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.|
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.