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Legendary “Space Invaders” Video Game Celebrates 40 Years

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Written by Lindsay grace

Lindsay Grace is Associate Professor of Communication; Director, American University Game Lab and Studio, American University School of Communication. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. CNN features the work of The Conversation, a collaboration between journalists and academics to provide current affairs analysis and commentary. The content is produced solely by The Conversation.

The arcade video game “Space Invaders”, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary, is iconic software, considered one of the first digital shooter games. Like many early games, this one and the myths surrounding it showcase the cultural collisions and issues that were present when it was created by Japanese game designer Tomohiro Nishikado.

As a game designer and game teacher, I know how meaning is transmitted from the designer to the mechanics of the game. As a game studies researcher, I also know how games reveal myth, meaning and culture.
An analysis of “Pac-Man”, for example, shows how this game embodies many values ​​of its time, including consumerism, drug use and gender politics. The message in “Space Invaders” is as basic as the graphics: when faced with a conflict, players have no choice but to detonate it.

Avoiding an enemy only delays the inevitable; players cannot move forward or backward, but can only defend their space. There’s not even a reason the invasion is happening. The players only know that the invaders must be destroyed. It’s a distinct cultural perspective, with an emphasis on shooting over everything else.

ADRIAN DENNIS / AFP / AFP / Getty Images

A historical pioneer

The history of many shooting games goes back to “Space Invaders”. This is not the first – “Spacewar!” from MIT. was earlier, in 1961 – but “Space Invaders” is among the most copied. Even people who never played the original “Space Invaders” have probably played over 100 clones, including the first commercial game, “Pepsi Invaders”.
The release of “Space Invaders” foreshadowed the growth of the Japanese games industry, which itself was seen as a formidable cultural invasion of the United States by Japan. The tension has been expressed in the popular media as a defense of American individualism against the power and effectiveness of Japanese collectivism and corporate culture. This tension manifested itself in popular media like the comedy film “Gung Ho” as japonophobia and japonophilia combined.
“Space Invaders” also pointed out how tenuous some elements of Western identity are. The United States had built its self-esteem on being the greatest, but was facing Japanese economic growth. But it was complicated: As Japanese automakers gained customers from American automakers, they started building their cars in the United States – so were they Japanese or American cars?

Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images Europe / Getty Images

Likewise, if American game maker Atari’s biggest hit was a Japanese-made game, how American was Atari? Either way, millions of American consumers have purchased the Atari 2600 gaming system to be able to play the hit arcade game “Space Invaders” at home. Five years later, in 1983, the gaming industry collapsed in large part because games made in the United States were not interesting and too similar to each other.

In 1985, the Japanese-made Nintendo entertainment system ushered in a new era of home console gaming. This continued the challenge to American identity: American companies failed to innovate and lead, and a Japanese company filled the innovation void.

Myths of the (space) invasion

“Space Invaders” has also gathered a few myths around it, which say more about the company than the game itself. The most notable legend is that “Space Invaders” was so popular that the Japanese economy ran out of the parts needed to play it in arcades. That’s not true, but like a lot of gaming myths, both positive and negative, it sounds so good that it’s easy to defend anyway.

This fable is a prequel to larger popular fiction about games. People blame gambling for declining economies and unemployment. The innovations created in games support technological innovations that change society and the way people socialize, but people are also keen to blame large systemic issues like gun violence in schools on video games.

Space Invaders is played on the windows of the Roppongi Hills Observatory in Tokyo during an exhibit in 2018 celebrating the game's 40th anniversary.

Space Invaders is played on the windows of the Roppongi Hills Observatory in Tokyo during an exhibit in 2018 celebrating the game’s 40th anniversary. Credit: KAZUHIRO NOGI / AFP / AFP / Getty Images

Another story goes that the demand for “Space Invaders” was so great that even with several gaming machines installed, there were lines to play. Whether or not they lined up for their own turn, it’s certainly true that people have been watching other people play. This has helped set the stage for the growth of arcades and networked games, the precursors of professional gamers and today’s multi-billion dollar esports industry.

History shows that games change society, orient it towards gambling and create new economies. The advent of arcades was as new as the contemporary use of common micro-transactions in mobile games. Their incubation of community gaming and spectators has spawned countless YouTube game channels.

Like the space invaders who descend on the player, unknown but always threatening, the games scare some. They seem to come together relentlessly, different and difficult to follow. The games challenge players to adapt and dismantle the conventions people hide under.

But, like playing “Space Invaders” itself, the joy comes from interacting with this change, mastering it, and leveling up to the next level.