4. Screen Selfies and High Scores
Published: 05.07.2019
in the series Screens Shot
Previous Next

This week I’d like to return to a question that will only become more important as we move closer to the present: what exactly does a screenshot capture? What forms of life are made visible in the documentation of our interaction with computational screens? What cultures of use arise from or are premised on the ability to share the often intimate ways we use computational technologies? To help answer these questions I want to examine a particular use case for early screenshots, one that seems uniquely important for the way it exemplifies a set of cultural practices that have only grown in prominence as more and more of our visual culture becomes mediated through the computer screen.

Spread from Run Magazine (September 1986)

As I discussed in my last post, one of the first widespread uses of computer screenshots was in documenting the graphical output of early digital games. In this context the screenshot served two parallel functions. First, early video game screenshots were used by game companies and industry magazines to advertise and sell graphical software. This may seem obvious and unremarkable, given the contemporary emphasis on graphical fidelity as a measure of technological development in the selling and advertising of video games, but prior to the 1980s screen images were only a small part of a much broader ecosystem of game advertising and play. Rather than reproduce screen images directly, most early game advertisements, box art, and arcade cabinet displays would interpret game graphics as colorful illustrations that evoked the setting or narrative of a given game (fantasy, space, dungeon, sport, etc.) in place of its actual screen appearance. 1Raiford Guins, “Beyond the Bezel: Coin-Op Arcade Video Game Cabinets as Design History”, in Journal of Design History 28, no. 4 (2015): 405–426. This was due in part to the minimal and often abstract appearance of these early games. Without the supplement of box art and text it was not always clear what a game’s graphics were meant to show, such that on its own a screenshot might tell us very little about the game itself, what it meant, or how it was to be played. In this early moment the screenshot serves as documentation of a game’s appearance, but would seem to require the supplementation of these paratextual materials to produce a coherent sense of what a game was and was for.

These images were highly specialized in their production and use, requiring special photographic rigs and development tools to ensure clear images that appeared unmediated by the screen itself. Taking a screenshot in this context was a professional practice, quite unlike contemporary vernacular applications. That said, alongside the rise of professional screenshots for advertising and commercial use we see a set of colloquial techniques used by players and enthusiasts to document informal modes of performative play. Put simply: in this period players begin to photograph their screens.

A collection of Activision patches awarded to players for submitting high score screenshots.

As video games entered the home at the end of the 1970s they brought with them a culture of competitive play that had developed in arcades and other public spaces. 2Carly A. Kocurek, “Gaming’s Gold Medalists: Twin Galaxies and the Rush to Competitive Gaming” in Coin-Operated Americans: Rebooting Boyhood at the Video Game Arcade (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 37–66. In this context high scores were an internal system that could be used to measure and demarcate player skill, and game companies looking to reproduce the competitive environment of the arcade encouraged players to document high scores and skillful play in the form of rudimentary screenshots. The earliest and perhaps most famous example of this practice was developed by the game company Activision, who would publish target scores and accomplishments in the user manual of every game and encourage players to try and meet these set goals. If a player was successful they could photograph their screen and mail the accompanying image to the company. For their efforts they would receive a game-specific iron-on patch that could be affixed to a jean jacket or school backpack – one of the earliest examples of a “game achievement” like those found in almost all popular contemporary video games. Similar campaigns were subsequently popularized by gaming magazines like Nintendo Power, which encouraged its readers throughout the 1980s to document their high scores to be included in a list of “NES Achievers” published monthly in the back of the magazine. For many players this would have been the first screenshot they had ever taken, and they would have had no knowledge of how to properly photograph a screen image in this way. To train players in how to capture their screens Nintendo included a set of instructions at the end of each “NES Achievers” article, detailing best practices for documenting screen images using a simple home setup.

Training players in best practices for screenshot documentation, Nintendo Power Vol. 29, 1989.

I want to return once more to the question I began with: what exactly do these screenshots capture? On their surface it would seem these early game screenshots capture player skill and elite forms of play that could be marked or proven with a clearly photographed high score, but on closer examination it becomes clear that these screenshots capture cultures of use that are highly non-normative, and which call into question the very idea of measurable or quantifiable skill in play. Take a classic game like Super Mario Bros. (1985). The NES Achievers page for the game consists exclusively of players who have achieved the maximum score allowed by the game: 9,999,950 points. This number is ridiculous, particularly to anyone who has played Super Mario Bros. and perhaps doesn’t even recall that the game had a scoring system to begin with. Score in Super Mario Bros. functions as a strange vestigial component from arcade play, one that has almost nothing to do with the narrative goals of the game. The idea that maximizing score to this extreme demonstrates player skill seems wrong, but if these scores and their corresponding screenshots do not demonstrate skill, what exactly do they capture about the culture of early gaming? While I cannot claim a definitive answer, it seems likely that these scores index a form of non-normative play whereby players exploit a game glitch to maximize points, with the goal of hitting the point cap of 9,999,950. This mode of play uses point farming as a kind of metagame within Super Mario Bros. that operates largely outside the game as a consciously designed system. 3Stephanie Boluk and Patrick LeMieux, Metagaming: Playing, Competing, Spectating, Cheating, Trading, Making, and Breaking Videogames (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017). Nonetheless, while these scores might not tell us about who the “best” players of a particular game are, they do seem to mark a community of practice invested in these strange and surprising forms of play.

Player Profile with screenshot selfie, Nintendo Power January/February 1989.

Over time this practice of documentation began to shift, and with the release of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in the early 1990s the magazine stopped publishing player high scores. In their place we find the growth of player profiles and other personalized accounts of play, illustrated not with screenshots but with what we might anachronistically describe as “screen selfies.” Here players pose in front of their television screens and consoles not only to capture a moment of play or a numerical achievement, but to place themselves within the frame of the experience of play – to personalize the act of play and its contexts.

This example of early screenshot use may seem strange or niche, particularly to those without an investment in the history of games, but in dwelling on specific use cases we begin to see the importance of screen documentation in capturing forms of use that are otherwise missing from the history of technology. Likewise, in these marginal histories we can see the seeds of practices that will become increasingly prominent as the screenshot grows in popular use to become an arbiter for the veracity of computational actions – a topic I will explore in my final post.

Cancel reply