f you went back to the 1960s and started telling people that in 2019, videogames would be a common part of mainstream culture, nobody would have believed you. The earliest computer games – mostly recreations of simple games like tic-tac-toe – were crude affairs, requiring the use of punch cards and huge, unwieldy computers. The machines were enormous and expensive, and since many of them didn’t even have screens yet, the games couldn’t even technically be considered videogames. Even so, those early innovations provided the foundation that all the games we play now are built on. But between then and now, what happened to make videogames a mainstream hobby?
During the 1960s, several videogames were developed for mainframe computers, but most of these made little impact due to the extreme scarcity of computers. One game, however, made a splash bigger than the others: Spacewar! This game was developed at MIT, and it became extremely popular among the university’s students. As the technology that the game ran on became more widely available, the game gradually migrated around the country. However, it was confined to university- and company-owned computer labs, as the computers at that point in time cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The Arcade Era
In the 1970s, the price of computer components fell enough that while most people still didn’t have personal computers, arcade games like 1972’s classic Pong became possible. Pong was simple, but players loved it, and its success inspired a handful of copycats. Of course, ball-and-paddle games can’t be interesting forever. When the market dried up in 1974, companies like Atari and Midway began creating racing, dueling, and target-shooting games. Early home videogame consoles were first created around this time, but their limited function wasn’t enticing enough to consumers for consoles to take off the way they would in the future.
The time period of 1978 to 1982 is considered the golden age of arcade games. This golden age was ushered in by 1978’s Space Invaders. With this release, arcade games finally had the capacity to draw arcade patrons’ attention away from pinball and pool. During this time, many other arcade games that are now considered classics were released, including Galaga, Pac Man, and Donkey Kong. In the late 1970s, a more successful second wave of home consoles appeared on the market: Fairchild’s Channel F, the new Atari console, the Intellivision, and the Activision. Affordable home computers also made their first appearance in the late 70s, and soon recreations of popular arcade games began circulating. Unfortunately, this growth was about to hit a major roadblock.
The Video Game Crash Of 1983
The second generation of console gaming ended abruptly in 1983 when several factors – such as a market flooded with low-quality games – contributed to a major crash of the videogame industry. The crash bankrupted several North American videogame companies, but it also created an environment that allowed a much stronger industry to emerge.
The revolution began in Japan with Nintendo and Sega at the forefront. Nintendo didn’t single-handedly save the videogame industry, but it played an important role. When Nintendo redesigned their Famicom console to be released as the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) in the United States, the company had a strategy. First, it marketed the NES as a children’s toy rather than a videogame console. Second, Nintendo imposed strict content and quality restrictions on games developed for the console, which could only legally be published by going through Nintendo.
This strategy worked wonders. Thanks to better graphics, a catalogue of carefully vetted, high-quality games, and content restrictions that made games acceptable for all ages, the NES took off, selling almost 62 million consoles worldwide. The success of the NES put videogames back on the map. Franchises like Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Final Fantasy all got their start in this generation, and they continue to be successful to this day, as does the videogame industry as a whole.
After the NES, interest in videogames continued to increase slowly but steadily, as did the quality and availability of console technology. Nintendo released the original Game Boy, the first successful handheld videogame console, in 1989. Since then, several other companies have released competing handhelds like Sony’s PSP, but Nintendo has consistently dominated the handheld market. PC gaming became more accessible with every passing year as home computer prices fell, laptop computers became available, and PCs became more common. Increased access to videogames meant that more people were playing, but interest in videogames was still limited to the demographic of “gamers.” It wasn’t until somewhat recently that a handful of new games and console innovations brought gaming fully into the mainstream.
The Last Leap
In recent years, these games have carried more than their own weight when it comes to making videogames mainstream:
- The Wii. When the Wii was released, Nintendo cleverly marketed it as a healthy alternative to earlier systems – while previous consoles could be played from an entirely sedentary position, the Wii encouraged players to get up and move around. Parents liked this idea, and the Wii sold extremely well. It’s safe to assume that some units sold to families that may not have purchased a more traditional console.
- Pokemon Go. Due to the lack of a few key elements that were noticeably absent from the game upon release (battles and trading), Pokémon Go wasn’t a major phenomenon for long, but for a while it was everywhere. For a few beautiful weeks, mothers and muggles who had never played a game before were outside catching pokémon and getting sunburns right alongside hardcore gamers.
- Minecraft. Minecraft was released eight years ago, and people are still playing it. It’s available on nearly every platform, and it’s the best-selling game of all time. It’s a well-designed game, and its availability on smartphones meant that nearly anyone could access it. Minecraft has brought many newcomers to the world of gaming, and will likely continue to do so as it continues to sell.
In 2019, nearly half of all households own a dedicated gaming console, and 86% of the world’s internet users report gaming on at least one device during a given month. League of Legends and other popular competitive games’ competitions are aired on ESPN, and children appear to be learning Fortnite dances via osmosis. Gaming is far from a niche hobby now. In part, this is inevitable – some portion of the population has always enjoyed games, but the cost and scarcity of consoles limited who could access them. As technology improved, the popularity of games naturally increased. However, recent games like Wii Sports, Pokémon Go, and Minecraft have turned that slow growth into an explosion. Before long, certain classic games will likely be part of the canon of expected media knowledge. Perhaps in the future, anyone who hasn’t played the latest Zelda installment will be looked at with the same incredulity as someone who hasn’t seen Star Wars.