Posted on November 28, 2008
Atari Nerd Interviews The First Mainstream Game Journalist – Michael Schrage Of Rolling Stone
“the difference between an atari CES party (and after party) and bob guccione’s ‘caligula’ was that atari made bob look like a cheapskate with less attractive women…”
-Michael Schrage, 2008
Michael Schrage was one of pioneers of video game journalism. A few months prior to the first Issue of Electronic Games magazine, Schrage was hired by Rolling Stone magazine to write their technology column. Out of the gates he proceeded to write some of the very first stories about video games and video game culture for the mass market. The guys from Electronic Games had come from the ranks of sci-fi fanzines and comic books and made heir magazine into the first real video game publication for fan-boys. At the same time, Computer Gaming world was publishing directly at the wargaming grognard market. However, while most of the mainstream press (and by 1981 Rolling Stone was certainly mainstream) was busy completely ignoring video games, Schrage was writing regular features on the subject. In fact, his first story covered the “military” version of Atari’s Battlezone. Schrage covered Atari through 1982, and saw the company from the inside out. When Atari was on the verge of imploding, Schrage entered the bowels of the company for a watershed piece in June 1982 named “Video Games Go Hollywood” which very well might have been the first real “journalism” applied to the art, science and business of making video games. 8bitrocket.com was honored a few weeks back when Mr. Schrage agreed to an interview about his time with Rolling Stone and beyond.
8bitrocket: How did you get your start in journalism? How about Technology?
Michael Schrage: I was always interested in writing and journalism. As a faculty brat in Chicago’s Hyde Park, I grew up barely a mile away from the Museum of Science & Industry. I’ve always had an interest in science in general and technology in particular. While I was not the sort of child who took things apart or played with Lego, I did like playing with and testing the limits of interesting tools and devices. I was fascinated by how technology was designed and used – and misused. How technology influenced how people behaved – and how people’s behavior influenced technological design – intrigued me from an early age. I was a good observer and wrote about these things. In high school, I met Ted Nelson (of Xanadu, hypertext and ‘Computer Lib’ fame) and his work influenced me enormously. So I became a computer geek in high school (working at one of America’s first personal computer stores) and took computer science in college. I also became a stringer for the Washington Post – as I was an editor for my college paper – and used my knowledge of computers and technology to suggest technically-oriented stories that somehow found their way into the paper. My editors at the Post – Joel Garreau in particular – sensed that digital personal technology was becoming both more of a pop cultural and ‘newsworthy’ phenomenon. My timing was good and my stories about hackers, liability for computer programming errors and copyright law were well-regarded.
8bitrocket: What did you do before you starting writing for Rolling Stone?
Michael Schrage: I did an internship at the Washington Post (on the business side) and also worked for Dow Jones in their electronic news retrieval service. I was the young guy who translated between editorial, marketing and technical. It was a good experience. I learned lots – but I wasn’t writing enough.
8bitrocket: Did you work at Rolling Stone offices, or did you file your stories via mail/fax etc?
Michael Schrage: I worked at their (then) 5th Avenue NYC offices and saw everybody from Madonna to the Stray Cats. It was a weird, weird place with delightful people who were funny and loved music and always worried about whether Rolling Stone was becoming conventional and mainstream and ‘establishment.’ Jann Wenner was a character and I think he liked me for reasons other than my journalistic talent. The editor who hired me treated me very well; the main editor – Terry McDonnell – thought I was an obnoxious kid. As obnoxious as I could be, I thought he was way more obnoxious and arrogant to boot. He liked my work way more than he liked me. I didn’t dislike him but I can’t remember him doing anything to make my life, my work or my opportunities any better. To be fair, he was a pretty good editor. He never ‘got’ technology as a ‘pop culture’ beat and thought of what I wrote about as a necessary evil for the magazine – accent on evil.
8bitrocket: Have you
seen Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous”? Did it resemble that kind of atmosphere?
Michael Schrage: Were their drugs? Yes. Was I jealous of how Cameron Crowe was regarded? More envious, actually. Did exceptionally attractive women/girls find me more attractive when they found out I wrote for Rolling Stone? Yes. Did I take advantage of that? Alas, no – the idea of waking up with someone who wanted to sleep with someone because they had a ‘cool’ job creeped me out. I was the only person at Rolling Stone @ that time who didn’t own a stereo and never smoked dope. I liked music but didn’t love it. I was the consumer electronics/computer gook. I was RS’s first consumer electronics columnist – and it wasn’t because Jann and everyone loved gadgets; it’s because Sony, Panasonic &RCA were stereo/music companies that were also HUGE advertisers and everyone wanted a piece of their electronics ad budgets.
I liked ‘Almost Famous’ but that wasn’t my scene; I was part of the Las Vegas/Chicago CES excesses when young Atari games designers would repeat the Robin Williams bon mot that ‘Cocaine was God’s way of telling you you had too much money…’ You had marginally talented 25 year olds who happened to be able to write assembler really, really fast who – because they could hit a production window – could get a $50K bonus. Real money in 1982!
8bitrocket: How awesome! Before we get to the Atari stuff though, let’s talk about music. The dawn of MTV and all those new-wave artists must have
been a very interesting time to be there o working with them. Any stories about musicians (good
I actually went to the MTV launch party at the Warner Amex building, met all the spanking new VJs – had Martha Quinn be annoyed with me – saw the lord high mucketmucks such as Bob Pittman…a very good party…video did, indeed, kill the radio star…
8bitrocket: How did Rolling Stone editors/management view the technology and video game stories you were
writing? Were they seen as important?
Michael Schrage: except for my editor (david rosenthal), it was pretty much a ‘hold their nose’ affair…they were about music as the supreme cultural art form (and movie stars #2 with a bullet…) tv was a distant third and technology was – as mentioned – the crap that made all those art forms possible..(ironic, ain’t it…?)
amusingly, the business types – kent brownridge’s folks & the advertising sales folks – LOVED me and my column & stories…i made their lives easier and expanded their market…i personally couldn’t have cared less but they read my stuff and commented on how ‘smart’ their clients thought it was…whether they were sucking up or being genuine, i didn’t care….i liked what i was doing and doing pleasure in the fact that the stuff i was covering was gathering more attention – and more money – in the ‘real’ world than the latest ‘foreigner’ or ‘men at work’ release….be good, johnny, be good…come on eileen! 🙂
8bitrocket: OK, let’s talk about some of the stories you wrote back then. Have you see the “Rolling
Stone DVD Rom Set” of all their issues? It makes it far too easy to research stuff like this.
Right now you can get all of Rolling Stone…and all of Playboy. My wife only agreed to Rolling
Stone! Have you seen this tool? How does it feel to have your writing from 25 years ago
instantly accessible again?
Michael Schrage: i haven’t looked at – let alone read – a copy of rolling stone in over a decade….
8bitrocket: Your first video game stories date from mid-1981, about 3 months prior to the launch of
Electronic Games magazine. That, somewhat, puts you at the forefront of video-game journalism in
the mainstream press (unless you count the Arcade Alley column in Video magazine). Do you
recall why Rolling Stone/and or yourself started covering this subject?
Michael Schrage: as mentioned, i had an editor who had loved a cover story i had written for ‘new york’ magazine in september of 1979
on the videodisc (remember that?) and when he went to RS, he insisted that not only i write for the magazine but become its first ‘video/games’ columnist…
i’m not even 22 years old; i’d have been an idiot to say no…i’m not an idiot 🙂
8bitrocket: I believe Your first story printed was in September 1981,about Atari’s Battlezone and how the
military was wanted a version to train their troops. This story has circulated for many years
afterward, but this seems to be the first place (chronologically) I’ve seen something written
about it. Do you recall the source of the story or how you were put onto it?
Michael Schrage: wow! what a flashback…yes, i do: ed rotberg – who had been involved with atari/battlezone and who i had met at a ces, casually mentioned it and, because i had done a story on spi – simulations publications inc – a board ‘wargames’ magazine publisher (strategy&tactics) – while in college…i seized on it as an example of how games once modeled on 2D paper were making the great digital leap to multidimensional interaction… i confess this seemed ‘obviously’ to me to be a significant story…
what was the difference in age between a ‘twitch’ video games player and a young army recruit…two years? three years?…what’s more, the future economics of video gaming (which, as a geek, i intuitively and intellectually understood the moment I saw ‘pong’ in high school) guaranteed that it would become both a platform and medium for defense simulation…the pentagon was and is rich…it had a lot at stake in improving the bandwidth of training…
8bitrocket: Your next few stories through the 1981 were about things like Satellite TV, cable TV (with
adult content), recordable video discs, movies on videocassette, 3D movies etc…even Elvis! At
this point, did you have your own, general column about video and technology in the Rolling
Michael Schrage: yes
8bitrocket: In March of 1982, you covered the Winter CES show. Did you go to the show? Do you recall
the excitement around the video game offerings that year? Did you sense that companies like
Atari thought they could “do no wrong” with their products? Did you sense that they thought the
public would buy “anything” they put out?
Michael Schrage: yes yes yes! what an arrogant – and happy! – bunch of arrogant fucks they were…they were making games – and money – hand over fist and could do no wrong…the competition…the imagics and activisions – had yet to erode their market share or margins in any meaningful way…
8bitrocket: Do you recall any kind of “excessive” behavior
from Atari representatives? Expensive parties, food etc. in a way that did not seem sustainable?
Michael Schrage: the difference between an atari CES party (and after party) and bob guccione’s ‘caligula’ was that atari made bob look like a cheapskate with less attractive women…
was i offered drugs? yes….did i see them? no…i wasn’t into that kind of self-indulgence…i had a small circle of (journo) friends i hung around with…we had a very good time and several remain good/great friends to this day….there’s this wonderful line from the late ny times editor abe rosenthal “if you cover the circus, don’t sleep with the elephants…” i covered the circus and loved doing so; i did not sleep with the elephants, the clowns or the bearded lady…
that said, i did meet a couple of people over that time – at atari parties, no less – where mutual interest lasted well beyond convention’s end…
8bitrocket: One of your next stories was about Japanese games imported to the USA (Pac-Man, Dig Dug,
Donkey Kong). At the time did you sense the Japanese had some kind of upper-hand? Do you think
their games were significantly different from the ones companies in the USA were making?
Michael Schrage: yes! i was FASCINATED by the cultural differences and distinctions between the japanese and american sensibility (and ended up going to japan many, many times over the decade…)…it’s not that the japanese had an upper hand; they lived and breathed videogames differently than we did….unlike japanese baseball, where the rules account for more similarity than differences, the rules of video games and video game development were being written and rewritten with a different sense of economics and cultural imperatives….it’s like sushi; japanese video games were an acquired taste but they transformed how americans both played and designed them…
8bitrocket: It was about mid-1982 when you starting covering the home computer market with stories about
Commodore, portable Timex machines, etc. Was there any kind of sense at the time that things
would be going in that direction?
Michael Schrage: everybody i knew felt this was the henry ford model A/model T phase of home computer development…we knew things would only get better and better over time and no one knew whether games companies, entrepreneurs, toy companies or ‘real’ computer companies like IBM or HP or Texas Instruments or Intel would win in this battle…all we knew is that there’d be lots of competition and even more innovation…and we were more right than we knew? (and who the eff was microsoft, anyway…?)
8bitrocket: OK, now we get to what I consider, your “magnum opus” on video games. A story about Atari
from June 1982 named “Video games Go Hollywood”. This is one of the best stories on video games
ever written. Do you recall how this one came about?
Michael Schrage: yes, i do – and i appreciate your characterization….the truth is, the insight that led to the story was in the story itself…
who didn’t grow up in the 60s or 70s thinking about writing ‘the great american novel’ or directing ‘the great american movie’…you had the rise of the indie outlaws in hollywood and the ‘bright lights, big city’ (yes, i know that was 1984 but the point holds!) zeitgeist where ambitious youngsters wanted to simultaneously express their deepest selves and change the world with their ‘art’…. video games weren’t just games; they were an art form…(i had written a piece about computer animation (disney’s tron) that year) and it was blindingly obvious to me that OF COURSE computer/video games were as much an art form as novels, movies, photographs or painting…once you were prepared to commit to that idea, the notion of atari and imagic games designers as the braques, picassos and modiglianis of their day was an easy one…
it became the organizing principle for the piece…you know, picasso – not unlike (or should i say, precisely like) damien hirst – was a helluva entrepreneur…
8bitrocket: In the story you ask the question, who will make the “Star Wars” or “Jazz Singer” of video
games. I believe what you were saying was that, when time comes that technology will no longer
be factor, who will use the canvas of the video game to create something that transcends the
medium. Is that right, or way off? If so, do you think someone has done that yet?
Michael Schrage: not quite…my belief is that technology is always and inherently a factor…remember – both the dutch masters and impressionists mixed their own paints; photographers developed their own film – my point then (if i recall) was technology wouldn’t ‘get in the way’ of appreciating the brilliance of the narrative or the expression – any more than the pages and typeface get in the way of reading and loving a great novel…
8bitrocket: In the story, it sounds like you visited Atari. Did you actually visit the campus? Do you
recall anything about it? Do you recall seeing any of the famous “excesses” of the
management, or “antics” of the development teams?
Michael Schrage: yes…people had very, very, very nice offices; their secretaries seemed awfully attractive and rather less than competent…there was a huge gay contingency in atari management, too…as for the designers, they were sealed away from access…i only met them off campus…atari discouraged publicity for them…
8bitrocket: Did you ever talk to Manny Gerard or Ray Kassar? If so, do you recall if they seemed to
think they were “on to something” with Atari, or if they seemed to be in the “right place at the
Michael Schrage: ray took an immediate dislike to me…i only met him @ the ces…manny and i actually became friends and we corresponded and lunched together for years…he had a big lunch for many of my journalist friends and i in his richly appointed dining room @ warner ….i remember him setting aflame the paper for italian biscotti and it flew up into the air…we were warned about having that set off fire alarms by the wait staff….
i liked manny; he was the jewish uncle i never had as a child :-)….
he was one of the folks made to take the fall for atari’s financial collapse….i confess i liked him as both a person and as an intellect…
i’d be thrilled to take him to lunch….maybe i will…
8bitrocket: You have a fairly long sequence in the story where you talk to Chris Crawford in the Atari
Research Lab. Do you recall anything about Crawford? Did he seem out of place at Atari? Did the
research lab seem integrated at all into the rest of the company?
Michael Schrage: chris was, indeed, an odd duck…he was an intellectual aspirant in a place where twitch games reigned supreme – will wright’s success must have eaten him up…
i liked chris but i thought he’d rather be a philosopher king than design games millions of people would enjoy…he’d rather make people ‘think’ about ‘important’ things…
the lab under alan kay was like a never-never land of provocative technology beginnings that could never seem to ship either on time or on budget…lots of good – even great – ideas…but steve jobs’ line is true: great artists ship….
8bitrocket: Is there anything striking that you can recall about Atari during that important time in
Michael Schrage: yes – that they had lost self-control and self-discipline both strategically and creatively….they were trying to do too much an exploit every single great opportunity or idea that crossed their path…the firm – filled with bright people – couldn’t focus or prioritize …should we bet more on computers or games consoles? personal games or networks? we can do it all; we should do it all…yes, i know the game was supposed to ship three months ago – but we need another six months to do it ‘right’…
8bitrocket: In August of 1982 you wrote about two of the greatest pieces of hardware from the golden Age
of video games: The Aracadia Supercharger and the GCE Vectrex. At the time did it seem like
videogames would continue to progress unabated into the future? Was there any inkling of trouble
Michael Schrage: umm…this is a trick question: did the ideograms bubble of 1982/1983 collapse? yes! did video games (not unlike the post 2001 internet) pick itself up and get bigger, better and more innovative than ever? hell, yes…i accept the fact that trees don’t grow to the sun and that bust frequently follow booms…the fact – and it is a fact – that everything we dreamed about and talked about in those early 80s CESs have largely come true twenty years later…and look pretty damn promising twenty years hence!
i find that inspirational, not depressing
8bitrocket: In September of 1982 you wrote another “magnum opus” named “The War Against Home Taping”.
Do you see any real difference in the “home taping” issue from the 80’s and the MP3/digital
music issue today? Do you think record companies have the ability to change their 150 year old
Michael Schrage: that one was nominated for ad became a finalist for the national magazine award; i loved writing that piece …david geffen called me up to complain about it; walter yetnikoff called me up and called me a motherfucker and hung up on me…i always felt the IP issues were important and thought this piece (and the RIAAs unethical immoral and hypocritical campaign against home taping) a useful view into the issue’s future on themes ranging from law to ownership to privacy to creativity….
…there are commonalities to today but, honestly, the piece was best for its moment in time – unlike the games designer piece which was written to capture the universality of creativity, technology and aspiration…
8bitrocket: Related to the above, Warner Communications, one of the biggest recording companies in the
world owned Atari at the same time the home taping issue came about. Was there any irony in the
fact that, on one hand they saw themselves as this progressive technology company on one side of
the business, but at the same time at to try to thwart technology on the other?
Michael Schrage: they hated each other…warner was a conglomerate in every meaning of that word…the music people and the games people were rivals….steve ross was the ceo/referee and wanted to milk them both
8bitrocket: Some of your final stories for Rolling Stone centered around computers and turning video game systems into computers. Was it obvious to you where the industry was going?
Michael Schrage: at risk of sounding like a putz, yes….to be fair, all of my best sources and friends thought along similar lines…we felt digitalization created more of a convergence than a fragmentation…that said, there always seemed to be dedicated games chips that did a measurably better job of imagery and animation than the standard microprocessor…
8bitrocket: How did your job/contract with Rolling Stone end?
Michael Schrage: the washington post offered me a job covering technology
8bitrocket: You have been involved in many very “serious” pursuits in the past 20 years or so including working for DARPA, the Pentagon, writing about Collaboration and for CIO magazine among many other things. did you time with Rolling Stone pre-pare you in any way for those jobs?
Michael Schrage: yes! rolling stone began my career as someone who cared passionately about getting people to express themselves about technology and its design – and my transforming those expressions into stories and reports that made expanded thought and discussion about technology and design…writing on deadline with the desire to explain – not just to bloviate – is a fantastic discipline and opportunity
8bitrocket: How did you get involved with the MIT Media Lab/Security Studies Program etc.?
Michael Schrage: nicholas negroponte invited me…i was in nyc on 9/11 – i asked the ssp if i could assist it in any efforts to help america better defend itself against future attack and threats…i was immediately invited to join and have worked with the ssp and various parts of the national community since…
yes, video ‘games’ are occasionally involved
what goes around….
(Steve Fulton, November 2008)