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Entry updated 16 October 2022. Tagged: Game, Theme.


Historically, games intended for use on personal computers, mainframes and minicomputers were often referred to as computer games, while their equivalents on home consoles and coin operated arcade cabinets have from their first appearance in the early 1970s been known as TV games or video games. This distinction, however, became increasingly blurred after the mid 1990s, as the same games were made available on both personal computers and consoles. Since the alternative designations occasionally employed – such as "electronic game" or "digital game" – seem awkward and are little used by either players or developers, this encyclopedia simply uses Videogame to refer to any game which runs on some form of computer hardware.

Various candidates have been proposed for the identity of the original Videogame; which one is preferred generally depends on the exact definition employed. The earliest contender is probably "El Ajedrecista" ["The Chess Player"], an electromechanical device built by the Spanish engineer Leonardo Torres y Quevedo in 1912, influenced by Charles Babbage's designs for an Analytical Engine. This device successfully played a limited Chess endgame, deploying a king and a rook against a human opponent's king. Unlike earlier Chess Automata which contained a concealed human player, El Ajedrecista's moves were generated entirely algorithmically. Other possibilities include the NIMROD computer, built by John Bennett and Raymond Williams of Ferranti to play the game of NIM and demonstrated at the 1951 Festival of Britain, and Tennis for Two, a two player game of electronic table tennis designed by William Higinbotham in 1958 at the US Brookhaven National Laboratory. The earliest example which had original gameplay, however, as opposed to implementing an existing game on a computer, appears to have been Spacewar (1962). This game, which was partially inspired by the Space Operas of E E Smith, was also the first such work to have exerted a clear influence on later efforts; its descendants include both the Star Trek war games of the early 1970s (see Star Trek Games) and the first electronic arcade games (see Spacewar).

In both the US and the UK the late 1960s and early 1970s saw a gradual increase in the amount of mainframe and minicomputer hardware which was available for unofficial use in academic establishments, whether because it was mildly obsolete or because it was intended for educational purposes. Such machines were generally interactive, in the sense that instructions could be issued at a keyboard and receive an immediate response, and sometimes had access to computer networks and video displays, though many examples could only produce output on a teletype printer. This resulted in a kind of Cambrian explosion of Videogame forms, as programmers experimented with a wide variety of exotic new types of gameplay. While most of their efforts swiftly disappeared, a small proportion proved highly successful, giving rise to many descendants. American examples include the first Computer Role Playing Games, Adventures and Computer Wargames (excluding simulations written for purely military purposes), Maze War (1973) (a precursor to later First Person Shooters) and the early Toy Game Space Travel (1969). Meanwhile MUD – the ancestor of almost all persistent Online Worlds – was launched in the UK in 1978. Many of these games were science-fictional or fantastical in nature, though often highly derivative of Star Trek, Star Wars, Dungeons and Dragons (see Role Playing Games), and other similarly well known works. This process has continued, though at a slower pace; as new technological niches have become available, new forms of Videogame have appeared to fill them.

While the concept of genre usually applies to a choice of subject within a form, in the case of Videogames the term has typically been employed to describe a type of gameplay. Thus Computer Role Playing Games and Computer Wargames would be examples of Videogame genres, while individual works within such a group might deal with science-fictional subjects, making them members of the wider sf genre. This encyclopedia, however, uses the terms "type" and "school" exclusively to refer to game forms which are defined by their gameplay, in order to prevent confusion with the use of "genre" to denote a choice of artistic theme. It is also worth noting that the definitions of Videogame forms and the classification of individual works within them are often a matter of some debate, though broad agreement exists in most cases. While many schools are now well established, and most current Videogames can be placed within one, many games written in the 1970s and 1980s – when most current forms were still evolving – cannot be easily categorized.

At the same time as Videogames were becoming popular recreations on academic mainframes, a commercial industry was emerging around coin operated arcade cabinets in the US. In 1971 Nolan Bushnell had begun distribution of Computer Space, a version of Spacewar. While this proved unpopular with the mass market, a later game called Pong (1972 Atari, Arcade) designed by Allan Alcom, a simple simulation of table tennis, was highly successful, launching Bushnell's Atari Inc. Such electronic arcade games were initially perceived as improved versions of the then common pinball machines, many of which already included electronic components. Atari, along with various competitors, proceeded to create a highly profitable enterprise centred on selling relatively simple, action-oriented games with the best achievable graphics to children and teenagers. These works were available both in the arcades and on consoles designed for use with the television at home, an approach which was pioneered in 1972 by Magnavox's Odyssey machine. As in the academic community, a remarkable number of Videogame forms were invented by the designers of such games, though these types have generally proved to be less relevant to sf. Examples include the maze game (based on manoeuvring a character around a two-dimensional Labyrinth, typically filled with enemies), the sports game (in which contemporary sports such as golf are simulated with varying degrees of accuracy) and the racing game (where the player takes part in some kind of competition involving fast cars or other vehicles). Meanwhile, a largely separate and considerably smaller games industry emerged in the US with the appearance in the late 1970s of personal computers – such as the Apple II and Commodore PET – which did not need to be built from kits by dedicated hobbyists. While console games were often derived from works produced for arcade cabinets, the early products of personal computer game developers were much influenced by forms common in the academic community, such as Adventures and Computer Wargames. These "computer games" were typically also intended for a different market to the console and arcade games, one composed of older consumers who were often sf and fantasy enthusiasts. An excellent history of the period, and of the US Videogame industry in general, can be found in The First Quarter (2000; rev 2001 The Ultimate History of Video Games), by Steven Kent.

In L'Univers des Jeux Vidéo ["The World of Video Games"] (1998), Alain and Frédéric Le Diberder identify three major types of Videogame: action games (such as maze games and racing games), simulations (including Toy Games, God Games, and similar forms) and "reflections" (games based on non computer forms such as Role Playing Games and Board Games). This encyclopedia uses a different taxonomy, in which the major categories are action games, strategic planning games (including Computer Wargames, 4X Games, God Games and some Toy Games) and story games (consisting largely of Computer Role Playing Games and Adventures). This classification broadly corresponds to the three aspects of "modern games" considered under Games: gameplay, simulation and narrative. On this basis, several major influences can be identified on the early development of Videogame forms. In the academic community and the personal computer industry, strategic planning games often show marked similarities to contemporary Wargames and Board Games, while story games all appear to have been influenced by Role Playing Games, and especially by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson's original Dungeons and Dragons (1974 Tactical Studies Rules). Meanwhile, the action games common in arcades and on early home consoles seem to have been partially inspired by earlier coin operated devices such as pinball and – in Japan – pachinko machines.

The Japanese Videogame industry was born in the early 1970s, as existing toy and game manufacturers started to produce their own coin operated machines to compete with US imports. In the late 1970s these companies, led by Nintendo, continued to follow the American pattern by developing their own home game consoles. Historically, the Japanese industry has concentrated on arcade and console games; development for personal computers has largely occurred in the US and Europe. In the late 1970s and early 1980s Japanese designers began to create games that were highly successful worldwide, developing a number of new types of action game including the "shoot em up" (in which the player must eliminate a large number of enemies, typically on a two-dimensional display), of which the first example was Space Invaders (1978). Other types of action game introduced in contemporary Japanese arcades include the platform game (in which the player must jump to and from suspended platforms or over obstacles) and the fighting game (where one or two players are involved in single combat, typically as part of a series of self contained matches). As with the US developed action game forms, however, these schools have produced few works which are interesting as science fiction, though some of them have sf backgrounds. In 1983 the US console market experienced a major crash triggered by a glut of low quality games and competing types of hardware. Many American companies ceased operations or withdrew from the market altogether, though the much smaller personal computer games industry was less affected. This left a niche in the US marketplace which was exploited by Nintendo, and later its competitor Sega, in the late 1980s. The American launch of cheap and capable consoles such as the Nintendo Entertainment System, combined with highly popular games created by such designers as Shigeru Miyamoto, eventually led to Japanese domination of the worldwide console market. Meanwhile, the Console Role Playing Game (see Computer Role Playing Games) – essentially a new type of story game, and one in which a number of novel works of sf and fantasy have been created – emerged in Japan, and proved popular elsewhere. A comprehensive and highly enthusiastic history of the Japanese industry is available in Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life (2004), by Chris Kohler.

At the same time the UK Videogame industry had evolved into almost a mirror image of the Japanese one. European markets in the 1980s were dominated by a wide variety of cheap personal computers such as the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and the Commodore Amiga. As a result, the UK industry concentrated on designing games for these machines, largely ignoring console manufacture and development. In contrast to the early US personal computer game industry, works developed for computers in the UK were predominantly action-based, though the strategic planning and story forms also made frequent appearances, in games variously intended to be played by children, teenagers and adults. Of the many works created in the UK during the 1980s, one example of particular science-fictional interest is Elite (1984), a combination of the action and strategic planning forms which was the first space exploration game (see Space Sim). Meanwhile, smaller game development industries appeared in other parts of Western Europe, notably France. Jack Railton's The A-Z of Cool Computer Games (2005) serves as an entertaining (if slightly misleading) guide to the early history of computer games in the UK.

In the late 1980s the industry entered a period of global consolidation which lasted until the mid 1990s. Coin operated machines declined in popularity as games became available for home consoles which were as visually impressive as those in the arcades, and by the end of this period they were largely extinct. Meanwhile, Japanese console hardware became steadily more popular with children and teenagers, moving into the European market from America. The high global sales of these consoles encouraged US and UK developers to begin programming for them, adding to the library of games created by Japanese companies. PCs compatible with the IBM standard emerged as the dominant form of personal computer, effectively eliminating all competitors other than the Apple Macintosh series. Games for these computers typically sold to a more adult – and smaller – market than that targeted by console manufacturers, one primarily composed of members of such subcultures as computer professionals and sf and fantasy enthusiasts. Various new forms of strategic planning game appeared, including Toy Games, 4X Games and Real Time Strategy games in the US and God Games in the UK. New types of action game included the puzzle game – exemplified hy Tetris (1985 Mainframe) designed by Alexey Pajitnov, a Russian work based on arranging two-dimensional shapes in real time – and the First Person Shooter, a form often associated with sf. By the end of this period, Videogames had become sufficiently well known to justify the publication of mass market books on the subject, beginning with J C Herz's always perceptive but often factually inaccurate Joystick Nation: How Videogames Ate Our Quarters, Won Our Hearts, and Rewired Our Minds (1997).

By the late 1990s, a generation of children raised on Nintendo consoles and Sinclair computers had come of age. This, more than anything else, has led to the appearance of a true mass market for adult Videogames, the majority of which are action games running on consoles. New hardware manufacturers were attracted by the potential profits, leading to a transition from a console sector controlled by Nintendo and Sega to one dominated by the Sony PlayStation series, Microsoft XBox machines and various Nintendo devices. Home consoles and personal computers have gradually become more similar, and many types of game previously seen on computers have appeared on consoles, and vice versa. Some types of strategic planning and story games associated with sf and fantasy, such as Computer Role Playing Games and Real Time Strategy games, have remained popular on personal computers or partially migrated to consoles, while others, including Adventures, have largely disappeared. Development has also became more international, with the expansion of existing small industries in France, Germany, Canada and Australia and the appearance of new ones in other parts of Western and Eastern Europe, Russia, China and South Korea. Tristan Donovan's Replay: The History of Video Games (2010) offers perhaps the best overall history of the Videogame form, following the evolution of both console and computer games in the US, the UK, continental Europe, Australia and Japan.

One major recent change seen in most Videogame forms is the almost universal adoption of real time three-dimensional graphics for displays, an approach which has become much more common as a result of improvements in the available hardware. Such games typically employ the laws of "scientific perspective" used in the Western painting tradition to generate the final picture displayed, though some, generally earlier, works have instead used the Chinese system of "parallel perspective" (see Isometric graphics). Some game hardware now supports the use of "stereoscopy", in which different images are presented to each eye; this conveys the illusion of depth to the viewer, as if they were watching an animated hologram. Confusingly, this type of display is also referred to as "three-dimensional", or 3D. All of these 3D visuals are quite distinct from the two-dimensional displays primarily seen in older games, in which the player is shown what is effectively a moving picture set in Flatland. All of these three-dimensional visuals are quite distinct from the two-dimensional displays primarily seen in older games, in which the player is shown what is effectively a moving picture set in Flatland. New types of game have continued to emerge, though at a slower pace than in earlier decades, including the action-based Third Person Shooter and Survival Horror forms as well as the story-oriented action Adventure. Worldwide availability of commercial internet connections has also allowed the development of Massively Multiplayer Online Games and Alternate Reality Games, as well as providing a means of distribution for relatively simple "casual" games played through a web browser. It is characteristic that several of these forms appeared at much the same time in different regions of an increasingly globally integrated industry, though Survival Horror remains a primarily Japanese form and the creation of Alternate Reality Games and Massively Multiplayer Online Games has been dominated by companies based in the US and South Korea.

In the 2000s several developments have combined to greatly expand the market for Videogames, while simultaneously making it far more fragmented. The appearance of powerful and widely owned mobile computing hardware, primarily in the form of personal tablets and phones, presented developers with a popular new class of devices on which games could be played. Simultaneously, the growth of social networks such as Facebook on the internet was significantly enhanced by the games which they made available to their customers (see Online Worlds). Many of the works which can be played on these new platforms are initially free to use, with revenue being obtained through the sale of virtual goods which add to players' enjoyment. Frequently, such games are created by small teams who publish their own work by purely electronic means, with no need to produce physical products (see Independent Games). This return to the "cottage industry" approach of early computer game development has been accompanied by a revival of many of the game forms common on arcade machines and early home consoles, notably platform games, puzzle games and relatively simple sports games. Such designs are suitable for implementation by small groups (and deployment on mobile hardware and social websites) in a way that the "blockbuster" games created by more mainstream developers and funded by gigantic publishing companies are not. Arguably, the Videogame market has come to resemble a complex ecosystem, in which different types of developer design various kinds of games for a variety of audiences. Thus more casual players might be primarily interested in games on social networks or mobile phones which are free to play, while dedicated enthusiasts will buy expensive works which will only run on specialized hardware. Many modern transmedia franchises include games aimed at both of these classes of consumer, as well as novels, Comics and potentially films and TV series. While the majority of the more casual games appearing on mobile devices and social networks have to date been of little science-fictional interest, there is no obvious reason why this must continue to be the case. One interesting exception is Crimson: Steam Pirates (2011 Harebrained Schemes, iOS) designed by Jordan Weisman, Mitch Gitelman, Aljernon Bolden, a turn-based game reminiscent of Sid Meier's Pirates! (1987), but set in a Steampunk Alternate History.

As the overall market for Videogames has expanded, individual works have become significantly more costly to create; developing a typical "mainstream" game in the late 2000s is three to four orders of magnitude more expensive in real terms than it was 30 years earlier. The commercial success of the form has also attracted attention from academics working in various areas of the humanities. These researchers have historically approached Videogames from one of two competing perspectives: that of ludology, which describes games as formal systems of rules with players and a goal, and that of narratology, which treats them as a kind of narrative (see Interactive Narrative). Prominent figures in this emerging field of "game studies" include Espen Aarseth, Henry Jenkins, Jesper Juul, Brenda Laurel, Nick Montfort, Janet Murray, Marie-Laure Ryan, Katie Salen, Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Eric Zimmerman.

While different types of Videogame often appear to have more in common with non digital forms such as Wargames and RPGs than with each other, some points can be made about the form as a whole. Unlike most other types of Game, Videogames are often played by one individual, with the computer taking the role of opponent or (in the case of Toy Games) manipulable simulation. It is worth remembering, however, that even single person games are in practice often played by groups, with individuals handing off control to one another depending on the type of challenge that needs to be overcome. Other games are explicitly designed for multiple players, who either take turns, use multiple controllers with a single machine, or link their personal computers to each other or a central system using local networks or the internet (see Online Worlds). While Videogame players are not in general as creative as RPG participants, some commercial computer games have been designed to be modifiable by their users since at least the early 1980s. Although the majority of users initially restricted themselves to illicitly tampering with game programs to make them easier to play, in the mid 1990s many players began designing their own missions for favoured games and making them freely available to others. Some groups have gone further, transforming the visual design and gameplay of a program altogether to represent a different choice of subject matter, or to improve on perceived defects in the original. Such activities are generally restricted to games which run on personal computers rather than consoles, however, since they require the use of sophisticated tools (usually distributed by the original developers) which would be difficult to create for console hardware.

Several general trends are apparent in the history of Videogame development. While the majority of new story games and many (perhaps most) examples of strategic planning games, Massively Multiplayer Online Games and First Person Shooters are still sf or fantasy, the form's initial strong links with the written genre have clearly diminished with time. This is, perhaps, an inevitable result of its growth from an obscure hobby to a mass market medium comparable in size to the film industry. As the available hardware has improved, attractive graphics have become more important; with some exceptions, Videogame forms have progressed from textual output to two-dimensional displays, and then to three-dimensional ones. As with films which employ computer generated effects, however, the degree to which further technical enhancements improve the quality of most participants' experience has begun to diminish. The visuals of graphical Adventures dating from the early 1990s and Computer Role Playing Games from the late 1990s are often regarded as entirely adequate today, for example. Historically, most forms have either begun with turn-based approaches (in which human and computer controlled participants alternate moves) and later shifted to real time ones (where all actions occur simultaneously), or have always been real time. It should be noted, however, that some forms – such as 4X Games – remain primarily turn-based, and that real time games do not necessarily demand rapid responses from the player. Many examples require the user to act within a time limit rather than immediately, or include the ability to pause the game at will and issue instructions to be executed when the flow of time resumes. The end result of this pattern of development is that the vast majority of Videogames are now visual and immediate in nature, resembling an interactive form of film or television, rather than discursive and textual, in the manner of written fiction. This does not, however, mean that a slower, text-based kind of Videogame will not appear in the future, though it seems unlikely that Interactive Fiction – the most prominent such form to date – will again become popular.

A one-off Hugo award category for best videogame was instituted by the 2021 worldcon; the winner was Hades (2020) from Supergiant Games, a Roguelike fantasy adventure set in the underworld of Greek Mythology. [NT]

see also: Angry Birds Space; Bastion; Borderlands; Cryostasis; Dark Earth; Destroy All Humans!; Horizon Zero Dawn; Infinite Space; Mirror's Edge; Pepper's Adventures in Time; Perimeter; Red Faction; Revolution 60; Rogue Galaxy; Timequest.

further reading

Serious books about Videogames were once rare, but have become common in the twenty-first century. The following titles are highly selected.


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