Playing with the Television: VCR Games

Curator's Note

The selected television advertisement introduces you to “The Gatekeeper,” host of 1991’s cult classic VCR board game Nightmare. Though exceedingly campy and largely comical to contemporary sensibilities, the Australian game met with extreme popularity and commercial success at the time of its release. By selling 100,000 units locally in its first year and eventually distributing over two million copies internationally, the game rivaled worldwide sales of Trivial Pursuit and inspired themed dance parties, music videos, and even a high-profile sponsorship deal with Pepsi.[i] The Sydney Morning Herald heaped praise on creators Brett Clements and Phillip Tanner as the genius creators behind “the world’s first interactive board game,” but unfortunately their lionization is not exactly accurate.[ii] Clements and Tanner only created arguably the most popular entry in largely forgotten subfield of the VCR board game, a physical board game which integrates the players’ television into the game mechanics by way of an included VHS tape. Reaching the height of their popularity in the 1980s and early 1990s, VCR board games mark a distinct media temporality; VHS tapes’ dominance of the home market following their triumph over Betamax coincided with the infancy of home gaming systems, and television gaming outlets strove to deliver interactive play experiences through analog technologies.

The now-archaic VCR board game resides at the crossroads of television and game studies, and prompts us to consider early attempts at heightening interactivity in analog games through visual technologies. Whereas the resurgent popularity of analog gaming today seems to embrace materiality and celebrate the human-to-human interactions the tabletop fosters, the legacy of VCR games remind us of the historical moment in which the television set offered the novel promise of magically transporting the gaming experience beyond a simple tabletop. The very notion of interacting with one’s television set, this advertisement certainly demonstrates, carries supernatural implications. The legacy of board games that integrate the VCR inspires consideration of what constitutes ‘interactivity’ in gaming, in both the stereotypical digital and analog tabletop varieties. 

[i] See marr0w, “Nightmare Presenter Video,” YouTube video, 17:02, posted [Dec 2007],

[ii] Bob Beale, “‘Cowboys’ Riding High on Back of a Game Idea,” The Sydney Morning Herald, 21 Feb 1994,


Which was a board game you played using an audio tape.

It was a kid's game with a much cleaner and more sanitised look & feel to the branding.

My friends and I (who were really too old for Go Fetch It at 11 & 12) used to record our own tapes to change up the game and make it more fun to our "sophisticated" tastes.

I never heard about VCR games (but then my family were the last to get a VCR recorder. Or a TV with a remote control) but they seem quite bizarre from a 2019 perspective.

The idea that introducing video into a game would make it MORE interactive is fascinating. What did people even mean by that world?

Like they effectively found a way to put cut scense into a board game. It's so great. I want to make one.

Thank you for this contribution. It's fascinating.

I have vivid, caffine-fueled memories of sitting in my parents' basement with the lights low playing "Nightmare" on the Big TV.  It was terrifying. The gameplay itself was paced around a board, but the on-going narrator could seemingly appear at random.  It was a mechanic that benefitted all the more from a jump-scare.

I would contend that any good game must include those shocking, surprise moments of triumph or defeat to wholly engage the player.  Who disagrees?

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