A Brief History Of Video Games

Step into WePC's time machine and take a trip back to see the dawn of the video game era

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When & How Were Video Games Invented

Many of history’s greatest technological breakthroughs came from the sterile halls of a laboratory and video games are no different.

Before we can even get into what the first video game is, we have to establish how the technology that supported it came about. For that, we have to start in 1947 with the Cathode-Ray Tube Amusement Device. This was a patent created by Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr. and Estle R. Mann for a simple analog electronics game that relied on overlays to provide a complete visual. This reliance on physical overlays and the device’s lack of computing is generally why this invention is often considered the first electronic game, but not the first video game as we know them today.

tic tac toe

Similar developments took place in 1951 and 1952. First, British computer scientist Christopher Strachey brought the game checkers to a program that ran on the Nimrod computer. Then, a year later, British professor A.S. Douglas created OXO as part of his University of Cambridge doctoral dissertation, this was the classic game tic-tac-toe ported to an EDSAC computer. Sure, it’s a game, but it’s also a game that has roots back to the Roman Empire and Egypt. These examples were simply being updated for the modern age.

When Was The First Video Game?

So where does the first video game come in? Assuming that the above two developments aren’t considered the first game, the consensus is that Tennis for Two brings together all the pre-existing components into a functional video game system.

Tennis for Two was created by American physicist William Higinbotham. Made with a Donner Model 30 analog computer with a built-in oscilloscope screen, Tennis for Two was made for display at the Brookhaven National Laboratory. Capable of calculating shot trajectories, an impact barrier as a net and even wind resistance for those shots, Tennis for Two was the most sophisticated of early video game examples. With those developments in mind, it’s easy to see why it’s considered the earliest video game by many people.

Tennis for Two
Tennis for Two

How Was The First Video Game Invented?

The process by which we make video games has come a long way too, so it’s no surprise that the invention of Tennis for Two looked a lot different from modern game development. Much like the initial cathode-ray tube amusement device that was patented a decade earlier, Higinbotham’s game relied on cathode-ray tubes in an oscilloscope that made use of resistors and capacitors.

This was all detailed in its instruction booklet, where the simulated ideas of gravity and wind resistance were explained through the examples of a bouncing ball or a fired projectile like a bullet or a missile. Even today, the physics engine of modern video games and how they relate to trajectories is still an incredibly important part of the development process.

The motion of the so-called “ball” is controlled by four operational amplifiers with another six used to sense when the ball impacts another simulated surface. These functions were time-shared so that all elements can be generated at once.

What this project benefited from, that the cathode-ray tube amusement device didn’t, were germanium transistors. Becoming more commercially available in the 1950s, these transistors allowed Higinbotham to make fast-switching circuits that displayed images from the three computer outputs at 36 Hertz. This was fast for the time and fast enough that your eyes saw the ball, net, and any other elements on-screen instead of separate images.

After unveiling it in 1958, they improved the initial model a year later by adding a larger screen. There were also options for low or high gravity options that would change how the game plays.

The game was played using two lightweight aluminum controllers that had one button and one turning dial. Pressing that button hit the ball while the dial allowed you to decide the shot angle before “swinging.” An amusing side note is that Higinbotham wanted a second dial to control shot velocity but thought it’d be too complicated. Nowadays, we have studies investigating how modern game console controllers, which have approximately 15 player input mechanisms, may benefit players’ motor skills.

You can read about the mechanisms at play in Tennis for Two here if you’re interested in a detail-specific analysis of how this pioneering machine worked.

The Home Console

An integral part of video game development is the home video game console. With personal computers being traditionally expensive, it was the dedicated game console that brought video games into the houses of those who wouldn’t have been able to afford them initially.

By now, video games and simulations had become more prevalent. MIT student Steve Russell invented the (assumed) first computer-based video game, Spacewar!, in 1962. It spread to those fortunate enough to have computers back then, those being prestigious universities like MIT and other enthusiast centers that could afford this new technology. Meanwhile, similar video game technology was used for war games by the U.S. Defense Department, who feared a conflict with the Soviet Union and wanted a means of exploring potential war scenarios.

Element Ralph Baer

But most people didn’t have personal computers or government supercomputers in their homes, so where did the first home console come from? For that, we need to go to a dingy New York City bus station in 1966. There, Sanders Associates, Inc. employee Ralph Baer had a novel idea – what if I could play video games on my television?

A year later, Baer brought the Brown Box into existence, a game console capable of running multiple programs with multiplayer capabilities. One of the initial games available was the early video game classic, tennis. Another year later, in 1968, Baer patented the Brown Box. The blueprints for the Brown Box were used by Magnavox in the creation of the Magnavox Odyssey. Released in 1972, the Magnavox Odyssey was the first commercially available home video game console.

For his contribution to modern video games through the game console, he’s yet another figure who is often called the Father of Video Games.

From the 70s to the 2010s, video gaming technology continued to develop at a rapid pace since the Odyssey hit the scene. Let’s take a bird’s eye view of how we got from the Magnavox Odyssey to the Microsoft Xbox Series X and the PlayStation 5.

Video Game History Timeline

To best capture as much information about the history of video games in as short a guide as possible, we’ve created a timeline that maps important developments in the industry. Whether it’s technological developments or socio-political events that were related and shaped video games as we know them today, you’ll find out how we arrived at the video game industry of today.

1970s

1971
1971
The Oregon Trail is invented, a video game classic that has been remade many times and still gets played today.
1972
1972
Atari develops a table tennis game built into an arcade machine. Its name? Pong.
1973
1973
Computing magazine Creative Computing publishes “101 BASIC Computer Games” which increases the hobby’s popularity and stands as an example of the first video game journalism.
1974
1974
Maze Wars is made, the first first-person shooter game where players run through a labyrinth. Naturally, it is thought to be a progenitor to DOOM.
1976
1976
Colossal Cave Adventure was released by William Crowther and gathered support and developmental assistance from Don Woods. The first known text-based interactive fiction, this Dungeons and Dragons-inspired game paved the way for role-playing and roguelike video games.
1977
1977
Continuing with an expanded game library, Atari released the Atari 2600 Video Computer System. It uses a joystick, interchangeable game cartridges, difficulty levels, and shows its games in color.
1978 1
1978
Another classic enters the scene with the invention of Space Invaders. Made by the Japanese company Taito, it’s often claimed that the game rush it ushered in caused a shortage of 100 Yen coins. In reality, a switch from silver to nickel coin production led to people hoarding the silver, causing the shortage. The video game rushes created by landmark releases were still strong enough that such rumors would persist, a testament to the industry’s growing popularity at this time.
1979
1979
Toymaker Mattel releases the Intellivision, a more robust console than the Atari 2600 that finds commercial success, selling three million units.

1980s

1980
1980
The classics keep on coming with Namco’s Pac-Man, another Japanese contribution to the industry that caused yet another historic rush on video game arcades. In Japan, the term paku-paku is used as onomatopoeia for eating, and is why Japan calls the character Pakkuman, which was anglicized as Puck-Man. This changed to Pac-Man upon international release after Namco feared that the name could be altered to make a more colorful term.

The late 70s to early 80s are now considered the golden age of arcade games.
1981
1981
Nintendo released Donkey Kong. This would only be the start of Miyamoto’s massive impact on the video game industry. As for the game, you ascended platforms and avoided objects as “Jumpman” to catch the titular villain.
1982
1982
In 1982, as the video game craze swept the USA, Disney released Tron. It has since solidified itself as a cult classic, with many considering it prophetic now that virtual reality gaming has come to the fore.
1983
1983
After the success of Donkey Kong, Shigeru Miyamoto and Nintendo release Mario Bros. You played as “Jumpman” here too, though now Miyamoto had given him a name – Mario.

The year was then overshadowed by the video game crash in North America.
1984
1984
Russian mathematician Alexey Pajitnov makes Tetris. It soon escapes the USSR’s Iron Curtain and, five years later, it’s bundled with Nintendo Game Boy devices.
1985
1985
Nintendo released the Nintendo Entertainment System in ’85. Coming to be known as the NES, it helped to revive a flagging video games industry in the USA. Other releases included 16-bit machines like the Atari ST and the Commodore Amiga personal computers, which were also available with 32-bit processors upon release. The backbone of their popularity was based on their game-playing capabilities.
1987
1987
Shigeru Miyamoto creates Legend of Zelda. It technically debuted on the Japanese Famicom in 1986 but hit Europe and North America in ‘87. The second game also came out in Japan this year.

Elsewhere, the video game license for Dungeons and Dragons is handed over to Strategic Simulations, Inc., ensuring the tabletop RPG’s prolonged existence.
1988
1988
The first John Madden Football video game was released. The very first video games were simulations of sports like tennis and, with this release, started a series that consistently sold well and inspired sports video game offshoots.
1989
1989
Nintendo’s Game Boy is released and becomes widely popularized. Using interchangeable cartridges, they allow users the convenience of a home system in the palm of their hand.

With it came Tetris’ 26th release but the two are now remembered inseparably. The game holds the world record for the most ported video game after 65+ ports and, when modern downloads are considered, it’s also one of the biggest video game best-sellers.

1990s

1990
1990
Windows 3.0 comes pre-packed with light video games and Solitaire becomes one of the most popular electronic games ever played. The addictive simplicity of Solitaire is thought to have contributed to the design of mobile games.
1992
1992
Real-time strategy finds its popularity thanks to Dune II by Westwood Studios. Meanwhile, Midway Games releases Mortal Kombat, the ultra-violent fighting game.
1993
The US Senate building on Capitol Hill, Washington D.C.
1993
It didn’t take long for Mortal Kombat to cause a stir. The United States Senate conducts a hearing on video game violence. From it, video game rating systems emerged and research began on whether this link is fallacious or not. The most recent examinations of past studies have since claimed that there is no causal connection between video games and violence.

1993 was also the year where DOOM released and caused a new round of bad press and trouble for video game alarmists. First-person shooter games became more and more popular from here.

If you are concerned about youth exposure to adult material in video games, there are generally agreed methods to keep your children away from this content.
The US Senate building on Capitol Hill, Washington D.C.
1994
1994
Warcraft: Orcs and Humans is released by Blizzard. It quickly became a popular real-time strategy game that launched the franchise that would later diversify its game genres and even turn into movie productions.
1995
1995
The Sega Saturn is launched in May of this year to some success. This success is undermined months later when Sony unleashes the PlayStation in September. It debuted at a competitively low price point, selling for $100 less than what the Saturn cost. This competition would come to a head in the year 2000.

In the world of personal computing, Microsoft launched Windows 95. Created by merging Microsoft’s MS-DOS and their Windows suite, 95 was a big improvement for their OS. Its improved graphics and its plug-and-play features were foundational for PC gaming. To smoothen the MS-DOS transition, Windows introduced APIs to ensure compatibility and ease of use, such as DirectDraw, DirectSound, and DirectPlay. This project came to be known as DirectX.
1996
1996
Another seminal video game console is released with the Nintendo 64, better known as the N64. It competed against the PlayStation and the Sega Saturn and was named Time’s 1996 Machine of the Year.

Eidos Interactive published Tomb Raider, introducing Lara Croft as its protagonist. The game is a hit with the crowd while others, primarily of the critic crowd, see the exaggerated polygonal portrayal as being sexist.
1997
Tamagotchi takes over the world
1997
In 1997 we saw a breakthrough that showed the progress of predictive artificial intelligence, many of which are part of modern video games now. This event was the chess match between Gary Kasparov and the Deep Blue supercomputer developed by IBM. For the first time, the supercomputer won.

On the game front, we saw landmark releases with GoldenEye 007, Star Fox 64, Final Fantasy VII, Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee, the first Grand Theft Auto, Diablo, and Fallout all coming out this year. Tamagotchi was first released in Japan, too, bringing tiny, rudimentary video game simulations into everybody’s pockets.
Tamagotchi takes over the world
1998
Valve’s Half-Life is still seen as a seminal moment in video gaming today
1998
Many landmark video game releases happened in 1998. One of the most successful was Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which is held as an example of video games as works of art for their combination of worldbuilding, puzzle adventuring, and musical score along with great graphics for the time.

Also in 1998, we saw the launch of several franchises like Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid and Valve’s Half-Life. Both of these also delivered narratively complex stories and introduced sophisticated gameplay mechanics like stealth and in-world object manipulation and throwing. Formative classics like Sony Computer Entertainment’s Spyro the Dragon and Rare’s Banjo-Kazooie also came out this year.
Valve’s Half-Life is still seen as a seminal moment in video gaming today
1999
EverQuest united the world’s gamers in one of the first successful MMOs
1999
1999 was the year of multiplayer party game firsts. We saw Mario Party and Super Smash Bros. use Nintendo’s colorful cast of characters to bring gamers together. Similarly, Sony Online Entertainment’s EverQuest brought hundreds of thousands of players together in an online world.
EverQuest united the world’s gamers in one of the first successful MMOs

2000s

2000
2000
2000 saw another showdown between Sony and Sega. This time it was the PlayStation 2 versus the Dreamcast and the PS2 won out. It didn’t just win out, the PS2 then became the greatest-selling console in history, even to this day.

As for games, we received Will Wright’s The Sims, published by EA. At the time, The Sims became the best-selling video game ever. In the PC gaming scene, Creative Assembly’s Shogun: Total War took wargaming to another level by allowing players to simulate and strategize army battles on-screen.
2001
2001
The PS2’s victory over Sega was quickly followed by another competitor in the form of the Microsoft Xbox. Many influential video games debuted with the console too, most notably Halo: Combat Evolved.

In the extended gaming world, RuneScape, Burnout, Grand Theft Auto III, Black & White, Devil May Cry, Metal Gear Solid 2, and Final Fantasy X were all released. Each of these found critical acclaim in their spheres and pushed the boundaries of what could be depicted in video games.
2002
2002
This was the year we saw the launch of the Nintendo Gamecube, a diminutive console whose controller was praised for its ergonomics. It’s fondly remembered for its roster of Nintendo IP games and ports of other commercially successful video games.

Controversially, the U.S. Army and Ubisoft released America’s Army, a game intended to communicate with young gamers for recruitment. The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars launched the Serious Games Initiative to address video game policy.
2003
In 2003 the Steam interface we all know and loved looked markedly different
2003
Steam was released by Valve in 2003, becoming one of the most important developments in the distribution and democratization of computer video games. The narrative capability of video games was pushed forward by Bioware’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic but the subsequent release of Manhunt sparked a debate over which narratives should be allowed.
In 2003 the Steam interface we all know and loved looked markedly different
2004
2004
Nintendo dominated the market for handheld video gaming devices. Having ruled with the Game Boy for the longest time, it was the Nintendo DS that strengthened their grip on this casual industry. Featuring two screens, one of them being a touchscreen, it had strong unique selling points that made it different from anything being attempted in the video gaming space.

While 2004 was a relatively quiet year for video games, World of Warcraft was released this year. Fable, while an acclaimed RPG, taught consumers a lesson about not believing when developers overpromise the content of their games.
2005
2005
This was the year that the Xbox 360 was released. In terms of technological innovations, new releases like Forza Motorsport, Shadow of the Colossus, Sniper Elite, and Guitar Hero emerged.
2006
2006
This was the year that Nintendo edged their way back into the console market with the Wii. Relying on the gimmick of a remote and a nunchuk to inspire physical activity in gamers, it became known as a family console and found wide commercial success. The same year, the PlayStation 3 entered the scene to compete with the Xbox 360.
2007
Bioshock’s Big Daddy is known as one of the best characters in modern gaming - even though it has no voice
2007
The trend of using physical implements for video games continued with Rock Band. A slew of new IPs familiar to gamers today also exploded onto the scene, such as Mass Effect, The Witcher, Uncharted, BioShock, and Assassin’s Creed.
Bioshock’s Big Daddy is known as one of the best characters in modern gaming - even though it has no voice
2008
2008
While the 360 and PS3 started to find their footing, World of Warcraft became the most popular PC game with 10 million subscribers. As for notable releases, this was the year we saw Dead Space, Left 4 Dead, Spore, Grand Theft Auto IV, Call of Duty: World at War, Fallout 3, and LittleBigPlanet, which afforded unrivaled customization to players.
2009
2009
Games with a social media element like Farmville and mobile games like Angry Birds enter the games industry and create a wholly different type of gamer. This was also the year that Minecraft was made available in its alpha state.

2010s

2010
2010
2010 was a competitive year that saw highly anticipated installments in sci-fi epics like Halo: Reach, Mass Effect 2, and Fallout: New Vegas. Surprisingly, it was Grand Theft Auto developer Rockstar that swept up game of the year awards for Red Dead Redemption, an open-world western experiment.
2011
Skyrim has appeared on virtually every modern platform and continues to wow with it’s single-player story
2011
2011 was the year where augmented reality game Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure found widespread popularity. Critically acclaimed sequels Portal 2, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and Batman: Arkham City also came out this year.
Skyrim has appeared on virtually every modern platform and continues to wow with it’s single-player story
2013
2013
The continuing trend of difficult and ethically challenging narratives see both indie and triple-A games like Papers, Please and The Last of Us find great success. Rockstar also came back with a massively open-world and online Grand Theft Auto V, as innovative and controversial as everybody had come to expect from the firebrand studio.

The next generation of Xbox and PlayStations also came out at the end of 2013 with the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4.
2014
Candy Crush is known by gamers to be one of the worst when it comes to monetizing via microtransactions
2014
The mobile game industry has only been growing during this time with free-to-play becoming a viable model for many video gaming markets. Millions are made through microtransactions, a controversial means of monetizing products as they have been known to target addictive behaviors.
Candy Crush is known by gamers to be one of the worst when it comes to monetizing via microtransactions
2015
2015
Twitch was launched, an Amazon-owned site that contributes to the growing eSports scene. At the League of Legends World Championship, 36 million people watch the games. That’s a larger viewership than many sports events at the time.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was also released and, after much acclaim, becomes one of the foremost expressions of Polish culture and influence upon the entire world.
2016
2016
Augmented reality takes off with the application of smartphones. Niantic’s free-to-play game Pokémon Go came to represent this craze, becoming a worldwide phenomenon. This coincided with the price points of virtual reality headgear falling, making VR gaming more commercially available.
2017
Fortnite’s Battle Royale mode still rules the world when it comes to the benchmark in the genre
2017
Player count records were broken by PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, a game that mainstreamed the battle royale genre of video games. A battle royale mode was added to the game Fortnite and its popularity with younger audiences and the presence of microtransactions, alongside the contentious release of Star Wars Battlefront II, caused debates on whether loot boxes are gambling.
Fortnite’s Battle Royale mode still rules the world when it comes to the benchmark in the genre
2018
2018
To make the industry more accessible for the disabled, Microsoft releases the Adaptive Controller for the Xbox. Its simple, box-like design is reminiscent of initial controllers like those used in Tennis for Two.

Red Dead Redemption 2 came out for all platforms and was considered the peak of what modern video gaming could achieve. This was due to its engaging narrative, online play, and unrivaled graphical detail.
2019
2019
The Epic Games Store grows thanks to Fortnite and starts to become a competitor to Steam for PC gaming, though their tactic of paying developers for platform exclusivity isn’t popular with many. Meanwhile, the Netherlands and Belgium enforced legislation to ban games with predatory loot boxes as gambling. Blizzard also came under scrutiny for censoring eSports players for messages of support of the Hong Kong protests.

Sony and Microsoft also announced that in 2020, they’ll unveil their newest game consoles. These would be the Xbox Series X and the PlayStation 5. While both try to push processing and graphical boundaries, they’re embracing VR technology as a new and exciting means of playing video games.

Video Games Today

As of the writing of this guide, we’re a year into the 2020s. 2020 was a dreary year for many due to the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, so it’s no surprise that online multiplayer community-oriented games like Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Fall Guys, and Among Us won out over many high profile releases. All games have an emphasis on interconnectivity with bright and cheery color palettes.

The gaming trends for 2021 are still emerging, so instead, we’ll wind this guide down with some statistics about where the gaming industry stands today. With Tennis for Two and the Brown Box in mind, appreciate how far the video games industry has come when reading the below stats:

Video gaming today is a $100 billion global industry. In 2020, it is predicted to hit

£ 0 Billion

The USA, China, and Japan lead in-game market revenue. Per gamingscan.com statistics from 2018,

$ 0 Million
China
$ 0 Million
USA
$ 0 Million
Japan

The largest gaming demographic is 18 to 34 at 38%. The smallest demographic is the elderly (65+) at 6%.

0 %
18 to 34 years old
0 %
elderly (65+)

2021 estimates for active gamers worldwide were at 2.81 billion and expected to become 3 billion in 2023. Instead, the circumstances of 2020 pushed that to 3 billion before most estimates. That’s approximately 40% of the population.

Activision Blizzard led market capitalization with $70 billion in March 2021. Following close behind were Nintendo and Electronic Arts.

Around half of all gaming revenue is taken from smartphone games.

Steam still dominates the video gaming market share and its library of 30,000 games is still growing.

¾ of all U.S households are occupied by at least one person who plays video games.

North America leads the charge for virtual reality with nearly one in five consumers using it in 2020.

Approximatley 0 Million
U.S. citizens use VR once per month.

AR and VR technology pioneered for video games is predicted to impact 23 million jobs by 2030.

Summary

How some of these projections pan out is anybody’s guess. After 2020, we saw firsthand how unforeseen circumstances can shake up an industry, for better or worse.

What’s certain is that video gaming has taken over the world despite its humble beginnings, and they aren’t going anywhere. This interactive medium has secured itself as a multi-billion dollar industry that has the potential to offer the same artistic merit as movies, with added interactivity.

Not only that, but video games have become cultural and social mainstays that have influenced how we interface with technology. With both A.I. development and the breakout of VR and AR, the rise of the video gaming industry has benefited all of us in the technological innovations that were unearthed along the way.

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