Gaming has a substantial history now, 40 years after Pong first went out into the wide world. Even the Smithsonian is running a detailed exhibit on the art and history of video games, opening later this month.
Game studies is growing and maturing rapidly as a research and education field, and game development programs are spreading even more quickly. So video game history is clearly important… but how can one actually manage to teach it?
Media deteriorate, for one thing; to play an original 1985 game on an original 1985 Nintendo isn’t necessarily feasible. Some games and their context are simply missing. Nor is it always a straightforward matter to get many other early games up and running in an accessible way, even if their content has been preserved. And as companies form, dissolve, merge, split and fade away, sorting out who even owns an older title can be a complex knot to unravel.
Likewise, and perhaps even more importantly, the bar for playability and the core ideas behind mainstream game design have shifted rather drastically over the decades. User interfaces have improved for most genres and games. Tutorials have become prevalent, while detailed manuals have trended away. The ability to save a game in progress grew over time, along with a thousand other little conveniences. To a student who is just now turning 18 and enrolling in her first year of university, the games of 1980 may be as remote and stripped of context as Soviet film of the 1920s is to a first year film student.
In a talk at this week’s Game Developer Conference (GDC) in San Francisco, three professors and researchers tackled the question head on. Gamasutra reports that one of the biggest challenges educators face can be in introducing a new wave of students to an old wave of games:
[Games 101] requires students to spend significant time with older titles and write specific reports, which are often revealing, with one of his students starting a paper with “Zork was the first text-based adventure game I have ever played and probably the last text-based adventure game I will ever play.”
“Old games are really hard,” says Clara Fernandez-Vara, of the Singapore MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, who says that her students have yet to meet the challenge of getting to level 5 of Jet Set Willy without losing any lives.
Fernandez-Vara further added: “Our students are going to get frustrated and pissed off at us because why the hell are they playing these stupid games that are broken?”
She is, in many ways, quite right: old games are much more difficult than newer games. While they mainly didn’t appear “broken” at the time they were new, natural evolution of design and technology has progressed incredibly quickly and even a five year old title can feel antique next to its newer sequels.
Fortunately, old games are enjoying something of a redistribution renaissance thanks to digital distribution venues. With services like GOG.com and the PlayStation Network adding retro games to their platforms, and consistent HD re-releases of some retro titles on newer platforms, perhaps the classics will no longer remain quite so inaccessible to the newer generation.
(Except Zork. Stupid lantern. Stupid grue.)