The History of How We Play Video Series

This blog has been in support of the larger project that I have been working on since 2015, a video series under the same banner of “The History of How We Play”. I wanted to give a clearer summary of exactly what this project entails as well as some of my own thought process behind this epic-length endeavor.

There were a few core aspects to this project which were in place from the beginning that I will explain in more detail below. These principles have sort of guided my mindset when it comes to the content and presentation of this series.

  • Focus on Lasting Innovation (Games and Platforms)
  • Sourced
  • Strictly Chronological
  • Documenting the Original Release
  • Visual
  • Defining Genres Better

All of these points could be interpreted in completely different ways by others operating along these guidelines. The way that I adapt these ideas is a reflection of my own way of research and storytelling which I hope I can communicate to all interested.

Focus on Lasting Innovation (Games and Platforms)

Within any history there is going to be an arbitrary cut-off of subject matter because no work could cover the entirety of any subject. For this video series, I have set out to highlight the most significant steps towards what we have codified as broad “genres” today. Even if a specific game or platform has not been directly proven to have an influence on the current state of these genres, if it pioneered a lasting feature it will be highlighted.

Explaining this category is best done by example. One interesting game from 1973 that will be covered is the PLATO game Empire, a top-down multiplayer shooter which was more than likely the first game to support up to 8 (and subsequently hundreds) of simultaneous users. While Empire is known to have inspired a few games, the actual line of Empire’s influence could easily be considered a dead-end. However, for the fact that it pioneered this larger arena fighting concept (as well as a few other things), I consider it worthy of including in a history about innovation.

The main idea with focusing on the ‘firsts’ also includes avoiding merely talking about the most popular games. Were I wrapped up in discussing series, regardless of the quality of any individual game, it would be detrimental to tracking a larger narrative of advancement in games generally. Pac-man versus Ms. Pac-man is a good example of this. The latter sold more units and in a sense is a better game, but there is nothing pioneering about Ms. Pac-man’s mechanics. The story of the game is definitely interesting and worth telling, yet I cannot justify going into a full exposition about it when nothing new is brought to the table in terms of play like Pac-man brings.

Important to note also is that not every influence of a game will be covered in it’s own section. Both games listed above have a myriad of different predecessors (Head-On for Pac-man, Moonwar for Empire), but a game has to bring innovations which are both significant compared to previous efforts and necessary to a computerized format to be worth giving a section to.

I spent some time trying to find out what the first video game to use a hex grid was, only to realize that it was pointless to try and trace this influence since it first appeared in tabletop games. While it definitely changes play dynamics, there is nothing about a hex grid which requires a computer to govern it’s systems. In a theoretical sense you could do any turn-based game as a non-video game, but it’s easy to tell when a video game has helped bring to life aspects which are beyond practical (such as in open-world RPGs like Ultima).

To take this reasoning to hardware platforms, I am attempting to do my best to cover technologies before talking about important games which appear on those systems. the Atari VCS will be discussed by itself before speaking specifically about any games that appeared on it (of course this also relates to chronology). In that same breath though, hardware platforms which make a significant innovation which may not have any noteworthy games will also be covered. For example, the PC Engine CD Rom^2 addon was the first instance of a CD-Rom drive being applied to gaming which was a huge step forwards. The games which appeared on the CD-Rom^2 were largely just enhanced versions of older games though, so it’s unlikely that any game would be spoken about at length beyond contextualizing the platform.

There are some exceptions to this early on as well as a few added pieces which exist outside of the ‘products’, called “Events”. The 1976 Pong Boom will be spoken about, not relating to any singular console, as will the 1983 North American Home Video Game Crash. The founding of Activision will have it’s own section because it was a significant enough moment to shift the entire industry, which is very important for talking about what followed. Each year will also include small summaries of other important issues (such as company closings or game successes) to try and draw in a larger narrative.

While I could go through every single entry to explain how it fits into this general theme and the story I’m looking to tell, it’s best to leave the work to speak for itself. Being left out of my summary is no slight to any game nor a statement that any work is unimportant. I am always looking to be enlightened on things that I may have missed or arguments for certain games to be included in this scope. My lines in the sand are drawn; always open to persuasion.

Sourced

I am not a professional historian, but it has annoyed me to no end that people interested in video game history appear to deliberately obfuscate their sources. This entire project started basically as a source compilation, to draw together all of the online resources and make the most accurate video series possible given information that was strictly online (and maybe a few books). This has expanded greatly since it’s initial conception, both for a lack of information on many items in my list and my general interest in being more rigorous about history.

Every item that I will be covering will have sources for facts and information noted in the script (which will be available for download) that references a spreadsheet I have used to catalog each section. The specifics for how this sourcing is read is to be discussed another time, but if there is a date that I declare a “release date” I do my best to provide a reliable source. If there is information on the hardware that a system uses, I will provide a reliable source. Details on development and marketing, so and so forth. If it’s not an opinion, I am not looking for people to take my word on anything.

Not everything can be so concrete as a release date, however. There can be contradictions on who came up with a mechanic in a game or the reasoning behind what the name of a product is. With this I attempt to provide sourcing for different sides of the argument while making my own conclusion within the video itself. I am not looking for the research to interfere with the presentation, therefore I encourage questions as to my reasoning on certain topics if one source doesn’t corroborate it.

Also, what constitutes a reliable source? This has been a hot-button issue of late and especially when you’re talking about such a scattered field as video game history, you have a lot of people spreading rumor or just unknowingly making factual errors. Generally I try to link to sources that have a clear line back to a primary source, if not the primary source itself. While attempting to catalog all the primary sources would be the best way to insure accuracy, I feel that a lot of scholars like Keith Smith have done a pretty good job pointing out all the necessary details, so cluttering my source list would be redundant. At the same time though, if a publication draws an erroneous conclusion based on outdated research, then it’s necessary to get closer to the primary source.

There will be a few sources that I cannot fully share due to other researchers not wanting them published yet, which includes my own interviews with people in the industry. I do intend to make these interviews available for researchers, but it takes a lot of time and effort to transcribe then publish so it’s a lesser priority next to just getting the video series completed. Interviews only provide so much information, especially unreliable when it’s years and years on, but they have become an important cornerstone to the project.

This topic is way bigger than I could really summarize here. Needless to say, sourcing is important and I hope this encourages video makers in the future to actually provide people with ways to get into research themselves. My method will be to provide the sourced script with a spreadsheet containing every item and source used in the order they will be spoken about in the video. Those who come away from this series wanting to learn more should have an easy way to start doing so.

Strictly Chronological

Many historians say it’s a fruitless pursuit to be wrapped up in ‘firsts’ or even in meticulously accurate dating because it takes away from the pursuit of a greater picture. For myself, chronology has always been a huge part of that bigger picture, especially when it comes to technology. The timeline on the acceptance of game mechanics, hardware, and new economic factors through video game history has become incredibly muddled. Part of this has to do with focusing on major hits rather than taking the totality of the market into consideration but also just generally misunderstanding the progression due to only viewing things through a narrow perspective.

Two of the most significant computer advances, GUIs and CD-ROM drives, are often treated like after their introduction they became widely adopted. Neither of these additions though really took hold until the early 90s despite being introduced at least a decade beforehand. For me at least this completely changed the way that I think about early CD releases and games with GUIs before the time of mainstream acceptance. It further contextualizes the decisions they may have made, rather than just assuming incompetence working with formats that were “figured out”.

Probably most visibly in terms of chronology is the question of inspiration for games; where they could have cribbed their mechanics from. It’s easy to describe Galaxian as the first color game and Pac-man as the first game where one must traverse every inch of the playspace to win, but both have their predecessors which would be overwritten if we didn’t take a harder look at a release chart.

There is certainly a lot of value in looking at things in topical chunks to see evolution as well, though I also find it just as interesting to see what was released in between major steps in the evolution of a genre. What influences outside of shooters might have influenced the genre to go in the direction it did? When was there a confluence of important influences in the same genre which may have made other creators reconsider the direction of their own works?

Anyone who has attempted to do dating on video games will find that it’s all pretty vague, so anything that overlaps within the same month will be simply talked about in a logical line which best serves the narrative. I hope that this selective look at games combined with the order-of-events perspective will be a new way to view these important milestones and perhaps lessen the stigma against a chronological approach to history.

Documenting the Original Release

For obvious reasons, when people in a country write about a game, they will talk about it from the perspective of what it was like in their country. Being that most video game history publications – but not all video games – are from the United States this can cause some disillusionment for other countries with different reactions to these games. In the case of this video series, I will be doing my best to talk about the very first release of a game and the impact it had in it’s native land, with only brief mentions of it’s wider success.

I personally have found it frustrating when attempting to discuss games that may not have had as great an impact in the US, so much being boiled down to “Well it was big in Japan”. Understanding why a game is received well in it’s country of origin and how fast it took for the work to take hold is incredibly important when comparing games, especially chronologically.

Too many histories of Dragon Quest dwell on it’s lack of success outside of Japan and I feel that only serves to diminish the accomplishments of the original game in defining Japanese gaming. Even with the muddied reception in the US it’s undoubtedly important to Western games because of how it reshaped the way games were thought about in Japan generally. This cross-pollination needs to be thought about in the original context of release rather than backpedaling to explain how a failure in one country can influence important developments in another.

Taking this route also gives me an opportunity to dig a little deeper into understanding the original release of important games in their time. I have learned a whole lot about companies I may not have been too focused on if I wasn’t attempting to understand this side of their release. Anything that leads to more sources should be a good thing, right? Also this will mean that titles, when intended to be in another language, will be cataloged and described in that language first (with literal English translations following so that people can understand what it means).

Updates and remakes will also not be discussed in large part. Original releases take prescience, even when it’s something less exciting like the mainframe version of Tetris versus the Game Boy version. This will also extend to what will be shown on screen, as I will do my best to try and use the original release versions of any game (warts and all) to demonstrate them. I feel it’s critical for a good history to begin at the roots rather than attempting to extrapolate from something which is already well-worn without the original context.

Visual

I have had a number of people tell me that I should do this as a book or otherwise restructure the series to not be so expansive and long. From the outset I have wanted this to be a video series because it’s the best way to showcase these games as well as reach a wider audience. Plus, I just like making film.

One aspect where written material has always failed is in describing gameplay. It’s easy to either be too vague, too specific, too hyperbolic, or too boring when describing this medium which involves all of the senses. While playing a game is always the best way to know what it’s like, video is the next best thing. Too often have written materials completely misidentified the core aspects of a game because of a lack of critical analysis skills, let alone not having played the game or drawing details purely from memory.

For example, in The Ultimate History of Video Games the author describes Computer Space as being a full recreation of Spacewar! with the central gravity star. This is blatantly not true and I can only imagine happened because he had never actually played the game at that point. Many other authors also attempt to describe the appeal of Japanese games, boiling it purely down to ‘character’ as if there were no innovations beyond presentation. By presenting this for the audience to make their own evaluations, I feel I can do a much better job at truly understanding the history in terms of the games themselves.

The series will be told in a combination “Ken Burns” style film format combined with on-screen appearances by myself as the master of ceremonies. There will be no excerpted interviews and rarely will voices other than mine or those in the game be heard for the purposes of flow, save for things like small segments of news reports. I chose this route because it gives myself a better grounding as the narrator as well as makes each item less imbalanced. Some games are going to have a lot of information and some are not, so by not having certainly segments taken up with quotes or interviews it makes each game feel more equally important.

I am really looking forward to showcasing a lot of the interesting photos that I have been able to dig up and make them available. Far too often people take the first result off of Google image search and continually propagate a single version of a person or a game or what have you. My goal is to provide a visually interesting experience as well as adhering to original releases for display whenever possible, such as using original Apple II hardware instead of Apple II+ when talking about the early games.

Defining Genres Better

This has been a relatively minor focus for me, but I feel my standpoint needs some explanation. Video games genres are broken. There are far too many which don’t mean anything at all. First-person shooter, for example, is a worthless descriptor for someone attempting to find similar games like it because it doesn’t define anything about the game. Same with action-adventure. There has been a real dirth of examination in this field of genres and I feel that altering the terminology is necessary if we are to talk about the evolution of games properly.

Now I want it to be clear that genre definitions don’t have to be literal descriptors of these core elements. Real-time strategy can be poked fun at as a vague descriptor, but it does not necessarily mean to describe every game in real-time with strategy elements. It means something greater, as does role-playing game which can be taken on the surface to be meaningless but we know what a role-playing game is.

What I define to be a useful genre definition in video games is one that defines the appeal of a game and others like it. Sports is a good genre title as is Racing. I would consider Text Adventure to not be a good genre title, since the word “Adventure” is such a vague concept. I will be using the term Interactive Fiction despite reticence in certain corners to use that as a categorical description.

Shooting games will be divided into Arena Shooters wherein the action is contained to a relatively small area of mobility and Free-roaming Shooters wherein exploration is more of a gameplay aspect. For instance, Smash TV is an Arena Shooter and Doom is a Free-roaming Shooter. I feel that the appeal of both these games is largely the same ergo the “shooter” suffix, but the methods in which players engage with them are fundamentally different. Simply describing Smash TV as an “arcade shooter” would be to define it in a separate needless category, which I don’t wish to do.

These are straightforward examples, but I have a few more which are a little more “out there” which may not resonate with viewers, maybe even confuse them. It’s the risk I take to try and start a broader conversation about genres and I don’t expect that my definitions are what’s going to shape the conversation. I simply want to get my voice out there with my ideas on how to change these very unhelpful categories at present.

Release

The video series had broadly been shaped to cover every year from 1971 (and a few years before that, but contiguously) up to 2011 in content. I will be releasing the first chunk of this, up to and including 1980, this year without a doubt. The future installments will heavily depend on where my life goes between that time, but I thoroughly scripted up to the end of 1985 previously so I have a base to work from.

It’s important to also note that this is not the only thing that I am working on. A lot of people I’ve been interviewing don’t even strictly pertain to this project. I have been heavily contributing to several books on video game history and have a few other large projects in the works which will come out in time. This is the project that I’ve sunk the most direct time into and I have wanted to see it come to life, so hopefully I’ll be able to share it all with you soon.

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