Tuesday, February 26, 2008

THE ORIGINAL WORKING CLASS HEROES: Miners, plumbers, trashmen in early 80's games

There has been a lot of articles on gender and race in video games, but has anyone investigated the representation of class? As far as I know, the answer is no. You might say: "What class system do Green Elves have, anyway?" Or, in a more scholarly fashion: "Class is a shaky concept anyway, different from one country to another." You would be right, and yes, I am going to be comfortably vague about the definition of what is working class.
Nevertheless, browsing through my library of early 80's British games, I have found out that there is a substantial share of video game characters that have mundane, hard, exhausting, and generally unenviable jobs. I am not going to say that the proto-game industry was more nice, fair and caring. I see it as an opportunity to explore the relationship between hard-core and casual games, and between technology, game design and content, of which character design is an essential part. It's also an excuse to rant about miner Willy and that I cannot miss.
But let me start with a 1983 British hit, Trashman, featuring you (you can name the character yourself) as a trashman going down the street, collecting trash and getting fired ruthlessly if you are not fast enough. By the way, the advert that's displayed on screen before the gameplay starts reads:

Trashman required: must be alert, nimble footed and able to hold his drink."

When you're not fast enough, the following announcement shows up:

The subordination and the class distinctions between the main character and the people who live on the street is further emphasized by the fact that stepping on the grass, and therefore violating their property, makes you run out of time more rapidly. However, if you don't step on the grass, the benevolent house-owners invite you in for a funny chat and give you bonus time. Ian Bogost would probably call this a procedural argument about subservience. Overall, this game offers a good deal of social realism. In retrospect, the people on retro gaming forums are aware of its uniqueness and also Britishness:

"Only the British could make a game about collecting trash, but with the correct humour it pulls it off superbly. Very original and playable, I recommend a blast of this, don't forget to pop in to get the tips! " - Fizza on the C64 Lemon Forum

But the trashman wasn't the only one. Released in 1983 for Sinclair ZX Spectrum, the pioneering platformer game Manic Miner saw the debut of the extraordinary Willy. (Meanwhile, in the mushroom kingdom, Mario changed his profession from carpenter to plumber.) 1984 marked the debut of another English working-class hero, mechanic Wally Week, in the action-adventure game Pyjamarama. In one of the sequels, he was joined by a troupe of other struggling characters, including Tom the punk rocker and Harry the hippie. Another hero, an antropomorphic mole named Monty, appeared in a series of adventure platformers, including Monty On The Run from 1985, in which he tries to escape the police who are chasing him after he took part in a miners' strike (!). This was quite topical, given that 1984 was the year of the ill-fated miners' strikes all over Britain. Today, it sounds like an inspiration for a socially aware serious game. Back then, it was fun, and a relative blockbuster.
These games were huge hits, and although they originated on the Spectrum, the premier UK platform, conversions for other major home computers appeared in no time.

The limited graphic capabilities of early consoles and computers made everything look like a jerky bunch of pixels, which was alright for starship science-fiction (the future is made out of pixels, anyway) or abstract games. But if tiny characters appeared, they could hardly be taken seriously - even the cover art was usually cartoony.
Of all the games mentioned aboved, only Trashman, the scruffy forerunner of the Diner Dashes of today, uses the actual procedure of the job as game design foundation. In the other three games, the game mechanics could pretty much accomodate any character. Jumping around as Mario or Miner Willy could be the same as jumping around with a train conductor or an orchestra conductor. None of their profession-specific skills are used in the game. The choice of characters and monsters was rather arbitrary, although the introduction of the miners and assorted mole people had one game design motivation. That was the fact that the game world was divided into a series of "caverns", closed-off one-screen levels, that were a perfect fit for the underground dwellers.
In Jet Set Willy, a sequel to Manic Miner, Willy is suddenly elevated to high society, because he got rich after finding all the treasures guarded by evil telephones and vicious toilets of the first game. This time, he is wandering through his huge mansion, cleaning up the mess after his "new-found friends" who came to his party. Needless to say, the gameplay hasn't changed much. What changed is Willy's attire: instead of hard hat he has a top-hat.
An interesting class-related narrative element appears, though: the objective of the game is to (once again!) collect all the trash so that Willy's housekeeper Maria lets him to his bedroom. Here, a working-class character makes the miner-gone-socialite perform the same actions as in the original game. It is no surprise that the voluptuous Maria was interpreted by many gamers who did not read the story that came with the original copy of the game as Willy's wife - and that after collecting all the mess, he will be rewarded by some adult fun.
The crazy surrealism of the Willy and Monty Mole games only highlight the down-to-earth, gritty look of the Wally Week games. In the action-adventure game1 Everyone's A Wally, the background art is detailed enough to resemble a small and rather poor British town. In this game, the "gang" of five characters (including a toddler) have to crack safe and get the money. They are not criminals, though - they are a family. And although the game is supposed to be funny (there was even a cheesy comedy song on the flip side of the cassette tape - call it "multi-media"2), the very fact that you're assisting an impoverished family in their criminal pursuits is disturbing, in an exhilirating way.

As the time went on, working-class characters started to disappear from games for both Spectrum and other platforms. Mario seems to be the only surviving blue-collar gaming icon, worth billions and franchised into infinity. He is an incredibly distinct and well-designed character, no doubt about it, but right now, he is probably the only video game icon who has had a real job. Real-life activities moved into the casual games category with predecessors like the 80's hits Trashman, Burgertime, Cookie, Tapper or Paperboy and recent hits like Diner Dash or Cooking Mama.
Thinking about the reasons, we come across an interesting thing: all the Willys, Wallys and Montys (and Trashman, too) cannot attack, let alone destroy, the monsters (or bloodthirsty household appliances) that threaten them. They are basically powerless. Can you see the Marxist implications?
It would be foolish to design a character with a weapon that cannot be used. If a game is designed with no weapons in mind, harmless Mario (let's forget the jumping part for now) can do the job. But as the requirements on interactivity with environment went up, the characters that just avoid the danger were replaced with those can actively fight against it. Eventually, hard-core games went on to be associated with guys with guns, and orcs, war or both. Serious business.
That was the case with the British 8-bit industry, too. Although it retained some of its domestic, modest and humorous appeal, around 1986, working-class heroes gave way to fantasy, science-fiction and military heroes almost completely3. The follow-up to Trashman bombed, Wally Week went for a jungle adventure out of the ordinary in Three Weeks In Paradise, which marked the end of the series. Monty Mole was dropped and later, his publisher, Gremlin Graphics, gave birth to the offshoot company Core Design, creators of the aristocratic wonder woman Lara Croft4. Good bye, working-class heroes. Or maybe, see you in a casual game. And bring your tools with you.

1)The action-adventure genre was basically a multi-screen platformer with the possibility to carry objects and use them at the right spots. It is often omitted from the adventure game histories, although it shares the essential puzzle-solving element.
2)The affordance of cassette tape as a data medium was the fact that it could include audio without any fancy digitization.
3)Of course, there were also animal heroes and various kinds of blob and jelly.
4)In this little article, I do not intend to criticize representation of class in contemporary games.


  1. It could be that I'm not quite getting Raph Koster's Metaplace, but it seems like one thing the Metaplace client will be able to do is scale up/down from text to 2D to full 3D... if that model takes off, does that mean that we'll have environments that are -- at least potentially -- equally lush in text descriptors as graphics?

  2. Oops... last comment meant for the next post!