We’ve only just begun to play

Since the days of pre-antiquity, people of every culture and society have crafted objects and devices for the sole purpose of entertainment. From Senet, the ancient Egyptian board game, to dice, cards and on to Wii U, ingenuity and creativity have been poured into ways to escape the rigors of daily life. Video games, a contemporary beneficiary of our energies, are now played by more than half a billion people and drive a multi-billion dollar industry.

It wasn’t until the early 1970s that computer technology and interfacing capabilities developed to the point that commercial production of video games for the masses became viable. The first generation of video games rolled out in the early ’70s via arcades and newly developed home consoles, which interfaced with a TV. Pong, the first entry from Atari, was the first commercial hit, spurring the development of video arcades and, later, the sales of personal gaming systems at the dawn of what would become today’s $66 billion industry.

Up until the early ’80s, video gaming revenue derived predominantly from arcades. The large size of arcade game cabinets let developers devote a great deal of hardware to a single game, something the small home consoles could not match. Then, as personal computers became popular, game creators recognized them as prime platforms for video games, a platform allowing both developers and player unparalleled control over the physical components of the game as well as the programs themselves. While many of the first computer games were remakes of arcade and console games, they caught on quickly.

As new home consoles and more polished, studio-produced computer games prospered, arcades began to falter. This period of new industry growth witnessed the early development of 3D games, “multiplayer” online gaming and, with the advent of miniaturized LCD screen technology, mobile gaming systems. Through the development of many different games tasking the player to accomplish any number of different goals, be it managing a virtual empire, digital mass destruction or solving puzzles, discrete genres of video games were becoming established. This helped focus the market and direct production of games for specific groups and markets.

Today, there are over 25 discrete genres of video game, ranging from ultra-violent shooters to complex strategy games and realistic flight simulators. Among the more productive genres is the educational game, designed to teach practical skills and concepts. While these have been developed mainly for young children and preschoolers, there appears to be virtually limitless room to expand upon the field.

An example of pushing the scope of educational games is crowdedfiction.com, geared toward engaging a teenage population notoriously uninterested in literature. By combining reading with computer interactivity and a cooperative experience, players and their friends work through a story, making decisions on events that form the outcome of the tale.

As video games grew in popularity during the 1990s, the first government-backed regulatory body to judge and rate content, The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) came into existence in 1994. Early, gory 3D games were the first to draw major public attention and call video game violence into question.

In the U.S. there have not been any lasting, stringent restrictions placed on the production or sale of video games. Attention tends to be drawn to the more violent examples of the genre when public incident occurs and a game is cited as the motivation or inspiration for the act. Many game-related bills have hit the House and Senate floors, but nothing that seriously affects the industry has yet been passed.

While the more violent 3D games provided new opportunities for political grandstanding and raised hotly debated questions of morality, the production of more realistic looking games also rallied the market for hardware. The processing power required to handle the complexities of these games speeded the development of graphics processors, called GPUs. Today, the manufacture and sale of GPUs constitute a multibillion dollar industry. GPUs have come to have applications that stretch well outside the gaming arena, finding a place in state-of-the-art laboratory environments, film production and even the mining of bitcoin (see “The bitcoin bubble”).

Another market created by the maturing gaming industry was for “peripherals,” the controllers and controller modifications that allow a user to be maximally immersed in the experience. Peripherals include the steering wheel and pedals used with driving games and the sophisticated Joysticks employing force feedback, a technology used to provide sensory cues. The development of new, more sensitive peripherals is ongoing. In 2006, the Nintendo Wii was released, featuring a motion sensitive controller that translates a player’s motion into action in the virtual environment. The Wii has been followed by a number of other motion-activated or sensing controllers for a variety of the main gaming consoles (Sony’s Play Station 3 and Microsoft’s XBOX 360) as well as for computer systems.

The trends

With new technologies being applied to gaming just as soon as they are viable, there are seemingly endless opportunities to keep the gaming experience fresh and compelling. As long as computers exist and are utilized for work, they will also be used for play. How the gaming industry grows will be limited only by how far we are willing to push the boundaries of the many ways humans interact with machines.

Social Gaming — Social networks are huge, incorporating more than a billion people. The possibility of interacting with so many people in a virtual setting redefines the idea of Massively Multiplayer Online Games. Currently, the number of players in social network games runs in the tens of millions, and is expected to jump to hundreds of millions over the next five years. While the viability of advertising over social media platforms has been called into question, the gaming market does tend to hold its audience captive, as do cinema and TV, and may hold vast potential for creative advertisers to reach an up-and-coming market.

Mobile Gaming — The popularity of ever more powerful handhelds (smartphones and tablets) has led to a plethora of games being developed for these platforms. While generally not as complex as their computer or console cousins, they allow the casual gamer to pick them up and play as they like, wherever they are. Another facet of these games is that they have a different set of tools at their disposal. Most new smartphones are extremely motion sensitive, have full touch screens and the ability to interact with sounds in a way that can be utilized to build creative environments and virtual activities for the user.

Streaming Games — Games are becoming more complex, requiring powerful computing power and large amounts of virtual storage space. The streaming of games is meant to remove some of the borders between the gamer and their games. Streaming vastly reduces the requirements placed on an individual’s system in that all of the processing happens off-site. Streaming also allows cross-platform playing. Many games are designed to run only on a specific system, console or computer for example. Streaming could open a game up to any platform with an internet connection. Given the advances in and availability of faster internet speeds, there is massive market potential in streamed games.

Physical Gaming — Omni-directional treadmills, such as Virtuix’s Omni (www.virtuix.com), are one of the latest entries in the peripheral market that, complete with video headgear, appears to be a step in the effort to take the gamer into the game on an affordable platform. This next generation of gaming peripherals allows more physical interaction with the gaming environment and draws digital entertainment closer to what seemed the stuff of science fiction only a decade ago.

Immersive Systems — There are many immersive systems that project the view screen around the user and incorporate highly interactive flight-simulating hardware. These systems are used for training everyone from soldiers to commercial airline pilots. Another fascinating use of such tools is in constructing an interactive rendering of historic sites. Still, there is little on the market that offers the casual or ordinary gamer the option to be fully engulfed by the game… not yet, anyway.

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