I didn’t have any inkling that such childhood experiences in digital games would someday be a part of a collective engagement with technology that would be critically studied, and will form one of the many perspectives from which to view today’s society and culture.
This perspective was taken by Discovery Channel when it made in 2007 a documentary presenting a comprehensive exploration of the past, present and future of games and gamers. ‘Rise of the Video Game ‘ (or I, Video Game) is a five-part documentary that presents a historical and critical account of games: how it represents society and how society is now imitating games. I’ve seen the first part and trying to download the rest.
The first part — aptly called ‘Level 1’— is a must-see for anyone who would want a better understanding of games and its socio-historical dynamics; and the larger view of the people, ideologies and technology that gave birth to this ever-evolving cultural phenomenon.
Level 1: Games as by-products of war and societal changes
The Cold War’s promise of mutually assured destruction resulted in a disquieting standoff, which drove computer technology to create missile simulations — an important process in predicting the effects of a nuclear war. This same computer technology was used to create games such as the ‘Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device’ in 1947, which involved aiming missiles at a target, and was inspired by the radar displays used in World War II.
The same warfare technology also gave birth to ‘Tennis for Two’ in 1958. It’s credited to be one of first electronic games to use a graphical display. This game, which simulates a game of tennis or ping pong on an oscilloscope, was developed on an analogue computer by William Higinbotham. He was an American physicist who helped found the nuclear non-proliferation group, Federation of American Scientists. Apparently, he created this game to amuse visitors to Brookhaven National Laboratory annual visitors’ day.
The game ‘Spacewar!’ created in 1962 exploded, not surprisingly, during the mania of space exploration — another frontier for conquest by the Cold War super-powers.
The 70s, with its hippy movement and worldwide openness to change, was an exciting time for games development. 1972 saw the birth of the first home gaming console, the Magnavox Odyssey. It was designed by German-born American inventor Ralph Baer, a leading figure in the development of video games and the video game industry. The Magnavox Odyssey became known as the all-purpose box that could be hooked up to the box of all boxes at the time: the television. While the TV was the model of passivity leaving users to merely watch and receive, Magnavox allowed users for the first time to control the TV.
During the same year, Nolan Bushell and Ted Dabney founded Atari, Inc., which signaled the birth of gaming as an industry. Atari became a pioneer in arcade games, home video game consoles, and home computers. Its most products — the most popular of which is the game ‘Pong’ — helped define the computer entertainment industry from the 1970s to the mid 1980s. The original ‘Pong’ was an arcade version of the ‘Table tennis’, the best-selling game of Magnavox Odyssey. In a time when women’s emancipation movement was gaining power in America, playing Pong somehow sparked a liberating experience. Located in bars, this video arcade was something accessible to the women who now ventured into these formerly male domains. According to the documentary, it became quite common to challenge men to Pong competitions.
Across the other end of the world, Japan was also seeing this new wave of game development. Tomohiro Nishikado created Space Invaders, which was later licensed to Atari. It was such a huge success in Japan that it triggered a 100 yen coin shortage. The smash arcade hit reflected the strong push for developing electronics in Japan at that time, and the collective experience of the atomic bomb. In the words of the documentary makes, Space Invaders, combined the culture of Godzilla and the technology of games as it was literally a game where weapons of mass destruction were dropping from the sky.
Unlike the Age-of-Aquarius-70’s, the 80s saw a time of big money and big business. The games technology was getting better and better and an influx of games hit the market. Atari increasingly became more bureaucratic, marketing and business-oriented. Rather than creating creative games, the focus shifted to sales, and the goal was set to get more and more games into the market, at the expense of quality and creativity. Not surprisingly, this worked entirely against the company as sales dropped and many games remained unpurchased.
The 80s might have been marked by the shift from activism to big business, but it also was a time when the Cold War games were starting to fall into the background and new concepts of games were emerging. In a period where space shooting or Pong-derivative games were the mode, other new genre of games was spreading their wings.
Pacman was born in Japan. Designed by Toru Iwatani, it’s credited to be the first game to have a protagonist. It reflected Japan’s different ‘tolerance for cuteness’ (evident up to the present) and a different way of perceiving games. Its inventor wanted to create a game that would appeal to both males and females, which made him turn to food — his pizza to be more precise — as inspiration.
In Russia, Alex Pajitnov invented ‘Tetris’, again paving the way for a new genre of games. Tetris was not cultural-specific and required a different way of thinking in real-time. Decades later, nearly every video game console and computer operating system, as well as other mobile devices would have Tetris (or one of its many variants) available for users. People would close their eyes and still see the Tetris shapes falling endlessly.
While the Cold War games started to fade, and the control of Atari in the gaming industry began to waver, other new players by the name of Nintendo and the plumber, Mario, were about to enter the scene. And society was undergoing its own change of guards.
(Up next: Level 2)