Computer/Video Games

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Play is universal, yet our current fascination for matching wits with machines is quintessentially modern. Building on the traditions of play established by the one-arm bandit, pachinko, and pinball machines, video games went through a remarkable transformation in their over fifty years of development, lurching from laboratory curiosity to $20 billion global entertainment industry. Many historians of computing prefer the terms "interactive play" or "digital entertainment" to refer to this fortuitous conjuncture of the computer and mass entertainment industries. "Video gaming" refers generically to the synergy of technological invention, computer entrepreneurialism, and cultural creativity emerging from related technological innovations—on mainframes, on PCs, in arcades, on purpose-built consoles, on handhelds, and in Internet computing. Thanks to key technological advancements, the competing corporations, and foundational genres (that is sports games, first-person shooter games, puzzle games, and others), video games have become the fastestgrowing sector in the entertainment economy.

Early in the 1950s mathematicians conceived of programming computers to play chess—an idea that culminated in Gary Kasparov's humiliating defeat at the hands of Deep Blue in May 1997. But the first operational video game was a tennis-simulation game demonstrated in 1958 as an instrumentation curiosity by the physicist William Higinbotham at the U.S. Department of Nuclear Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory to visiting scientists. Higinbotham wrote a program for an analog computer he called Tennis for Two played on a five-inch black-and-white oscilloscope screen from two control boxes—each with direction knob and serve button. He never bothered to patent the game.

As legend would have it, the "ur" video game Space Wars was programmed on a multimillion dollar, closet-sized PDP-1 computer lodged in the basement of MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). The inspiration for this first space "shooter" genre is attributed to Steve Russel, who, aided by a group of geeky fellow students, created a computerized "pinball machine" to amuse themselves in off hours. By today's standards Space Wars was not a sophisticated game. The program consisted mainly of a proto "game engine"—in the form of interactive software that linked the "controls" on the computer to a "display" on an oscilloscope screen. The two players interacted through the computer attempting to maneuver two navigable "space ship blips" against a backdrop of moving stars. Toggles on the computer console controlled the space ships by altering each ship's trajectory. The game had no sound track, no color, no levels, and no back story, and the only goal was to outmaneuver your opponent and shoot a missile that hit the enemy ship. Yet Space War marks a historically important juncture in our cultural history, notes Allucquere Stone, because, long before mainframes were networked by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), serious computer engineers began to "make space for play in the very belly of the monster that is the communication industry" (Stone, pp. 12–13). Soon games like Space Wars, Star Trek, Adventure, Asteroids, and NetHack were being shared among an underground network of mainframe engineering students and played usually in the off-peak evening hours. Entrepreneurs among them began to imagine the profitable possibilities of fun in the computer industry.

The Making of an Interactive Medium

In 1966, Ralph Baer, an engineer at Sanders Associates, a military electronics consulting firm, approached video gaming from a different direction—as a novel use for surplus television screens. Baer, who had seen Tennis for Two, later stated, "You should be able to do something else with television besides just watch it." By linking a TV screen display to electronic input controls Baer realized that video gaming involved eye-hand coordination. He developed Tennis as a prototype military training device. By 1967, Baer's interactive television gadget had taken shape as a primitive version of the Pong system—consisting of two knobs that can control the movement of two paddles on the screen. More microelectronics than computerized, this demo was shown to a Pentagon review board.

The Pentagon couldn't see any future in video games as training simulators. So by the end of the 1960s, as microprocessor components were becoming available, Baer decided to upgrade the training system in ways that made it more enjoyable to play: Now two players could twist knobs on the console to control the movement of the rackets on the screen. Precise movements of the knobs produced immediately visualized effects on the TV screen, giving the game the excitement of "body English" and variable acceleration of the ball. Baer sold this game design to Magnavox, and Magnavox developed it as Odyssey, which was placed in bars and arcades as a welcome alternative to pinball. The game was later licensed to Atari, which distributed it more widely as Pong; its familiar sound began to resonate in road side cafés and airports, competing with Nolan Bushnell's Computer Space.

Bushnell was an engineering graduate student at the University of Utah, where he first played Space Wars on PDP mainframes. But his ambition went beyond designing and playing new games to selling them. A shrewd businessman with feet planted in the world of technological innovation and eyes fixed on the mass entertainment marketplace, Bushnell cobbled together a company called Syzgy in 1972 to build and market a cabinet-sized version of Space Wars, which he dubbed Computer Space. His prototype, by all accounts, was more a cobbled together bit of microelectronics rather than a proper computerized game. It could perform only one task: play Computer Space. He sold this prototype to Nutting Associates, the first company whose main ambition was to make video gaming into a popular entertainment. Nutting, which later evolved into Atari, tested the market for Pong by taking the machine to the Dutch Goose Tavern near Stanford, California. It proved an immediate hit. Atari's savvy way of popularizing Pong and Computer Space is regarded by historians as a turning point in gaming. Once video games acquired "fad" status, the medium's future lay beyond the grasp of any single game developer or corporation. For the next thirty years, the trajectory of video-gaming design and development was in the hands of the marketplace—and the complex negotiation between corporate developers, consumers, and regulators that is transacted therein.

In the wake of the first Star Wars film, arcade entertainment stalwarts Nintendo, Namco, Sega, Midway, Bally, and Capcom decided to invest in high-tech game design. The late 1970s saw a great ferment in the entertainment industries, as the excitement generated by Space Invaders, Astroids, Lunar Lander, and Tank brought a flood of young players into the arcades looking for friendly rivalry. Improving rapidly on the "space and sport" formats by developing maze and puzzle games like Pac Man, Frogger, and Break Out, these games proved that video games based on strategic thinking or problem solving could be as popular as "twitch" games. The arcade sector's revenues soared to more than $5 billion in 1981, inducing Atari to launch a lab devoted to gaming. Shortly after, the first books began to appear on video game design principles and programming techniques. The crowds of enthusiastic young men crowding into these "halls of iniquity," however, also gained arcades growing notoriety in the press. Several municipalities set out to clean up the perceived threat to public order by regulating arcade gaming.

Into the Home

Although mainframe computers were the original playground of the playfully curious hacker generation (as opposed to the more malicious hacker of the early 2000s), their limited graphics and sound capacities long hampered their development as gaming sites. Games like Adventure and Find the Wumpus did gain hacker notoriety, but computers were still principally designed to meet the military and business computing needs of the industrial world. Although the potential of home computers capable of crunching words and numbers was loudly proclaimed in the early 1980s, Apple's and IBM's first PCs proved poorly suited for gaming. With no sound and with limited graphics memory and data processing, few customers bought these pricey home computers for gaming alone. But as software design became more and more important to gaming, many young hackers got their first exposure to "Basic" programming (the first simplified programming language), trying their hand at simple games. Soon some primitive games like Chess, Lunar Lander, and Adventure were available for the PC.

Building on the growing popularity of their arcade games, in 1975 Atari also set out to build a domestic model gaming device that they called Home Pong and marketed through Sears Roebuck. It was remarkably successful. The arcade entertainment sector led by Nintendo, Bally, and Sega conceived of dedicated multigame consoles that could build on television's established place as the hub of home entertainment. As microprocessor chips improved, dedicated home-gaming consoles with faster graphic processors and greater memory needed to bring the "arcade experiences into the home" were developed. Although they lacked the full sound and graphics of the arcades, they were capable of playing several different games that could be distributed as "code" on tapes or cartridges. Worried that this popular new medium would impact their toy sales, Coleco (Coleco-vision) and Mattel (Intellivision) also developed chip-based video-game consoles connected to the television. Hit games from the arcades like Frogger, Space Invaders, and Pac Man, albeit without the full range of colors or sounds, were now available at home. As competition grew fierce, the whole industry experienced a period of profitable ferment in technology and game design. By the early 1980s, hardware and software sales soared into the billions as home-gaming profits rivaled that of the arcades.

Foreseeing gaming's market threatened by the growing popularity of Apple user-friendly GUI (graphics user interface) computers, some in the microelectronics sector developed user-programmable "family computers," such as the Commodore 64 and the Atari Adam, that could be sold more cheaply than other PCs because they plugged into TV sets. These were followed by prototype multimedia PCs like the Atari 500 and the Commodore Amiga. Not only were these systems full-function computers (with the Motorola 68000 series CPU), but, equipped with specialized sound and graphics chips, they were also capable of arcade-style game genres, including racing games like Monaco, adventure games like Duke Nukem and Final Fantasy, and RPGs (role-play games) like Myst, Leisure Suite Larry, and Ultima. With the growing educational interest in computing, some of the first strategy, simulation, and puzzle games, like Tetris, Math Blaster, Sim City, and Carmen Sandiego, were all first programmed for this generation of family computers.

Yet by 1985, the gaming fad seemed to have run its course. Most kids were not interested in programming their own primitive "Basic" games on their Adam, Apple, or Amiga. Many grew bored with the console game systems whose primitive chips failed to deliver the ever more dynamic graphics, sound, and speed of the arcades. Moreover, games cobbled together by novice programmers might intrigue at first, but they had little sustaining play value. In addition, many of the systems cost too much to be left on the shelf. The market crashed, financially crippling most of these early gaming companies, including Atari and Commodore, and leading Coleco eventually to file for bankruptcy. Yet by the late 1980s, the genres of gaming had all been prototyped.

Console Wars

Nintendo entered the U.S. home-gaming market in 1986 with its 8-bit Famicom machine, which had proved popular in Japan. Nintendo's console had a faster-loading cartridge system, good sound, and better graphics chips, which enabled the company to bundle them with popular side-scrolling arcade-style games like Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong. Nintendo's gaming machine sparked renewed interest in home entertainment during the late 1980s. Sega followed Nintendo into the U.S. market with its Sega Master System, and Atari launched an improved programmable console design called 7800. By 1990, Nintendo consoles could be found in over 25 percent of American households, buoying video-game sales in the United States over the $2.3 billion high-water mark. Mario was so popular that his character was featured in films and a TV show.

Believing that video gaming would displace TV viewing, Japanese arcade rival Sega launched its 16-bit Mega Drive. In 1989, Nintendo responded, launching its first Game Boy handheld system, and then its upgraded 16-bit Super NES system in 1991. Both these systems had excellent sound and color graphics, were far more powerful than home PCs, and cost one-tenth the price. Since hit games had multiple levels, each with lavish graphics, more storage and quicker loading time were crucial. Sega's next system, the Genesis, possessed a CD-ROM device and featured the popular character Sonic the Hedgehog. Launched in 1992 with what can only be described as an "in yer face" marketing campaign, Sega targeted those adolescent gamers who were tired of playing Mario Bros. on their Game Boys. The adolescent male market expected more mature action, sports, racing, and adventure games, and it got it when Sega released a version of Mortal Kombat, a fighting game that had blood and gore programmed into its "fatality moves." The game won immediate notoriety, becoming the focus of congressional hearings on video-game violence. To avoid regulation, Sega suggested self-regulating video games, helping to establish the first ratings board, which has evolved into the ESRB (Electronic Software Ratings Board).

Three technological requirements emerged as the gaming market matured: processing capacity, graphic display, and memory. During the 1990s, the console makers played a game of technological leapfrog: Sega released the 32-bit Saturn in 1995, followed by the Sony Playstation, and then the Nintendo 64 in 1996. These systems were purpose-built high-end gaming systems. All possessed fast CPUs for the game engine, rapid loading and storage memory, high-resolution graphics, multiple-player controllers, and stereo sound, which all together gave console games their immersive feel. Each also offered a long list of the most popular fighting, role-play, sports, racing, and adventure game genres. In the combat games, the characters were given detailed back stories, specific weapons, and special moves or powers that had to be learned through trial and error. In the racing games, cars acquired a different "look and feel," responding realistically with skids and motor roars to conditions on the elaborately replicated tracks. In adventure games, the imaginary dungeons were lavished with fantastical dangers that presented seemingly impenetrable barriers. From the first roar of the crowd in sports games to the last crack of the bat, the uniforms, moves, and statistics were faithfully sampled from real athletes and played in faithfully drawn three-dimensional arenas, providing a televisual quality to their look and feel (including advertising). Games not only adapted formats and genres from popular films and television shows (Star Wars, Jurassic Park, The Simpsons ), but popular games like Mortal Kombat, Tomb Raider, and Final Fantasy also inspired hit Hollywood movies.

The Computer Empire Fights Back

Equipped with color, video-graphics chips, stereo sound, and the CD-ROM drive, the upgraded home PC was busy competing from the back of the pack. In the early 1990s, rebranded as a multipurpose family computer capable of business, entertainment, and education applications, the multimedia computer set out to compete with the game system. Bundled now with sound cards, joystick ports, and CD-ROM drives, the multimedia PC could play some of the most popular games that fueled the second boom.

But computers also had one unique advantage that was realized when ID software updated its popular shooting game called Doom. Doom was not only a well-designed, classic, first-person POV (point-of-view) dungeon shooter, but it also could be played by two individuals connected via modems over the Internet. Although multiplayer games had existed on university mainframes and been accessed by modem, Doom pioneered a new kind of online multiplayer gaming on PCs, which has grown with the spread of the Internet. Now referred to as MMRPGs (massively mulitplayer role-play games), games like Quake, Everquest, and Counterstrike illustrate the popularity of this unique mode of interactivity: Everquest has over 300,000 subscribers who pay around $10 per month to explore, trade, and fight other players in this online fantasy world. Although it remains an overpriced gaming console in the early 2000s, the multimedia computer is an attractive entertainment system because it can also play music, surf the Internet, and do banking.

The Age of Synergy

The success of the Internet as an entertainment environment inspired console makers to rethink the future of digital entertainment. In 2000, led by the Sega Dreamcast, and soon followed by the Sony Playstation II, the Microsoft Xbox, and then the Nintendo Gamecube, console systems went through another generation of technological upgrading. Adding Internet options adapted from the home PC, all possessed three-dimensional graphics and promised online options. Some doubled as DVD players or digital music boxes as well.

Over the years, video gaming has become integrated into the entertainment economy. Games now take two years to bring to the market and costs of development are often similar to Hollywood films. Since Mario Bros., the video-game industry has become gradually integrated into the entertainment marketplace, and games like Mortal Kombat, Die Hard, Enter the Dragon, Star Wars IV, and the Matrix are often developed in tandem with movies. For example, Nintendo's Pokémon games, launched first in Japan in 1997, spearheaded over $3 billion in world sales by masterfully linking video games, films, and television.

As of 2004, many games were published for different platforms. Game designers like to combine all elements necessary to produce a blockbuster on every platform, including dynamic music, complex sound effects, multiple points of view, multiplayer options, complex characters, fantastical environments, and Internet connectivity. As a result, the established genres are blurring: Sports games like NHL hockey are programmed with bloody stickwork and fighting sequences; fighting games have cinematic introductions, rich back stories, and speech options; racing cars are equipped with laserguided missiles and are driven through faithfully reproduced real cities; and role-play games involve elaborate strategy and teamwork. Taken together, the video-game sector accounts for over $10 billion a year in North American sales.

See also: Commercialization of Children's Play, Computer's Impact on Leisure, Internet, Men's Leisure Lifestyles, Teenage Leisure Trends


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Stephen Kline

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