Donkey Kong, Duke Nukem, Oregon Trail, Grand Theft Auto: The creative geniuses behind the most important video games ever…

Longform.org's guide to the greatest long articles ever written.
June 18 2011 7:54 AM

The Longform.org Guide to Video Game Visionaries

The creative geniuses behind the most important video games ever made, from Donkey Kong to Oregon Trail to Grand Theft Auto.

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Every weekend, Longform.org shares five great stories from its archive with Slate. For a daily selection of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform.org or follow @longformorg on Twitter.

Are video games art? Game designers have unquestionably left an indelible mark on those who grew up with their creations. While filmmakers bask in fame, the artists behind even the most legendary titles work mostly in anonymity. Perhaps these five stories will change that.

Master of Play Nick Paumgarten • The New Yorker • December 2010

A profile of Shigeru Miyamoto, the man who invented Donkey Kong, Mario, and the Wii:

"The game he came up with was Donkey Kong. He had in mind a scenario based on Popeye, but Nintendo was unable to secure the rights, so he invented a new set of characters. The hero, the player's avatar, was a carpenter named Jumpman. (Miyamoto had initially called him Mr. Video, with the intention of using him in every game, much in the way that, he said, Hitchcock appears in many of his own films.) Jumpman's pet gorilla had kidnapped his girlfriend, Pauline, and escaped with her to the top of a construction site. The object of the game was to climb up through the girders while dodging the gorilla's projectiles, and then vanquish the gorilla and rescue the girl. The goal, in other words, was to get to the end of the game, not just to pile up points. ('Donkey' was the word Miyamoto found in a Japanese-English dictionary for 'stubborn' or 'goofy.' 'Kong' was a word for gorilla.)"

Forging the Oregon Trail Jessica Lussenhop • City Pages • January 2011

How a group of roommates in Minneapolis created the most enduring educational game ever:

"With no monitor, the original version of Oregon Trail was played by answering prompts that printed out on a roll of paper. At 10 characters per second, the teletype spat out, "How much do you want to spend on your oxen team?" or, "Do you want to eat (1) poorly (2) moderately or (3) well?" Students typed in the numerical responses, then the program chugged through a few basic formulas and spat out the next prompt along with a status update."

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Spacewar Stewart Brand • Rolling Stone • December 1972

Chronicling the viral spread of the early video game Spacewar through computer science departments around the country, with students hacking in their own variations on the game and passing it on, until it eventually arrived in coffee shops at 25 cents per play:

"The pride of any hacker with a new program is its 'features.' Fresh forms of Spacewar with exotic new features proliferated. As Russell explains it, everything at MIT had priority over Spacewar, but it was an educational computer after all, and developing new programs (of Spacewar) was educational, and then those programs needed testing ... The initial game of simply two spaceships and their torpedoes didn't last long. Gravity was introduced."

How Success Killed Duke Nukem Clive Thompson • Wired • December 2009

Duke Nukem 3D made its creators filthy rich. Trying to complete its sequel nearly destroyed them:

"Normally, videogames take two to four years to build; five years is considered worryingly long. But the Duke Nukem Forever team worked for 12 years straight. As one patient fan pointed out, when development on Duke Nukem Forever started, most computers were still using Windows 95, Pixar had made only one movie—Toy Story—and Xbox did not yet exist."

Creating His 'Living World in a Box' David Kushner • GamePro • July 2010

A profile of Dave Jones, the designer of Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto:

"Jones's team spent months toying around with the city, filling the streets with dinosaurs (seriously) and then cars. At first, under the working title Race 'N Chase, gamers actually played the good guy—a cop busting robbers. The cops-and-robbers setup, which would run through the entire GTA franchise as well as Crackdown and APB, appealed to Jones's core aesthetic—hooking players immediately by casting them into a familiar world. "Cops and robbers is a natural rule set that everybody understands," he says."

Have a favorite piece that we missed? Leave the link in the comments or tweet it to @ longformorg. For more great writing about video games, check out Longform.org's complete archive.

Aaron Lammer is the co-founder of Longform.org.

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