Sunday, January 20, 2019

Rawson Stovall: The First Nationally Syndicated Video Game Columnist


The name “Rawson Stovall” may not mean anything to you, but it should. Back in a time when video game reviews were seldom seen outside of such magazines as Electronic Games and JoyStik, he wrote a syndicated column published in more than 40 newspapers around the country. In fact, he was the first nationally syndicated reviewer of video games in the United States.

Remarkably, Stovall was only 10 years old when the first installment of his column, “Video Beat,” appeared in 1982 in the West Texas newspaper the Abilene Reporter-News.

A published writer at an age when many kids have a hard time simply paying attention in English class, Stovall was a true phenomenon, appearing on such television programs as The Tonight Show, Hour Magazine, That's Incredible!, and The Today Show. Stovall cemented his reputation as a wunderkind in 1984 when Doubleday published his book, The VidKid’s Book of Home Video Games (a now-hard-to-find tome that sells for around $70 on eBay), where he analyzed 80 video games for such consoles as the Atari 2600, ColecoVision, and Intellivision. He also reviewed the consoles themselves and even offered tips on many of the games.

For many of us who grew up during the 80s, playing video games and dreaming of one day becoming a professional writer, Stovall is something of a legend, so imagine my surprise when he reached out to me via Facebook recently and asked if I wanted to grab some breakfast. He was in town for the holidays (his mother lives near me in a suburb of Fort Worth, Texas) and had some time to kill before heading back to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he works as a video game designer. I had to work late the night before, but I wasn’t about to pass up this opportunity, so of course I said yes.

Stovall and I hit it off right away, sharing industry trade stories and some laughs. I told him how I broke into writing about video games in 1997 for the now-defunct All Game Guide (a sister website of allmusic.com), and how I wrote the first-ever video game book for McFarland Publishers in 2007 (the company now has an entire division of video game books), among other bona fides, while he revealed how he got his first video game console, and how he came to be a young reviewer. I even got him to sign my copy of his book.

I wasn’t meeting Stovall for breakfast as a journalist or with an article in mind—just as a fellow video game fan and writer—so I didn’t take notes or record our conversation. Fortunately, the introduction to his book contains plenty of info on how Stovall became a whiz kid (ahem, “Vid Kid”) and the first video game columnist in the United States, so I’ll summarize that for you here.

When he was in third grade in 1980, Stovall asked his parents and Santa Claus for an Atari 2600 game console. His request was denied (his dad called video games a “waste of money”), but in the fall of 1981, he raised enough cash selling pecans (gathered from a trio of trees in his backyard) to purchase an Atari system, and then Santa came through with some game cartridges for Christmas.

“Those first games gave me the start I needed,” Stovall wrote. “I played them until I knew them backward and forward and then loaned them to friends, who in exchange loaned me some of their games.”

Later that year, Stovall’s reading teacher assigned the class a project where they would get into groups and do a mock TV program. Stovall and his crew decided to do a show on video games.

“For each show, we reviewed around three games, told of the games to be released, and had a quiz contest,” Stovall wrote. “We also invited guest speakers such as Mr. Jack Williams, owner of the Abilene Video Library, a retail store where I got much of my information, and Mr. Max Martin, manager of the local Chuck E.Cheese Pizza Time Theatre. Mr. Martin caused quite a stir when he brought all of the Pizza Time characters with him.”

One day, as Stovall was talking to Williams about video games in his store, Williams suggested to the young boy that he write an article on the subject since he knew so much about it. Stovall’s mom suggested that he make it a column. Not only would a recurring column give Stovall more room to write about his favorite topic, it would earn him money to purchase a computer. After writing several sample columns, Stovall took his idea to Dick Tarpley, executive editor of the Abilene Reporter-News, and he readily accepted Stovall’s proposal.

After some legwork on Stovall’s part (with the help of his father), other papers ran the column as well, including the Waco Tribune, the San Antonio Light, and the El Paso Times. Early in 1983, Universal Press Syndicate caught wind of the column and began syndicating it in April of that year.

In 1985, Stovall, appearing at a public relations event, was the first person to demonstrate the Nintendo Entertainment System (released in 1983 in Japan as the Famicom) to the U.S. media. Stovall, whose writing also appeared in such publications as Family Circle, Omni, and Woman’s Day, continued writing his column until 1990, when he enrolled in college at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas.

At breakfast, Stovall told me he had discontinued the column because he would have had to start buying the new systems that were out at the time, such as the SegaGenesis, TurboGrafx-16, and the forthcoming Super Nintendo. He also told me that the Atari 2600 and the Vectrex (a short-lived tabletop unit with vector graphics) were the only vintage game systems he still had in his collection.

As we parted, Stovall and I agreed we should hang out at some future point when he would be in town. I’m already looking forward to it.

1 comment:

CGM Cav said...

Nice article, Brett!

Rawson is an absolute legend, an inspiration and someone I've always admired from afar. He was a significant influence when I was putting Classic Gamer Magazine together. Thanks for giving him his due and keeping him in the spotlight. More people need to know if his contributions.