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Chicago was a video game powerhouse in the '90s. 'Insert Coin' looks at the company behind 'Mortal Kombat'

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 12/4/2020 By Nina Metz, Chicago Tribune
a close up of a machine: In the 1990s, some of the most iconic arcade games — from Mortal Kombat to NBA Jam — were created by a local Chicago company called Midway Games. The documentary "Insert Coin" from filmmaker Joshua Tsui, looks back at the company’s heyday and is available to stream through Dec. 10 via Facets' virtual cinema. © Dreamstime/Dreamstime/TNS In the 1990s, some of the most iconic arcade games — from Mortal Kombat to NBA Jam — were created by a local Chicago company called Midway Games. The documentary "Insert Coin" from filmmaker Joshua Tsui, looks back at the company’s heyday and is available to stream through Dec. 10 via Facets' virtual cinema.

Chicago doesn’t have a reputation as a video game hub. But in the 1990s, some of the most iconic arcade games — from Mortal Kombat to NBA Jam — were created by a local company called Midway Games. The documentary “Insert Coin” from filmmaker Joshua Tsui, looks back at the company’s heyday and is available to stream through Dec. 10 via Facets’ virtual cinema.

Midway was among the first to use digitized actors — walking, running, punching, all of it — in its games, giving them a simulacrum of reality unique to the time.

“Up until that point, in most games the artwork was hand-drawn,” said Tsui. “Japanese video game development houses back then were huge and had teams of artists drawing beautiful artwork. So what Midway brought in was this ability to digitize actors and get them into the game and make them look really great” — plus it was cheaper and faster than employing artists.

The documentary captures a moment in time when a homogenous workforce prompted nary a second glance in the world of video games, and it is a harbinger of many of the same issues that the industry is still working through today. More on that in a bit.

Tsui remains off-camera throughout the film, but his connection to Midway is personal. After attending Columbia College for film school, he worked at Midway from 1993 to 1999. “They hired me as a video artist. We couldn’t use a blue screen or green screen background to key out the actors, so for every frame of a character we would hand cut them out, pixel by pixel, to keep the image as clean as possible. That was one of my first jobs when I started working there and it was painstaking. But the teams working on a game were so small back then, usually about five people — nowadays it’s hundreds of people — so everybody had to multitask.” he said.

“The amount of hours we worked was just crazy. But it was almost like being in a secret society, where everybody had this passion for what they were working on. So even though we had these long hours, we would work all day for 10 or 12 hours, and then after work we would stay and play games with each other well into the night and then go home, sleep for a bit and rinse and repeat.”

So how did Chicago become the home base for one of the more prominent gaming companies of the ’90s?

“It started with pinball,” Tsui said. “Everything with video games now is software based, but back in the day when it was about arcades, you also had to have an assembly line and a factory making these machines; they weren’t being manufactured in China and being shipped over.”

And there were three companies in Chicago — Williams, Bally and Midway (which would eventually become one entity under the Midway banner) — that were uniquely suited to this: “These were the biggest names in pinball and they were all based here,” Tsui said. “Pinball was huge for a very long time, and when video games started coming around, companies that were making pinball machines had the network already for the distribution of these games. So they figured they’d hope on the bandwagon and start making video games also.”

Midway would eventually go out of business in 2010.

“The internet and home consoles started becoming more of the source of entertainment for people,” said Tsui. “As consoles became more powerful, the games got really big. We’re talking 40 hours of gameplay, versus an arcade game which might have an hour in it. So the style of the games changed. It’s like making a music video compared to making a ‘Star Wars’ movie, it’s just massively different in scale and scope. And in its DNA, Midway was an arcade company, and trying to flip your brain around and make a game that’s playable for 40-plus hours is very hard to do. So they had one very expensive failure after another, leading to their demise.”

In the ’90s, Midway achieved a certain notoriety because many of its games were bloody and violent. But looking at the games today, they seem almost cartoonish and far from the kind of photorealistic computer graphics available today.

Tsui’s interview subjects do address the controversy their games created and it’s suggested there wasn’t much room for discussion: A Midway employee remembers complimenting a particular game but asking, “Do you think that’s a good thing to put in an arcade when little kids are there?” The question escalated into “a huge argument … and screaming match.”

Before it all came to an end, Midway was headquartered on the Northwest Side in the Avondale neighborhood. It was a manufacturing location and the workspace was less than glamorous.

“At the time, we were second class citizens at the company,” said Tsui. “Video games were booming, but pinball was still bigger, so they just carved out a space for us in the back of the pinball factory to work in and it was just horrendous conditions. But the interesting thing about it is, we were always reminded that our work affected the jobs of other people. We were doing the software, but we would see the factory — we would see people putting these games together — and how many people were involved. So if we didn’t have a hit game, not only would our jobs be on the line, but you’d have hundreds of people on the assembly lines that would lose their jobs as well. There was a lot at stake.”

One of the joys of “Insert Coin” is that Tsui was able to his hands on footage originally shot for games like Mortal Kombat which is shown side by side with the final digitized version. There’s no professional lighting. The background is a drab gray. You see the actors (in costume) walking on a treadmill or kicking the air or balanced on a crate. It doesn’t look like a professional set up, but it clearly worked.

“When Midway went bankrupt and Warner Bros. and different companies were buying up the IPs (the intellectual property of the games themselves), they were closing up the building and literally tossing things into dumpsters. Our former vice president of production found out about this and he drove down there and recovered a huge percentage of these video tapes that were being thrown out and he held onto them.”

One thing you can’t help but notice: The film is a parade of white guys, from Midway executives to game developers. Tsui was one of the only Asian people — one of the only nonwhite people — to work on the software development side at Midway.

“I knew it was really homogenous but in hindsight I could see it even more clearly doing these interviews,” Tsui said. “Whether it was intentional or not, there was a lot of gatekeeping in those days. It was very hard to make games back then, so if you’re in a group that already has limited access to the technology or to even learn how to create games, it was out of reach. It was very hard to make games back then, it was such a niche profession.”

Tanya DePass is the founder and director of I Need Diverse Games, a nonprofit based in Chicago, and she echoed Tsui’s points.

“If you look at stats of how many Black people had a computer at home or in school — I went to Chicago public schools and graduated in ‘91 and I don’t think I had access to a computer until high school,” she said. “So the access wasn’t there. And most parents weren’t thinking there was a career in this. They probably saw it more as a distraction from your school work. I mean, I never thought gaming would be my career, be it making games, talking about them or doing RPG (role-playing games) content and streaming that.”

DePass also noted: “Ironically, today (Dec. 1) is Jerry Lawson’s birthday, who is considered the father of the cartridge game. He is one of the Black pioneers of video games and I’ve seen only one tweet about him today.”

To get a sense of where things stand today, the Developer Satisfaction Survey provides information annually about who is making games and the most recent survey (from 2019) found that it is still largely white and male. Only 24% of respondents identified as female, with 3% identifying as nonbinary and 2% selecting “prefer to self-describe.”

Just 7% were Hispanic/Latinx, followed by 5% Aboriginal/Indigenous (including Pacific Islanders) and 10% for those identifying as East, South and South-East Asian. Black people made up only 2% of the respondents. The survey also found 28% of respondents identified as having a disability.

But the consulting work DePass does focuses not just on who is creating the games, but the characters within them.

“A lot of the diversity consulting I do is with studios and getting them to understand why representation is important,” she said, “and they’re thinking about it much earlier in the process. I’m being brought in at the beginning rather than, ‘Oh, we’re almost ready to ship the game but someone looked at this and realized this could be a bad archetype, can you look at it?’

“So in that sense, I am hopeful because companies are thinking about this more — or thinking about it at all. A lot of people I talk to have never had to think about this. They see themselves represented in all these games and all this media and they have never had to think about not being represented.

“But when are we going to get past the 101 conversation?” she asked. “I think it’s pretty well established that diversity is good and needed. So when can we move on to actually getting it into the games? When are we going to get that next step, versus always asking for inclusion and being super excited when we get a little bit of it?”


“Insert Coin” is available to stream through Dec. 10 through Facets’ virtual cinema. Go to


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