The Video Game Phenomenon

All the best games are easy to learn and difficult to master.  –Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari, Inc.

You may have noticed, kids play video games and they don’t quit when they reach adulthood.
Today, gaming is the largest entertainment industry for children.
According to this 2008 survey, 97% of children between the ages of 12 and 17 play video games.
Gender distribution of gamers is roughly 60% male and 40% female, with the average age around 30 and getting older.

Mine was the first generation that grew up with video games.
For better or worse they are a permanent fixture in popular culture, thus they should be understood in their correct historical & material context.

This piece is written from a retro-gamer perspective.

Centipede: Atari 5200

Japan spearheaded the PC and video game revolution that eventually became popular culture, ever since it took the lead in the global electronics industry in the 1960’s.

Early video game templates were SpaceWar! (1962 MIT) & Computer Space (1971 Nolan Bushnell & Ted Dabney).

Atari is a Japanese verb meaning “to hit the mark.”
Atari, Inc, was established by Bushnell & Dabney in California in 1972.
Atari was a pioneer in arcade games (1972 Pong) and home video game consoles (1977 Atari VCS); defining & dominating the industry until the North American video game crash of 1983.

US video game manufacturing was led by Atari, after founder Nolan Bushnell sold it to Warner Communications in 1976 for $28 million.
Bushnell designed the Atari VCS (Video Computer System– later re-named the Atari 2600), and it started retailing at Sears in fall of 1977 for $199.
By 1979, it was the best-selling Christmas gift in the US.

The Atari 2600 was the first true home gaming console of the arcade era.
By today’s standards this machine is archaic.
Memory for computers was very expensive at the time, and the Atari 2600 ran on a mere 128 bytes RAM, 4 KB ROM, with a CPU @ 1.19 MHz.
Graphics were blocky and game-play was limited to 2-D, but the games themselves although much inferior to their arcade versions, were still intense & addicting to many.

The success of the Atari 2600 forever established the home video game market.

The success of Space Invaders (1978 Taito) & Asteroids (1979 Atari) sparked the golden age of arcade video games.
Prior to this era, pinball machines were dominant.
The limitation of pinball was that it tested a very limited skill-set, as every game depended solely on flipper control.

Video games established in the Golden Era of Arcade Games broke through this, with a variety of different types of games; from Shooters to Maze, Puzzle & Platform styles.
Pac-Man (1980 Namco) & Centipede (1981 Atari) crossed-over to females, making video games a permanent phenomenon.

Nintendo entered the market with Donkey Kong (1981), a deceptively simple design that is still one of the most difficult (and simultaneously amazing) games ever created.

Defender (1981 Williams Electronics) was a scrolling Shooter with multiple controls, needing to be used with split-second precision.
Only the best gamers could dominate this mind-blowing masterpiece.

Professional computer programmers soon became professional game designers, employed by emerging Japanese multinational giants including:

Taito (1978 Space Invaders, 1981 Qix)
Namco (1979 Galaxian, 1980 Pac-Man, 1981 Galaga, 1982 Dig Dug, Pole Position)
Nintendo (1981 Donkey Kong, 1983 Mario Bros., 1984 Punch-Out!!)
Konami (1981 Frogger, 1983 Track & Field)
Sega (1982 Pengo, Star Trek, Zaxxon)

In this period, designers were cut out of the royalties for the hit games they created.
Before disenfranchised Atari programmers created Activision in 1979, third-party game developers did not exist.
Atari (owned by Warner Communications) ruled the market, and was the only publisher of games for the Atari 2600.

Activision created a new model, by rewarding, crediting and promoting game developers; along with the games themselves.
Activision included a page to the developer in their instruction manuals, and encouraged players to send in screen-shots of high scores, etc.
This grassroots, fan-based approach helped the newly-formed company attract experienced talent.
In 1982, Activision released Pitfall!, a best-selling game for the Atari 2600.
Today, Activision is one of the largest third-party video game publishers in the world.

Warner responded by releasing the Atari 5200, for the 1982 Christmas season.
The Atari 5200 is both the best and the most-maligned home console from the arcade era (defined as pre-NES).
Released with great fanfare, just before the industry collapsed, the Atari 5200 was rushed to market by Warner with serious design flaws; namely it’s controllers were poor quality & unreliable, plus the system wasn’t compatible with old 2600 cartridges until an expensive adaptor (which didn’t fit all 5200 models) was later made available for purchase.
In spite of these limitations (which were never addressed due to market crash) the Atari 5200 was still the most advanced non-PC gaming console of its time.
All the best titles of the arcade era from Berzerk to Zaxxon (except Donkey Kong which was licensed by Nintendo to ColecoVision) were available on the 5200.
The 5200’s signature game was its port of Star Raiders (1979 Atari; designer-Doug Neubauer), but nearly every title was clearly superior to the 2600 in graphics & game-play.

Industry revenues in 1982 had peaked at $3.2 billion, then fell in 1983 over 95% to around $100 million; wiping out Atari and dozens of other US video-game manufacturers.
The cause was: over-saturation of the market with hundreds of lousy games (on over a dozen different platforms), which resulted in high prices & loss of consumer confidence.
The fastest-growing company in the history of American business, Atari Inc would go on to lose $536 million in 1983, and was sold off by Warner Communications the following year.

The North American video game crash of 1983, was an abrupt mass-extinction in the industry that lasted until the Nintendo Entertainment System arrived in 1985.
It wasn’t until Microsoft’s Xbox in the 2000’s, that a U.S. manufacturer became competitive in the home gaming console market again.

The widespread success of the NES, was made possible by Nintendo introducing a now-standard business model of licensing third-party developers.
This authorized (recognized & paid) game designers to produce and distribute titles for Nintendo’s platform.
Compensating game designers more fairly led to higher-quality titles, and helped restore consumer confidence.

Nintendo would revolutionize the industry again in 1989, introducing the Gameboy, the first high-quality portable gaming console.
The Gameboy bundled-in Tetris, a simple yet addicting puzzle game, which became a cultural phenomenon.

By the early 1990’s the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive (1991 killer app–Sonic the Hedgehog) & Super Nintendo upped their consoles to 16-bit microprocessors, which allowed graphics and game-play to approach and even exceed arcade machines.
This was the death knell for mall arcades, as new best-selling titles were now released directly for home consoles or PC.

Video games of this era became more graphic in their representations of sex, death & violence. In 1993 Sega started rating its video games for content, in a similar way to which films were rated.

Best-selling games of this era included:
Grand Theft Auto (1997 DMA Design), notable for its violent content.
Final Fantasy (1987 Nintendo) & Diablo (1996 Blizzard Entertainment) were massively popular role-playing games.
Doom (1993) & Quake (1996, both from id Software) were 1st-person shooters for home computers, which upped the ante on anti-social violence, while pioneering play over the Internet.
One of the best-designed games for PC & Mac in this era was SimCity (1989 Maxis), a city-building simulation video game.

Sony entered the 32-bit console market with its PlayStation in 1994.
The PS2, released in 2000, became the best selling console in history, with over 155 million units sold in its 13-year manufacturing run.

Microsoft’s Xbox (2001) entered the market with it’s killer app, Halo: Combat Evolved; an ultra-violent first-person shooter that fit in perfectly with the cultural militarism of the period.
The Xbox was reportedly sold to consumers at a loss to achieve market penetration, in order to realize its overall objective of being a leader in online gaming which was still in its infancy at the time.

The Nintendo Wii (2006, pack-in game: Wii Sports) capitalized on the intuitive nature of motion control, and once again Nintendo revolutionized video gaming.

By the early 2000’s, mobile phone gaming had been hugely popular in Japan for years.
The popular US conversion to Smart phones and the iPhone (2007 Apple) brought the mobile gaming phenomenon to North America.


It is always imperative to understand that video games are a form of television, which is boredom-killing entertainment.
Video games are isolationist & voyeuristic by their very nature, making them unproductive while highly addictive.
Video games, along with all other forms of mass media, reflect society’s values which is why they are now largely misanthropic.

Controlling these media means real power & influence, for those who own it.

Imagine this scenario:
Ten people in a room competing for attention– the least assertive person gets pushed into the background.
Next, the marginalized person obtains a remote control to DirecTV or a game console– and suddenly this non-entity transforms into the most powerful person in the room.
His/her choices in volume & programming become impossible for anyone to ignore.
This effect is the same on a global scale, which is the reason why it needs to taken out of the hands of private corporations, and brought under the ownership & democratic control of working people, meaning everybody.

Today, all mass media is far too violent, sexist, misanthropic, etc. to have much educational value for children or anyone else.
Homo sapiens must do better if we are to prepare our children to solve the many problems we have created for ourselves and our planet.

In short, the history of the video game industry is the story of globalization, advances in technology, and idea sharing.
Innovation runs into the barrier of private ownership, which slows down development in the name of profits & reactionary ideology.
This leads to vapid content using sophisticated technology, which dovetails into apathy & militarism.