To be a gamer in the ’80s and early ’90s required a special kind of perseverance, especially if you were a computer owner.
Whether it was the superhuman patience needed to load a game off a cassette tape, the willingness to soldier on when the floppy disk containing your favourite game corrupted or the ability to tailor MS-DOS config files – you had to work to play.
And then there were the playground platform wars – contests of one-upmanship where kids traded technical stats about their favourite computer or console in a futile bid to prove theirs was the best. Like pint-sized evangelists for console manufacturer marketing departments, children argued the merits of processor bits and the number of sprites that could be displayed on a horizontal line often with little idea what it meant in practice. These playground debates were nonsense of course. The technical specs of an Acorn Archimedes computer were far beyond those on offer within a NES, but there was no question that Nintendo owners had a richer gaming experience on offer.
Today these clashes of geek verbosity are no longer so prominent in gaming culture, yet the way we talk of video game history still seems trapped within these playground squabbles.
Retrogaming websites, magazines and books routinely structure the history of games into eras defined by the computers or consoles that were most popular at the time. Under this reading of game history, hardware platforms become like the kings and queens of England with the PlayStation defining the late 1990s much like Queen Victoria defined the second half of the 1800s.
This hardware-centric vision of the past, however, dehumanises games to an alarming extent. It suggests that games are nothing more than some by-product of hardware engineers and business decisions. Yet video games are, and have always been, creative endeavours driven primarily by the ideas and talent of game makers.
Technological limits and commercial constraints do, of course, restrict that vision – tying it to reality – but at heart video games are works of imagination. Nintendo’s business model and the Game Boy did not ensure the creation of Pokémon – it only made it possible. It took Satoshi Tajiri’s desire to recreate his bug-hunting childhood for a Japanese generation increasingly removed from the countryside to do that. Nor did the latest generation of consoles make BioShock inevitable. The decaying beauty of Rapture exists because of lead designer Ken Levine’s interest in Ayn Rand’s philosophies and his team’s vivid imagination.
You wouldn’t sum up the history of film as a story of technology, even though it’s possible to do so, so why do we do it with games?
This was my thinking when I started writing Replay: The History of Video Games. Rather than structuring video game history around the largely steady progress of computing technology or the rise and fall of faceless game publishers, I wanted to offer a different perspective on gaming’s past – one where creativity took centre stage.
At points technology has inevitably had a huge impact on games. The microprocessor-inspired move from making games by designing circuit boards to writing games in software in the late 1970s is just one example. But it is the games that inspired us to play not the hardware and so in Replay I’ve focused on how creativity has driven the evolution of what we play today – be it the influence of Monty Python on the first generation of British game developers or how computers inspired a group of MIT students to flout the academic orthodoxy of the 1950s to create Spacewar! – a computer program with no purpose but to entertain.
Game history has too often been treated back to front. It is because of the creativity of game developers that we now have a choice of hardware to play on. And it is those same developers whose work has allowed the multi-billion dollar game industry that now exists to form – not the other way around.
If compelling and exciting games weren’t there, the industry and the consoles wouldn’t be either. So isn’t it time that video game history started to follow the example of film and put the artists whose work has amazed, entertained and inspired millions of people at the heart of the story?
Tristan Donovan’s Replay: The History of Video Games is out now and available at Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com.