“Daycare for adults” – GamesMaster and the shifting cultural capital of videogames

GamesMaster: The Oral History, Written by Dominik Diamond, edited by Jack Templeton

By Neil Merrett

To children and teens of the 1980s and 1990s, videogames were sold and commonly regarded as something to do while waiting for real adult life to start. A hobby to be grown out of, as it were. The television show GamesMaster, broadcast on the UK’s Channel 4 between 1992 and 1998, would serve as an early attempt to look at the wider cultural and economic significance of Super Mario Bros and Sonic the Hedgehog. It dared to suggest that maybe games were becoming a way of life to the wider populace. It would also experiment with whether it was also possible get real world clout from stunt playing two Virtua Cop 2 cabinets at the same time.

“My god, we built an arcade in a church.”

This is not a bad mission statement for an upstart TV show about a seemingly juvenile passion that was viewed as appealing only to children, juvenile teenagers and those with time to waste on interactive entertainment. GamesMaster was ultimately devised as a show that would do away with the usual rules about worthy pursuits and spectator sports but suggesting there was a real world value to videogames – even while often laughing at itself and the absurdity of competitive button mashing.

As Dave Perry, a games writer initially hired as a researcher on the show stated, filming an unproven television format inside an actual church felt a suitably rebellious and anarchic statement for the show’s first series.

Perry – latterly known as ‘The GamesAnimal’ and a figure who would go on to become one of this show’s most well know personalities and commentators – said of the show’s seemingly sacrilegious setting: “We arranged for arcade machines to be delivered and placed around the perimeter and for Sony to provide monitors so the crowds could watch the action from the pews.”

“To this day, I remember the way I felt when I walked into the old church on the first day of filming.”

The comments have been made in the book, GamesMaster: The Oral History. This is a Kickstarter-backed publication that seeks to be the definitive story of the show. It charts the genesis, history and ongoing fandom for the show from the majority of key figures working both in front of the camera and behind the scenes.

The show was in equal measures comedic, sarcastic, irreverent and puerile, while also being ground-breaking in seeking to highlight the appeal and growing sophistication of a several decades-old media that was in the ascendency towards mainstream acceptance.

A shift to the mainstream

GamesMaster: The Oral History is a book about the invention of a TV show that sought to chronicle the interactive appeal of videogames.  The show itself was built on the idea of showcasing the latest games of the era and building contests out of them for its young audience and celebrities to compete in. It also threw in some reviews and cheats delivered by famed broadcaster and amateur astronomer Sir Patrick Moore with a digitised headpiece on.

Granted, some games were more telegenic than others in terms of spectacle.  Luckily there were always attractive soap stars to serve as competitors to distract the audience.

As the show developed, GamesMaster host Dominik Diamond would increasingly travel the world producing features about the rapidly shifting technical capabilities of games, and the growing amount of money being made from developers over the course of several generations of consoles.

With his tongue in his cheek for most if its run, he would also attempt to jokingly wed Europop icon Whigfield on air – if she could she prove her prowess at collecting red coins on Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island.

True, the show was more often about the effective delivery of a large number of innuendos about joysticks, pushing buttons and the often-lonely pursuit of playing with oneself, but it was also notably a primetime television show about a largely misunderstood pastime.

As noted in the book, executive producer Jane Hewland sold the show on the idea that GamesMaster could fit under Channel 4’s sports remit. As the book noted: “Watching people play videogames was a spectator activity.”

Mike Miller, the channel’s then head of sport, noted that this worked for the remit that the channel was founded on. The show was eventually approved on these terms. 

He said: “Channel 4 launched on the idea of giving a voice to cultures and people that otherwise weren’t heard.”

It seems absurd to now think of gaming as a culture without a strong voice.  Videogames are now a ubiquitous part of the cultural landscape and a multi-billion dollar industry that seems to only grow in monetary and cultural value in an increasingly online society.

“Daycare for adults”

Dominik Diamond, a main writer of the book and host of all but one of the series in GamesMaster’s original run, noted that the show was straddling the line of a comedy show that both loved games, while also not taking itself or the audience too seriously.

Diamond writes in the book: “The biggest mistake you could make on GamesMaster from series 5 onwards was taking yourself too seriously. It’s supposed to be daycare for adults.”

Outside of the comedic and irreverent approach of a show and host having a thoroughly good time in the 90s – videogames were increasingly becoming serious business. This was particularly the case with the launch of the Sony PlayStation during the middle of the show’s 90s run. The capabilities of the emerging generation of CD-based consoles allowed for closer collaboration with influential musical acts and also saw the tastes of its core audience evolving to embrace club culture and style. Gamers were growing up – at least in theory.

The PlayStation technical power didn’t necessarily always mean games would be better in the 32-Bit era, but it meant you could suddenly stick the Prodigy’s iconic track Firestarter in your futuristic racing game and get credence among a slightly older, more affluent audience that were harder to dismiss by advertisers and broadcasters..  This was particularly the case as an entire generation of gamers would grow into adults theoretically capable of generating their own pocket money.

GamesMaster, as a show, certainly straddled several different and influential eras of gaming.  But the show, like most of society of that time, couldn’t have predicted the central role gaming would go on to play in global culture. To be fair, many of the societal changes that have occurred through the developments of online technologies seemed like complete science fiction at the time.  This was a period when a full colour game boy seemed like a distant dream.

The internet not only changed the types of game that were being made, but also helped reflect an the increasingly diverse audience and change how society socialises and engages with each other.

As Richard Wilcox, the show’s associate producer for series 5 writes in GamesMaster: The Oral History, games were moving towards becoming actual e-sports. This meant that some titles will be played and watched by millions of people around the world through streaming platforms at any given time.

However, no one would have realised this at the time, even those individuals working on the GamesMaster team.

Wilcox noted that there were some hints of the burgeoning development of gaming culture in the arcades of the 90s through certain titles being produced by Sega Namco and Capcom. These games were built on not only around appealing to the person playing the game, but also those watching. This was especially the case when player by  ‘elite’ gamers.

Wilcox said: “We wanted to showcase the very best of this new breed of players. So we staged live events in the studio where the players would attempt feats of gameplay that really demonstrated just how deep, sophisticated and engaging the new games and gamers were.”

He said that he himself watched a lot of TV looking for inspiration, particularly around how to make the act of spectator sports engaging and communicative.

He said: “I’d watch how they recapped long matches, or how they did analysis post and pre-match. I’d then push for us to do similar things.”

“In retrospect, it’s all part of that move to treating games as a sport. I have no doubt we were years ahead of everyone in that, and there’s still things we did that nobody else has thought about doing.”

As the series developed, GamesMaster tried to create more skills-based challenges by looking to pit beat-em-up specialists from around the world in more telegenic endurance challenges and tournaments. These same tournaments are now globally watched spectacles in their own right with huge cash prizes.

Viral broadcasting

GamesMaster equally sought to look at the viral appeal of trying to master a game that could be played with some ludicrous handicap as a means of trying to impress fellow nerds.  In effect, the show was broadcasting stunt speed runs on mainstream television decades before Youtube and Twitch would allow players to build global audiences of millions to show off how they have learnt to play and master video games at an almost superhuman level.

As Dominik Diamond himself noted in the book, the online world of videogames is now largely viewed via competitive online gaming or walkthroughs of both popular or obscure game titles on services such as Twitch or YouTube.

An individual’s enjoyment of these sometime deeply personal broadcasts will differ depending on their tolerance of the huge number of professional and aspiring streamers that in some cases go on to become megastars in their own right.

For some gamers in their 30s, the art of game streaming never got better than One Credit Classic’s playthrough of Minder on the Spectrum.

GamesMaster – a legacy

It would be deeply unscientific, but probably fair to say that, nearly a quarter of the century after the final episode in the original run of GamesMaster, many of the show’s audience have failed to grow out of games.

Instead that original audience and subsequent generations of children, have chosen to grow up with games as part of their lives, just as is the case with music, movies, tv shows and annoyingly catchy advert jingles.  Videogames shape us in much the same way as a critically adored book or utterly brainless movie does.

This may not make audiences ‘mature gamers’, but games are certainly no longer being consumed as something just for children, as was the common perception of the medium in the 90s.

For many of the show’s cast and crew, their professional careers would not necessarily bee focused on games.  Dominik Diamond has worked both in and out of broadcasting in the subsequent decades.  Now living in Canada, Diamond is a broadcaster and writer on a range of topics that just happens to sometimes include writing columns on not only being a gamer, but also a parent and someone who has to pass as an adult.

Even years after the show, GamesMaster fans may find themselves coming across Diamond’s writing on games and what it means to be part of first generation of parents that are committed gamers themselves.

As Gamesmaster gets older, so too does the original audience that watched the show.

It is therefore quite touching to see Diamond’s writing looking at what it means to enjoy and struggle through gaming alongside real life – not just as a solitary pursuit and distraction – but also something shared with those around us, both present and long-gone.

“Twas the best of times…..”

What does it mean to want to love a game, or wish for it to be loved by those whose opinions we value the most?  Is a gaming masterpiece enjoyed by oneself ultimately as valuable or important as some obscure party game shared via a group of friends that have long since gone their separate ways?  Can you love the concept of a game or what it means to someone without actually wanting to play through it?

These are sort of the questions that some of Diamond’s modern writing touches on. 

These pieces also arguably reflect the broad experiences many of us have around what it means to grow – and in some cases not grow at all – as a gamer.

As Squareblind.co.uk noted a good many moons ago, “Where once we used seasons as a means of charting the passing of time, there are arguably a growing number among us who define stages of our lives in the eras of the Sega Megadrive, PlayStation and perhaps even – just for one peculiar Christmas – the Nintendo Wii.”

Looking back on the best and worst of life can often become an exercise in attributing and linking specific periods of time to certain songs, relationships, people, movies and perhaps some beloved or hated piece of software or hardware. 

Games therefore have a hugely significant power in our collective memories, even if they just felt like a pleasurable and sometimes frustrating method for wasting away a few hours of time in between the next ‘big moment’ or change in life.

GamesMaster harks back to an era where this cultural significance of videogames was not yet fully experienced or understood.  But it did point to a future where the interactive nature of the medium would forge different and deeply personnel connections with audiences around the world

True, the shows serves largely as a lighted hearted and entertaining relic of a long-gone era.  This was also certainly a time where media and culture that was a lot more male and whiter and hetero normative in its outlook – despite having a no doubt much more diverse audience.

But whether you watched the show or not, we are all now living in a post-GamesMaster world. If nothing else, it’s nice to be able to laugh at that fact.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s