Kelsey Lewin is the co-director of the Video Game History Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to preserving, celebrating, and teaching the history of video games. When not collecting, digitizing, and archiving game history, Kelsey is co-owner of Pink Gorilla Games, a chain of two video game retail stores in Seattle, Washington.
In this podcast, Kelsey and I talk about the recently announced Video Game Source Project, a new initiative to collect the raw materials used in a game’s production. What are the challenges to obtaining and preserving a game’s source? How does copyright come into play? And what can modern developers do to ensure their code is preserved? We also chat about the VGHF’s recent collaboration with Ron Gilbert of Monkey Island fame, as well as the VHGF’s recent launch of their own podcast, the Video Game History Hour. Finally, we pivot to chat about the state of retail in a digital age and in the midst of a pandemic.
Stream the audio edition of this interview below or from iTunes, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Mixcloud, Overcast, acast, Pocket Casts, Castbox, TuneIn, RadioPublic, or the Internet Archive. Click past the jump for a transcript and links to resources mentioned in this episode.
- Video Game History Foundation
- Introducing the Video Game Source Project
- Video Game History Hour podcast
- The Secrets of Monkey Island – 30th Anniversary Livestream featuring Ron Gilbert
- The Oregon Trail’s Origins Documentary
- E3 1998 floppy disks
- Pink Gorilla Games
- E3 Accidentally Doxed Over 2,000 Journalists
- WHO recommends video games as an effective way to stop the spread of COVID-19
- Not For Resale documentary about video game retail stores
- The quest to save today’s gaming history from being lost forever
Voiceover: Welcome to the Polygamer podcast, where gaming is for everyone. Join us as we expand the boundaries of the gaming community.
Ken Gagne: Hello and welcome to Polygamer, episode number 107 for Wednesday, November 11th, 2020. I’m your host Ken Gagne. Two aspects of video gaming that I love besides video gaming itself, of course, are the history of it. There’s just such a wealth of information. So many books have been written. And finally, we’re at a point where museums are starting to recognize the cultural and historical significance of video games.
Ken Gagne: And also retail. I love physical stores, I have worked at Waldenbooks, Blockbuster, I guess that’s not a great record then, and Software Etc, which is now a GameStop. Those two aspects are things that I have a lot of experience with, but not nearly as much and not nearly as insightfully experienced and professionally as today’s guest who I’m very excited to speak with the co-director of the Video Game History Foundation, and the co-owner of Pink Gorilla games in Seattle, Washington in the United States, Kelsey Lewin. Hello, Kelsey.
Kelsey Lewin: Hi, thanks for having me on.
Ken Gagne: It’s such a pleasure to chat with you. I have had communications with your colleague Frank, the founder of the Video Game History Foundation. Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten to Pink Gorilla Games, although I’m hoping to change that sometime. We have so much to chat about today. Let’s talk first about the Video Game History Foundation for those of our listeners who are not familiar with it. What is the VGHF?
Kelsey Lewin: Yeah, so our mission statement for the quick and dirty is that we’re nonprofit dedicated to preserving, celebrating, and teaching the history of video games. And what that means really, because mission statements are a little vague sometimes is that there’s a whole heck of a lot of video game history that has not been recorded, that has not been really talked about much, that we’re still getting the industry itself on board, and making sure we’re preserving so that future generations have access to it and all of that. And we really want to see a world where video game history is a thing that’s easily accessible, just like you can pretty easily go to 100 different museums about music history, or read books about music history, etc, etc. We’re not quite there yet with video games. But we are hoping to change that.
Ken Gagne: Is the Video Game History Foundation a physical location that people can visit?
Kelsey Lewin: Not so much that people can visit, although we do host researchers. We have an office and an archive. It’s not a huge space, unfortunately. So there’s not a whole lot of… It’s not a museum. It’s not something you can come in and just tour and point at things, unfortunately. But we are instead a research archive that if you are in not COVID times, if you’re a researcher that wants to come visit and study some of the stuff in our collections, then you can get in touch with us.
Ken Gagne: And do I understand that your collection is primarily on the digital side as opposed to physical artifacts?
Kelsey Lewin: That’s not entirely true. So, the office itself and the archive itself is tons and tons of physical stuff. We have just about 10,000… Actually, I guess we probably have more than 10,000 although they don’t all fit in the library. But 10,000 magazines, from all over. Mostly, it’s mostly English language stuff for right now. Although we do have a pretty decent selection of Famitsu and some other Japanese magazines, a couple Korean ones and stuff, but a huge selection of magazines because we think that magazines do an incredible job of providing context and stuff if you’re researching a game. A lot to learn from what was going on in the world, and what were people thinking about when you’re researching just about anything for video game history, they’re good time capsules.
Kelsey Lewin: We have several developer collections, which can include digital assets, but also things like concept art and correspondence between different people, and technical notes, and all kinds of paperwork, and fun stuff like that. So we do have a very large physical archive. We are working to digitize a lot of stuff, although that’s a thing that takes a whole heck of a lot of time and money. And then I think we’ll probably talk about this a little bit later. But we have gone and helped some other places like Game Informer Magazine digitize a lot of the stuff that they’ve been collecting throughout the years.
Ken Gagne: Gotcha. I think what I must have been thinking of when I was considering your archive to be digital is the fact that you probably don’t have a lot of actual video games and systems in the collection. Is that correct?
Kelsey Lewin: Oh, yeah. That’s completely correct. We actually don’t focus on collecting retail video games whatsoever. I mean, we happen to have a handful, but it’s not something that we focus on because, thankfully, other other institutions have that covered, even collectors. I mean, if a researcher needs access to a physical retail game, it’s really not that hard to find information on that, actually. And it’s the other stuff that we think is actually pretty hard to study.
Ken Gagne: Gotcha. Is that one of the angles that distinguishes the Video Game History Foundation from places like the National Videogame Museum in Texas, or the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, New York?
Kelsey Lewin: Yeah. We’re actually not very much like the National Videogame Museum at all just because, at least as of right now, they don’t have a research angle. I know that’s something that they’re trying to establish is to have a library at some point. But they’re purely a museum at this point, which is great. It’s an awesome… I mean, I’ve been a couple times, and it’s an excellent way to educate people on some of the history of video games. The Strong in Rochester does have a research library. They do have an archive. So, we do collect some of the same things, for sure. But the strong Museum of play is, as its name suggests, it’s all of play. Lots of toys and games and that sort of thing. And we are 100% video game dedicated.
Ken Gagne: Yeah, I’ve been to the Strong several times. Their International Center for the History of Electronic Gaming is amazing. I haven’t been there as a researcher, but I can imagine. I’ve talked to people like Jimmy Maher who has gone there to write articles about the history of gaming as just such an exhaustive resource. And I love your comment about magazines as well being this snapshot of time that lets you see what was important, what people were talking about back then. You mentioned Game Informer, which I’m a subscriber to and which is published by GameStop. You had quite the project there a few years ago because they have been basically hoarding all this information in their own archives. And they invited you in to digitize a lot of that. It’s great that they were willing to collaborate with you on that project, because as you said, digitizing takes a lot of time and money.
Kelsey Lewin: Yeah, it does. It’s funny that you use the word archive because when we arrived it was a room that they had been throwing everything into for the last… Since 1992 or something. So, it was, I mean, just floor to ceiling stuff. It wasn’t even boxes, necessarily. It was just stuff in a room. A lot of the initial part was just sorting things out. Taking inventory of what it all was that we had to work with. I think we identified 17 different media types that we had to work with. I mean, things like dat tapes and mini discs and slides and transparencies and just all kinds of… In addition to the obvious things like paper and CDRs, all of that kind of stuff. But yeah, it’s a lot of stuff.
Kelsey Lewin: And yeah, they wanted the former editor in chief Andy McNamara was very… He thought it was very important that since they were the only magazine that was both still standing and had been keeping all of this stuff for a long time, that we preserved this snapshot of media history and video games. And what’s really cool about Game Informer because they saved everything that they were sent, or just about everything that they were sent until it all started just being email attachments, or digital codes, or whatever. I mean, they have the most complete snapshot of what the video game press was for a good 20 year period. And I mean, that’s incredibly valuable information. That’s not just the magazine itself, but it’s everything that went into making the magazine including a bunch of stuff that they probably never published at all.
Kelsey Lewin: I mean, when you look at something like a press release, you can get not just some information about the game that you might already know. But you get also like, what was the company trying to do with this game? What did they think the selling points were? What did they think that other people should notice and see about this game? And I mean, maybe that’s casually not that interesting. But if you’re trying to really dive deep and study a single game, or a single genre, or company, or anything like that, you can learn a lot from that kind of thing.
Ken Gagne: I love what you pointed out in one of your other podcasts interviews, which is that companies send out a lot of press information that never gets used by the magazines because if you send somebody 100 screenshots, they’re going to use one or two. I was recently cleaning my house and I found a binder of three and a half inch floppy disks that Sony distributed at E398.
Kelsey Lewin: Wow.
Ken Gagne: It took like half a dozen floppy disks to distribute all those screenshots. And so, I sent those to the Strong Museum of Play. I hope they’re available somewhere. But yeah, I mean, there’s just so much information that the public never gets to see.
Kelsey Lewin: Yeah, exactly. And I mean, especially when you deal with not even just like your favorite games or whatever. But it can also be something like an unreleased game. And maybe just, no one ever really covered it, or there was one screenshot and a little blurb, and that was it. But it turns out that they actually sent quite a bunch of stuff about it. I mean, this is how we learn about the things that never existed.
Ken Gagne: Now, Game Informer, of course, had this room that not just anybody could walk into. And now a lot of that material is digital. Who has access to the digital versions now or who will?
Kelsey Lewin: So, Game Informer still has access to all of it digitally. We gave them a complete copy of everything we had digitized. And just to be clear, we didn’t get through everything. Because it was a team of six of us for five weeks straight working every single day. And usually Frank and I would leave, and just take some paper with us back to the hotel and continue working. We didn’t get through all of it. We got through a lot of it. And unfortunately, GameStop or Game Informer owns all of that right now. And so, it’s not as easy as just flipping a switch and letting everybody in the world have access to it. The goal for us at the Video Game History Foundation, 100% of the time is always more access to more people, that is always what we’re working towards. And so, that’s what we would like to see for this collection and what we’re working on. But at the moment, I don’t have any exciting news to share about accessibility for that yet.
Ken Gagne: Here’s sort of an esoteric question that I hadn’t thought of before. But when you are dealing with such a wealth of information coming from so many different media, as you described, how do you organize it? Are you just throwing it into folders? Are you tagging it? Is there some sort of a digital asset management program?
Kelsey Lewin: Yeah. So, for right now, especially with the Game Informer project, we just had to work as fast as we can. So, we couldn’t do real meta tagging or anything like that. We just had to… Like I said, we had five weeks, and we didn’t even get through everything in five weeks. So, we were like in order to… That part can be done later, the tagging and all of that can be done later. What needs to happen is the first pass is the digitization. We have identified a management system for all of that. We’re 100% unpaid volunteer run organization right now. So, as you can imagine, we’re not exactly rolling in funding yet. But we have identified the place that it is going to go live and get tagged and all of that stuff, eventually.
Ken Gagne: Very cool. So, in addition to magazines, the Video Game History Foundation has recently focused on source code with the Video Game Source Project, which is announced just last month in October of 2020. For those who, again, are not familiar, what would you describe as source code or source?
Kelsey Lewin: Yeah. So, and we specifically left out the code part of source code because I want to try to make it as broad as possible. Video game source is all of the pieces you need to actually assemble the final game. It’s kind of like the workstation where everything is kind of… You’ve got the art assets over here, and you’ve got maybe the script over here. And all of these things exist in one repository, in theory, and you have all of the pieces that go into the final game. But what makes the source so potentially interesting is that not only do you have all of the final pieces of the game, but you often have a lot of the not final or scrapped or commented out pieces of the game.
Kelsey Lewin: So, you have a better… A good archive of video game source. A good source repository can really help show a historian some of the decisions that maybe went into making this game. It can kind of illuminate the course of the game. Just kind of what went on when they were building it, what changed, maybe what got improved, what got cut. So, you can learn a lot. And it’s very different every time. I mean, sometimes you’ll have a bunch of things in there that are complete nonsense and have nothing to do with the game. And they just existed on this workstation and got zipped up, and turned into the game, and you don’t see it anywhere in the final game. So, that’s a long winded explanation. But really it’s the DNA that makes up a video game. If you have access to it, not only can you learn a lot about the game itself, but you can even theoretically completely recreate the game from scratch.
Ken Gagne: Thank you. That’s an important distinction that I had not consciously made about the omission of the word code because you’re right. Just like how you can make a video game without being a programmer because there are so many other roles like art designer, narrative creator, etc. There’s a lot of other stuff that goes into the game as you mentioned.
Kelsey Lewin: Right.
Ken Gagne: You announced this project, the Video Game Source Project. Presumably, this was also material that the Video Game History Foundation was receptive to beforehand. So, what is new about this formal establishment of a project?
Kelsey Lewin: You’re right. I mean, it is something that we’ve had some have in the past. But I think it’s something that really just needed a big spotlight on it. I think a lot of people can understand why a prototype game or whatever might be valuable, but not a lot of people understand or are even conscious of the idea of source code. And so, especially there’ve been a lot of developers we’ve spoken to where they’re like, “Oh, yeah, I might have a hard drive somewhere. People want that? People want to look at that?” And so, it really is just something we want to bring attention to that not only should we be preserving games themselves, but we should be trying to preserve the archive of each game, the things that went into each game. And it’s not we’re not flipping a switch with this source code project and expecting that everyone’s just like, “Oh, okay,” and all of the source repositories come pouring in, and everyone’s just suddenly okay with it.
Kelsey Lewin: There’s a lot of things preventing people from wanting to share their source code, and they’re all pretty valid things. And we’re trying to help massage the way for dealing with some of those issues. So things like the video game industry is very, very secretive, and much more so than the movie industry and the music industry and stuff, even though you might not think so. When you have movies, you’ll often have director’s cuts, where they’re happy to share outtakes and maybe a marked up script and that sort of thing. And we don’t have an equivalent for that in the video game industry. People don’t want to show their hand. They don’t want to show the messy work that went into creating it. And the understandable part of this is that, like I alluded to earlier, if you have the source code, you can theoretically recreate the entire game. It doesn’t quite work that way with movies. I mean, you could have the script and you can have the set and all of that stuff. But you can’t just recreate a movie, the same way you could recreate a game from source code.
Ken Gagne: Right. Yeah, the website for the Video Game Source Project lists some of these challenges, including trade secrecy, entropy, a lack of awareness. Would you say one of those challenges is the one you encounter the most, or is the hardest to overcome?
Kelsey Lewin: I think overall, the most difficult one is going to be the trade secrecy one. I think it’s going to take a while to start warming people up to the idea that an institution having the source code and allowing access to a researcher or to a historian, to a student is both an okay and safe thing. And also is great, it’s good for them. It means that people can write books about their game and write articles and documentaries, and that sort of thing. They can get a lot more interesting history out of it, and maybe even elevate their game.
Kelsey Lewin: But the thing that is tough is that when some people hear preservation, and I totally get this, they want everything to be open source. And believe me, I would love everything to be open source. I would love for every company to just throw the doors wide open and be like, “Yep, take a look.” But we have to be a little more realistic and measured in our steps towards that. I don’t expect that people are going to start… People are going to get excited about the source code project, and it’s going to convince them to open source anything, but I do hope that it helps them understand that they may not have to open source things, but that they can give access to specific to researchers and to students and let people check it out when they are studying it.
Ken Gagne: I can understand how the source code or the source rather to say an Atari 2600 game might have less trade secrecy revolved around it because it’s less relevant. Now something that’s being made nowadays is going to be much more relevant, much more secretive. How can developers who have that eye to the historical eventually value of their source, make sure that what they’re working on today is someday going to be preserved and have that access that you described?
Kelsey Lewin: As long as you are keeping a good archive of your source, that’s a great first step. Not everyone even does that. Our doors are open for dropping source code into, and we have just sort of a bucket of like, we’ll figure this out later. I think we mentioned it in the article, but there’s no statute of limitations for video games source. So, even when you’re talking about an Atari game, that’s still, if someone still owns the rights to that, it never becomes a completely legal thing for us to just put out there, right? And that’s something we want to fix. We want to have there be a path for studying this stuff. We don’t want it to be like, well, we have to get the express written consent of every stakeholder of everything. We want there to be a library clause for source code just like there is for a lot of things. There’s usually a lot of stuff that you can’t access just generally, that isn’t available on Google. But if you have an account with LexisNexis, or something like that, you can get access to it. So that’s really what we’re working towards.
Ken Gagne: This makes perfect sense. Because as you said, an Atari 2600 game, I said it may not be relevant, and that’s true. But as you said, it’s still copyrighted. Because thanks to companies like Walt Disney copyright lasts practically forever now, and you can’t just allow yourself to say, “Hey, I found the source code of this Atari game. Let’s make it available to the world.” And not expect that there will be legal repercussions because a company like Activision got started on the Atari 2600, and they are going to be the big company that they are now, very protective of their copyright. They have to be or else they set a precedent where their copyright is no longer enforced.
Kelsey Lewin: Right, exactly. So, I mean, yeah, to go back to your initial question, yes, you can absolutely give things to us for safekeeping. And we can keep it dark for a long time until we figure out how we can legally make these things accessible. That’s really what it comes down to. I mean, there’s… I wish I had a better answer for that, but that’s exactly what this project is about is that we’re so far behind on making… on letting people research this stuff. I mean, that’s the entire reason for the Video Game History Foundation’s existence is just that there’s not good resources for studying video game history. And this is maybe the least well represented of all of them, and least figured out is there’s just not legal access that anyone knows of or that’s been tested in courts, at least, for old legacy video game source code.
Ken Gagne: It’s not just researchers who are benefiting. It’s not just academic. I believe with your source of Aladdin, there was quite a corporate benefit to that as well.
Kelsey Lewin: Yeah, that’s very true. I mean, I say researchers very broadly. I think that anyone can be a researcher, whether you’re a YouTuber, or whatever. But yeah, I mean, when we… So, we had the source code for Aladdin, for the Genesis in our archive, and it was actually used by Disney. Disney no longer had this source code. So much like they go to the Library of Congress for their film nitrates when they want to remaster a movie, they had to come to the Video Game History Foundation to make this game. And we actually, one of our staff wrote a really incredible article about just all the secrets that he found in the Aladdin game, in the Aladdin source code like cut enemies and cut functions and that sort of thing. And then those were actually restored into that game, that was a digital eclipse game that had… It’s a remaster of Aladdin, but it also had this kind of director’s cut edition that included all of this stuff that we would have never had if we had not had access to the source code.
Ken Gagne: That is amazing. I will need to go buy that. It’s available on Switch and all the other console, right?
Kelsey Lewin: Yeah. I think it’s on… It’s definitely on Switch and PS4. I think it’s on Xbox One as well. And yeah, I mean, it’s a really incredible game that shows what exactly access to source code can do. And it was also very successful. It was a game that sold pretty well for Disney. So, you’re welcome Disney.
Ken Gagne: So, speaking of big companies, and source code, this past July there was a big leak from Nintendo where we got to see a lot of those things that get cut and don’t make it into the final game, which from on one hand is very cool. But this was not with Nintendo’s permission. This is not something that they released into the world. And so, I can imagine that might make your job more difficult where companies are now going to become more locked down and more restrictive to prevent events like that from happening again.
Kelsey Lewin: Yeah, I did… I’ve tried to stay away from talking about this too much. But that actually is pretty much exactly what my first thought was when it happened was that this was going to make our jobs a little more difficult. But I will say that there’s a lot of enthusiasm that came out around this. There’s an incredible amount of people who were very enthusiastic about looking through it and finding things, and a lot of interest around it. And just that alone is very encouraging for me as someone who’s trying to push the idea of people will be interested in this sort of thing. And they want to study and they’ll make cool content around it and that sort of thing. This obviously wasn’t the correct circumstances for that to happen under but it’s very, very encouraging to see how much fan excitement there is about having access to that.
Ken Gagne: Well, good. We just need to get them excited about legal collaboration as well.
Kelsey Lewin: I’m sure they wouldn’t be. It’s just, you know. There’s not a lot of that right now.
Ken Gagne: Well, there are some, and you recently had a collaboration of your own with the famous game designer, Ron Gilbert of Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion fame. I attended that event. I thought it went well. How do you feel it went?
Kelsey Lewin: Yeah, I really, really enjoyed it. So, for some background, we had the source code for… We were gifted the source code for Monkey Island 1 and 2. And then, my co-director and the founder of the Video Game History Foundation, Frank Cifaldi went through for a couple weeks straight, basically, just digging around in this source code, and trying to find interesting things. And we presented our findings in the form of a live event with Ron Gilbert where we just talked about all of the things that we found within this source. So, a lot of really cool things.
Kelsey Lewin: I mean, there were lots of cut scenes, and cut rooms, cut characters, and just early art, and stuff that wasn’t even really meant to be a part of the game. But the coolest part to me was that all of the tools for making this game are in there as well. So during the live stream, we did a live demonstration of Scumm, which is the the programming language for those old LucasArts adventure games, a live programming demo where we actually changed the game. So, Frank put in a new scenario in the game, and it did that live, and you could see, compile and you could see an entire change in the game, which I thought was really, really cool. And opens up all kinds of possibilities for understanding how games work.
Ken Gagne: The company I work for is entirely remote. So, we all have different Slack channels we talk in. And one of those channels is just for video games, and a lot of us were basically live slacking your event.
Kelsey Lewin: Oh, really.
Ken Gagne: Because we’re all fans of Monkey Island.
Kelsey Lewin: That’s awesome.
Ken Gagne: And when Frank replaced Guybrush with Stan the Salesman, all our jaws dropped. We were just so impressed by that. That was amazing.
Kelsey Lewin: It was really cool. And I think that was a really cool demonstration for some of the ways that source code can be interesting, and especially to a live audience. It was great to have Ron’s involvement, too. I mean, he’ll be the first to tell you that this was a long time. This was like 30 years ago when he made this game. While he remembers a lot of things, he doesn’t necessarily remember everything, especially about the entire process of making the game. So, when you have access to the source code, but especially when you have access to the source code, and the person you can do a really good job of piecing together clues and figuring out what was supposed to happen here, what got cut here. There were several instances of things that Ron forgot about. And then several instances of things where Ron was able to shine some more light on something and illuminate what that meant, or why that happened a little bit more. So really, really appreciative to him for that, for being a part of that. I think that made… I think that really elevated that event a lot.
Ken Gagne: Yeah, I love how active Ron remains not only with The Cave a few years ago, but also with Thimbleweed Park, which is a Kickstarter I backed. I saw him on the floor at PAX East a couple years ago promoting his game. And not only him, but also Tim Schafer, these people who have been making the games that we’ve not only grown up with, but still been playing, and they’re not shying from their legacy. They’re very proud of it. And they’re happy to do these events for the 30th anniversary of Monkey Island. I think that’s great.
Kelsey Lewin: Yes, something about those LucasArts guys in particular, are they’re really good about wanting to show people the process and celebrate the legacy of their games and stuff. It’s interesting to me that it’s like all of those guys. We even had David Fox and Noah Falstein in the chat. We didn’t plan that. But they were in the chat also providing some more context to what was going on and answering some questions from the fans, which I thought was amazing.
Ken Gagne: Now, as you mentioned, these employees are from LucasArts originally, and as the name implies, Lucas is now owned by Disney. Does that create any sort of additional trade secrecy or difficulty in accessing some of these resources because Disney is not the most transparent company either?
Kelsey Lewin: Yeah, we thought it might. But we actually did get permission from Disney to do this event.
Ken Gagne: Oh, wow.
Kelsey Lewin: And show off the source code, so we used a couple of rogue Monkey Island fans still living inside of the Disney World, and getting to make those decisions, which is awesome.
Ken Gagne: That’s amazing. And perhaps because I am not as active in the history field as you are, it would not have even occurred to me that you needed to get Disney’s permission.
Kelsey Lewin: Yes. Again, it’s source. I mean, they still owned that. And if they wanted to protect it, they could. And again, we want to find a way around that because we think that there’s a difference between open sourcing something and letting some people dig around and learn some things and study things and write books about it. But yeah, we do still have to get permission for some of that stuff. So a lot of people have asked, they would love to be able to play with the tools, and they’d love to be able to play around with the source and stuff. And again, we want that too. That is 100% what we want, but we also don’t want to get sued by Disney. So-
Ken Gagne: Yeah, I think that’s a healthy decision.
Kelsey Lewin: And again, it’s still conversations we’re having. That book hasn’t closed. It’s just not a… It hasn’t ended yet.
Ken Gagne: Well, good. And speaking of things not ending, do you have other events coming up that you want to tease?
Kelsey Lewin: No, not at the moment, actually. We’re pivoting into fundraising mode right now, actually, because we are going to be moving to a larger space pretty soon, which is exciting.
Ken Gagne: Oh, congratulations. You’re not just expanding, you’re actually picking up and moving.
Kelsey Lewin: Yeah. I mean, not very far. We’re in Emeryville, California right now, which is just right by Oakland. And we are moving to Emeryville, California, like a block or two down the street. So, we’re not going far.
Ken Gagne: Oh, excellent. How can people who want to support you in that endeavor do so?
Kelsey Lewin: We’ll have more information about that project in particular, pretty soon. But in general, you can always donate to us. You can go to our website gamehistory.org/donate. We have a Patreon with a couple different tiers. At the $10 tier, you get to be a part of our Discord, which is a really nice… Just it’s full of people who love video game history, and we have a good time in there. We have some other tiers that basically all just give you more access to talking to Frank and I. We do a monthly hangout call with our $25 backers and stuff and all of that stuff. I mean, it’s all tax deductible. We’re a 501C3, it all goes to the mission.
Ken Gagne: Awesome. And full disclosure, I am one of the Patreon backers.
Kelsey Lewin: Awesome.
Ken Gagne: Something I didn’t realize when I first reached out to you a week ago, which I then discovered is you have the Video Game History Hour. You’ve launched your own podcast as well.
Kelsey Lewin: We did. We just launched it just last week, and it’s funny because we actually recorded the first episode probably a month and a half ago now, but just took a while for us to have all the ducks in a row to launch. But yeah, we’re really happy about it. It’s really important to me as part of the mission that we are always spotlighting and celebrating more good research in video game history because, A, it’s very difficult to do good research in video game history right now. There’s not a lot of great resources for studying, and that’s why we’re trying to be that one. And we just, we want there to be more of it in the world. So we want people to see it when it happens.
Kelsey Lewin: Some of these people, like our first guest was the Gaming Historian on YouTube, Norm. And a lot of people know him. But not a lot of people know all of our guests, and they all have done really great work. And so, we want to be able to celebrate all of that. We’d been wanting to do some regular content that promoted video game history and good historical research for a long time. But the problem is, both Frank and I are very much perfectionist. And we’re like, well, we can’t do a podcast because it would be the only thing we do. We’d just be researching for a week straight. Do the podcast, research for a week straight, do the podcast.
Kelsey Lewin: We’d have no time to do anything else because we want it to be good research and not just kind of like… Not that there’s anything wrong with this because I think that there’s still a lot that can be learned from just a more general dive into different subjects in video games, but we couldn’t just read the Wikipedia and a couple of articles and then do a podcast. It didn’t feel on brand. So instead, we decided that we’re bringing in some amazing expert guests who have already done a bunch of good work and then we just talk about… We dig a little bit deeper into their work and talk about the process and that sort of thing.
Ken Gagne: That’s amazing. Do you have any future guests you want to share with us?
Kelsey Lewin: This episode that we’re recording right now you and me, is I think airing on the same date as our next episode goes up, which is one I’m really excited about. It’s Ben Hanson with MinnMax. He did a really awesome documentary about the origins of Oregon Trail, which I think not a lot of people know. I certainly didn’t know. I watched the video and it was just a very different reality of the history of that game than I thought it was. So, definitely worth checking that out.
Ken Gagne: I saw that that documentary exists. I don’t back their Patreon, but I’ve bookmarked that video for later watching because I’m currently in Oregon, and I am a huge fan of the Apple II, which is where-
Kelsey Lewin: Oh, perfect.
Ken Gagne: … the Oregon Trail gained a lot of popularity. And so, that documentary is right up my alley.
Kelsey Lewin: Yeah, it’s great. And it’s not super long, either. I think it’s like 30 minutes or something.
Ken Gagne: Perfect. Cool. And that podcast is found at gamehistory.org?
Kelsey Lewin: Yeah, our podcast, it’s on our website. And let’s see if I could bring up the actual like… yeah, anchor.fm/gamehistorypodcast.
Ken Gagne: Very good. There’ll be links to all those in the show notes for this podcast at polygamer.net. So, I mentioned that you have this a whole other life to you that actually predates your involvement with the VGHF, which is that you and your husband, Cody, co-own Pink Gorilla. A set of two video game retail stores in Seattle, Washington. How long have you been doing that?
Kelsey Lewin: So, I have been with the company for about eight and a half years now. And have owned it for a little over four. So, we’ve been… Both of us have been with the company. He’s been with the company for about 10 years, maybe a little bit longer. And we were both managers there for a really long time. Took over about four and a half years ago. Our former owner just basically didn’t want to do it anymore. So, we took over and we’ve made some changes, and we’ve had a lot of success since then. So the store just turned 15 earlier this year. so, I’ve been with the store for over half of its life.
Ken Gagne: That’s amazing. You said that you’ve made some changes as the owners in the last four and a half years, what are some of those changes?
Kelsey Lewin: I think some of it is actually just going back to our roots a little bit. When Pink Gorilla was founded, it was actually founded as Pink Godzilla and had a pretty heavy import game focus. And we sort of lost that over the years. And so, one of the big things that we brought back was doing more in the import realm. We also just gave everything a nice fresh coat of paint. We’ve been doing more merchandise. We’ve been trying to get more interesting items in the store, even if it means going out of our way to buy collections. We’ve even bought out a couple of stores that were closing down. So, I don’t know if those count as big changes, but it’s something that’s time consuming and takes a lot of our focus at the very least.
Ken Gagne: Cool. No, speaking of time consuming I used to mod my consoles, my N64, my PS1, and it was primarily to play games that didn’t require I know Japanese, which I don’t. So like the early version of Mario Kart 64 or Vib Ribbon for PS1. Who is the target audience for imports nowadays? Is it still hard to be able to play imports?
Kelsey Lewin: It’s getting a lot easier, but I would say that I really like spreading the joy of import games to people. So, even though there’s probably an audience of people who come in and are already excited about import games, when I’m buying things, I’m actually mostly focused on the people who might not be interested or even really aware of import games. And that especially applies to things like… I mean, you mentioned the Nintendo 64. It’s a pretty easy system to modify, and to make region free. It’s just a couple of pieces of plastic that you got to snip out. And it’s something we actually offer to our customers for free to encourage them to get more into that.
Kelsey Lewin: But for systems like the Nintendo 64, I mean, you have a lot of demand for the same few games. And sometimes a difficult time keeping those games in stock, especially if we’re pricing them correctly, and not overcharging people for them. So, a lot of what I import is actually just Japanese versions of the games that they are already familiar with and are already very popular. So, something like Mario Kart 64 or Super Smash Brothers 64. It’s very easy for me to tell even just a college kid or someone who comes in. Someone who has no interest in import stuff in general. If I can tell them we’ll mod your system for free. This is $15 cheaper than the US version and we have a copy. And we don’t have a copy of the US version. I’ve actually gotten a whole lot of people to dip their toes into import gaming that way.
Kelsey Lewin: And sometimes that’s all they need is they just need a copy of Super Smash Brothers, but sometimes that’s like a stepping stone for them to get more interested in other stuff that maybe didn’t come out here like N64 doesn’t have a lot of great examples, but like Air Border or something like that. Game Boy is probably the easiest because it’s a region free console already. And there’s not a lot of… I mean, there are RPGs on the Game Boy, but there’s not a ton of games that require a ton of Japanese knowledge to play. Lots of puzzle games, lots of platformers, that sort of thing. So, yeah, long winded answer, but I really don’t think of it being a primarily import loving audience when I’m trying to sell import stuff. I really am trying to kind of spread it to other people too.
Ken Gagne: Cool. I remember, modding my Super Nintendo, so I could try Dragon Quest V, which at the time you could only play it from the Super Famicom. And I didn’t know any Japanese, so I didn’t get very far. Now, a lot of these classic games have been translated, and released in the United States. And we also have more region free consoles like the Nintendo Switch, which don’t require modifying at all.
Kelsey Lewin: Right.
Ken Gagne: Would you say that all these additional translations and region free consoles are either good or bad for the import business?
Kelsey Lewin: No, I actually think it’s pretty good. I don’t think it’s bad for business. Because I think there’s always… I think it’s probably very rare that if someone has the option to play an English version of Dragon Quest V or the Super Famicom version, that if they actually want to play that they would have ever really been choosing between those two anyways. They were always going to go for the one that they want to play. But sometimes people just want to buy things to collect, to have, and to maybe experience for a few minutes, even if they can’t understand much of it. Because they like the art, they like music, and they just want to experience it.
Kelsey Lewin: And so many of these games are so cheap. So many of the import games are so cheap that they can do that and feel good about it. You know, Dragon Quest V is probably like a $8 game, maybe. If someone wants to actually play it, there are better ways to play it than buying the Super Famicom cartridge anyway, but a lot of people will buy it just to have on their shelves, or to check it out for a few minutes
Ken Gagne: From my own days of working at GameStop, which admittedly was now decades ago, I remember so many customers would come in wanting to trade these games like Madden 97, Madden 98, and being so disappointed when I would say sorry, that’s only worth 50 cents. Now, so your store has trade ins and you make sure that everything works before you put it back on the shelf for sale? Do people come in expecting to get rich quick and walking away disappointed like they did when I worked at GameStop?
Kelsey Lewin: Yeah, that still happens occasionally. There’s always going to be people who don’t understand that just because you bought something for $100 doesn’t mean it’s still worth $100. But I don’t know, there’s never been so much of that it annoys or upsets me. It’s just one of those quirks of working retail. We try to be really transparent at the store with customers. So, sometimes I’ll even tell people ahead of time. If they say they’re coming in with a stack of 10 360 games, and they start rattling some of them off, I’ll be transparent and say, “We have 30 copies of that game, and it’s a game we sell for $4. So, I just want to warn you, and have you be aware that if you’re coming in hoping for a whole heck of a lot of money, that’s probably not going to happen with this specific lot.”
Kelsey Lewin: There are lots of games that are worth lots of money. So, I try to be transparent about that, too. So if someone says they have a bunch of NES games I’m like, “Well, some of them could be worth 50 cents, and some of them could be worth $500.” I can’t say until I see them.
Ken Gagne: And if somebody comes in with a rare game, do you feel morally obligated to say, “Hey, that’s worth a lot of money. Here’s what I’ll get it for you,” or do you try to say like, “Oh, that’s not worth much. I’ll give you 50 cents for it.”
Kelsey Lewin: Oh, no, we’re always very transparent. In the occasional cases where someone has no idea what they have, and they happen to have a really expensive game. I think they’re usually just pleasantly surprised. It’s like, “Oh, I just brought in the stack of 20 games. I was hoping to get like 30 bucks or whatever, and you’re telling me it’s worth 120 or whatever. That’s amazing.” So, usually it’s just kind of happy surprised, but no, we’ve never tried to trick anybody.
Ken Gagne: I remember attending a PAX East presentation by Chris Kohler at the time of Kotaku or WIRED, one of the two. He’s been at both. And he was saying, “If you’re at a flea market and you find somebody selling Earthbound for $1, you buy it. You don’t tell them look, I’ll give you 20 bucks for it.”
Kelsey Lewin: Absolutely.
Ken Gagne: But that’s different because in that scenario the person has already decided what they’re worth. Exactly.
Kelsey Lewin: Yeah, I don’t know, I can’t really think of any scenario where someone came in and handed me a $600 game and said, “I want five bucks for this.” And I think, I mean, just because… Again, it’s still a different situation even then because if you’re at a flea market, you’re just a one time buyer, but as a store you have a reputation to uphold. So even if I wanted to buy a $600 game for $5, I don’t think there’s any scenario in which I would because we want to be reputable. That’s important to me that we are a reputable business that never rips anyone off. So I would not pay $5 even if someone handed me… Even if someone told me. But again, it’s a different scenario if you’re at a flea market, or a garage sale, or a thrift store or something, and you see something marked as $4 or whatever. They set the price for that. That’s what you pay.
Kelsey Lewin: I picked up a copy of Tales of Destiny at Goodwill once… This is my best find, by the way. Everyone hears these stories, and they’re like, “Oh my, God, I’ve never had a find like that.” I’m like, “Well, you’re hearing my highlight.” I’ve also gone to thrift stores 10,000 times and left with nothing, but I did one time find a Tales of Destiny for $4 at Goodwill, and that’s like a hundred something dollar game, at least at the time. It’s probably more now. And yeah, I’m not going to go up to the counter at Goodwill and tell them to charge me more. It’s Goodwill.
Ken Gagne: So, how does Pink Gorilla decide what a game is worth? At GameStop it’s all there’s a computer database, and the employees aren’t making decisions. They’re just going by what corporate dictates.
Kelsey Lewin: Right. Yeah, actually, and I like that we have that at our store because I think that flexibility can be really nice sometimes. So, obviously, it’s fairly easy to determine if a game is valuable, what the value of a game is. There’s looking at sold eBay listings and price charting, and all of that stuff. And there’s several ways to get an idea for what something is worth. But to offer a price for it, I mean, we give employees the flexibility to base it off of a lot of different factors. Do we have 20 copies of this game already? Do people ever ask for this game? Is this an interesting game that we don’t see very often? Is it in good condition? Is it missing a manual or something like that? Does it have Sharpie all over it?
Kelsey Lewin: I mean, all of those things factor into what we pay for it. And it’s a percentage range, like a percentage range of the total price that things normally fall in. But that gives them the freedom to say something like, I mean, maybe it is a pretty common game. I’ll give you a good example, actually. Call of Duty Black Ops II on the Xbox 360. Pretty common game, actually still sells pretty well for us, and sometimes we’ve run out of that game. So, while a lot of common cheap 360 games, you aren’t getting more than $1 for when you sell it to us, this is an exception sometimes where it’s like, “Oh, we can pay a much higher margin on this. We can offer you a larger percentage of the price that we sell it for because this is actually a popular game that sells pretty well for us.”
Ken Gagne: What would you say is probably the most expensive game you sell?
Kelsey Lewin: Well, the most expensive one we’ve ever had was Nintendo World Championships.
Ken Gagne: Wow.
Kelsey Lewin: Yeah. And that was… That’s a whole… Its whole story. But the conclusion to that story, unfortunately, we did inform the guy how much it goes for. And we paid him a very competitive and fair price that after informing him you could make several thousand more if you wanted to sell it yourself. But here’s five figures for this game, or you can do it yourself. He elected to sell it to us. But we got this, this was three days, or maybe even two days before we were supposed to… My husband and I were supposed to leave town for Gaming Expo in Phoenix. And it was also just a few weeks after… I don’t know if you remember this, but E3 had a weird security thing on their site where you could just download the contact information of anyone who was registered as media for E3.
Ken Gagne: Yeah.
Kelsey Lewin: So, my house address was on there and my phone number, and I had to change all of this stuff afterwards. But I didn’t have time to do that in a week. So, I was like, “Well, we’ve already made it public that we have this game that’s worth five figures. We’re leaving town for a couple of days. People know where we live.” So, yeah, we ended up selling it very quickly to the first person who could buy it from us quickly, basically, which means that we probably left money on the table, but I’m okay with it.
Ken Gagne: I’m sorry you were in that situation. As somebody who has attended E3, I was worried about being in that database myself, and I know a lot of my friends were. You would not expect to eat three to docs its own media.
Kelsey Lewin: Yeah, that was pretty crazy. But yeah, it worked out okay. We made some money on it. The guy who sold it to us made a lot of money. I mean, everyone was happy. It’s just probably could have gone better for everybody if we had more time.
Ken Gagne: Was it a gray cartridge or a gold one?
Kelsey Lewin: It was a gray one.
Ken Gagne: Okay.
Kelsey Lewin: And it wasn’t new number too. I don’t know if… People are tracking which serial numbers have been found. So this was a new one that hadn’t been found yet.
Ken Gagne: Oh, wow.
Kelsey Lewin: Hadn’t been tracked yet.
Ken Gagne: Neat.
Kelsey Lewin: Yeah.
Ken Gagne: So, speaking of challenging times, this has been a difficult year for a lot of businesses, including retail courtesy of the COVID-19 pandemic. How has Pink Gorilla adapted to this challenge?
Kelsey Lewin: We’ve been doing okay, actually. The first couple months were really tough because we had to be in lockdown. Stores weren’t open for those first couple months at all. I didn’t want to lay anyone off, and I didn’t want to really reduce hours or anything. So what we ended up doing was my husband is a Twitch streamer as well. And he was just selling things through his Twitch stream, kind of like Home Shopping Network style for a couple months, and I had all of my employees, and they’d come in, in shifts so that they weren’t really around other people all day, every day. And I would take the midnight shift. So, I would be there from midnight to about 9:00 AM. And we’d just be cleaning and testing and selling things online.
Kelsey Lewin: So, that was rough. But ever since we’ve been able to open again, everything’s been fairly… I mean, as normal as things can be right now. Obviously, everyone is wearing masks, and we’re sanitizing a lot more often, and that sort of thing. Thankfully, people still want to play video games when they’re locked down and can’t leave their house. So, video game sales in general, I don’t think have been hit too hard. In fact, it’s the opposite really. So, we’ve been doing okay. It comes in waves sometimes, but we’ve been doing fine.
Ken Gagne: Good. I’ve seen some scientific journals recommend people play more video games as a way to relieve stress, and just be safe indoors, and have something to do during these times. So, I’m glad to hear that in some way this might actually be a good thing for the industry.
Kelsey Lewin: Yeah. I mean, it’s certainly been really good for the people who sell… Not the retail stores so much, but the companies that make the games. I think all games are selling better right now than they would otherwise.
Ken Gagne: Are you offering curbside pickup?
Kelsey Lewin: We are, yeah. There hasn’t… Honestly, most people here haven’t really taken advantage of it too much. But yeah, we are still offering that for sure.
Ken Gagne: So, I first saw Pink Gorilla in the documentary Not For Resale. I was in the audience for the world premiere in Massachusetts a year or two ago. A lot of the stores in that documentary I think were based in Massachusetts, which might be why the film premiered there. And it ended on a little bit of a somber note. Like a lot of movies after the credits they say like, “Where are they now?” And this film had, well, these stores that we featured in our documentary when we shot them a year ago. Now they’re still alive or now some of them have not survived because a lot of games are going digital, etc. So how is the future for retail in video games?
Kelsey Lewin: Well, we’re surviving another generation of disk still existing. So, I’m excited about that. But it’s a couple different things. I think that collectors will never go away. I think there’s always going to be some people who are going to enjoy having old media on their shelves. And I think even for that reason you look at the success that companies like Limited Run have had and then all of the spin off companies that have come out of that.
Kelsey Lewin: Obviously, that’s not where the bulk of the money is in video games, but that I think will pretty much always exist. So, there’s always going to be some people interested in collecting and having physical media. But I do think that there will need to be some pivoting. A lot of people think that for a game store like ours that collectors make up a pretty big portion of our customers, and it’s been a while since I’ve done the math, but I’m pretty sure they’re about 15% or less of our sales go to actual game collectors. Who we mostly sell to is just your average video game player. A college kid who walks in and just wants a new Xbox One game or a family that comes in and they’re picking up a couple of used Switch games for their kids or whatever.
Kelsey Lewin: I mean, it’s really not a whole heck of a lot of collectors. So, while those will always be there, and always give us a reason to have physical video games they’re not our bread and butter. So, I think that the smartest thing that a lot of game stores can do right now is just have other things as well. We do a lot of not just import games, but import stuff. We import a lot of merchandise like cute Pokemon plushies, and that sort of thing, but also cute key chains that maybe have nothing to do with video games, and are just good for little gifts.
Kelsey Lewin: I’m really about… I really like pushing a lot of the important stuff, personally. There’s a concept in Japan and I think it has a name, but I forget what it is where whenever you go on a little trip, even if it’s somewhere within Japan, you’re just going to a city over or something you buy a little trinket to bring back for your friends or for your family or something. I’m trying to make that catch on. I want to normalize that. I think that’s really cool. So, we offer a lot of little $7 and under cute gifts that I think people would enjoy so that if people are visiting Pink Gorillas like a tourist destination or visiting Seattle as a tourist destination, that they’re encouraged to bring a little something back for the people back home. I really like that concept. So, I’m trying to make it catch on.
Kelsey Lewin: And things like card games and that sort of thing as well. I don’t think that… I think we’re still aways away from people just completely abandoning physical media, and I don’t think they ever will. I mean, again, records have made a big resurgence. There’s always going to be people who like physical media, but it may not be as easy to sustain a store on entirely that in the future.
Ken Gagne: Sure. And tying back into the Video Game History Foundation, physical media is so much easier to archive and collect. Because when these online stores go away, the games are gone. And that’s why I try to buy physical media whenever possible.
Kelsey Lewin: Yeah, it is going to get more difficult from here. I mean, it already has been ever since you could download games, and cell phone games and stuff, especially. I mean, we’ve already lost so much. But there’s only so much. That focus is not something that we do at the Video Game History Foundation. That’s for other people to figure out. If we become an enormous organization someday, I would love to join that fight too. But there’s a whole lot of problems in preserving video game history, and we’re doing what we can do. We’re taking the part of video game history that we think we can do best and hoping that other people will. And they are. I mean, there was that Flash preservation project that did really well. And there are other people fighting this fight out there. But there’s a lot of fights to fight.
Ken Gagne: And speaking of having a lot of fights, I mean, I know from working in retail that being a manager is a full-time job and Video Game History Foundation, as you mentioned, you could go to Game Informer with six people for five weeks and work full-time and still not be done. So, how do you find time to do both of these things?
Kelsey Lewin: I have supportive people in my life, thankfully. I don’t do Pink Gorilla alone, which is really nice. I obviously have my husband who runs the store as well. And we also have an awesome general manager who keeps things running pretty smoothly, even if I have to leave town and stuff. So, I don’t have enough time in the world to give either of them the attention that I would like to give them, but I do my best.
Ken Gagne: And would you say that being a retailer makes you a better historian or being a historian makes you a better retailer? How do these play off each other?
Kelsey Lewin: That’s a great question. I think it probably does. Yeah, I’ve never really thought about that, to be honest. I think that it’s good to have more perspectives on what’s going on in the game industry. I mean, I suspect it would be the same if you were a developer and someone who owned a video game store or a developer and a historian or whatever. I mean, there’s anytime you have more than one perspective on what’s going on, I think that, that can be useful.
Ken Gagne: And I imagine that as a historian you become familiar with what games are rare and the stories behind them. So then when you see them in your store, you’re like, “I know how rare this is. I know how much this is worth. I know who this is of interest to because I have already done that deep dive.”
Kelsey Lewin: Yeah, for sure.
Ken Gagne: There is so much else about either of these topics that we could do entire additional podcast about, but I know this is going to be a busy week for you not only with new podcast episodes coming out, but also I neglected to consider when we scheduled this. You have new game consoles coming out this week?
Kelsey Lewin: Well, thank… I guess, not thankfully, we don’t have them at our stores because there’s this thing called a pandemic happening right now. And so I don’t even think even the big-box stores are really getting them. So that means the little guys like us are really not getting them. So, I don’t actually have to worry about the console launch this year, which is, I guess a nice thing. It would be cool to have them because I know a lot of our customers would like them. But I don’t have to deal with it much yet.
Ken Gagne: I’ve staffed previous launches, and not as many as you, but I can imagine what a headache it is. And although it might be a missed opportunity it’s not like we haven’t had enough to stress about in the past week.
Kelsey Lewin: Yeah. I think it’s okay. I mean, people are going to be looking for these consoles for the next probably year. I mean, even Switches are still selling out. So, I think it’s going to be a struggle for a while, and we’ll try to keep in stock what we can, but it’s going to be a struggle to… Yeah, for all of these companies to navigate with pandemic, and get the allocations they want to get.
Ken Gagne: Well, Kelsey, thank you so much for giving me so much of your time in a busy month to talk about the Video Game History Foundation and Pink Gorilla. Remind our listeners where we can find either of them online.
Kelsey Lewin: Yeah, thanks so much for having me. You can find the Video Game History Foundation. We’re gamehistory.org or on Twitter @GameHistoryOrg. Pink Gorilla is pinkgorillagames.com. We only sell merch on our online website. And I’ve got a really long spiel I could go into on why that is but sort of running out of time here. So, yeah, we only sell merchandise on our website, although I encourage people to visit our stores when it’s safe. And you can find Pink Gorilla on Twitter @PinkGorillaLLC. Yeah, thank you so much for having me on. I’m on Twitter @KelseyLewin. And yeah, thanks for having me.
Ken Gagne: Great. Thank you so much. Have a great month.
Kelsey Lewin: Thank you, you too.
Voiceover: This has been Polygamer, a Gamebits production. Find more episodes, read our blog, or send feedback at polygamer.net.