A review of The Retro Mobile Gaming Database, a collection of mobile games from 1975 to 2008, directed by Adriana de Souza e Silva
The Retro Mobile Gaming Database
Adriana de Souza e Silva, North Carolina State University
Additional contributors are noted on the site.
Hannah Trammell, University of Tennessee
Adriana de Souza e Silva
In 2020, the Mobile Gaming Research Lab developed the Retro Mobile Gaming Database (RMGD), a resource for those interested in the history of gaming and mobile cultures. RMGD stores information about several kinds of mobile games: games played on mobile gaming consoles, such as Mattel Football and Nintendo Game & Watch Parachute; games played on mobile phones, such as Tetris and Snake; games played with mobile devices that take place simultaneously in physical and digital spaces, such as Mogi and Botfighters; and games that use city spaces as a gameboard, such as the B.I.G. Urban Game.
The database is an online, publicly searchable repository of early mobile games developed between 1975 (when the first mobile console games were released) and 2008 (the year the iPhone was released). We decided to stop cataloging games created after 2008 to narrow the database’s scope and to focus on the early history of mobile games.
Early mobile games are relevant to understanding both past and present ludic, digital, and mobile cultures. Despite this significance, early mobile games pose challenges for research. Although many of these games were popular at their time of inception, they are often no longer on the market, making them difficult or expensive to acquire. In other cases, games became unplayable with the release of new operating systems. Finally, some early games were unavailable to the general public because they were restricted to small research or artistic circles. As a result, finding documentation or historical accounts about these games is difficult unless a researcher knows specifically how to search for them with exact titles, keywords, and creators. Collectively, these challenges limit our knowledge about the history of mobile games, making identifying correlations between contemporary and early mobile gaming cultures difficult.
RMGD offers game scholars, students interested in games, and game enthusiasts a centralized repository where they can search for mobile games by using a wide range of criteria, such as title, time frame, genre, type of connectivity, number of players, place of development, authors, and hardware. The database also provides a map that shows the geographic location of where the searched games were developed, displays popular press and scholarly articles written about the games, and suggests related games. Importantly, information about games in the database can be crowdsourced. After creating an account, users can suggest new games to the database, contributing to the robustness of this resource. New entries must be approved by the MGRL researchers.
The database emerged from our theoretical and historical inquiry about the role of mobile games in culture and society. However, during the process of conceptualizing and developing the database, we refined those theories and relationships — and building the database was in itself an exercise in theory-building. Through this process, we developed an understanding about the connections among early mobile games, adding nuance to the categories used to define them.
The Retro Mobile Gaming Database (RMGD) is an exciting project intended to preserve the rapidly disappearing digital history of mobile and video games dating back to as early as 1975 through a robust database of entries documenting these games. The project recognizes that these materials are quickly becoming concentrated in private collections but are very expensive for scholars to acquire for study and research. The Networked Mobilities Lab (NML) at North Carolina State University created the RMGD and states their primary goals are accessibility and promotion of interdisciplinary work. They make these goals readily apparent in their intuitive design of the database and detailed instructions for using it. The search function of the database is easy to use and makes searching the 241 entries currently available simple. Each entry contains metadata about the corresponding game, including year, genre, purpose, developer, and hardware.
The entries also offer a space to upload media like videos, links to articles, and photos. In order to maintain order and clarity in the database entries, the RMGD team has constructed a series of strict but easily-parsed guidelines on what entries to the site should include. Users wishing to contribute must register for an account, which requires email activation within 15 minutes of registration; however, despite the database’s user-friendly interface, I did run into issues with registration — specifically, I never received the activation email. I tried to register multiple times, and I checked my spam folder to ensure that the registration email was not diverted there, but I did not receive an email. I was unable to offer contributions to the project, however users can notify the RMGD of bugs and larger problems through a Google Form.
As more users contribute entries to the database, I hope the NML will be able to devote resources to its maintenance and growth. There were a few broken links and images, which I reported as I explored the database. Maintenance requires regular updates and checks, supplemented by user error reporting within the Google Form. The RMGD could also consider developing a more robust support network as the database grows larger, which seems likely given the attention video game studies have been gaining over the past few decades.
Researchers working with video games face difficulties with funding and access, while also fighting to assert the validity of their scholarship. Fortunately, the RMGD project offers hope that validity and access are both possible. This database may encourage other universities to develop special collections dedicated to video game history — digital archives with physical analogues may even become widespread if projects like RMGD continue to proliferate. Searching through the amazing array of video games and their physical mediums on this database is a reminder of their cultural significance and their narrative and affective functions. Thus, this project offers important preliminary reference information for researchers and members of the public looking to trace the history of gaming.