Saturday, September 22, 2012

Video Games as an Art Form, Part 1: 1947-1979

Some time ago, I read a blog post written a while ago by a blogger I respect. In that post, he said that video games are not art, but primarily a means for the creators to make money off of target demographics. I...strongly disagree with this viewpoint. I can certainly understand why he might think this, I just think he's wrong. See, this idea is viewing video games only how they were, back before the 80's. The purpose of this post series is, primarily, to discuss the evolution of Video Games as an art form, as opposed to an industry. This particular post will go over a bit of development history as well (because I feel it helps give the discussion context), but I won't go over in painstaking detail the technological advancement of consoles or anything like that. Rather than an in-depth analysis of every minute change in the way video games can communicate a narrative - a lofty goal indeed, and one beyond me at the moment - this series is intended to instead be a broad overview of the topic, touching on some of the major points. Regardless, I hope you enjoy it and maybe learn something you didn't know before. If you feel so inclined, please read on!

     There are some things I should make clear before I start. First, this is not a guide to game design. This is merely a footnote, a tribute of sorts, touching on some of the major changes in and points of the art form. Second, I am an amateur, not an expert. These are my opinions and thoughts. They aren't necessarily backed up by any kind of professional sources, they are merely my own insights. Third, I am not discussing trends in video games, I am discussing potential. This is an important thing to keep in mind, especially during the next two posts. All I'm viewing is what could be done by games effectively at the time. And fourth and foremost, enjoy the posts! I'll stop adding qualifiers now, so without further ado...

     The history of video games can be traced back to January 25th, 1947 when a couple of scientists (remember, everything ever begins with scientists in a lab) created a "Cathode ray tube amusement device." Though it's hard to believe, this was actually not the name of a sex toy, but instead of a game - and I use that term loosely - where the player had to aim an electron gun (like the kind at an arcade) at a certain spot on a printed overlay of a CRT screen. It never got any kind of market release and didn't even progress beyond the prototype stages, but it marked the first instance of an interactive electronic game.

     This game with its innuendo-rich name was the first of many steps into the world of video games. It was followed by things like OXO (Tic-Tac-Toe for the computer), Tennis for Two (sort of like an early Pong), and Spacewar! in 1952, 1958, and 1962, respectively. On a quick aside, a lot of people consider Tennis for Two to be the first "real" video game, usually because of the technology used (it used a different, more traditional type of display). It is undeniable, however, that the Cathode ray machine was involved in the evolution of video games, which is what we're really looking at, so that's why I started there.

     So anyways, Cathode ray machine, OXO, Tennis for Two, and Spacewar!. With the exception of Spacewar!, all of these "video games" exemplify what kinds of games where made in this era; video (electronic) adaptions of real life games, in one way or another. To my understanding of the machine, the "gameplay" of the Cathode amusement device could be replicated with a laser pointer/flashlight, a piece of paper, and a bit of imagination. OXO is literally Tic-Tac-Toe against a computer, and Tennis for Two is, predictably, a primitive tennis game (though the gameplay, if recreated in real life, might be closer to air hockey with an obstruction on the table). All of these games had real life counterparts, most of which played almost exactly the same, only better. The creators were essentially taking games played in real life, or the core concepts behind them, and turning them into something that could be played electronically.

     This was a theme prevalent throughout the entire era. The wildly popular 1971 game Star Trek was all text and could literally be done with paper and a pencil (and lots of trust and patience). Hunt the Wumpus was a 1972 text-based hide-and-seek game. Pong, released in the same year, is a direct electronic adaption of table
Behold: Star Trek, in all its text-based glory.
tennis. The 1974 3D first-person shooter Maze War was so simple it could be replicated cardboard walls and rubber bands. Gun Fight, an arcade game from 1975 where two people controlled cowboys dueling each other, could be played with a few marbles. Released in the same year, the initial versions of Collosal Cave Adventure, the first text adventure game, were pretty much the same as a do-it-yourself adventure. I could list other examples, but I think you get the idea. I'll stop with one final one, the extremely popular 1978 game Space Invaders. While this game could also be played in real life (with a gun and targets on moving tracks), it is one of the earliest examples of one of the things that makes video games intrinsically good; they can make games that are otherwise impractical or unrealistic (in terms of the setup/execution required) feasible and fun.

     So, yes, this era of video games was dominated by adaptions of real life games. There were, however, a few games that broke the mold. One of these is Spacewar!. In it, two people fought each other in space ships in the gravity well of a star. The goal was to destroy the other ship while avoiding the star, which constantly pulled you towards it and would destroy you. So basically, you have gravity, flight controls (from a top down perspective), a limited supply of fuel and missiles, and even a hyperspace feature. Basically, a real life counterpart can be safely declared impossible. See, Spacewar! is an example of a game that can only exist as a video game. It's a game that simply could not happen any other way. Compare this to, say, any given Dungeons & Dragons game. While there are definitely games out there that give some innovations on the system, for the most part they're still adaptions of a pen and paper game at their core. Being video games isn't necessary to their existence as games. Over the next ten years, this standard would change so that video games that could only exist as video games, like Spacewar!, became the norm. However, the biggest leap was not so much the innovation of the games themselves, as it was the beginnings of video games as an art form.

     This is why I group Spacewar! with this era of games, as opposed to being ahead of its time; it isn't an art form, it's entertainment. And that, perhaps, is a better summary of this era. These games were made for entertaining, and not much more. While a (very) few games from this period had the potential to tell a narrative, none really did. This is what video games were: games. This is why there are people who believe that all video games are just games, with the sole purpose of making a profit, like a manufacturer of Monopoly; because in their humble beginnings, that's largely what they were. Even today, there are games that are just "entertainment" and are electronic adaptions of real games *cough*MaddenFootball*cough* *cough*TigerWoodsGolf*cough*. This is definitely not everything that video games have to offer, as I will explore in Part 2. For the time being, however, I will end this post here, at the point in time when video games were still just simple games.

Continued in Part 2, which focuses on video games in the 80's.


  1. I enjoyed your post.

    So would you say a video-game has to have some sort of a narrative to be considered art? Because by that reasoning there are still a ton of video-games out there today that fail to be 'art', e.g. many arcade games/FPSs. Oh, but I guess this is something you'll go on to discuss during your next post...

    1. Well, like I said, what I'm mainly talking about at this point is *potential*. Just like how there are tons of lousy movies that don't count as art at all (the same holds true for books and anime as well), there are plenty of video games out there that are decidedly not art.

      To actually answer your question, though...yes, I do feel it has to have a narrative. Keeping in mind that a narrative is not just the explicit *story*, however, there are plenty of ways to get it across, so. . .

      I do plan on discussing that idea in slightly greater detail next post, yes. Hopefully that will help my explanation make sense.

      Thanks for reading, Ty!

  2. I'm gamer myself but all these information is pretty new to me. I have a look at some of those antique games you mentioned ("Cathode ray tube amusement device", "Tennis for Two" and it's funny how bulky their PC systems is. And the screen in front is round too, seriously, it's a funny design, as if the computer is built by cardboard.

    I think I will be more familiar with the next era of games (1980 to 1999s, well, if you're planning on posting within the same length I presumed), with games like Frogger, Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. Of cause, during the early 90s, is the release of the original playstation, which officially made me venture into the world of gamers.

    1. Old technology is amazing in it's physical space. :)

      I'm definitely a lot more familiar with 90's games myself. Unfortunately, my family sort of passed over the whole console phase, so the only things I've extensively played are PC games.

      Thanks for dropping by!