The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
49. Games People Play

Copyright 2001     Jason Manning     All Rights Reserved
Trivial Pursuit

In Hungary, where its inventor lived, it was called Buvos Kocha, or Magic Cube, but the rest of the world knew it as Rubik's Cube. And it quickly became "the world's most asked-for plaything," according to a buyer for FAO Schwarz, Manhattan's renowned toy store. In 1980, the manufacturing firm Ideal Toy Corporation produced 4.5 million of the Cubes, which retailed from $6 to $10 apiece. Several other companies were quick to unveil similar puzzles. The Cube was the brainchild of a 37-year-old architecture professor named Erno Rubik, who designed the device as a teaching aid to augment the study of three-dimensional objects. It consisted of six sides, each a different color, and each side consisted of three rows, with three "cubies" in each row. The rows could be rotated, and therein lay the challenge -- to scramble the colors and then turn the rows this way and that until the cube was realigned. It sounded simple, but there were 43.2 quintillion potential color patterns -- 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 to be exact.
An English mathematician named Morwen Thistlethwaite is believed to be the first "cubemeister" to realign the puzzle in only 50 moves. A 16-year-old English high schooler, Nicolas Hammond, could do it in 28 seconds. But it took most people hours, if not days, to realign the Cube -- and there were many who just could not do it at all. For them, Rubik's Cube was more appropriately known as the Hungarian Horror. Office managers the world over complained that the highly-addictive Cube reduced their staff's productivity. Some worried that the Cube might have an effect similar to a puzzle developed by American Sam Loyd in the late 1800s -- a puzzle, it was said, that caused insanity in 1,500 people. Schoolteachers confiscated Rubik's Cubes by the thousands. The puzzle could even wreck relationships. A West German woman who gave her husband a Cube for Christmas was filing for divorce within months; her husband had become thoroughly fixated on the puzzle, and paid her no attention at all. Scientists developed algorithms to reduce the number of moves needed for realignment; several wrote books on how to "solve" the riddle of the Cube. For a while, Erno Rubik's ingenious little invention was all the rage, an incredible toy phenomenon.
The same could be said for a board game created by a pair of Canadian newspapermen, sportswriter Scott Abbott and photo editor Chris Haney, on a rainy day in Montreal in 1979. They called it Trivia Pursuit, but Haney's wife suggested Trivial Pursuit. Played on a board with a wheel-shaped pattern, from two to 24 players earned the right to move their playing pieces around the wheel by correctly answering some of the 6,000 questions printed on 1,000 cards. The questions were derived from six categories: entertainment, geography, history, art and literature, sports and leisure, science and nature. The object of the game was to fill up a circular playing piece with different colored wedges that could only be acquired by landing on a particular space on the board. The first player to fill his playing piece moved to the center of the wheel and, to win, had to correctly answer one final question selected by his opponents.
Haney and Abbott, with the former's brother John and his friend Ed Werner, formed a company, rounded up $40,000 from 34 investors (including a newspaper copyboy), and in 1981 made 1,100 games, which were sold to retailers at a loss. In a matter of weeks the sets were gone and the retailers were clamoring for more. Haney, Abbott and company made 20,000 more and sold them too. An American game company, Selchow and Righter (makers of Parcheesi), cut a deal to manufacture Trivial Pursuit for the U.S. market, targeting 1,800 buyers at the 1983 New York Toy Fair with a direct mail sales pitch. The game became an instant hit in the States. By late 1983, 3.5 million had been sold. The following year sales topped 20 million. In time, gross sales receipts for the game would exceed $1 billion, and Trivial Pursuit would be produced in 18 languages with a number of different versions -- Sports, Star Wars and Disney to name a few. (At one point it seemed all of Hollywood was hooked on a Silver Screens version.)
But the biggest entertainment phenomenon of the Eighties was not a puzzle or a board game. Video games became the most significant development in popular culture since the advent of television. Critics complained that the millions of "vidkids" (mostly teenage boys) were being corrupted by the games; they spent too much money and wasted too much time that would be better spent on other pursuits, like studying. Opponents said that video games glorified violence and encouraged compulsive behavior. Some communities, like Mesquite, Texas and Snellville, Georgia, banned video arcades or restricted access to them. Proponents countered that the games promoted eye-to-hand coordination, sharpened math and other skills, absorbed teen frustration and gave kids a sense of accomplishment.
The leading video game producer in 1981 was Atari, the company responsible for the vidgame prototype, Pong, and which had a huge hit with Asteroids. (The first International Asteroids Tournament was held in Washington in November 1981.) While Atari saw its revenues double, to $415 million, in 1980, the Bally Corporation profited immensely from Pac-Man and Space Invaders, not to mention the ownership of 250 arcades. Japan's Nintendo was an up-and-coming challenger to the 80% share of the vidgame market held by Atari and Bally, aided by the popularity of Donkey Kong. At 25 cents a shot, the weekly average income derived from video game machines was $200 to $800; that kind of money guaranteed that video games would not be relegated to arcades; soon they were everywhere, in bars, convenience stores and theater lobbies.
They were in private homes, too. While filming Jaws, Steven Spielberg became addicted, and bought eight games (costing $2,000 to $4,000 apiece) for his home. Most people couldn't afford arcade-style machines, however. While game units that utilized a television set had been available in the Seventies, it wasn't until the 1980s that improved technology made home versions comparable to the "real thing" found in arcades. In 1981 the number of homes equipped to play video games soared from 2% to 8% of the 80 million homes with TV. This was just the beginning. In 18 months, Atari sold 7 million Pac-Man cartridges at up to $40 a unit for the home market. And while many parents were dubious, the U.S. Defense Department wasn't; the Army used Atari consultants to create a table-top tank gunnery game called MK-60. "It's important," said the Pentagon's Major Jack Thorpe, "to have training devices that don't appear so obviously to be training devices." A 1983 seminar at Harvard entitled "Video Games and Human Development" concluded that video games were, potentially, the most powerful teaching tool of all time. The games were interactive and encouraged the use of complex cognitive skills. And since they required extremely high response rates they were highly motivating as well; their "capacity for eliciting attention," according to Stephen Leff of the Harvard Medical School, could be used to stimulate the mentally ill.
The video game market was so lucrative in the early Eighties that dozens of companies scrambled to grab their share of the profits. "Our industry is in chaos," said William Grubb, president of Imagic (makers of Demon Attack and Cosmic Ark), in 1983. Atari lost $356 million that year, laid off a third of its workforce and moved all its manufacturing facilities to Taiwan and Hong Kong. Mattel lost over $200 million, as well, and profits were off 85% at Bally. This was due not to faltering interest in video games, but rather the onslaught of competition from firms like Coleco, Imagic, Parker Bros. and Avalon Hill. Retailers overestimated demand, resulting in severe overstock that in turn led to price-slashing, reducing revenues. Experts predicted that one out of every four video game producers would go out of business. It was a classic case of Darwinism -- survival of the fittest. About 20% of the 10,000 video arcades open for business in 1982 closed their doors the following year. Another development was the increased availability of personal home computers; this spurred a growing dissatisfaction with Atari and Mattel machines that could not be used for anything besides game playing. Companies like Parker Bros. focused their efforts on producing multiple versions of games that could be played on a variety of systems. Its Q-Bert game, which could be used on eight different systems, was No. 1 on Billboard's Top 25 vidgame chart almost as soon as it was released.
Then Dragon's Lair, the first game to use a laser video disc, came on the scene. Its amazing, movie-like graphics made other games pale by comparison. California-based Cinematronics, the maker of Dragon's Lair, sold 10,000 consoles to arcades at an average price of $4,300 each -- all in three months time. Other laser-disc games, like Data East USA's Bega's Battle and Mylstar Electronic's M.A.C.H. 3 quickly followed. "The previous generation of video games was primitive compared with what is coming," said Clive Smith, Yankee Group of Boston's electronics industry expert. "This is not a fad. Interactive electronic entertainment is here to stay."

Video Game Bandits
In 1982 Atari filed a $350 million patent-infringement suit against Coleco, charging that Coleco sold an adapter that made their machines compatible with Atari game cartridges. A few weeks earlier Atari took Imagic to court, claiming copyright infringement of the game Phoenix. Bally, makers of Pac-Man, spent millions in legal fights to protect its rights to the game against the manufacturers of copycat products like Puck Man, Gobbler and Hungry Sailor. Video game producers argued that games ought to be protected under the "audio-visual" section of the copyright code. But copyrights protected only the expression of ideas, not the ideas themselves. Were the mathematical formulas that made video games function a creative adaptation deserving of protection? Most courts said yes. But in 1981, a federal judge ruled that a Pac-Man imitation named Jawbreaker was not an infringement. And Franklin Computer, which had duplicated the Apple computer operating system so that its Ace 1000 model could use Apple's software, won a ruling in federal court that the system could not be copyrighted since it was an integral part of the machine.


Newsweek, 16 November 1981, 20 December 1982

Time, 23 March 1981, 6 June 1983, 17 October 1983, 24 October 1983

U.S. News & World Report, 20 February 1984