People: Here's entertainment!

XIII.1 January + February 2006
Page: 46
Digital Citation

Are we having fun yet?

Dennis Wixon

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This new column focuses on using computing power for entertainment. Interestingly, using computers and "computer-like" devices for entertainment is positively ancient. It can be traced back to 1931 when D. Gottlieb created a game called "baffle ball" in which players used a plunger to propel small metallic balls up an inclined surface, where they would drop into pockets. Each pocket had an associated score. This game was entirely mechanical and was an important precursor to pinball. The first electronic pinball game, "Contact," soon followed, invented in 1933 by Harry Williams. Moving beyond its roots in pinball, in 1958 Willy Higginbotham of Brookhaven National Labs invented an interactive table tennis game played on an oscilloscope. And in 1961 Steve Russell created the game "Space War" at MIT—which many consider the first true computer game.

Playing around with computers wasn't just limited to computer scientists' labs. Even in the early days, Ralph Baer at Sanders Corporation came up with the concept of building a machine that could be attached to your TV and play games. He planned to sell it in 1966 for $19.95. By 1972 Magnavox released the videogame machine Odyssey, which sold for $100. Now that's progress. The real commercial breakthrough came with—you guessed it—Pong. Nolan Bushnell and the "tribe" at Atari created it and sold machines to pinball parlors and taverns. The Pong game device cost between $300 and $400 to build and sold for $1200 (cash only). That business model gave Atari a positive cash flow with no venture capital and was a good deal for the purchasers: Most gaming machines at the time grossed $40 to $50 dollars a week, while Pong machines often topped $200 a week. More about the rich and colorful history of interactive entertainment is in The Ultimate History of Video Games by Steven Kent.

My goal is to make this column both fun and informative. Sometimes it may be provocative and controversial. Entertainment is fun by definition but it's also controversial and, thus, sometimes polarizing, creating a challenge to presenting a balanced view. My intention is to encourage deeper thinking and more meaningful, less cliché-ridden discussion. I urge participation by readers, researchers, designers, and everyone who is involved in the computing-as-entertainment industry.

Here are a few things to think about that might contradict your impressions of entertainment computing...

back to top  Computer Games Are Big Business!

  • In 2003 game sales passed $7 billion (by comparison, movie sales are $9 billion).
  • Game sales have tripled in seven years.
  • Game consoles are in 30 to 40 percent of US households.
  • Video card companies seek advice from leading game-engine designers like John Carmack, co-founder of ID studios and designer of Doom 3 and many other popular games, to help them design future generations of graphic chips.
  • Applying AI, simulated physics, and movement in 3-D spaces are just a few examples of innovations routinely used in games.
  • Game consoles offer more computing power for less money than conventional PCs; new machines on the way offer multiple symmetric core processors running at over 3.GHZ, a tetra flop of floating point performance, and graphics performance of 500 million triangles per second.
  • The gaming audience is diverse, with 55 percent male, 43 percent female players; 19 percent of players are over the age of 50 (up from nine percent in 1999).
  • The average age of game purchasers is 37, and they have been playing games for 12 years.
  • Gamers aren't the lethargic creatures we imagine: 79 percent of gamers report exercising or playing sports an average of 20 hours per week.
  • Gamers spend more time playing sports, volunteering in the community, or in cultural activities (23.4 hours average) than playing games (6.8 hours average).
  • 32 percent of parents regularly play games with their children.

Unfortunately, the mainstream media (when it's not ignoring games entirely) reinforces commonly held prejudices about gamers as being young, isolated, and antisocial deviants. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Gaming is just newer than other forms of entertainment and expression (cave painting once was, also) and doesn't have the established mainstream mindshare that other forms of entertainment do.

So there you have it. Games have been with us a long time. Games are big business. Games are on the cutting edge of innovation. And gamers are as diverse as any community. Life is short—have fun!

back to top  Author

Dennis Wixon
Microsoft Game Studios

About the Author:

Dennis Wixon leads a team of over 20 at Microsoft Game Studios which provides consulting and research to make games fun. He is also a member of the User Experience Leadership Team, a corporate steering group. Dennis previously worked at Digital Entertainment Corporation and has been an active member of CHI. He has authored many articles on methodology and co-edited Field Methods Casebook for Software Design (John Wiley & Sons).

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