The First Mass Entertainment Medium

Early 1990s

Interactive entertainment designers seeking to understand their medium often turn to history for inspiration. It is entirely reasonable to assume that the evolution of interactive entertainment will in some ways parallel the evoluion of earlier entertainment forms. The most commonly cited precursor is the cinema. Quite a few designers have taken the time to study the early cinema, and many analogies have been drawn between early cinema and early interactive entertainment.

I myself have participated in this analogizing; an early issue of this Journal included an essay on analogies with the movies. But it seems to me that the comparison has been too narrowly drawn. The movies aren’t the only entertainment form out there. We can learn just as much by comparing interactive entertainment with other forms of entertainment in their early stages. That is what I propose to do in this essay. The field of entertainment that I have chosen for comparison is literature.

This may strike you as rather odd. After all, we seldom think of literature as entertainment. Literature is deep, literature is inspiring, but entertaining? That doesn’t seem like a good fit. Somehow
Wuthering Heights just doesn’t have the same entertainment punch as Star Wars. Literature is elitist, not mass market.

Some History
But this is only the modern view of literature. Five hundred years ago, it was another story entirely. The printing press had just been invented. The first application of the printing press was for printing Bibles and other religious tracts. However, the market for Bibles was soon saturated and printers, eager to expand their catalogue of offerings, cast about for other possibilities. There was a great deal of experimentation in those early years, but, at least in England, one title stands head and shoulders above all the others: Le Morte D’Arthur, by Thomas Malory, published by Thomas Caxton in 1485.

The Arthurian legends had of course been very popular before then. Indeed, these legends had been big-time entertainment as early as 1150. But until Caxton came along, there were only two ways to hear the legends: purchase a hand-written copy of works such as Chretien de Troye’s in French or listen to the tales as told by a traveling storyteller, a jongleur. Both options were horrendously expensive, and so were restricted to the wealthy.

But then in 1485 Thomas Caxton got his hands on Malory’s manuscript and decided that this might make a salable product. Caxton struck gold;
Le Morte D’Arthur became the first best-seller in human history. He sold thousands and thousands of copies.
It can be difficult for a twentieth-century reader to appreciate the impact of this one book. Literacy, long disdained by the aristocracy, had just been spreading through the merchant class and was becoming fashionable. The wide availability of the Bible made it almost a religious duty to read. But reading had heretofore been a skill of duty, something you used to handle commercial accounts or study your Bible. With
Le Morte D’Arthur, reading suddenly became a source of recreation.

Again, you must realize how starved for entertainment the fifteenth-century audience was. They didn’t have VCRs with videotapes renting for a couple of dollars. They didn’t have movies or television. The entertainment options available were paltry: traveling storytellers and traveling troupes of actors who put on plays, mostly lowbrow comedies for the hicks. Saturday nights were pretty grim. So along comes an entirely new medium that provides entertainment anytime you want it, under your terms, at your own pace. If you didn’t understand a line, you could always go back and re-read it! This was truly a gigantic breakthrough!

Perhaps the best indication of the success of
Le Morte D’Arthur comes from the fact that this one book did more to standardize the English language than any other. Before 1485, the English language was riven with dialectical differences, wild variations in spelling, and a hodge-podge of meanings for words. But within 100 years, the language of Shakespeare had emerged, and the English that the Bard used owed a great deal to the English used in Le Morte D’Arthur.

There’s an interesting parallel here with the early history of home computers. In the early years, home PCs were regarded as tools or appliances. Their existence had to be rationalized as practical devices to make life easier. Certainly the notion that they could be used for entertainment was met with much skepticism. Yes, everybody knew that games were great fun, but somehow there was a need to hide or minimize this aspect of computer use. They had to be serious tools first.

A good example of this attitude came in 1980, when I made a proposal to the marketing staff at Atari for an educational simulation about energy policy. I stood before the marketing bigwigs and explained my product idea for some fifteen minutes, conspicuously referring to it as an educational simulation. At the end of my presentation, one of the marketing fellows fixed me with a hard stare and asked, "Is this a game?" "Oh, no" I replied nervously, "it’s an educational simulation." He looked at me suspiciously. "I don’t know," he muttered, "it sure looks fun to me."

Within two years, however, Atari had seen the light and was energetically pushing games for its home computers. But for a while there, PCs, like books five hundred years earlier, had to be serious tools for bettering one’s life.

The First Media Superstar
Every medium makes stars of its creative talents, and this phenomenon was first demonstrated with literature. With five hundred years of hindsight, it’s easy for us to understand what a "star" is and how stars are made. But back in 1500, there had never been a single star in human history and nobody had any way of anticipating this new phenomenon. Thomas Malory never became a star; he died before his book was published.

But one man saw it coming. By 1505, he had developed a pretty good hunch as to the nature of stardom, and developed a personal strategy for achieving it. It took him another ten years to achieve his goal, but along the way he played his cards adroitly and stage-managed his image with astounding success. His name was Desiderius Erasmus.

Erasmus is one of most fascinating and inscrutable characters in history. There is no doubt that he was a genius. He was also a bon vivant, but his tastes ran toward good conversation and good food rather than conspicuous consumption. He whined endlessly about his troubles, and he begged shamelessly for ever more money from his patrons. But he was one of the most far-sighted individuals to walk this planet. Before any others, he saw how the corruption and misdeeds of the church would lead to danger, and when Martin Luther hijacked Erasmus’ reform efforts and turned them into outright revolt, Erasmus alone saw that this split in Christendom would lead to catastrophe a catastrophe that was realized a century later in the Thirty Years’ War.

But he also saw the vast potential of the printing press as a source of personal stature, and he figured out how to exploit that new medium to suit his own goals. His masterwork,
The Praise of Folly, was the first international best seller. It reads like a comedy; Folly lectures to her students on her importance to humanity. Yet the witty satire set all Europe laughing at the folly of the church, the folly of the kings, the folly of the merchants. Erasmus used humor to advance a serious social agenda.

The mass market loved the satire; they ate it up. Monks, the butt of his most wicked jokes, fumed in impotent rage, for Erasmus was also the revered author of many serious religious works and could not be condemned to the stake. Erasmus followed up The Praise of Folly with a torrent of other works. One group of these were his Colloquies, fictitious dialogues meant as training exercises for students of Latin. Unlike the dry rote exercises that tormented students in his day, the Colloquies were fun stories about human foibles. In one, a group of wags play a joke on a superstitious monk; in another, a scamp alchemist cheats a greedy merchant by promising a method for manufacturing gold. Another tells the story of a shipwreck, and a fourth presents an encounter between an ignorant but wealthy merchant and an educated, well-read woman, who proceeds to slice and dice the merchant without his realizing how badly he’s being made fun of. It was irreverent satire, the Mad Magazine of its day, and students adored it. The wit and humor sucked them in, and the social message was never far below the surface.

Meanwhile, Erasmus was also hard at work on other projects. Realizing that the Latin New Testament had been seriously corrupted over the 1,500 years that it had been copied and recopied, he went back to the Greek versions in which the New Testament had originally been written. By carefully retranslating these early versions of the New Testament, Erasmus was able to produce a Latin translation far closer to the intent of its authors than anything otherwise available. He buttressed his work by translating the writings of many of the early Church fathers, such as Jerome, showing how their commentaries supported his translation.

It was this combination of erudition and wit that made Erasmus the first superstar. His scholarship established his credibility and his satire gave him popularity. He was too smart to be dismissed as a buffoon and too funny to be ignored.

Unfortunately for him, his status as a superstar did not make him wealthy. There were no copyright laws in those days, so it was impossible for authors to make money on sales of their works. As soon as a book appeared, other printers would hurriedly make copies and offer them for sale. Thus, no printer could afford to pay royalties on books sold. Instead, authors dedicated their books to wealthy patrons, who were expected to reciprocate with cash. However, Erasmus became such a big name that his publishers were willing to provide him with small payments for his works. To stay ahead of the pirates, he continually revised and improved his works. If you bought from a pirate, it might be cheaper, but it wouldn’t be the latest version. This is basically identical to the upgrade policy of many software publishers these days. Erasmus saw the value of creeping upgrades five hundred years before Microsoft.

Erasmus’ story ends sadly. The conflict unleashed by the Reformation polarized Christendom. Battle lines were drawn, and there was no room for scholars or wits. Erasmus refused to take sides, and was ultimately condemned by both sides. He died hated by all.