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The Original Gamers

When I was a kid, a visit to the toy shop with my little brother was hilarious. It wasn't the whoopee cushions or the fart spray, it was the outer boxes of the board games. A rogues gallery of demented looking families. These were the happiest people we'd ever seen, and all because they played Ker-Plunk together.

It all started way back in the 1930s. Toy companies decided that to sell their games, they needed to show how happy they would make prospective new owners on the packaging. Initially these comprised of artists impressions of children and adults playing while grinning. It's not certain whether these pictures actually aided sales, but by the 1960s improved printing techniques allowed photos of real families to appear on toy boxes for the first time, and it didn't take long for video game companies to catch on to the idea.

In 1972 the Magnavox Odyssey, the worlds first home games console, set the precedent. (Pics 1&4). The image is more little house on the prairie than cutting edge technology, and use of the tongue (Pic 4) was later outlawed.

It was thankfully decided that the Odyssey's lack of success was down to the console's shortcomings rather than the box, and so American console producers got busy with their polaroids. I'm sure if you're reading this you may have fond memories of the Atari VCS outer box. This pastiche of pictures was intended to show the diverse range of people the console would appeal to, but seems distinctly odd.

A Chinese boy with his arm in the air, a black boy pouting(Different Strokes was huge at the time), a guy in a rugby top just looking grumpy. None of these people are holding a joystick or pointing at a TV, these people think they're going to be on a McDonalds billboard.

Atari's 'happy' photos spread across their entire range of TV games, and you can find matching VCS pictures on Video Pinball and Atari Stunt Cycle. With the rest of the games industry following in Atari's wake, its rivals added photos to their boxes too. While Fairchild chose to go 'Benetton' style with the random photos on their Channel F console, other companies made their photos more game related. The adoring family image so popular on board games was back in vogue, and featured on consoles like the RCA Studio II and Bally Astrocade (Pic 2)


TOP: An image from the box of the Bally Astrocade. Instead of Atari's scattergun use of random photos, Bally took a load of social stereotypes and bunged them into a fake arcade. Most notable are a guy in a sailor suit, a befuddled grandma and a mad scientist.
ABOVE LEFT: The box of space age electronic tabletop game, Computer Perfection. If I was that Dad, i'd be saying, enough of the games, why is one of my kids ginger?
ABOVE RIGHT: Probably the creepiest of all the early box art. There's just something not right about this scene, I'm afraid I can't confirm that the man is wearing trousers.

Now, before you go thinking this is just those crazy Americans being all whacky, there were some pretty odd photos on British hardware too. A family line up appears on the box of the Dragon 32, and images on the box of the Acorn Electron have to be seen to be believed.

Images of women have been used to sell all kinds of products for decades. It's a mark of how primal men are, their eyes are so easily diverted by a pretty face or an inch of flesh. Advertising Execs have known forever, if you want to grab a man's attention, stick a girl on the box. Unfortunately Acorn's advertising budget was extremely tight. (Pic 3). I'm not saying she's not got some qualities, she likes to use a computer in the greenhouse for one thing. And, while she's not instantly attractive, she is the kind of girl an Acorn Electron Chess club champion would try to pull at the school disco.

My favourite of these box photos isn't picture 5 from Atari's Pong Doubles, I just included it because I thought the guy on the right looked like Clive James. No, my all time favourite picture from the front of a console box is Picture 6, from the Grundig Interton 3000
TV Game. This German box art not only features five people trying to share a machine which has no seperate controllers, but it even includes a dog. Now, i've been playing a long time, but I could never get my dog to pay any interest in videogames. Not since I thrashed him at Pro Evo 6. Seriously though, look at Nan sitting on the end. I'm not even that sure she's still alive. My Nan could barely work the toaster, but here she is, a real live Nan actually sitting near a videogame. Sure, her view is a little restricted, she can't actually see the screen, but hey, she's got a chair, and we can lean on her until she wakes up.

In conclusion, while it seems a pity that these family portraits have become a thing of the past, we could actually be seeing the start of a revival. Recent Nintendo advertising has concentrated on shots of family groups over exciting themselves with a Wii controller. Apple has made the use of faces and people in ads cool again. It's inevitable that over time these images will seem just as cheesy as those of the 1970s and 1980s. As all the current console companies converge on the mainstream, surely it's only a matter of time before funny faces make it back onto the packaging. PIC Seven

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