 10 years that ran in the Miami Herald and the Philadelphia Inquirer, and other legitimate newspapers, even though I was a total fraud. I didn’t know anything about computers. But I wrote about them.
I didn’t enjoy doing it because I was really an imposter. So I decided to try and write about something that interested me more, which was sports. And I was able to write a couple of books about baseball. So I did that for a few years.
Then in 1990 my son was born, and I started reading a lot of children’s books. So I thought, let’s try writing for kids, and as soon as I started writing for kids, I thought, “This is what I’m good at! This is what I should have been doing all along!” I switched over to writing for kids and I’ve been doing it ever since.
How do you feel about you and the magazine’s place and contribution to video game culture?
There are some people in the field who are really pioneers. Like [Atari founder] Nolan Bushnell and Ralph Baer [the “Father of Video Games”], and they’re really the innovators. If I contributed in some very, very small way to the culture, then I’ll take that and be proud of it.
This interview was edited and condensed.