It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that, as humans, we’ve always had games– as far back as around 3000 BC! Social interaction has always been meaningful, and games offer some of the best outlets to spend time with friends and develop functional mental and physical skills. And, of course, who can forget the entertainment value?!
Gaming and the gaming industry, in particular, have come a long way, progressing from simple dot navigation to the immersive environment of the metaverse, catering to a new generation of gamers. Much of the machinery has also evolved, shrinking from massive warehouse-sized equipment to tabletop consoles that can be enjoyed from the comfort of your living room.
Let’s take a look at how far we’ve come.
History of the gaming industry
1900s - 1960s
Gaming history dates back to the 1950s when computer scientists started utilizing electronic machines to develop relatively straightforward gaming systems. Early examples include Bertie the Brain (1950), designed for playing tic-tac-toe, and Nimrod (1951), created for playing Nim. These systems primarily served as demonstration units at significant exhibitions and were used to showcase the capabilities of computers during that era.
Another notable game, Tennis for Two, was crafted by William Higinbotham in 1958 for a three-day exhibition at Brookhaven National Laboratory. This game utilized an analog computer and an oscilloscope for display.
Then there was Spacewar, which was developed for a PDP-1 mainframe computer and became one of the most popular games of that period. It involved space combat fights between two players.
During the 1960s, several computer games emerged for mainframe and minicomputer systems. However, their widespread adoption could have been improved by more computer resources, a lack of skilled programmers interested in developing entertainment products, and difficulties transferring programs across geographically dispersed computers.
Still, in this decade, programming languages were more accessible, enabling easier game creation for a larger audience. The introduction of time-sharing, which allowed multiple users to access a single mainframe simultaneously through terminals, expanded computer accessibility beyond select individuals within institutions. This development opened up more significant opportunities for students to develop their games.
1970s - 1980s (Arcade and Home Consoles)
While rapid-action, real-time gameplay in genres like racing and target shooting became standard in arcade and home consoles, similar dynamic games faced challenges on mainframes. The absence of suitable displays, with many computer terminals relying on teletypes rather than monitors well into the 1970s, and the limitations of processing power and memory hindered the possibility of real-time updates for game elements.
Despite mainframes boasting more power than contemporary arcade and console hardware, their capabilities were compromised by the need to distribute computing resources among multiple users through time-sharing. As a result, mainframe game programmers shifted their focus toward strategy and puzzle-solving mechanics rather than pure action.
That’s why the most noteworthy games from this period included Mike Mayfield's tactical combat game "Star Trek" (1971), Gregory Yob's hide-and-seek game "Hunt the Wumpus" (1972), and Walter Bright's strategic war game "Empire" (1977).
Another game of particular significance during this era was "Colossal Cave Adventure" (or simply "Adventure"), created in 1976 by Will Crowther– and so the adventure and interactive fiction genre was born and with additional contributions by Don Woods in 1977, Adventure, inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien's high fantasy, pioneered a new genre centered on exploration and inventory-based puzzle-solving. It successfully transitioned to personal computers in the late 1970s.
Over the following decades, gaming underwent significant advancements. Video game consoles gained prominence, leading to a substantial market shift as the Japanese industry heavily invested in console production. With Nintendo's dominance, Japan became the epicenter of gaming, with video game console-based games generating over $3 billion in revenue compared to the $300 million market for computer-based games. Technological progress brought about the invention of 16-bit consoles, shaking the foundation of gaming and opening new possibilities. Sega and Nintendo engaged in a friendly war to establish supremacy in the gaming industry.
The 1990s witnessed a period of innovation in the world of video games. This era marked the transition from traditional raster graphics to the emergence of 3D graphics, leading to the development of various genres like real-time strategy games, first-person shooters, and even massively multiplayer online games (MMOs). In simpler words, depictions got more lifelike and placed the average gamer inside of their screens, not just in front of them. Handheld gaming also soared in popularity during this decade, partly due to the release of the Game Boy in 1989.
Although arcades experienced a revival in the early-to-mid-1990s, their importance diminished with the increasing prevalence of home consoles. And the logic worked. Why spend all that time outside when you could play games in the comfort of your home?
Simultaneously, the home video game industry became more mainstream. However, video games faced controversy, primarily due to the violence depicted in titles like Mortal Kombat, Night Trap, and Doom. This led to the formation of the Interactive Digital Software Association and the implementation of Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) ratings starting in 1994. You could say they’re the police force of gaming.
Other notable developments in the 1990s included the widespread adoption of 3D computer graphics using polygons, initially in arcades and later extending to home consoles and computers. The industry witnessed significant transformations, including publisher consolidation, higher-budget games, larger production teams, and collaborations with the music and motion picture industries. Examples of influential games during this time include Final Fantasy and Shenmue.
The 2000s - 2010s
The 2000s were a significant period for the gaming industry. The invention of handheld consoles revolutionized the gaming world, and later advancements were introduced to the "big three" home consoles: Sony's PlayStation 3, Microsoft's Xbox 360, and Nintendo's Wii. Game development is advanced, supporting enhanced graphics and immersive experiences for users. Additionally, mobile phone gaming, initially limited, experienced considerable growth, setting the stage for a revolution in the next decade that has changed the way we play games today.
Around 2005, smartphones entered the market, offering data connectivity alongside traditional phone functions. Carriers allowed the creation of games sold through specific storefronts. However, this approach faced challenges due to the need for more standardization between storefronts and discrepancies among phone models.
Furthermore, games developed for smartphones couldn't match the sophistication of those on consoles or handheld devices, primarily due to limited hardware capabilities.
Open to technological advancements, the gaming industry continues to thrive as a significant economic and technical sector. With the advent of technologies like photorealistic graphics, ray tracing, and virtual reality, combined with the development of the metaverse, gaming has grown in scale and user experience. The gaming industry has become one of the largest economic sectors globally, worth trillions of dollars, and new untapped markets are still emerging.
Mobile games are now a force to contend with, spurring a new class of gamer culture. Interactions are at the next level now, with the introduction of esports competitions and leagues. Video game elements have entered an era of hyperrealism, with the difference between them and actual depictions becoming more and more difficult to distinguish — and the entertainment value? Off the charts.
As we look to the future, the gaming industry holds great promise. With ongoing advancements, augmented reality, and a focus on surpassing previous achievements, the future of gaming is filled with hope and excitement for gamers worldwide.