Untold Stories: Steve McNeil on being a video game comedian, creating video game TV and writing about the golden age of gaming

In the latest instalment of our Untold Stories series, we chatted to comedian and author Steve McNeil about how he got into the industry, the challenges (and fun) of making video game TV show Go8Bit and about his new history of video games called Hey! Listen!


George Osborn: Nice easy question, can you tell me who you are?

Steve McNeil: I am a comedian that has somehow made it my job to be silly and play video games.

The thing that most people know me for is the TV show Go 8 Bit, which I created and was a team captain for. I also host Wi-Fi Wars, which we tour around, where the audience logs in on their phones and plays video games against each other.

I’m also a human in his own right doing things on the internet and everywhere else.

GO: When did you fall in love with video games?

SM: I’ve never not had video games. I was born in 1979 and my parents had a home Pong Console. So I had home pong when I was tiny. I also had an Amstrad CPC464, which we had games for and we had the little book where you typed games into it.

So from the moment I was aware of the thing, I was in a house that had it. In the UK at the time it was mostly computers. Then from SNES onwards it was consoles.

GO: What was it about games that captivated you?

SM: Well, it’s fun. The thing I come back to is that they’re fun. It’s informed my approach for how I make things even up to now. 

I have a huge amount of passion and respect for professional journalists and esports professionals. But I am not that good at words and not that good at playing. 

But I have an inherent passionate belief in the entertainment value and joy that can come from games. That might seem like a cop out answer, but it really isn’t. A lot of things forget that games can be fun and get too serious about them, but ultimately they’re fun and a great way to distract yourselves from all other things.

GO: How did you get into the industry?

SM: That’s a fair question. It was a total fluke. I did a management degree at the University of Bath and hated that. I hated being a grown up. So I did amateur dramatics at University instead.

I was funnier than I was an actor, which meant I drifted into comedy for a bit. But I wasn’t good at comedy enough to be in there either. So we had pretty much given up, me and my partner Sam. 

We had done three years at Edinburgh which, to be fair, had gone very well. We were good at sketch comedy double act things but it’s hard to make that a job. 

So just for a bit of fun in 2013, we had an idea that if we got comedians drunk and swear at each other while they play video games that we’d be able to sell 50 tickets on a late Friday or Saturday night.

Image from https://www.stevemcneil.co.uk/dates/2019/3/22/wifi-wars-debug-royal-institution

Image from https://www.stevemcneil.co.uk/dates/2019/3/22/wifi-wars-debug-royal-institution

We bought a Nintendo Wii, a crate of lager, put them on stage and asked our comedy friends to come on stage. That was basically Go 8 bit. 

And very quickly, a producer – who was a friend of ours – came and saw us. He had a bit of money to commission stuff on telly and liked games. He said “can I option it and I’ll see if I get it made?” He chipped away at it and got it made in 2016.

But I had actually jumped a year earlier. Ginx TV were making entertaining format shows akin to Go8Bit and had a load of reviews and features. They came to a live show, I got my foot into the door and started writing for Video Game Nation before becoming their main features and reviews writers.

They allowed me to fully commit to the life of playing games.

GO: What was it like making Go 8 Bit?

SM: I have a complex relationship with the journey I went on to make Go 8 Bit. I was very, very proud to get video games on telly and represent them as broadly as we did. I know Dave isn’t BBC or ITV, but it’s one of the main channels outside of them. So to get a show that covered retro, indie and serious esports games is something I am very proud to have made with a great team of people.

In terms of the journey, it was a difficult one. Television misunderstands the idea that video games are fundamentally entertaining.  

The thing I enjoy now is working with people on esports or online is that every conversation I have is based on the premise that watching video games is inherently entertaining. What that luxury affords you is to focus on the way you make things fun, rather than having conversations about whether it’ll be ok if we show people playing a game.

Necessarily because of what we were doing with Go 8 Bit, we were focused more on the process of making a TV show and less on the games or the myriad ways we could do something interesting with that, because we knew the games were interesting before we did our stuff over the top of it. I wish we could have done more.

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I’ve got a new show being developed that I can’t talk about too much, but what’s nice now is that based on everything I’ve done with Go 8 Bit, and the intervening years, that people are willing to listen and trust my judgement more. I am finding that more fun.

There were also practical problems. Lag is one of them. We weren’t allowed to play games through the desk, they had to go through the big screen. There’s a visual appearance to that which looks appealing on camera. 

But what it did do is that it introduced lag to such an extent that our guests were unable to play the games to their full extent. In some instances, it was as much as half a second and you might as well not bother. 

The lack of understanding about the need of that from non-gaming people on the production show became problematic for the show, as well as the Twitter notifications of the guests who came on the show. We were disappointed that poorly represented both the games and their ability.

That was far more frustrating for me because it was my baby and I’m a control freak. However, over a million people were watching it and we made a nice thing that people liked. I’d rather have made it better

.GO: Looking at Wi-Fi Wars, your event series that has featured comedians like Ed Gamble and James Acaster from the Off Menu Podcast, it’s fair to say that it wouldn’t have worked until recently due to technological developments.  What are your thoughts on the changing nature of consumer video game events over the past decade?

SM: The thing about Wi-Fi Wars is that I can’t take any credit for how it works. My genius pal Rob Sedgbeer invented this technology that means that as long as people turn up with a smartphone in a room that they can take part in the game. They don’t need an app or anything, just connect to our wi-fi, go to a web page and we beam buttons at you.

What’s special for me is that when we created the show five years ago that smartphones were believed to have a distancing effect. It was thought that if you were looking at one, you weren’t engaging with other people around you. But Wi-Fi Wars makes phones a positive collaborative tool that brings people closer together, which is great.

And as you’re talking about 30 Years of Play, the other thing we’ve done over time is start to make the narrative arc of the show about video games. We start with Pong and end in VR, so it’s lovely to do that show when there’s a matinee  with kids and families and see they’re as delighted winning at Pong as they are at a first person shooter. There’s something joyful about play in games and any good iconic game has that at the heart of it.

GO: Can you tell us a bit about your book?

SM: The book’s called Hey! Listen! It says on the cover that it’s a journey through the golden age of video games, but that’s subjective and publishers like to say things on the covers.

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What it is is the history of games up until the release of Ocarina of Time on N64, which is considered one of the greatest games of all time and was the point for me where gaming came of age. It came out the same week as Half Life and was a moment where people said “oh games are a thing now.” The moment where I ended the book was also recognisably retro, which fits with me and what I’m known from Go8Bit. It was also personal to me.

The book is a thoroughly researched history of video games, but I hope it has the lightness of touch that I hope I’m able to bring to it.

GO: What were the main things you learned about the history of games?

SM: There aren’t many histories of video games, but they’re quite focused in their scope. If you try to write about all the different games on devices, in Europe, Japan or the US, there are loads of games. 

I’ve tried to write about all of them. And what I’ve also tried to do is identify the ways in which it isn’t as simple as saying “here’s what happened in console” and leave it there. 

For example, I tried to show how the people who were involved in demo scene in Europe in the early days of 16 bit computers drifted into British publishers that then got bought out by big publishers like EA. There is a link to those things, but my book attempts to tell all those stories together.

The area where I was most ignorant of was what was going on in the 1970s and 1980s on mainframe computers at universities. The one that leaps today was Maze in 1973, which was an online multiplayer death match that I didn’t realise was a thing. So the fact that nerds at university institutions were being allowed to mess around with computers like that late at night amazed me.

I enjoyed discovering the most about this because it was the bit I knew least about. And when it comes to people who have read the book, their second favourite thing – after reading about their favourite games when younger – is reading about the thing they knew nothing about and going “wow, that was a thing”. That’s different for everybody, but I hope I covered all the things.

Steve McNeil’s Hey! Listen! is out now. You can purchase a copy here.

George Osborn