Bill Kunkel is a name you should probably know. He, along with friends and business partners Arnie Katz and Joyce Worley, were extraordinarily important figures in video game history: They created the very first video game magazine, Electronic Games, in 1981, which covered arcade, home console, and computer video games throughout their Golden Age until the Crash in 1984.
Not only that, but within those pages, Kunkel himself coined gaming terms we all take for granted today, such as “Easter egg” and “screenshot.” Yeah, that was Bill Kunkel.
Released in 2005 and unfortunately now out of print, Confessions of the Game Doctor is a collection of Kunkel’s memoirs, ranging from his days writing for pro wrestling magazines and comic books at both DC and Marvel in the ’70s, through the formation of EG and beyond, to his consulting work and other run-ins with famous people in and out of the video game industry.
After warming up with a few tales from his run as a funnybook scribe, the good stuff happens as we hear about how he and the Katzes (Joyce Worley was actually Arnie Katz’ wife, but used her maiden name professionally) launched Electronic Games at a time when there was no such thing as video game journalism other than the “Arcade Alley” column Kunkel was already writing for Video magazine. Kunkel wrote in EG as, of course, The Game Doctor, in addition to overseeing the entire publication. There are some interesting stories and opinions about the games of the time and their manufacturers, like Atari, Magnavox, and Activision.
Unfortunately, perhaps mirroring the nosedive and untimely end of the first wave of the video game business itself, EG fizzles out and by the middle of the book, Kunkel is telling us about his subsequent ventures. Still firmly rooted in the video game world, Kunkel testified in three high-profile video game-related lawsuits, including Atari vs Magnavox in the trial of Odyssey2’s K.C. Munchkin, Nintendo vs Galoob over the original Game Genie, and Capcom vs Data East over Fighters’ History and its similarity to Street Fighter II. Amusingly, in every case, Kunkel is on the side of the defendants, standing up against the bigger corporations.
Kunkel has lots of wild and interesting stories, but the stories are perhaps a bit more on the personal side than some gamers might like; by that, I mean that there are more tales about the business of running the magazine and his relationships with his partners and clients, rather than discussion about what his favorite video games were or adventures in the arcades. That’s not to say there isn’t any talk directly about video games or game studios; there certainly are, but it’s obvious that Kunkel wanted to share a different side of the business here.
The book is well-written, as one would expect from a journalist, and Kunkel’s wit comes through loud and clear. Unfortunately, the photos included in the book are low-resolution and sometimes hard to make out, while the prose is laid out in full pages of sans-serif font, not making for the most visually pleasing volume (Rolenta Press, while producing books packed with very interesting content, is not exactly known for stellar graphic design work).
Bill Kunkel passed away on September 4, 2011, at age 61, of an apparent heart attack. He deserves his place in the book of Important Names in Video Game History, and I’m glad this volume exists to allow us to learn a little more about the man who was the Game Doctor.