Forum: timelines

XIV.6 November + December 2007
Page: 26
Digital Citation

Five perspectives on computer game history

Daniel Pargman, Peter Jakobsson

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Several histories of computer games have been written, including a coffee-table book with glossy pictures, interviews with more than 500 (!) industry luminaries, and, perhaps best from an academic perspective, using a theoretical model to map developments over time as an interplay of technology, marketing, and culture. Supplementing these broad efforts are shorter, delimited histories: the arcade hall as a descendant of mechanical leisure technologies of the 19th century, origins and evolution of the computer-game industry in hacking practices, the history of Atari and other game companies, and the genesis and birth of the Xbox and other gaming consoles [1].

Most histories share an underlying chronological organization. The relentless march of time is a natural way to describe the history of a phenomenon, or at least the way history is typically narrated. In this column, we will use a different "plot device," or lens through which to view the history of games—expansion. Games have expanded along five dimensions in parallel:

  • In-game space is expanded.
  • The interface between the virtual and the real world is extended.
  • The physical gamespace is expanded.
  • When and where games are played is extended.
  • Games transcend play.

back to top  An Expansion of In-game Space

The "virtual worlds" of the first generations of arcade games fit into the screens on which they were played. With "Pong" (1972), "Space Invaders" (1978), and "Pac-Man" (1980), what you see is what you get—all of the game can be seen at all times. Then, with arcade games such as "Defender" (1980), what you saw on the screen represented only part of the game. A player could glance at a "radar screen" that presented the (not very much) larger-than-the-screen game world [2].

With "platform games" such as "Super Mario Bros." (1985), the game world expanded into a seemingly endless two-dimensional scrolling world. By running from left to right on the screen while overcoming game challenges, there was always something more to be seen, always something more to discover.

"Wolfenstein 3D" (1992) and "DOOM" (1993) expanded the game space into the third dimension through real-time three-dimensional graphics. "DOOM" takes place in a world of labyrinthine underground corridors, giving a player the possibility of exploring the third dimension while simultaneously severely restricting the player's movements. These three-dimensional worlds have expanded over time, from underground corridors to larger and more detailed outdoor environments. So-called sandbox games encompass huge worlds that can be explored at leisure. "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City" (2002) allowed a player to move around in "Vice City" (Miami); many players took pleasure in strolling through this complex world inhabited by colorful computer-controlled characters. The recently released "The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion" (2006) gives a player access to a huge fantasy world that can be explored for hundreds of hours, and "Just Cause" (2006) presents an "incredibly detailed game world [that] consists of 1,225 square miles of mountains, jungles, beaches, cities and villages which can be explored by land, sea and air" according to its promotional text.

Finally, massively multiplayer online games such as "World of Warcraft" (2004) allow navigation through huge game worlds that are inhabited by thousands of other people playing simultaneously. Playing the game means taking a trip to the world of Azeroth, consisting of two main continents and a number of zones and cities. These games are so vast and offer such varied experiences that some researchers start talking of "living in" rather than "playing" these games [3].

Expansion of in-game space can be summed up as a movement from a flat two-dimensional space limited by the display borders to three-dimensional worlds spanning continents and requiring weeks, if not years, to explore exhaustively.

back to top  The Interface Between the Virtual and the Real World

The second type of expansion comprises efforts to increase the quality of the screen as a display device and to increase the quality of computer graphics to reach new levels of realism and immersion.

We have seen a steady movement from small, black and white television sets or VGA monitors toward larger and then flatter displays with color and high resolution. The "home theater" adds surround sound and perhaps even a projector with a 100-inch-plus screen and 16:9 widescreen format.

This development came hand in hand with the capability to deliver more attractive and convincing graphic images in each successive generation of game consoles. It is often lamented that the driver for game development is ever-higher degrees of realism rather than good gameplay and innovative game concepts.

To attain new levels of immersion, some games such as "Chronicles of Riddick" (2004) minimized the screen space devoted to status bars, symbols, maps, and so forth. The presence of such interface elements supposedly works against immersion [4]; the developers of "King Kong" (2005) did away with such elements completely. Removing these elements maximizes the direct contact surface between the virtual and the real world, making game interactions more akin to a cinematic experience.

Extension of the interface between the virtual and the real can be summed up as a steady movement to reduce the barriers between the real world and the virtual world.

back to top  The Physical Gamespace

Yet another type of expansion is that of games expanding outward, involving more senses in the gaming experience and expanding the physical space required to play. Early arcade-game controls comprised a joystick and perhaps a button or two. The controller for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) from the mid-'80s is only slightly more complicated, with four buttons and a four-directional "D-pad" replacing the joystick. Subsequently, there has been a steady increase in complexity and modern game controllers can have a bewildering number of sticks, pads, and buttons.

By the end of the 1990s, game controllers were provided with "rumble packs" said to "reach out and touch the player." A rumble pack provides software-generated haptic feedback by vibrating the controller, to indicate that the player's car is skidding or her character is being hit. Game designers have used it innovatively. For example, while playing "Metal Gear Solid" (1998), a player can be asked to put the controller on the floor so that the opponent can demonstrate telekinetic powers. If the player does put the controller on the floor, the vibrations make the controller creep away, which makes "even previously jaded, sceptical players [...] express feelings of genuine unease [5]."

The variety of input devices for computer games has exploded: steering wheels, dance mats, Web cameras, microphones, buzzers, and even conga drums and fishing rods. These devices make substantial demands on space, both in front of the display and on the bookshelf.

The Nintendo Wii takes a further step by turning the entire living room into a giant game space. The wildly popular Wii game controllers incorporate an accelerometer and position-tracking, making claims on the body of the player and a large space in front of the TV. Many a living-room table has been removed to make room for the Wii.

Expansion of the physical space can be summed up as a movement from a relatively "sedentary experience" involving a few fingers to an engagement with more senses and a demand for more space.

back to top  The History of Computer Games as an Expansion in the Four Dimensions

Especially over the past decade, we have seen an extension of when and where games are played. Once "bound" by the computer or the game console, games can now be played on the move. This possibility has existed for some time—the market for handheld gaming devices has been dominated by Nintendo since the release of Game & Watch (1980) and especially Game Boy (1989). But playing on the move is increasing. In just two and a half years, sales of the latest generation of handheld gaming devices (Nintendo DS and Sony PSP) has reached an impressive 75 million units. Even more significant is the explosion of gaming on cell phones and other devices (e.g., iPod).

So-called pervasive games promise to bring games out into the world by turning a real city or an entire country into a gameboard. Pervasive games rely on location-based services to put you (or your phone) on the map and in the game. There is substantial research in this area, but commercial success has yet to materialize.

Computer games are also reaching out to both younger and older audiences. Ever younger children start to play in numbers, while many older gamers continue to play. People who played computer games when they were children now have game-playing children of their own. The target group for games expands, as do possibilities for expanding genres and themes (including intergenerational gaming).

Finally, people may spend more time playing games on average. We have no data to support the claim, but it is plausible that the online experience (playing with or against others) and wider scope (immense games, casual games, party games, cell phone games) create an irresistible spectrum of experiences and opportunities for play. We have interviewed hard-core gamers who frequently play more than 40 hours per week. Games may not only be part of an increasing number of peoples' lives but also an increasing part of those peoples' lives.

These trends are supported by game-industry rhetoric. Sony's slogan is "Live in your world, play in ours," Game Tap asks you to "Expand your playground," and Microsoft arguably goes furthest in this direction in a press release for the Live Anywhere service that "puts gamers at the center of a ubiquitous, always-on world where their digital identities, games, friends, and digital entertainment are always accessible through the familiar Xbox Live interface, regardless of location or device."

back to top  An Expansion Out of Gaming

Last but not least, games are breaking out of gaming. Once just for fun, games are now employed for a variety of nonentertainment purposes. Some people make a living as professional gamers or through sales of avatars or artifacts obtained in game worlds. The Serious Games movement highlights "alternative" game uses, for education, simulation and training, advertising, persuasion, and activism [6]. It has hardly been said better than by EDGE, a leading magazine on videogame culture: "Although we think of games as a medium, up until now they've been only part of one. Saying you like games isn't like saying you like books; it's like saying you like novels [7]." Only lately have games started to explore functions beyond pure entertainment.

What is the future of games? By extrapolating from the history seen as these parallel expansions, the future of games seems to be everywhere and all the time for everyone. It is an open question how far we will take our games, and how far our games will take us.

back to top  References

1. DeMaria, R. and J. Wilson. High Score!: The Illustrated History of Electronic Games, 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003; Kent, S. The Ultimate History of Video Games: From Pong to Pokemon-The Story Behind the Craze That Touched Our Lives and Changed the World. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001; Kline, S., Dyer-Witheford, N., and G. de Peuter. Digital Play: The Interaction of Technology, Culture, and Marketing, Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2003; Huhtamo, E. "Slots of Fun, Slots of Trouble: An archeology of arcade gaming." In Handbook of Computer Game Studies, edited by J. Raessens and J. Goldstein. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005; Levy, S. Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. New York: Penguin Books, 1984; Cohen, S. Zap: The Rise and Fall of Atari. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984; Takahashi, D. Opening the Xbox: Inside Microsoft's Plan to Unleash an Entertainment Revolution. Roseville, Calif.: Prima Lifestyles, 2002.

2. We cover the history of computer games from a games industry perspective. We don't cover parallel activities in the non-commercial arena. Despite their impact and mindshare we skip text-based or ASCII graphics games played on mainframe or UNIX systems and typically distributed over the Internet (e.g., Adventure and Rogue). These games had different characteristics and limitations, and were played by far fewer people than games played in arcades and later on home and personal computers. In mid-1984, when game manufacturers were on the way to selling over 100 million Atari cartridges for games such as "Space Invaders" and "Pac-Man", there were fewer than 1000 computers on the Internet.

3. Castronova, E. Synthetic Worlds: The business and culture of online games. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005; Simon, B. and E. Castronova. "Beyond Cyberspatial Flaneurie: On the analytic potential of living with digital games." Games and Culture, no.1 (2006): 62-67.

4. Wilson, J. "'Participation TV': Early games, video art, abstraction and the problem of attention." Convergence: the journal of research into new media technologies 10, no. 3 (2004): 83-100.

5. Newman, J. "In search of the videogame player: the lives of Mario." New Media & Society 4, no. 3 (2002): 417.

6. For example, or

7. EDGE No.175 (May 2007): p. 68

back to top  Authors

Daniel Pargman
Royal Institute of Technology

Peter Jakobsson
Södertörn University

About the authors

Daniel Pargman is an assistant professor of media technology at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), Stockholm, Sweden. He is interested in social software, social phenomena in online games, and other examples of the interplay between technical systems/computer code and social systems/human behavior.

Peter Jakobsson is a Ph.D. student at Södertörn University. His research interests are in the area of social software, file-sharing, and Net politics.

back to top  Figures

F1Figure 1. "Pac-Man"

F2Figure 2. "Chronicles of Riddick"

F3Figure 3. Nintendo Wii

F4Figure 4. A commuter with a Nintendo DS or a PSP.

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