A brief history of gaming

By Nils Olson

Digital games have existed since the development of modern computers. As computers
have changed so have the games. They have moved hand-in-hand with computers.
From the days of fridge-sized mainframes on university campuses, to the hobbyist
computer movement of the 1970s, into our homes, our pubs, our phones, our PDAs–video
games have saturated all aspects of our digital world.

The following timeline is designed to help situate the history of digital games.
It is not complete, it cuts corners, but hopefully it will show that digital
games are a meaningful part of our culture, as important as the more “serious”
side of computers.

1958: First digital game

William A. Higginbotham creates Tennis for Two in a nuclear research facility
in Florida. Tennis for Two was created to allow research centre tourists to
interact with the local computer (computers were a very special thing in 1958).

For the first time, a non-expert would be able to interact with a computer.

1972: First home console system and first popular arcade game
The brain child of Ralph Baer, the Magnavox Odyssey, is created. Baer wanted
to make a game system that could be connected to a TV as early as the 1950s.
The Odyssey came with dice, plastic overlays for the TV, score cards and games.

Ralph H. Baer’s PONG, the first popular arcade game, came out in this year as
well. Nolan Bushnell, the mastermind behind the idea of the modern arcade video
game, used the success of PONG to form the first multi-million dollar digital
game company, Atari.

1975-1983: First wave of video game console systems

Although Atari dominates this era with a home version of PONG and later
with the Atari VCS (Video Computer System), several systems and hundreds of
games flood the market, including:

1975 – PONG home console system

1976 – Fairchild Channel F and RCA Studio II

1977 – Atari VSC

1978- Odyssey2 (O2)

1980 – Intellivision

1981 – Astrocade’s Astrocade

1982 – Atari 2600, Acadia 2001, Vectrex, Atari 5200 Supersystem, ColecoVision,
and Intellivision II

1983 – Intellivison III, Atari 7800 Prosystem

1978-1982: Zenith of the Arcade

This time frame marks the height of arcade intensity. Both the United States
and Japan experience nation-wide shortages of quarters due to the popularity
of coin-op digital games. A few of the more memorable games include:

1978 – Space Invaders

1980 – Pacman

1981 – Donkey Kong

1983 – Dragon’s Lair

1979: First multi-player online game

Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) was a completely text-based Dungeons and Dragons-type
game created by Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle in Essex University. Fans were
only allowed to play MUD from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. on the university server. There
was always a waiting line.

1980: First Popular PC game

Zork I, which was adapted from a mainframe computer to the Apple II, became
a very popular early game for the PC.

1983: Home video game industry nearly collapses

Why? Too many systems, too many games. Many of the games were real crappy.

1984: PC emerges as a gaming platform

Perhaps more than any other company, Sierra-Online contributed to the development
of high-quality, popular games for the early PC. In 1981, then called Online
Systems, they create the first graphical game for the PC Mystery House. Again
in 1984, Sierra-Online publishes King’s Quest, which showcases the PC’s ability
to handle high-end games.

1985: NES

In North America, the Nintendo Entertainment System is released. Trough
sly marketing to young children, cut-throat business practices, a torrent of
lawsuits and game licensing and really great games, it manages to hold a near
monopoly of the console game industry until 1992.

1992: Sega Genesis and Mortal Kombat

This year marks a break in the gaming monopoly of the console market held
by Nintendo. As the generation of Nintendo kids enter adolescence, they begin
clamoring for “cooler” games. Sega’s new 16-bit system, the Genesis, far surpasses
the NES in terms of graphics and sound, and Sega begins a marketing campaign
presenting Sega as cool and Nintendo as something for kids.

In 1992, Sega begins to attract more gamers (and dollars) than Nintendo. Part
of their success comes from the mass moral panic surrounding two games: Mortal
Kombat and Night Trap. Although Night Trap was temporarily banned, Mortal Kombat
made its way to store shelves. Complete with disembowelment, severed spines
and spattered blood, Mortal Kombat was a great game for young adolescents and
older children (at least I thought so). Parental fear of the effects of Mortal
Kombat made us want it even more.

1992: CD-ROM and Myst

The release of the genre-bending, classic PC game Myst showcased what could
be done with the new CD-ROM technology. CD-ROMs became a staple in future games
for the computer.

1993-2003: Second wave of video game console systems

The mid 1990s and on represent an important shift in video game consoles.
A large number of systems entered the market but, by now, video games have become
phenomenally costly to create and publish, often requiring the gaming equivalent
of a Hollywood film production crew. Games were also as profitable as ever.

New children enter the market every day and the older players, from the days
of Pacman and Nintendo, are still playing. The two largest international electronic-related
companies, Sony and Microsoft, now enter the fray and, after two unpopular systems,
Sega Saturn and Sega Dreamcast, Sega quietly leaves the console market.

1995-2003: Online games

With increased interest in the Internet, hundreds of types of games for
the PC and some newer console systems have gone online. Much of the push for
this has come from game developers who stand to make increased profit through
monthly gaming membership fees. Games such as Tribes, Diablo II, and Counter-Strike
have proved to be very popular online. Entire virtual civilizations have emerged
from Massively Multi-player Online Role-Playing Games like EverQuest. And let’s
not forget card games, the most common way to play a digital game online.

The future of digital games

Digital games are here to stay, few would argue against this, but where
are games going? I would like to offer three predictions on the future of digital

Increased portability

Currently, there is a strong push toward portable, handheld gaming systems.
Aside from PDA and cell phone games, several high tech handhelds are on the
market or will be on the market soon, including several versions of Gameboy,
Tapwave Zodiac, Game Park GP32, Sony PSP and Nokia N-Gage.

Increased convergence of technology

We are already seeing this in portable technologies, like cell phones that
play games, take pictures, send e-mail and play music. Home consoles connecting
TVs to the Internet are another example. What a glorious day it will be when
the same game can be played on a laptop first thing in the morning, a cell phone
on the bus to work, a PC on the job and a TV console in the evening.

Increased networking

Like it or not, games are becoming increasingly networked. Massive online
games are becoming more common, as gaming systems such N-Gage and X-box move
toward networked gaming. Online games means more money for game publishers,
which means more money to spend on large-scale gaming productions. As it becomes
increasingly more expensive to make games and as more and more money is lost
to game piracy, developers are moving toward games online to secure their profits.

Nils Olson is a digital game researcher in the U of C Communications Studies program. If you have questions, comments, or interesting ideas for research on digital games please send him an e-mail: nkolson@ucalgary.ca.

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