Editorial: Exploring Video Game History

Far more than a pastime, and with legitimate historical significance from their span of more than fifty years, video games in all of their forms make for a fascinating story, and one that rightly deserves preservation. To this end there are numerous resources in print, online, and other media, and the Library of Congress began amassing their own game collection in 2012 (though reading through an interview with one of those in charge of the preservation might raise some red flags). Rather than attempt to retell history within this editorial (something I could certainly do in a series at some point, with sufficient reader interest), I decided to make this week’s article an introduction to some of the resources I have used to learn about this fascinating topic myself.

I would love a basement full of old arcade machines. If it weren't already full of old consoles.

Nintendo’s success with Donkey Kong in arcades was the beginning of their rise in the 1980s.

Nintendo and Sega are the two most prominent names in home video games from my childhood, as the Atari era was over by the late 1980s and Sony and Microsoft would not become players until years later. Books about both companies are easy to find, and as voracious audiobook consumer – far more than any actual reading I attempt these days – I have found a few of them. Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America by Jeff Ryan is an informative read about Nintendo’s rise in the aftermath of the American video game crash of the early 1980s, thought it is written by an admitted Nintendo fan and certain topics are ignored or glossed over. On the other side of the fence, Service Games: The Rise and Fall of Sega by Sam Pettus is written from the Sega super-fan perspective, and it can be rather sophomoric at times it is nonetheless worthy of note given its scope. Anyone interested in the full story of Sega from its inception would be hard pressed to find anything as comprehensive. What of Atari? After all, was not Home Pong the harbinger of the home video game industry? A book called Atari: The Business of Fun was released a few years ago and is one of many on the subject (I have not picked this one up yet), though I would be surprised if a better account of the pioneering company could be found than in the early chapters of The Ultimate History of Video Games by Steven Kent, a 624-page study of everything up to the start of the new millennium that is very well researched and written.

Later, company founder Nolan Bushnell founded Chuck E. Cheese, and birthday parties were never the same again.

The Atari VCS (Video Computer System) was released in 1977 and renamed “2600” in 1982.

Outside of the few books I have named there are many more available on the subject, including books on the development of Sony’s PlayStation and Microsoft’s entry to the home console market; with even more reading on various games and studios. Consoles and the major players in that market make up only part of the story, with coin operated games the first form of so-called ‘television games’ that the general public ever saw. And while game consoles actually predate the home computer, it was on a computer that the story of video games actually begins; most notably with the Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-1 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where Steve Russell famously developed Spacewar! in 1962. Computer gaming history predates this with early work in the 1950s on the PDP-1’s predecessors, and through the history of computers one will find the correlation of advancements in technology and gaming. Unsurprisingly, the sort of people who are enthusiastic about computer hardware tend to enjoy video games, and the history of computers is itself a rewarding subject, with many excellent books available. Of these I will briefly mention ENIAC: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the World’s First Computer by Scott McCartney, which discusses at length the people and processes behind the first modern computer. A personal favorite, Dealers of Lightning by Michael Hiltzik is the story of Xerox’s development of the modern personal computer in the company’s legendary Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in the 1960s and 1970s, from networking and laser printing to the first graphical user interface (copied by Steve Jobs and the Mac team after a visit to the Xerox labs and, later, by Bill Gates for Microsoft’s Windows operating system).

Another game I never played.

Another hit 3D shooter from id Software, Doom came just one year after Wolfenstein 3D.

The PC enthusiast segment (myself included), though perhaps smaller than it once was, is nonetheless a significant part of the current landscape, and while the origins and evolution of the personal computer industry is perhaps more compelling than current hardware advancements and trends, there is still quite a bit in this field worth investigating if one is a student of the PC world with an interest in gaming. To this end I found Masters of Doom by David Kushner engrossing, even though I am not a particularly a follower of id Software and their games (however historically significant they may be), and id Software was a driving force behind the modern 3D shooter, which has been consistently among the most popular genres ever since Wolfenstein 3D hit shelves in 1992. Any fan of subsequent games such as Team Fortress 2 or the latest multi-player hit in Overwatch have id Software’s work to thank, to some degree. In general, as one studies the history of gaming across platforms and generations they will find that it was the popularity of certain games that drove specific genres, as companies have always looked at the sales of the most popular games to determine where to focus their development money; and these trends have driven the entertainment industry since the beginning. Truly, our purchasing decisions make the biggest statement in shaping the future of gaming, and let companies know what is permissible as well. (This is why the general public’s obsession with microtransaction-infused smartphone gaming is so lamentable.)

If you have never played it, then do so. Otherwise, play it again. Now.

The end result of all my research? Final Fantasy VII is still the greatest game of all time.

Reading (or listening to audiobooks) about the people behind the hardware and software that make up the last fifty years of gaming history is a rewarding process, and can immediately transform any fan of gaming into a student of this fantastic subject as well. Regardless of one’s opinion on the status of video gaming as an art form, merits of modern advancements in hardware and software, and quality of modern games compared to those of the so-called ‘golden age’ (I admit that I fear our best days are behind us), it is still a worthy subject, and one which should be considered by institutions of higher education. While there is a wealth of information available online, it is often a different, and more valuable, experience to read from a well-researched study made from interviews with the people behind the games, consoles, and computer technology we love. I suggest finding a book on the subject that sounds interesting, and reading or listening whenever you can. Or not. In any case, I am going to do some more reading now.

4 Comments

  1. Lusipurr
    Posted 2017.04.13 at 22:50 | Permalink

    Final Fantasy VII is still the greatest game of all time.

    Ding! 5 points to Slytherin!

  2. Dancing Matt
    Posted 2017.04.15 at 09:28 | Permalink

    Great article! I’m looking forward to future posts on the written history of cricket, anime, and Lusipurr.com!

  3. Dancing Matt
    Posted 2017.04.15 at 09:32 | Permalink

    Would it be wrong to acknowledge that Final Fantasy VII is the greatest game of all time, but sometimes when you’re playing Chrono Trigger, to just feel that you like it a little better? Or should one dispose oneself of such sentimental fancies for the sake of aligning with the single truth at all times?

  4. Corrinthians
    Posted 2017.04.18 at 18:27 | Permalink

    Will there be a cricket article?? That would be awesome