COMPUTER GAMES

The computer gameís evolution has closely paralleled the larger "digital revolution": originating with computer hobbyists and "shareware" advocates in the 1960s, reaching the general public in the 1970s and 1980s consumer electronics boom and going on-line in the 1990s.

Steve Russell, an MIT researcher, developed the first computer game, Spacewar, in 1961. Russellís innovation quickly spread across university and corporate computer labs in the 1960s. Other researchers and hobbyists developed prototypes for the genres that continue to dominate the game industry to the present, including adventure, role-playing, shooting, and flight simulation games, often circulating the games across labs as free "shareware."

As entrepreneurs marketed these prototypes, electronic games were introduced as public amusements in arcades and bars, taking their place alongside jukeboxes and pinball machines. The growth of shopping malls in the 1970s furthered the spread of popular early games such as Space Invaders, Asteroids, and Pac-Man. By the early 1970s, Atari, Magnabox, Intellivision, and other consumer electronics companies were marketing these same games for domestic consumption. Pong, one of the most popular early home games, consisted of little more than two bars and a moving dot, but the novelty of a more interactive relationship to television proved popular. By 1983, at the peak of this first wave of consumer electronics, more than 500 games per year were being produced, though the bottom fell out of the market that same year due to overproduction and poor quality control.

A second generation of video game companies, dominated by Japanese-owned Nintendo, Sega and later, Sony, revitalized the industry in the late 1980s and early 1990s, establishing electronic games as a central feature of American childhood. According to industry estimates, 90 percent of American boys and 40 percent of American girls have played computer or video games. Childrenís diminished access to real world play spaces due to urbanization, the two-career family, and concerns about crime and safety, made video gamesís vivid virtual play spaces an attractive after-school entertainment. The dominant video game genres reflected traditional themes of childrenís literature (including fantasy, horror, and adventure stories) or backyard play (including space exploration, fisticuffs, and sports.) Such interests contributed to the popularity of early console game successes, such as Super Mario Brothers, The Legend of Zelda, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Megaman. Fighting games, such as Mortal Kombat or Streetfighter II, exploited steady improvements in computer graphics and processing power.

The computer game also helped establish the home market for the personal computer. Games, such as Doom, Quake, and Myst, proved to be "killer apps" (that is, software that sold the hardware). By 1997, annual domestic income from the American computer and video game industry had reached $5.3 billion and worldwide sales were at least $10 billion. Game characters, such as Tomb Raiderís Lara Croft, had become transmedia phenomenon.

Many critics express concern about the amount of time children spend playing games and especially about blood-thirsty game content. Such criticisms resulted in the formation of a rating system for games, administered by the Interactive Digital Software Association, the industryís primary trade organization. First-person shooting games became the focus of such criticisms, since similar simulation games were used for military training and some critics feared that gameplayís constant "rehearsal" of violence might have been a factor in a spate of school shootings. Defenders of computer games note, however, that many controversial games were not designed for children but rather reflect the tastes of older players: 70 percent of computer game players and 42 percent of console-game players are over 18.

Other critics have charged that the male-orientation of game design and marketing fosters a "gender gap" in computer access. Game playing gave boys much earlier access to the computer than their sisters and resulted in a greater comfort level with the technology. The so-called "girls game" movement sought alternative game genres that reflected characteristically feminine interests in doll play or diary-keeping or emphasized character relations rather than violent action. Despite innovative contributions by smaller female-run start-up companies, the movementís real market success came through Mattelís Barbie interactive products. By the end of the 1990s, Mattel had acquired many of the girls game companies.

The dramatic growth of the Internet has sparked interests in on-line gaming. Fighting games, such as Quake, led to the formation of "clans" of on-line game-players. Some argue that on-line gaming may allow a broader array of games to reach the market and may foster a new wave of innovations in digital storytelling. On-line gaming has proven especially effective at attracting female players. However, no one has resolved which business model will enable on-line gaming to achieve a stable economic base.

Cassell, Justine and Henry Jenkins, eds. From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998)

Electronic Conservancy. Videotopia: The Exhibit of the True History of Video Games. (http:///www.videotopia.com)

Herz, J.C. Joystick Nation: How Videogames Ate Our Quarters, Won Our Hearts and Rewired Our Minds. (New York: Little-Brown, 1997).

Interactive Digital Software Association. The State of the Entertainment Software Industry: 1998. (Washington DC: IDSA, 1998).

Sheff, David. Game Over: Nintendoís Battle to Dominate Videogames. (New York: Coronet, 1993).