Understanding Video Games text-book
History of video games

Date posted: May 11, 2006
Updated: Dec 15, 2006

The history of computer games has seen the development towards still more complexity and flexibility. Today’s games are altogether more unpredictable and ‘open’ than was the norm just 10-15 years ago. But there are also considerable parallels between the newest 3D-shooters and their digital forefathers.

Computer games have not enjoyed overwhelming attention within research circles. Although one might expect a some consensus on such a ‘young’ research area, many details are more than cloudy. Which game, for example, was the first?

The usual answer is Spacewar. In the 1960s computers were a luxury for the few. The machines were enormous and usually exclusive to research institutions or the military. In 1961 Harvard employee Stephen Russel used a computer to conduct statistic calculations for employees at the university. However, he and his friends had an altogether more fanciful interest; they were devoted fans of Edvard E. Smith’s science-fiction-saga Skylark. With this saga fresh in memory they constructed a computer program that was miles off the norm. They created Spacewar.

Action games like Spacewar were well suited for quick battles and became the foundation for a rapidly growing industry. This industry mostly aimed at the so-called arcade machines. These machines were lined up in special arcades (sound recording from an arcade - WAW/RealAudio), but with hits like Space Invaders (Taito/Bally/Midway, 1978) they soon moved out of the dimly lit arcades and into caf�s and restaurants.

In the 1980’s, sales from interactive entertainment rivaled those of the film industry (although most likely never exceeded them, see The 4 Myths of Computer Gaming). However, it has never been surrounded by the same prestige and general cultural interest. Around 1980 a range of alternative genres began to appear. This happened primarily as a consequence of an increased focus on gaming consoles (like the Playstation 2 and GameCube of our days).

In 1976 the first adventure game was born (Adventure; Woods. Read more about Adventure). Later in the 1980’s the strategy games became very popular following in the wake of successes such as Pirates (Microprose, 1987) and SimCity (Maxis, 1987).

Genre: Genre distinctions are analytical constructions. Genres cannot be found “out there”. A distinction must therefore not be evaluated as to its truthfulness but exclusively on its appropriateness. In the mentioned literature numerous examples of genre distinctions can be found. Confusion of form, content, target groups and context seems to characterize a good part of these distinctions. The criteria for our four-genre-distinction are the differences in success criteria and have nothing to do with what the games are assumed to be ‘about’.

The 1990’s were characterised by an explosion of proportions. While the consol market in the last half of the decade was dominated by Nintendo and Sony’s machines, the CD-Rom-format made it possible to develop audiovisual elements without the constrictions of highly limited storage media. The games have become bigger and more ‘photo realistic’. For a while game producers drew huge inspiration from movies but this tendency seems to have faded away by itself (to the relief of many).

Computer games are now very often played on networks. This can be seen as a return to the social element of the arcades. In Internet caf�s players can meet and play against other human opponents - making the gaming experience more unpredictable and exciting.

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