From shooting at pixelated space aliens to saving the princess from the clutches of an evil turtle, video games allow fans to step into massive digital worlds to choose their adventure.

In existence for only the last 50 years, the evolution of gaming technology is a storied and exciting one, originating in the form of slow, primitive 8-bit processors and growing to the online entertainment hubs familiar to avid gamers today.

Though the full potential of computers had yet to be realized and harnessed during the inception of gaming, developers had much room for imaginative experimentation. Risky product designs and trial-and-error commercial success inevitably led to major breakthroughs in game quality, opening up a new platform and community spaces for legions of gaming fans.

Tennis For Two

The idea for one of the first video games came from someone from the more serious side of science. In 1958, former Manhattan Project scientist Dr. William Higinbotham created the Tennis For Two game on the Donner computer. He was inspired to make a simple recreational experience that anybody could enjoy. Tennis For Two was groundbreaking for featuring the first truly virtual user experience, and stood as a precursor to all games that followed.

 

Magnavox Odyssey

The idea of a home gaming system was unprecedented and promising during the 1970’s, prompting many electronics manufacturers to work on their own product. The Magnavox Odyssey was introduced in 1972 as the first home console, with only modest commercial success. Offering only a handful of games and a lack of engaging gameplay, it failed to attract the attention of families who anticipated a much more impressive product that was worth their budget. However, it set the precedent for consoles to come, and Magnavox made a sizable income just from its patents.

 

Pong

As mall and shopping culture flourished in the 70’s, so did the first arcades. The centralized area gave rise to arcades becoming the go-to spot for teenagers. A table-tennis game called Pong was a simple yet highly addictive instant hit. The game was manufactured by American company Atari and was originally designed as an exercise tool. Similar in look and form to Tennis For Two, the more user-friendly interface launched it to mainstream popularity and is recognized as a classic.

 

Space Invaders

Another popular arcade staple was the game Space Invaders, which was first released in 1978. Also produced by Atari, the game was innovative for letting players control a character with a simple objective: command a spaceship to take down rows of alien forces. Getting to play a specific character against the backdrop of a space environment was exciting, and a huge step from moving a bar up and down to deflect tiny blips on the screen.

 

Zork

While games were just beginning to garner attention, a crucial element was noticeably missing. Until then, games relied on basic structure and limited graphics capability to sustain user interest. It wasn’t until Zork came along in the 1970’s and challenged that, incorporating text-driven storytelling. The narrative emphasis added a new depth to games and changed how people perceived them, paving the way for future major franchises like Final Fantasy, Metal Gear Solid, Fallout, and BioShock.

 

Nintendo Entertainment System

As Atari dominated the market in America, another company was planning to enter the competition with its own product. Japanese brand Nintendo shook the gaming industry when it introduced the NES in 1985. Fans immediately took to its sleek look and advanced features, including a cartridge and controller system, powerful processing capability, and revolutionary in-game design. The console presented an interesting lineup of likable characters in games such as Donkey Kong, Zelda, and Super Mario.

 

Game Boy

Gaming continued to attract global attention during the 80s, but video games were still largely confined to enclosed areas, such as the living room or local arcade. The Japanese debut of Nintendo’s Game Boy handheld system in 1989 was the first to make gaming an on-the-go experience. Its battery-powered design with built-in screen gave gamers the freedom to play in outdoor spaces. It was also the platform that featured the first Pokemon games (Red and Blue), which sold over 9 million copies combined in the United States.

PC Games

The 1990’s was an era driven by a tech boom, leading to the development of more powerful computers. For people who didn’t want to invest in a separate game system, they could enjoy equally immersive games on their PC. Depending on the person’s computer hardware, PCs typically offered much better quality of graphics and modification options compared to the different consoles. Titles like Doom, Diablo and SimCity simulated rich, 3-D rendered environments that players could spend endless hours in.

 

PlayStation

Before Sony unveiled the original PlayStation in Japan during 1994, consumers assumed consoles couldn’t be used for anything other than playing video games. Unlike popular consoles like the NES and Game Boy, PlayStation distinguished itself by introducing games in the form of CD-ROMs. Its improved multi-functionality also meant that owners could play music. The PlayStation was more than a gaming device, it was an entertainment system. But they never took the focus off of gaming: the introduction of a wave of hits like Tekken, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, and Crash Bandicoot created new genres and a level of sophistication to game mechanics.

 

Xbox

The iconic characters and diverse game catalogue of Nintendo and PlayStation made video games exciting again, but soon there would be a new console to challenge the status quo. Microsoft’s release of the Xbox in 2004 was the first from an American company since Sega. It received glowing reception, mainly due to its centralized system that allowed users to create avatars, customize profiles, and featured online multiplayer capabilities. Players were given a top-notch gaming experience, one that set the bar for the rest of the industry.

 

Achievements

Most games were comprised of a linear narrative that included primary goals for the player to accomplish. Additional objectives and side quests expanded more niches that players could explore, providing a more unique, multi-dimensional experience and improving their [replay value]. Achievements can incite friendly competition among players and keep them engaged, and is especially popular among certain genres such as popular first-person shooters, like Call of Duty and Halo.

 

Wii

With the introduction of the Xbox and E3’s launch of the professional gaming industry, gaming quickly evolved from a recreational activity to a more serious venture. In 2006, Nintendo’s Wii made gaming a leisurely outlet that everyone could take part in. Its defining centerpiece was its innovative motion control technology, in which players’ own synchronized movements dictated the gameplay occurring on the screen. Simple motion-based games like Just Dance and Wii Sports drew in a more inclusive audience, and allowed both small children and the elderly to enjoy gaming.

 

Mobile Gaming

The ubiquity of smartphones further changed the gaming landscape by making games even more accessible. iPhones and Androids had their own app stores, which carved another market for developers to sell high-quality games for under a few dollars. Mobile gaming emphasized the social aspect, a common feature being that users could directly invite their contacts to play. This made gaming more laid-back and could be played practically anywhere. The addictive nature of games like Candy Crush and Temple Run kept players both interconnected and glued to their screens.

 

VR and AR Games

In only 50 years video games have undergone a dramatic progression, encouraging developers to come up with the next big leap in game technology. It expanded how a player could envision their physical space and interact with it. The massive success of Niantic’s Pokemon GO app earned global attention, with its GPS and augmented gameplay encouraging millions of players to hunt for hundreds of virtual Pokemon. AR technology—projecting onto the user’s real world environment—was a literal game-changer for the industry.

 


Want a more in-depth look at how video games get made? Find out more about gaming technology in these online courses and programs:

Digital Game Design

Worcester Polytechnic Institute

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Foundations of Arts and Entertainment Technologies

The University of Texas at Austin

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Visual Development: Envisioning a Narrative for Film and Video Games

Ringling College of Art and Design

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