After working together researching Dundee’s games history, having discussions with others in the cultural and video game sectors and playing the classic Dundee-made game Lemmings they produced a video and a blog for the project. In the video (above) Susie and Erin experience both triumphs and tragedies as they play Lemmings for the first time in many years and in the blog (below) Erin shares her reflections on the project:
For our Collaborative Commission, Susie and I took a dive into the intersection of games, creativity and heritage in Dundee – to discover what had happened in the past, and explore what the future could hold both for games developers and heritage organisations. I wanted to understand more about the history of game design in Dundee and what was happening now – my work is about trying to represent Dundee’s many stories through the years, and I felt like I didn’t know much about this very strong contemporary tradition of creating and sharing stories through games. Susie’s background in art and design means that she brought a unique understanding of games and culture to the project, and she was keen to expand her knowledge of the historical context of the games industry.
It was obvious the topic was a big one for one short project, so we decided to choose one game which had shaped Dundee’s history to focus our thoughts. It had to be Lemmings, the iconic puzzle game which the DMA Design team created in a little studio on the Nethergate in the early 1990s. This was one we both had fond (and slightly traumatic) childhood memories of playing, but neither of us had rescued a lemming in years.
Lemmings turned 30 in 2021, and the response to its birthday earlier this year proved it still has a huge place in Dundonians’ hearts. We wanted to look beyond the story of how Lemmings came to be, and ask about the huge impact the game has had since, and how it has become part of a longer creative history. What is it about the Dundee games community that sparked such a game-changing game? And how do we remember the stories of the games and the people who make them?
The research for this project ended up being very much a team effort. We spoke to Safya Devautour, a young games designer working in Dundee, who shared her thoughts on how Lemmings had influenced her own career in games and her vision for the industry’s future. My colleagues at Leisure & Culture Dundee, Julie McCombie, Rebecca Jackson-Hunt and Gareth Jackson-Hunt, gave us an insight into the historical picture, speaking about how they conserve gaming artefacts on behalf of the city as part of the social history collections at The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery and Museum. As well as an original copy of the Lemmings game, their collections include Lemmings designer Mike Dailly’s original motherboard and computer keyboard, the tools on which the game was first built.
The context which allowed DMA’s ideas to flourish links further back into Dundee’s past than you might expect. Curator Julie McCombie explained that Dundee in the 1980s was an unusually tech-savvy city for the time, with more household computers than you would expect. This was largely because of the Timex factory’s presence – newly-assembled ZX Spectrums had a habit of “disappearing over the Timex wall” and finding their way into the community. It was during this era that some of the key DMA members, Dave Jones, Mike Dailly, Steve Hammond and Russell Kay, all met at the Kingsway Computer Club. The presence of the Timex factory wasn’t a coincidence, either. The jute industry was in decline by the 1980s, but the high level of manufacturing skills Dundee’s workers had was one of the main reasons the company chose to move production here. The presence of the technical college – now the University of Abertay – was another big factor.
Lemmings came about in a city where old generational patterns of work in the textile industry were clearly changing for good. But there was a lot of hope around too, offered by new jobs and comparatively widespread access to new technologies. DMA basically started from scratch when creating Lemmings – it was unlike any other game available at the time. Our video for this project talks about the game itself, and its unique animation and gameplay.
The game immediately captured people’s imaginations, and had a reach far beyond Dundee soon after its release. For many who were children at the time of its release, it was a family activity and an introduction to the world of gaming. For a single-player game, it offered a lot of potential for social playing – you could have several people crowded round a PC arguing about the best way to get your lemmings through a tricky level, and as the levels got more complicated, what seemed to be a straightforward puzzle game definitely veered towards strategy game territory.
Safya told us how, when she was growing up, her dad introduced her to the digital world by setting up an old computer up in her room. Lemmings was the only game he installed on it (in fact, almost the only thing on the computer at all, along with a screensaver with a picture of her mother.) So this was an early influence in her experience of gaming. Years later, when Safya was deciding what to do after school, she had a conversation with her sister who was studying psychology at Abertay, who told her there was a game design course there. She did some reading, and found that Dundee was where these early gaming memories had been brought to life. It felt like a full circle moment, and her decision to study at Abertay was soon made.
It wasn’t immediately obvious how to get the game out there. In an interview with Read Only Memory, Mike Dailly talked about how hard the game was to describe – because it was unlike anything else out at the time, it was hard to advertise too. But they knew once people played it, all would become clear, so they sent out as many demos, usually free on the cover of gaming magazines, as possible. Safya reflected that it would be harder for a game to break through like this today, because the huge variety of formats and platforms means that it’s hard to create something which works across them and reach that broad audience of specialist gamers and casual family players, even if you do have something which might appeal to everyone. But the rising popularity of streaming means that games are now reaching audiences in entirely new ways – so who knows where the next breakthrough game might come from?
Lemmings was undoubtedly the start of something big, for DMA and for Dundee. The team went on, as Rockstar Games, to create the Grand Theft Auto series – equally iconic, if slightly more controversial. At first glance the two games seem very different, but there is definitely a thread of dark comedy violence in the animation of Lemmings too. When you can’t find your way out of a tricky level, you have to choose between watching your precious lemmings perish individually or ending it all with the ‘nuke’ button, which sees them all clutch their tiny heads and shriek before exploding into rainbow pixel oblivion – classic family entertainment.
DMA’s success story has been an important source of inspiration for later generations of developers, indisputable proof that sometimes, it can be done. Safya spoke about how important this was to her, particularly being based in the same city where it happened. The game even has a physical presence in the landscape, with Alyson Conway’s stone lemmings climbing the wall at Seabraes on Perth Road, having escaped the DMA office and wandered up the road. She described how there was something in the Dundee atmosphere, a sense that there are people with ideas all around and a determination to create things – almost “an El-Dorado for creating games.” The sense of community and DIY spirit has a long history in Dundee’s creative traditions – so much of the city’s literature, visual art and print culture has come out of a group of committed people deciding something should happen in a tiny room, and somehow making it real.
This brings me back to the big question about how to collect and represent a game as a cultural and historical ‘thing’. Like a book or a broadside, the game is both artefact and narrative, a set of stories and experiences anchored to a physical object. But unlike paper, the technology around games is developing very quickly. Providing it has been kept in reasonable condition, you can read a five-hundred-year-old book straight from the shelf, engaging with its stories in the context of everything which has happened since. But you cannot take a thirty-year-old Lemmings floppy disk, pop it into a modern laptop, and start playing. Preserving the box and disk of a game is one thing, McManus conservator Rebecca Jackson-Hunt told us, but preserving the game’s readability and playability is far more difficult.
The huge volume of digital documents now being produced – this includes games, but also text, images, videos, and so much more – poses a big challenge for museums and libraries. The past year has brought these concerns even further to the fore from my perspective – we’ve gone from collecting Dundee’s cultural life via its print culture to wondering just how you record a thriving scene where everything, from posters to events themselves, is digital. These new formats require new storage methods and conservation processes, and our resources are already stretched by the demands of existing collections. But we are determined to capture these new stories for the city.
This Collaborative Commission isn’t the first conversation to take place between the heritage and games communities in Dundee, but it has proved hard to sustain a connection in the past. We hope what we can do is start to address some of the challenges facing both sides of the conversation, so that we can start to build a lasting relationship between games and heritage. This might be small at first, because one of the biggest challenges for all of us is capacity – time and resources are stretched for everyone involved. But a small sustainable outcome – for example, libraries and museums speaking to designers to get an up-to-date record of which games have been designed in Dundee – would put a foundation in place for further collecting and exhibition work.
Thirty years is a long time in gaming history. And it’s not just technology that changes, industry and work practices move on too. Safya told us she had seen the games community in Dundee moving away from creative projects in recent times, with more young developers working for hire on other people’s ideas. This is not because the ideas aren’t here in Dundee. The roots are similar to those of the problems facing us in heritage organisations: funding is scarce, and it’s not easy to get the funding to make your ideas a reality even when you believe in them and know they should happen. We also need to make sure that we are not dismissive of the many unique and creative original games that have come out of Dundee in recent years, such as Junkfish’s Monstrum, Bit Loom’s Phogs, Ninja Kiwi’s Bloons series, Biome Collective’s Killbox, Stormcloud Games’ Island Saver and many more. These projects are a reminder that Dundee’s gaming community doesn’t just rely on the past but has a bright and exciting future ahead. And in the heritage community, we need to make an effort to hear their stories before they become ancient history in gaming terms.
There are reasons to be hopeful. The history of games design is a creative history and a workers’ history, a new chapter in two very long and interesting threads in Dundee’s past. The city has a long tradition of collecting, sharing and drawing inspiration for new work from these histories. And during our research and conversations for this short project, we found an inspiring amount of enthusiasm from both sides in having a more sustainable relationship between the games community and the heritage community. Hopefully, when we look back in another thirty years, we will see that even more grassroots games from Dundee will have changed the way we look at gaming and what it can do, and we’ll have made sure their stories are represented in the city’s collections.
So what next for games and heritage? How do we make sure we are collecting this essential part of Dundee’s story for future generations, while being realistic about the funding and time pressures facing people on both sides of this relationship? I would like to take this opportunity to ask readers from the gaming community – what would you like to see museums and libraries collecting? Who should we speak to to find not just games, but the stories around them? Which video game characters would you like to see join the lemmings on Dundee’s streets?We would love to continue this conversation with you. If you have any answers, thoughts or ideas please reach out to us on Twitter, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Erin Farley is the Library and Information Officer for Local History at Dundee Libraries. She works with communities around Dundee to share stories and ideas about the city’s history, memory, and people and is interested in the power of creative histories and traditional storytelling.
Susie Buchan is a freelance Creative Producer who produces and curates games, arts and culture events, digital experiences and online content, individually and as a member of Biome Collective.
If you would like to support us in creating even better content, please consider joining or supporting our Amps Community.