No longer kids stuff: the evolution of video games

For kids who've grown up with game consoles equipped with motion-sensing technology, it's difficult to imagine that only a generation ago, playing video games meant popping a quarter in an arcade machine in the corner of a restaurant.

From hit titles like Pong to Call of Duty, video games have been with us for over 50 years

For kids who’ve grown up with game consoles equipped with cutting-edge motion-sensing technology, it's difficult to imagine that only a generation ago, playing video games meant popping a quarter in an arcade machine in the corner of a restaurant.

Game On 2.0, an exhibition that opened on March 9 at the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto, aims to chronicle the dramatic changes in the video game industry since 1962. It features more than 150 playable titles, from arcade games like Tron and Pac-Man to the massively multiplayer online game World of Warcraft.

"In the '80s and '90s, there was a big push for graphics … to basically have games catch up with our imagination. But now we’ve gone past that point — what we can think of, we can put in a game," said Mathieu Ranger, an educator at the Ontario Science Centre and spokesperson for the exhibition.

With the transition to social gaming and mature story lines, video games have evolved beyond the stereotype of mindless, "shoot-'em-up" entertainment. Instead, they help bring people — hardcore gamers and casual players alike — together by replicating an authentic human experience.

The legacy of Pong

Ranger credited Spacewar!, a two-player space combat game conceived by students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1962, as the first computer-based video game to pave the way for its successors.

Notable games

Mathieu Ranger, educator at the Ontario Science Centre and spokesperson of its current exhibition on game culture Game On 2.0, selects four games that have made a splash in the video game industry over the past decade and explains why.

  • Call of Duty (released in 2003)

"Every year, a new game comes out and it's more popular than the one before that and it destroys all records."

  • World of Warcraft (released in 2004)

"PCs have become re-legitimized recently because of World of Warcraft and it basically prevented any other MMOs [massively multiplayer online games] from joining the market."

  • Braid (released in 2008)

Indie games like this offer "glimpses of where video games are going."

  • Minecraft (released in 2011)

Created by Swedish programmer Markus "Notch" Persson, Minecraft is "a computer version of Lego" and shows off "Hey, anybody can make a game and be successful."

The game was not commercially successful, largely because of how complicated it was, but Ranger said making the game fun for players wasn't the focus of early developers. 

"It was just like, ‘Hey, we’re pretty smart guys and we have this tech and I think we can make some game out of it, so let's just try playing around with it.’ You know, it was kind of the sense of exploration with the technology," Ranger said.

But this focus on technological advancement over enjoyment left an opening for other developers, such as Atari.

Ranger, although more of a "Nintendo-and-after guy," reminded us about the time when Atari released the arcade version of the tennis sports game Pong in the early 1970s. It became so popular that machines at arcades often became unplayable, because they were jammed full with quarters.

Ranger said Pong owed its success to its simplicity and recognizability. Players could easily relate to the tennis- and ping pong-like game and understand the simple goal of scoring 15 points to win.

"It just hit on something that people had never quite experienced before, and it was a very simple experience that people love," said Ranger.

Nintendo rises above the rest

Cartridge games like Pong — ones that players had to buy separately and plug into a device to play — became so popular and easy to make that the market was flooded with poorly made games in the mid-1980s.

"Anybody who had access to cartridges to various systems could just release their own games to the market," Ranger said.

There were so many poorly designed products that a video game crash took place in the early 1980s, according to Ranger, when many companies hit hard financial times.

Nintendo reinvigorated the industry with the release of game console Nintendo Entertainment System in North America, also known as Famicom in Japan, in 1985.

The Japanese consumer electronic maker did this not only because of their hit games, but also because it introduced the "seal of quality" system that required any game produced for NES to be approved by Nintendo before heading to the market. That led to fewer games, but the ones on the market were of much higher quality.

"From then on, it's been completely non-stop, especially in terms of the home console market," Ranger said.

Zombies and the future of gaming

So what’s next?

Game makers are increasingly emphasizing the social aspect of gaming, incorporating the capability for players to share their experience both within the games and on social networks.

The latest version of the urban planning game SimCity, for example, requires all users to have an internet connection to play. Many speculate that this controversial move by its developer Electronic Arts is to combat piracy, but Ranger said the change has made waves in the gaming world.

He explained that this online dependency forces players to work with other online players as they build their cities. For example, when one person needs electricity to power their city’s grid, they might ask another person who has a city elsewhere on the web for power. Or, if another player needs space to get rid of garbage, they might ask you to help out.

This shared online interaction is the future of video games, said Ranger.

Games on non-traditional gaming platforms, such as Zynga's farming simulation game FarmVille on Facebook, also capitalize on these social networks.

Independent video games, titles made by individuals or smaller teams, are also shifting the makeup of the video game industry. Commonly known as indie games, they are resetting the boundaries of what games can achieve by exploring different artistic styles and mature themes that mimic real-life situations.

One of the notable indie games, as Ranger pointed out, is Telltale Games's zombie apocalypse-themed game Walking Dead, which is based on the popular comic-book series of the same name.

"You're not just shooting a bunch of zombies. You’re making tough moral decisions that have repercussions on the characters around you that you care about," Ranger explained.