National Video Game Day Today


To help celebrate National Video Game Day, I thought I would share a little of the video game history!

The early years of video games hardly seemed to indicate the enormous impact they would one day have on our society.  Video games have a humble and covert origin.  During the Cold War era the United States Defense Department conducted highly secretive practices in risk analysis and training using video game simulations.  These sorts of immersive simulations are still being used by the military today.  This early creation was the original stepping stone to creating the building blocks for today’s artificial intelligence gaming.

In 1962, while working at MIT, physicist William A. Higinbotham, who also worked on the highly secretive Manhattan Project, tried to figure out how to create a hands-on exhibit that would assist visitors to his MIT lab in understanding the work going on there. In doing so he created Tennis for Two, the first game where the two players could control the trajectory of the ball.  He did not believe he had created anything of importance but the amazement shown by his visitors was a clear indication of the future success of video games.

It would be another MIT employee, just a year later, which would push the technology even further.  MIT programmer, Steve Russell, created the first third-person shooter called Space War!   This Cold War inspired game would push the technology even further with the development of higher-resolution video display.

It would take an additional nine years for video games to really become usable by mass consumers.  In 1963, Ralph Baer created his Brown Box.  This revolutionary system was the first to offer circuits built into removable cartridges.  This technology allowed the Brown Box to play multiple games on one console.  This system was licensed through Magnavox and began being sold in 1972 to the public as the Magnavox Odyssey.  This simple console helped launch video game software development as a separate industry.

Until this point in video game history there had been no major multi-national video game companies.  That would all change in 1972 when Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney founded Atari.  They certainly did not start out at the top and only after they hired Allan Alcorn and he created Pong did they see the true money making capabilities of the gaming industry.  When Alcorn created Pong he was to develop a coin operated tennis-type game.  Bushnell decided to place Alcorn’s prototype in a local tavern and they were soon racking up $300 a week in quarter sales.  Pong was then adapted for individual computers and the game quickly became a sensation.  In 1977 Atari was sold to Time Warner for the then unheard of sum of $28 million.  Video games had been officially born and the world would never be the same.

Video games bridge divides.  They cross borders and break the barriers of political strife.  There may be wars waged between nations but in the video game world we are all the citizens of a mass global village.  We take this for granted today but it would take one simple video game to start the whole thing, Tetris.  In 1985, Russian computer engineer Alexey Pajitnov created the single most addictive video game in history and at the same time forged a path that would link the entire world together.  Pajitnov’s creation was quite simple.  A game where blocks of varying shapes and colors would fall and the player would fit them together.  However, while the concept sounds easy Alexey added a challenge by having the blocks progressively speed up.  One year later the game was adapted for all PCs and Tetris started to appear outside the Soviet bloc.  By the time the Berlin wall fell in 1989 Tetris could be found on most PCs and on all hand-held games around the globe.  Tetris had broken past the Berlin wall before a single chip was ever removed from the structure.

Tetris paved the way for the earliest import games.  Early import games came with unique issues that we hardly see at all today.  One of the earliest issues was the language barriers.  Japan was particularly noted for this.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in Zero Wing.  Zero Wing was a classic example of early video game imports, which were frequently plagued by semi comprehensible “Japlish” – an affectionate term for Japanese dialogue translated badly into English by companies too cheap or too broke to localize the game properly.  Even by the rough standards of the day, however, Zero Wing’s translation was so awful that it achieved a kind of surreal artistic brilliance.  “All your base are belong to us” – dear lord, there are tense problems, plurality problems, passive-voice problems, all in the span of seven words.  But mangled or not, the quintessential sense of betrayal communicated by such Zero Wing phrases as “somebody set us up the bomb” was painfully clear.

It would, however, be another Japanese import that would change video gaming forever.  In 1985 the West was introduced to Nintendo.  Nintendo would bring to the world many firsts including game consoles, Super Mario Brothers, and the fantasy rich Legend of Zelda.  Nintendo knew they had something big as early commercials asked kids if they would be the one to witness the birth of the incredible Nintendo Entertainment System.  The introduction of a small, red-shirted, mustached hero named Mario would give the world its first taste of games that featured heroes and storylines.  It would, however, be Nintendo’s introduction of Zelda that would create the biggest advancement in gaming.  The Legend of Zelda was introduced in 1987.  Zelda’s formidable little hero, Link, immersed us in a lore-rich game that focused on a player’s progression.  Zelda was the very first game to offer a robust fantasy experience, classic storytelling, mission quests, tests of bravery, complex storylines, and compelling background music.  All these things helped make Zelda extremely popular and it would be many years later before Nintendo would have any real competition.

Sony is traditionally seen as the first real competition Nintendo had.  In 1991, Sony released the Playstation.  Unlike Nintendo’s cartridge based console, Sony released the first CD-ROM-based system.  This new technology provided Sony with the ability to have realistic 3-D environments, fast moving characters, dynamic scene changes, and stereo-quality music and effects.  They presented the world with their signature character, Sonic, whose fast moving play really showcased the Playstation’s technology.  This sophisticated technology moved video games from children’s toys to alternative entertainment for older teenagers and adults.  The shining glory of the Sony console was, and continues to be, their Final Fantasy series.  Final Fantasy was the very first game to provide entertainment that was on the same level as feature films.  It was Final Fantasy’s complex storylines and realistic special effects that set it apart.  The emergence of new graphics did not come without its fair share of controversy as well.

The early 1990’s was an era of change for the video game industry.  In 1992 the world would be introduced to its first controversial video game.  Mortal Kombat was extremely advanced for the time and with those advancements came better graphics.  Those graphics included gory violence including dismemberment and bloody body parts.  Doom, released in 1993, also had concerning content, being a first-person shooter.  All these games had parents and governments irate and demanding more governmental control over video game content.  Amid the outcry the Entertainment Software Rating Board, or ESRB, was formed.  This board rates video games from EC for Early Childhood to AO for Adults Only.  Each game that they rate also has a list of reasons why they are rated as such.  Games rated M for Mature, for instance, will have a list of reasons why such as nudity, violence, or profanity.  If a game is either not rated or is rated AO most major retailers will not sell them.  In 1995 one game almost pushed it too far.  The Grand Theft Auto series has been pushing the envelope since its inception.  The games often feature the graphic killings of police officers and pedestrians and the solicitation of prostitutes.  However, Grand Theft Auto: San Adreas pushed a little too hard when a group of hackers found a backdoor way to view graphic sex acts.  Senator Hilary Clinton urged the government to place an AO rating on the game.  It was determined, much to the alarm of parents; because the game did not have the graphic sex acts in general play it would remain an M rating.  Gamers, alternatively, view the situation quite differently.  As evidenced by Stephan Segal in the book Geek Wisdom the Sacred Teachings of Nerd Culture, “Video games are for geekdom what rock and roll was to the post-World War II generation.  A kind of coming into our own.  And like rock and roll, video games have their share of detractors who warn feverishly that they bring doom and destruction.  We should hope so.  Games are always more fun when stuff blows up.”

The 21st century has ushered in a whole new arena of video game technology.  We are now seeing far more partial immersion in the gaming systems than ever before.  Nintendo’s Wii uses a hand-held remote for a movement sensor while the Xbox Kinect uses the full body for a sensor.  Both systems have helped gaming evolve from a stationary hobby to more active play.  This evolution has not been missed by the healthcare industry.  Today you can find Wii bowling in assisted-living facilities and Dance Dance Revolution in West Virginia schools.  The American Heart Association has already teamed with Nintendo.

While partial immersion continues to evolve we are also seeing an evolution in participatory virtual reality or PVR.  PVR games allow the users to move through, explore, and interact with computer-generated environments.  Will Wright is considered by many to be the founding father of the PVR format game.  He has released SimCity, the Sims, and Spore just to name a few.  Others have followed Wright and created other PVR games.  One such game is Second Life.  Released in 2003 by Linden Labs this internet-based, interactive game allowed users to fully immerse in the virtual reality.  This meshing of dual realities is explored further in the HBO documentary Second Life.  Molotov Alva and his search for the Creator: A Second Life Odyssey.  This ingenious documentary was filmed entirely within the Second Life Universe.  It speaks of immersing too far within these alternative worlds.  It was also the first documentary to be shot entirely within a game world, converging seamlessly the video game world with the world of entertainment.

World of Warcraft was released in 2004.  This expansion of Blizzard Entertainment’s Warcraft strategy game opened the doors for massively multiplayer online role-playing games or MMORPG.  These types of games combine the virtual reality and online networking features of games like Second Life with compelling, user-driven fantasy adventure stories. These quests can become so real that it becomes hard to see where reality ends and fantasy begins, as Colleen Lachowicz found out the hard way.  In the 2012 election year Lachowicz was the Democratic candidate running for State Senate in Main.  She’s also a level 85 orc in the massively popular online game “World of Warcraft”. Republicans went on a witch hunt, using her online persona as reason to not vote for her.  They had a vicious campaign against her in which they used her character’s image and her online comments to highlight what they perceived as her instability.  She won the election despite this campaign, however, it does point to the fact that technology has now advanced to the point where telling reality and fantasy apart may not be always so easy.

Video games have grown in both popularity and technology over the past five decades.  As the video game industry has changed, audiences’ technical tastes have as well.  Today’s gamers would no longer be content with the pixilated ball of Pong or the primitive graphics of Legend of Zelda.  They now require their video games to immerse them within an alternative reality and they want their consoles to do more than just play games.  The history of gaming is a still evolving story as the gamers of today become the innovators of tomorrow.


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