Video gaming is a big part of modern culture. The gaming industry is worth nearly $100 billion a year, and it’s been estimated that as many 2 billion people play some form of video games. The popularity of video gaming has also led to the meteoric rise of esports, with competitive gaming now firmly in the mainstream and attracting huge audiences.
One of the reasons why video gaming has become such big business is the sheer quality of the games. Playing modern video games can be a truly immersive experience, as many of them feature incredible graphics, in-depth story lines and all kinds of interesting game mechanics. They’re not JUST about having fun anymore; they can be a real test of skill and strategy too.
It wasn’t always like this. Video gaming has changed A LOT over the years. In the early days, it was not a widespread activity at all. Games were basic in the extreme, and nowhere near the quality of today’s titles. They were mostly created by hobbyists and enthusiasts who just shared them within the small gaming community. There were no big companies producing games and selling them to the masses.
It took years for video gaming to progress from its humble beginnings and become one of the largest entertainment industries in the world. In this article, we chart exactly how it happened. Starting with the very first games, we go through the complete history of video gaming right up to today.
The Start of Video Gaming
The first interactive game to use an electronic display was created back in 1947. It was known as the “Cathrode-Ray Tube Amusement Device,” and it was invented by Thomas Goldsmith and Estle Mann. Inspired by radar display technology, it allowed users to control a dot on a screen that simulated missiles being fired at targets.
There is some debate about whether this device can actually be considered a “video” game, as it used analog electronics and didn’t involve any computer programming. The general consensus is that the device was at least the precursor for video games, though, so it certainly deserves a mention here. Although it was successfully patented, it was never sold commercially.
It’s believed that the earliest “true” video game was written in 1948 by Alan Turing and David Champernowne. Turing was a well-known computer scientist who had worked as a code-breaker during the Second World War and Champernowne was an esteemed mathematician. Together they created Turochamp, a chess simulation game, but they never actually got it to work. They were actually ahead of their time, as the computers of their era simply weren’t powerful enough to run the code they’d written.
The first WORKING video game was a version of tic-tac-toe called Bertie the Brain. It was created by Josef Kates for the 1950 Canadian National Exhibition, and it ran on a purpose-built computer. The computer, which was over four meters tall, displayed the game board on a screen backed by light bulbs.
In 1951, another early video game was revealed at the Festival of Britain. It was a version of the strategy game Nim, and it ran on the Nimrod computer. The Nimrod was built by engineering company Ferranti, and they developed the game to showcase their computer design and programming skills rather than for the purposes of entertainment.
This was a common theme with other early video games. The mainframe computers back then didn’t have much processing power and memory, so they weren’t really suitable for developing games. These computers were also very expensive to run, and were only found in large companies and academic institutions. Any games that were developed were typically used primarily to demonstrate computing power or aid technological research in some way.
Video gaming was far from being an entertainment industry during this period.
By the early 1960s, computing power had increased dramatically. Minicomputers were widely available at universities and colleges, and this allowed students and employees to spend time writing their own computer programs.
In 1961, a group of MIT and Harvard employees starting work on creating Spacewar. This was a two-player game inspired by the Lensman series of science fiction books. Each player controlled a spaceship and engaged in dogfights against each other set in outer space. The game was shared with the wider computer programming community, eventually reaching a significant audience.
You can see Spacewar in action in the following video. One of the game’s creators, Steve Russell, also talks about the development of the game.
Spacewar inspired other programmers to start designing games specifically for the purposes of entertainment. The subsequent creation of general computer programming languages (such as BASIC) then allowed for games to be written for different types of hardware. This meant games could be more widely shared, and video gaming started to take off.
The pastime was still limited to a fairly small market though, as not everyone had access to computers. It was really only programmers, technicians and research students who actually got to play games. That wouldn’t change until the 1970s, when the first arcade video games were released.
Video Gaming Goes Commercial
The commercial video game industry began in 1971. Bill Pitts and Hugh Tuck had both played Spacewar while studying at Stanford University, and they figured the game could be successful as a coin-operated arcade machine. Arcade machines were already popular by then in the form of pinball machines and other electro-mechanical games. No one was producing video games as arcade machines though, due to the restrictive price of computer hardware.
Pitts and Tuck decided to build a prototype to gauge interest. They developed Galaxy Game as a faithful recreation of Spacewar, and installed a coin-operated version in the student union building at Stanford University.
It proved a hit among students, who would queue up to pay ten cents for a game.
A second prototype followed, but the high costs of production meant that Pitt and Tuck couldn’t make the game commercially viable. They had invested a total of $65,000 in their machines, which would never be recouped at just ten cents per game.
Around the same time, two other engineers had been working on a similar idea. Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney had created Computer Space, another game based on Spacewar. They had taken a different approach to Pitts and Tuck though, using custom-designed hardware to run their game. This was a lot cheaper than using a minicomputer.
Bushnell and Dabney worked with an arcade machine manufacturer, Nutting Associates, to produce a prototype for their game. It was initially a success at a bar near Stanford University, but further location tests yielded disappointing results. Players complained about confusing game mechanics and controls, so Bushnell and Dabney set out to adjust the game and creating a new prototype.
Computer Space was demonstrated at the Music & Amusement Machines Exposition in October 1971. It was met with a mixed response from arcade machine distributors. There were some concerns about how popular the game would be among the target audience and whether the hardware would prove reliable. Undeterred, Nutting Associates put the game into production.
It proved to be a commercial success, selling over 1,000 units by the spring of 1972. Nutting Associates was disappointed, as they’d been hoping for bigger sales, but Bushnell and Dabney were encouraged. They felt there was a great opportunity in arcade video games, and quit working with Nutting to form their own company.
That company was Atari, which would go on to have a huge impact on the video game industry.
Having formed Atari, Bushnell and Dabney immediately began creating a new game. They had plans for a driving game, but those plans were soon shelved. The company’s first employee, Allan Alcorn, expanded on Bushnell’s idea for a Ping-Pong based game and came up with Pong.
Pong was released in 1972 and proved to be the catalyst for a boom in video gaming. It sold over 8,000 units, which was incredible for an arcade game at the time, and inspired copycat games all over the world. The video gaming industry was now truly underway.
Shortly after the release of Pong, the first home video game console was released. The Magnavox Odyssey, the brainchild of Ralph Baer, could be connected to a TV set and featured 16 simple games.
The video gaming industry fluctuated throughout the rest of the 1970s. The initial craze for arcade video games had died out by 1974, as the market was saturated with similar games. Home video game consoles were initially very popular, but they suffered from the same problem. There was very little innovation in terms of different games, so people’s interest was waning.
Things picked up again when companies started developing new genres of game. These were initially featured in arcade machines, and soon made their way to home consoles, too. Technology was advancing rapidly, which allowed for better graphics and more detailed games. This reignited peoples’ interest in gaming.
1978 saw the release of Space Invaders. Although this was still a relatively simple game compared to what’s available today, it was groundbreaking at the time. It was a huge success, and it spawned a golden era for video gaming.
Video Gaming in the 1980s
The video gaming industry was flourishing at the start of the 1980s. Arcade video games were incredibly popular, as were home video consoles. PC gaming was growing in popularity too, as home computers had recently become more affordable. Handheld gaming was also taking off, following Nintendo’s release of its Game & Watch line of portable devices.
The American gaming industry was heading for a crash though.
North America was the hub of the video gaming industry in the early 80s. By the end of 1983, however, things took a major downturn. This was due to three major reasons:
The market was flooded with poor games, as many game developers went for quantity over quality.
A number of new games from market leader Atari were complete failures.
Advancing technology and the emergence of home computers meant consoles were quickly obsolete.
Video game revenues had risen to over $3 billion in 1983. In 1985, they were just $100 million. This was a phenomenal drop, and led to the bankruptcy of several companies in the industry. Atari survived, but they had taken a huge hit.
This was not the end of video gaming industry though. In October 1985, the Japanese company Nintendo released their new console in the United States. The Nintendo Entertainment System (or Famicom) had already proved a success in Japan, and would eventually help to revive video gaming in North America.
A key factor was that Nintendo maintained strict control over the quality of games for its console. Third-party developers were limited to creating a small number of games each year, and all titles had to be directly approved by Nintendo. This was in stark contrast to what had been happening previously.
There were two other notable events for video gaming in the 1980s. One came right at the start of the decade when Atari held the first National Space Invaders Championship. With over 10,000 entrants, this was the first ever large-scale video game tournament. It effectively marked the start of serious competitive video gaming, which would eventually become known as esports.
The other came in 1983, when ARPANET adopted the TCP/IP protocols that allowed computers to connect to each other remotely. Although the Internet as we know it today wasn’t technically formed until 1990, the development in 1983 was very significant for many reasons. In terms of video gaming (and esports), it meant that proper online gaming was possible for the first time.
As video games had become more advanced, the depiction of any violence had become more realistic. Several games were considered extremely unsuitable for children, but there was no official rating system like for movies. When the government threatened to intervene, the industry came together to form the IDSA and establish a uniform rating system for games.
Most of the leading companies in the video gaming world are members of The Entertainment Software Association, including the following:
Sony Interactive Entertainment
Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
There was a rise in the use of handheld gaming devices during the 1990s. Sega and Atari both released new handheld consoles, but the market was dominated by Nintendo. The Nintendo Game Boy, and subsequently the Game Boy Advance, proved to be extremely popular with gamers.
Another major development in this decade was the introduction of MOBILE gaming. Nokia was the first mobile phone manufacturer to include a game on devices, when they installed Snake on the Nokia 6110. Several other manufacturers followed suit. The games were extremely basic at this stage, but that was to change in later years.
One thing we do know for sure is that the future of video gaming is intrinsically linked to the future of esports. Competitive video gaming is now a legitimate sport, and it’s become huge in recent years. It’s only going to get bigger, too, as the interest in esports is growing at an incredible rate.
The video gaming industry will continue to cater for those who prefer solo gaming, of course, but we’re already seeing several game developers shift their focus toward esports. We fully expect even more developers to do the same in coming years.
If you’re not up to speed with competitive video gaming and how it all works, you might like to look at the following page. It’s a complete introduction to esports, and explains everything you need to know.