Despite the great difficulty of acquiring computers in 1980s Czechoslovakia, amateur enthusiasts still managed to do so – and produced hundreds of computer games, some of which were politically subversive. They frequently did this on jerry-built computer systems, while homemade arcade games were also to be found. This scene is the focus of the book Gaming the Iron Curtain by academic Jaroslav Švelch. When we spoke, Švelch told me about his own first experiences with computer games back in the ‘80s.
“I was a bit lucky. I was one of the early adopters of computer games in Czechoslovakia back then, because my dad was a programmer at the Solo Sušice factory, which was a factory that produced matches and other wood products.
“So he was working there as a programmer and I would go to the factory every now and then to play games on the computers that they had there.
“Some of them were East German computers and then later they also got some IBM PC computers.
“So that was my first contact, there.”
In Czechoslovakia in the 1980s, would many people have had microcomputers at home? And if they did, how did they acquire them?
“It was not easy. There were some people that had microcomputers, but it was about 10 times fewer than in the UK for example.
“But there was still a sizable community and most of those people either imported the computers from the West individually… they could go to the West, or their friends or relatives could, and buy a computer there and then often they would smuggle it through customs.
“Otherwise they bought it on the black market, or they could buy it in Tuzex, which was a specialised store with imported goods.
“But the demand was much bigger than the supply and there were a lot of people who couldn’t get them.”
What were the most common brands people would have had at home?
“There are stories of people buying chocolate boxes and eating all the chocolates and putting the Spectrum into the chocolate box and then smuggling it in through the customs.”
“The most common in Czechoslovakia was actually a British computer – the Sinclair ZX Spectrum.
“There were some reasons for that. One was that it was the cheapest microcomputer available on the Western markets in the early ‘80s and up to the mid ‘80s.
“Also it was one of the smallest ones, which made it easier to smuggle through customs.
“There are stories of people buying chocolate boxes and eating all the chocolates and putting the Spectrum into the chocolate box and then smuggling it in through the customs [laughs].
“Then when there was a big enough community of people who had Sinclair ZX Spectrum computers and others kind of snowballed.
“Because there was already a community that knew how this computer worked and could support the new members.
“So in a way it was this snowball effect.”
And you say in your book that after these computers became obsolete in the UK they were still being used here?
“Yes, that is true. Still buying power here in Czechoslovakia was much lower, so people couldn’t transition to more powerful machines that easily.
“They were basically producing clones of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum machine, up until the mid-1990s, so much later than these types of computers were produced in the West.”
If we can speak about games, where would people have acquired games? Were they Czechoslovak-made, in general? Were they imported? Were they copies?
“Most of the games that people played at that time were pirated copies of Western games.
“They often made it into Czechoslovakia either through Poland or Yugoslavia and Hungary, which were slightly more liberal, so it was easier for people to travel to the West and buy games there.
“And then from person to person they were copied from tape to tape and they made their way to Czechoslovakia.
“But there were also domestically produced games.
“There was no industry to speak of, but there were a lot of amateurs that were making games in the spare time.
“And about three to four hundred games have been preserved from that era, which is a pretty high number given that there was no industry – it was all just amateur efforts.”
In your book you refer to the famous Czech golden hands, zlaté ručičky, which I guess means a knack for creative DIY. How did the golden hands make themselves felt in the world of computer games?
“About three to four hundred games have been preserved from that era, which is a pretty high number given there was no industry – it was all just amateur efforts.”
“There were all kinds of DIY projects happening, both in hardware and software.
“In hardware, for example, people were making their own joystick controllers with wooden furniture knobs.
“They would kind of cannibalise calculators and take buttons out of them and make them into buttons for joysticks.
“They would build all these things from scratch. They would built computer mice from scratch and all kinds of hardware.
“One reason for that was these peripherals, this hardware, wasn’t readily available. You couldn’t go and buy it in a store.
“At the same time, at some point it became a sort of competitive scene, so people would compete with each other, trying to show off what they can make.”
Your book is entitled Gaming the Iron Curtain. In what were the people on this scene gaming the communist system, or gaming the restrictions of late communism?
“In many ways. One of them was just being very resourceful in trying to get the computers, from the West and on the black market. By these DIY projects that kind of sidestepped the lack of availability of hardware on the market.
“But also games at that time were a very new medium and the authorities didn’t really realise that it was a medium, I think.
“The authorities weren’t really checking games as actively as they were rock music, for instance.
“So games to some people offered this creative outlet where they could express themselves.
“And also there were some games that were sort of actively protesting the Communist regime.”
This is hugely interesting. How were they doing that?
“There was a series of games made in the late ‘80s that were either making fun of the Communist ideology and the regime or that were actively criticising some steps of the government.
“Some of these games were funny, kind of cheeky, text adventure games, such as one featuring Major Shatokhin of the Soviet Red Army and John Rambo.
“The Soviet soldier, the Soviet hero, had to kill John Rambo. But in the process there were many opportunities to fail, so that the Soviet hero actually went through a lot of mishaps and very humiliating death scenes.
“So in that way it was a pretty subversive game.
“Then a bit later there were even games that were tied to particular protests against the regime.
“For instance, Palach Week in early 1989, which was a peaceful demonstration that was brutally suppressed by the police – and there was a text adventure game made about it starring Indiana Jones, who was a popular character in computer games at that time.
“People were making their own joystick controllers with wooden furniture knobs. They would kind of cannibalise calculators and take buttons out of them and make them into buttons for joysticks. They would built computer mice from scratch.”
“In this game Indiana Jones has to kind of fight his way through Wenceslas Square and escape in the airport, but in the process he has to kill members of the Communist police and the People’s Militia and so on.
“Once again it’s quite a subversive game, a bit violent, but I think it allowed the players to relive this traumatic experience from the point of view of an empowered superhero.”
Do you know if anybody ever got in trouble for those kind of games? Or simply for piracy?
“We don’t have any evidence of that. The secret police records don’t really show any systematic surveillance of computer clubs or microcomputer hobbyists.
“It seems there were really no repercussions for that.
“Also most of these activists games, political games, so there was no signatures that could connect a game to the author.
“In many cases we still don’t know who made those games. In some cases it surfaced later, in the ‘90s.
“People were sort of wary of potential repercussions, but it seems that there were really none.”
There’s a great image in your book of a whole series of cassette tape inlay cards with the names of games like Tetris and dozens of others. Tell us about the role of cassette tapes in the computer games scene.
“Back then cassette tapes were the primary data storage medium.
“But here, just because of the lower buying power and relative backwardness, they remained in heavy use until the early ‘90s.
“Especially among young hobbyists, young people, teenagers and so on, who couldn’t afford a better computer or a disc drive.
“Most software in the ‘80s was circulating on cassette tapes.
“That had some advantages, because they could be bought easily… not easily, but they were more available than floppy discs, for instance. Much more readily available.
“So they could buy cassette tapes and then record games on those.
“But if you would play them in a tape deck, it would just be noise. But the computers converted the analogue signal into a digital signal.”
Also, and this surprised me, there were arcade games here that were also kind of jerry-built and homemade.
“Yes, there were. Many of them were built from boards – the CPUs, the hardware that was running the game, was very often smuggled from Germany or some other country.
“What happened was that sometimes people would built the cabinets here by themselves.
“Because it was much easier to import, or smuggle, the board than the whole cabinet.
“They would build homemade cabinets with homemade controllers and everything.
“I interviewed one of these people who were making these cabinets, Tomáš Smutný, who was just recently inducted into the Czech games Hall of Fame.
“The Soviet soldier had to kill John Rambo. But in the process there were many opportunities to fail, so that the Soviet hero actually went through a lot of mishaps and very humiliating death scenes.”
“He said that they were also using colour TVs that were smuggled into the country through Soviet soldiers who were stationed in the country; they were Russian TVs, or Soviet TVs.
“There was a whole shadowy operation behind these arcade games.
“These cabinets would travel around the country in these mobile buses...”
To fun fairs?
“Yeah, to fun fairs. They were kind of crammed into these mobile arcades that were converted usually from buses or trucks and young people would go and spend their coins there.”
Have you played many of the games that were produced here in the ‘80s? And how do they stand up, today?
“I’ve played all the games that I mention in the book.
“If they are games that have some kind of story that has some kind of beginning and an end, I play then from beginning to end.
“It’s kind of hard to judge. I think even with Western games from the ‘80s, many of them don’t stand up, because they were designed in a way that made them difficult – they were not as well playable as games are today.
“Czechoslovak games were also amateur efforts, so they were very often kind of simpler. The graphics probably weren’t as good.
“I think they stand up as historical artefacts. They’re immensely interesting if you want to learn something about the history or the life of ordinary computer hobbyists in the 1980s.”
Have you acquired a lot of the hardware from that time, or any other memorabilia?
“But most of the time I then return it to them. Because I don’t have the space.
“I don’t have the backing of a memory institution, like a museum.
“And I think it’s a big shame that there is currently no museum in the Czech Republic that would collect these artefacts.
“There are some private collectors who have really good private collections and there are sometimes exhibitions, of hardware usually.
“But I definitely think than an institution should start doing this.”