Sir Clive Sinclair, the trailblazer who invented the British video game industry

The pioneers of the video game industry run into a handful of names; Allan Alcorn (the inventor of Pong), Tomohiro Nishikado (Space Invaders) Nolan Bushell (co-founder of Atari), Shigeru Miyamoto (Donkey Kong / Mario) and Toru Iwatani (Pac-Man). For the British, it was Clive Sinclair (the Spectrum computer). It was Clive Sinclair who can be credited for creating the British video game industry that tens of thousands owe their livelihoods today. 

Sir Clive (he was knighted for his services for computing in 1983) disliked the idea that his affordable ZX Spectrum computers were going to be used as something as frivolous as video gaming, but money talks. In 1982 he launched the Spectrum 16k and 48k models and it was supposed to be used for programming and limited office applications, but anyone who bought it did so primarily to play games!  The Spectrum computers sold over 5 million units worldwide and they are fondly remembered for the millions of games made accessible by entrepreneurial companies and bedroom coders alike. An entire cottage industry was built around the Spectrum computer, either in making games, promoting games or supporting games with peripherals. Due to the cassette delivery of data, Spectrum games also found a healthy black market in pirated games. The fact the rise of microcomputers such as the Spectrum, the Commodore 64 and the BBC Acorn computers, coincided with the collapse in the market for video game arcades and the Atari 2600 should be noted. The microcomputers cannibalised the demand for earlier gaming machines.     

Those games, which launched in the heyday of the mid-80s micro-computer revolution, burned into the subconscious of millions of teenagers and children. I was one of them. It was because I and so many others loved playing games such as Manic Miner, Jet Set Willy, Chuckie Egg, Lunar Jet Man, Underwurlde, Alien 8, The Hobbit, Jetpac, Attic Atak, Knight Lore and Lords of Midnight, to name a few, that several of us sought careers and jobs in the industry. To this day many who work in games do so because our roots in gaming started with the microcomputer. For example, the best of the bunch was made by a company called Ultimate Play The Game, which later metamorphosed into Rare, a company that still makes games today. Ian Livingstone, today one of the UK’s leading stewards in the industry started investing in video games in the early 80s (as well as writing fantasy books) and became one of the founding fathers of Eidos Interactive, the maker of Tomb Raider. These are but 2 examples from many. 

An industry of retro gaming

There is now an entire industry dedicated to 80s retro gaming with magazines, forums and emulation ROMs that serve one purpose only – to reminisce and to honour the birth of home video game entertainment. So, it would not be a stretch in the imagination to say that Sir Clive Sinclair unwittingly invented the British video game industry, whether he liked it or not. It was a serendipitous invention that paved the way for millions of others who followed. If you want to see an excellent documentary about that time, there was a BBC docudrama film made called Micro Men.

Sir Clive Sinclair died on Thursday 16th September. He was 81. I owe my passion in games, and therefore my career, to that man. 

RIP Clive.

Sam Naji