History of Video Games and the Rise of Gamers
Updated: August 17,2022
If you leave a computer scientist alone with a computer, it is only a question of time before he’ll push it to its limits. And what better way to do it than by creating an interactive video simulation, or as we like to call it today - a video game? That’s how the history of video games started.
Early History of Video Gaming
On October 18th, 1958, the Brookhaven National Laboratory science exhibit gathered quite a crowd. In the center of that crowd, two people sat in front of a small oscilloscope, holding two controllers and playing what looked like the first tennis video game.
The game was called “Tennis for Two”. William Higinbotham created it as part of the interactive Brookhaven National Laboratory science exhibit. It was the first recorded use of the computer to produce an interactive video image manipulated by using a controller.
In 1962, Steve Russell, with help from his colleagues, used a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) computer to create a video game called “Spacewar!”. They weren’t competing with Brookhaven National Laboratory, but they did get a brand new computer (PDP-1) and the task of showcasing its abilities.
Spacewar is a deathmatch-style video game for two players, where each player assumes control of a spaceship. The game's goal was to hit another player's spaceship with a torpedo while fighting the sun's gravitational pull and avoiding asteroids. The game was quite sophisticated for its time, and each iteration added new stuff.
Digital Equipment Corporation, a company that provided MIT with a PDP-1 computer, didn’t expect a video game, especially since there was no way to make refrigerator-sized computers commercially viable and available to everyone. They did get a diagnostic program out of it in the end, though. Presumably, when everyone at MIT finished playing the game.
Unfortunately, Spacewar! never became a household sensation for the same reason that DEC couldn’t make their computers available to the masses - it was simply not commercially viable at the time.
Early Age of Consoles and Arcade Gaming
With the introduction of TV in almost all homes in the US, the next step in the evolution of video games was just around the corner - console gaming.
Ralph H. Bear created the first commercial video game console. He approached Magnavox with his prototype called “Brown Box.” After a long negotiation, they signed a deal. A commercial version of the Brown Box, the Magnavox Odyssey, hit the stores in 1972.
Magnavox Odyssey was innovative but still quite limited. The TV display could only display dots of light, so to get any color onto the screen, you had to attach an overlay over it. It offered 28 games, one of them being ping pong which inspired Atari to create their Pong arcade game.
Inspired by Spacewar!, Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney teamed up to create the “Computer Space” arcade in 1971. The game didn’t see huge commercial success due to a lack of marketing and over-complicated controls for bar patrons, but its release marked the end of the early history of video games and the beginning of the commercial video game industry.
Learning from their previous mistake, and with assistance from Allan Alcorn, Atari created the “Pong” arcade, which became an instant success. It had more straightforward controls than Computer Space and introduced a score tracking system.
Atari was sued in 1974 by Magnavox due to Pong’s likeness to the Magnavox game. Atari settled the matter outside of court and bought the rights to the game.
In 1975 Atari approached Sears with an idea to bring Pong to people's homes. Together they launched the Tele-Games system. Two years later, Atari unveiled their Atari game system called Atari 2600. It was popular but didn’t sell enough to make a return on investment, causing Nolan to be replaced as CEO.
Arcades Strike Back
Console games were showing their potential but were still in their infancy. They are a big part of video games history, but at the time, they seemed more like a novelty than a real gaming platform. All the “real” gamers were still in the local arcades.
Golden Age of the Arcade
In 1988, Atari’s competitor Midway obtained the rights from Japanese company Taito for a game called Space Invaders. It was the first arcade machine with a high score, making it more addictive than other games since people competed for prestigious positions. The game was simplistic in nature and, like all the good games, easy to play but hard to master.
It took a year, but Atari returned with an updated version of Spacewar! called “Asteroids.” The game placed the player in control of a spaceship with the simple goal of stopping the falling asteroids and attacking spacecraft from destroying it.
RGB Color System
In 1980 technology pushed the development of gaming forward by bringing 8-bit RGB color graphics to the proceedings. We also saw more classic games in the early 1980s, like Missile Command, Battlezone, Defender, Donkey Kong, Frogger, Pac-Man, and others.
Developed and released by Japanese company Namco was brought to America by Atari rival Midway and the game became an instant success. It was initially named Puck Man, but it later changed to Pac-Man to avoid any possible misuse. It is the first time in the history of computer games that a video game character became the star of a game.
Nintendo was looking for a way to expand to the American market. They turned to Shigeru Miyamoto with a request to create a game that could achieve the breakthrough, and thus Donkey Kong was born.
It was the first game in the history of gaming with a story narrative. A gorilla steals the carpenter's girlfriend and runs into the factory, and now the carpenter needs to rescue his girlfriend. It wasn’t a reward-winning story, but it was a start.
Just like Pac-Man, the audience had a hero (Jumpman, who later became Mario), but he was overshadowed by the story's antagonist, who became the selling face of the game. Don’t worry, though; he’d soon be back and more popular than ever.
Market Crash and the Rise of Japanese Console Makers
More and more companies were entering the video game industry market, diluting the market with poorly made games and consoles which led to the crash of 1983. Many companies, including Atari, went bankrupt.
During this time, Atari famously made an atrocious E.T. game in just over a month; it is still considered the worst game of all time by many people.
Nintendo’s Game Console
In 1985 Nintendo released its Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), which revitalized the video game industry, pulling it from the freefall caused by low-effort games from Atari and most of its competitors.
The carpenter from Donkey Kong picked up a new profession, found his brother Luigi, got a name, and entered history as “Super Mario.” It was the most popular game for the NES system, and it started a multimedia franchise that is still popular today.
Nintendo followed up with other popular franchises like The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy, cementing its place in video game history.
Due to its declining arcade business, Sega was looking to expand into the home video game market. It developed and launched several versions of the SG-1000 gaming system in the 1980s, which accomplished the company's predicted sales target but was overshadowed by NES sales.
A bitter rivalry quickly sparked between Sega and Nintendo, causing a console and marketing war. Sega had the better hardware, but Nintendo had the more popular games.
Sega created Sonic the Hedgehog, one of the best-selling video game franchises in gaming history, but it wasn’t enough to compete with Nintendo's multiple successful titles.
Soon after Sega launched the Dreamcast, the company withdrew from the hardware part of the video game console world and shifted its focus on third-party software development. In fairness, though, the crushing blow was dealt by Sony and not Nintendo, as the PS1 and PS2 console sales utterly obliterated Dreamcast, ending Sega’s long stint in the console market.
Sony Enters the Market
During the rivalry between Nintendo and Sega, Sony partnered with Nintendo to create a CD-ROM version of the NES. Due to disagreement on splitting the revenue, Nintendo broke off its partnership with Sony and turned to Philips to develop a new NES using the same technology.
Sony didn’t forget the move and two years later, on December 3, 1994, entered the console gaming ring with their own competitor. PlayStation became a legendary console that would eventually put Sega out of the console race and deal some serious blows to Nintendo.
The era of fridge-size PCs was coming to an end in the 1980s. Thanks to technological advancements, computers have become more accessible and affordable for many households. Often they were bought for work-related purposes, but on the weekend, work was replaced by entertainment.
Home Pcs like Apple II, Commodore 64, and IBM PC didn’t offer users just a work and gaming setup but a learning platform, too. Gamers learned how to use BASIC code to modify or create brand new games, fueling the further evolution of gaming and the invention of new video games.
In 1982, IBM contacted Sierra On-Line to create a game for their new PC home system. The company made the first adventure game called “King’s Quest.” It played from a 3rd person perspective, allowing players freedom to move inside a physical world.
Computer graphics continued improving, moving from 8 and 16-bit to VGA graphics in 1987 with the IBM PS/2 computer line. The other computer manufacturers soon followed suit.
Some notable PC games of the period were:
- Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (1985)
- SimCity (1989)
- Microsoft Solitaire (1990)
- Dune II (1992)
- Wolfenstein 3D (1992)
- Doom (1993)
- Myst (1993)
- Day of the Tentacle (1993)
- System Shock (1994)
- Diablo (1996)
From here on, computer graphics soon started surpassing even that of the current-day consoles, and the PC platform started attracting more gamers than ever.
Rise of Microsoft
Seeing how Sony’s PlayStation was slowly but surely taking over the console market, a new challenger decided to enter the market in 2001.
Microsoft was known as a software development company. Because of their lack of experience in hardware console design, nobody took them seriously at first, but they did know what they were doing.
The design team learned from Sega’s mistakes and knew hardware is useless without games that can compare with Sony’s exclusives. Microsoft secured an exclusive right on the new first-person shooter game “Halo,” created by Bungie. It immediately attracted a huge following and would become a major console seller.
Microsoft Xbox launched on November 15th, 2021, and immediately set to creating the next chapter in the history of video games. A new console war was about to begin.
Massively Multiplayer Online Games
The first-ever massive multiplayer online game (MMO) was “Maze War,” and it didn’t look like anything we have today. It wasn’t huge by today's standards, but it was massive by 1973 standards! Players connected to the server using ARPANET, a precursor of today's internet.
While you can easily build your own gaming PC these days, home PCs, in general, were still a rarity back in the 1970s. That’s why Maze War was played by computer scientists who had access to the computer lab. It may look unimpressive now, but moments like this made video game history.
The first commercial MMORPG was a roguelike dungeon crawl called the Island of Kesmai, released in 1985, and just like with the Maze War, today's users would be unimpressed by it.
What we can consider a true forerunner to today's MMOs would be Meridian 59 (1996), the first fully 3D MMO. It had a flat monthly subscription and was later released as an open-source program. Even today, you can find servers still running it.
Gaming Then and Now
Although we cannot say what the future of gaming holds, it is safe to assume that VR will play a significant role in it. The evolution of gaming never stops, and there are always new technical frontiers to reach.
Which ones will be explored in video gaming? How will VR and AR change how we interact with games? Only time will tell. For now, gamers can enjoy the ever-growing library of games available to them and look forward to experiencing even more immersive gameplay in the years to come. It’s a good time to be a gamer, for sure.
Frequently Asked Questions
Tennis for Two, created in 1958 by Physicist William Higinbotham, is the first video game designed for fun. The video games that we know today started with the commercial release of Computer Space in 1971.
Dennis “Thresh” Fong is considered the first professional gamer in history. He won every tournament he attended while he was an active gamer and even got himself a Ferrari and a place in Guinness World Records.
Spacewar! is the oldest video game that can still be played today.
Maze War was the first online game with a graphical virtual world that could be joined over ARPANET, a precursor to the internet. Originally developed in 1973, it was expanded with multiplayer functionality a year later.
The history of video games began in 1958 and 1962 with Tennis For Two and Spacewar!, but games became commercially available only in 1971 with the release of Computer Space.
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While Damjan started his career in humanities, his interests quickly moved on to the tech and IT world. VPNs, antiviruses, firewalls, password managers - cybersecurity is what he knows best. When Damjan’s not losing hair over the dwindling of our collective sense of tech safety, you’ll find him looking for solace in 100-hour-long RPGs and rage-inducing MOBAs.