Voice Module








In Memory
Sean Pettibone

Book Review: Bill Kunkel's Confessions of the Game Doctor

Anyone who grew up during the golden age of video games back in the 1980's is likely to have fond memories of "Electronic Games" magazine, the seminal publications which set the standards for gaming journalism that few have reached. Now, one of the original troika behind the magazine, Bill Kunkel has published his long-awaited memoirs with "Confessions of the Game Doctor", an entertaining look back on his distinguished career covering the rise of electronic gaming. The book is filled with lively stories about some of the most influential people and characters, making this one of the best insider views of the industry to date.

While many books have covered the history of electronic gaming through the prism of large companies and publishers, there's been little discussion on the origins of electronic gaming journalism. The story, as told by legendary journalist Bill Kunkel is a fascinating one, filled with zigs and zags, ups and downs and unexpected turns of events. For example, the origin of Electronic Games shows the humble beginnings that didn't exactly portent great things. Along with long-time co-editor Arnie Katz, Kunkel became one of the first journalists to cover the field. Before the age of blogs and websites, electronic games were considered such a backwater that they could barely fill a single column in Video magazine in the late 1970's. While Atari's 2600 releases dominated the field, there was little for them to report back then until a little company known as Activision began releasing third-party software for the VCS. As the industry began to explode and grow, Katz and Kunkel began to realize that the industry would become something much larger, and convinced Video's publisher, Reese Communications to start what would become the seminal publication known as Electronic Games.

Now, nearly a quarter-century later, Kunkel has published his long-awaited memoir, Confessions of the Game Doctor, which not only explores Electronic Games, the magazine, but the industry of electronic games as well. Beginning with his early stints at Harvey and Marvel Comics, the book traces the almost accidental meeting of fate between just another writer and a burgeoning industry about to explode. The book itself follows a somewhat linear form as we meet some of the major players in the industry, including several luminaries like Activision's Jim Levy to name just one figure. There are many interesting passages throughout the book that detail the carnal, depraved atmosphere of the industry at the time, as well as a behind the scenes look at the functioning of a hot magazine at its peak. The best parts of Confessions lie in these anecdotes, which bring a human face to what could have been a dry recitation of numbers and corporate maneuvers. Many of the stories are funny and entertaining, though there are a few that are somewhat tragic but the book is more optimistic than pessimistic, overall.

Fans of the classic gaming era can get an insider's look at EG, which follows the ascent and fall of the video game industry from its founding in 1981, to the sorry end three years later. However, the book doesn't dwell on what's known as the "Great Crash", and the stories about the Nintendo and Genesis era are quite interesting, including Kunkel's participation in several trials, which can become a bit tedious, but aren't dull. The trial coverage is probably the most unexpected aspect of Confessions, but gamers interested in the nuts and bolts of the industry will probably find it fascinating to see how these battles over Intellectual Property unfolded. While the famous KC Munchkin decision may seem to be ancient news, some of the law decided in these trials is still applied and very much relevant today. This means that even modern gamers will find something interesting to see how these verdicts and settlements were ultimately handed down. (We're expressly leaving out many of the specifics so as not to ruin your enjoyment of the book.) There are also plenty of other lighter interludes that aren't quite as intellectually taxing, which gives the book a good balance between these aspects.

The writing in Confessions is typically Kunkel with his trademark style very much in evidence throughout. The copy is consistently interesting, straightforward and breezy, personable but not self-indulgent. While those who didn't grow up with the original EG might feel left out of all the fuss, there was a time when the arrival of a print magazine was still a big deal. While EG spawned may imitators, the fact remains that few of the others came close to capturing its majestic art design, intelligent yet passionate writing style or the genuine excitement and thrill that the magazine conveyed. Confessions offers an excellent viewpoint into what things were actually like back then - though those who remember the more 'innocent' covers will probably be quite surprised what went into making those pages. Without giving too much away, let's just say that there are more than a few 'surprises' that will probably make your head spin. Of course, the EG portions take up just a few sections of the book, and there are interesting anecdotes about Bill's career as a game designer. One incendiary chapter about the development of a Batman PC game should be required reading for any fan who's ever wondered how a spectacular comic or movie gets lost in translation from celluloid to silicon. This also makes great reading for aspiring game developers looking to discover some of the many pitfalls that can await them. However, this isn't a cautionary tale, since the reader never feels like they're listening to a bitter diatribe. Even in some of Confessions' more unhappy chapters, there always seems to be some humor, and this levity makes the book even more enjoyable to read.

To enhance its witty and interesting text, Confessions of the Game Doctor also includes a number of behind the scenes photos and documents throughout. Some of these include personal photos of Kunkel with celebrities and gaming legends, while others are personal notes, all of which serves to complete a picture of the life of a high-profile gaming journalist. While the book includes several significant events in gaming history, it's a personal memoir, not a scholarly recitation of facts, though it definitely serves an important purpose, since it gives readers an exciting glimpse into what things were like at the dawn of electronic gaming journalism. It's definitely one of the more enjoyable, and personally interesting, books on gaming that's been released and it's accessible tone allows you to get a sense of the author and his friends without succumbing to gossip and innuendo for cheap thrills. Overall, this is a superb book by one of gaming's most accomplished and entertaining writers and is a must-read for anyone who loves video games.

Disclosure: The author of this review spent several happy years in the mid-90's working for the grea KKW collective, writing reviews for several web-sites including Escapade and Inside Games. It was quite an honor and I found them to be honest, straightforward, and generous. They inspired me to write about games in the first place, and the opportunity to work with them was an experience never to be forgotten. Their excellence, knowledge and experience remains unquestioned, and these attributes continue to set the standards that I'm still trying to live up to.

> For more information, including ordering instructions, visit www.rolentapress.com

- Michael Palisano

< Back to Index Page