Playing video games isn’t just one of the world’s most popular pastimes. In the United States, where gaming consoles and mobile devices are readily available and affordable by the middle class, it’s an almost universal one, with nearly 70 percent of Americans ages two and older playing video games as a hobby.

That’s almost on par with TV viewing, an activity taken up by nearly 80 percent of Americans each day.

With the impressive effects in today’s video games, and the market’s foray into almost too-realistic virtual reality, it seems rather humble beginnings that the first video games began on hulking computer systems with little to no on-screen response.

Expensive to build, these first massive digital systems were the product and property of the U.S. government and universities, built for use in World War II and academia.

Though a few basic, graphics-light games were developed on them over the years, the cost-prohibitive nature of building computers made them more learning tools and weapons than leisure devices.

That was, until, a few students at one of the top technology schools in the world had some time on their hands.

old school gaming consoles

The First Video Game – Spacewar!

It was precisely the utility of computers as learning tools and weapons that led to the development of the Whirlwind at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory, operated by the Department of Defense, in the 1950s.

Commissioned and funded by the U.S. Navy, the Whirlwind was a digital computer that could output information in real-time, essential to the Navy’s intended use of the system as a flight simulator.

Following the blueprint of the Whirlwind, the cost and utility of computers changed dramatically throughout the 1950s. Two researchers at Lincoln Laboratory incorporated the transistor, a relatively new technology, into the computer’s design, allowing real-time systems to be built at smaller sizes for less money.

Then, one of those less expensive, real-time systems, the PDP-1, was donated to MIT for the use of its faculty and students. It was on this system that a group of MIT students created Spacewar!, the first video game to be played at multiple locations on multiple computers.

But, with the price of the PDP-1 upwards of $100,000 at the time, the game had a limited audience, and was largely relegated to the computer programming world.

Arcades and Electro-Mechanical Games

Once Spacewar! was developed, the question became how to take it out of the academic and programming sphere and show it to the public. The answer, which had been tested and proven in carnival and amusement park games since the 1920s, was to let the public share the game.

So, before video games became a household activity, they were a social one.

The true precursors of today’s video games appeared in the mid-1960s, when game designers, led by Sega, began to incorporate electronic elements, such as sound and lights, into their, up until that point solely mechanical, arcade games.

A few years later, Sega would add animation, though not yet technically video, by using rear projection to cast moving images onto screens.

1971 saw the release of the first true arcade video game with Syzygy Engineering’s Computer Space, a game built directly on the concept and design of Spacewar!. While Computer Space sold most of the units manufactured for its initial run, it was not a runaway success.

Instead, one of Computer Space’s most enduring legacies may be its forward leap in computational design. During development, the games’ initial creative team, Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, realized the computer they planned to use to power the game didn’t have enough resources to keep up with gameplay.

This led to them designing the hardware and components for the system themselves, from scratch, hardware and components that would go on to power the first truly successful arcade video game and prove to the world it could be done.

Pong to Pac-Man

The most important contribution of Computer Space to the video game world, however, may be that it marked the first working venture between Bushnell and Dabney, who would start a video game development company the very next year – a little company called Atari.

Where Computer Space failed to find wide adoption, a result blamed on the complexity of its gameplay, Atari’s initial release, Pong, a ping pong game designed to be as simple as possible to play, was a resounding success, selling more than 35,000 units upon its release in 1972 and ushering in the age of the video arcade.

If Pong ushered in the age of the video arcade, though, Space Invaders and Pac-Man cemented its presence. Selling 360,000 and more than 400,000 units, respectively, Space Invaders and Pac-Man were bona fide global phenomena, and the first indicators of just how big of an industry video games would become.

Pac-Man was the first major mascot of this popular new medium, and expanded video games’ reach beyond its limited audience, a move that was completely intentional.

The First Consumer Gaming Systems

At the same time arcades were finding their heyday in the American marketplace, video game companies were refining the home console.

Contrary to popular memory, the Atari was not the first consumer home game console released to the American public. It wasn’t even the first console with changeable game cartridges.

That honor goes to the Channel F, manufactured by Fairchild Semiconductor and released in 1976.

The Atari 2600, released in 1977, however, was the first home game console with interchangeable game cartridges to corner the market, selling 30 million units, ten times more than its closest competitor, Mattel’s Intellivision.

Atari’s success was so unprecedented, and the demand for new games so high, a flood of poorly-designed games by lesser-known publishers hit the market at great cost to the industry’s reputation.

Gamers and games retailers grew skeptical, and total sales in the industry fell by 97%. To protect its interests, Atari, Inc. split into two separate companies, Atari Games, Inc. and Atari Corporation, while most game manufacturers declared bankruptcy and went out of business.

Though faith in the industry was shaken, it would soon prove not altogether lost. Atari, however, had officially lost its throne as the preeminent video game manufacturer, a throne which, with innovative new competition on the horizon, they would never recover.

Japan Comes Calling

It could be said a pair of Italian brothers from Japan saved the video game industry.

In 1983, just as the video game crash was waylaying the North American market, a company that started out as a playing card company in 1889 and had found some success in the video game industry with an arcade game called Donkey Kong, released their first home gaming console in their native Japan.

The Famicom, or “Family Computer,” sold half a million copies in two months, and the creators were determined to supply it to the U.S. market, redesigning the console for a U.S. audience and changing its name to that of their company – Nintendo.

The release of the Nintendo Entertainment System in the United States between late-1985 and 1986 coincided with another important milestone for Nintendo and video game industry at large: the release of Super Mario Bros.

Considered one of the greatest video games ever made, even now in this age of advanced controls and graphics, Super Mario Bros. went onto spawn the top-selling video game franchise of all time and gave Nintendo their company mascot, Mario.

Having watched the fall of the North American video game industry from afar, Nintendo was determined not to fail where Atari failed, requiring approval for all third-party games and limiting how many games developers could produce each year.

This sort of quality control was exactly what shaken consumers needed, and brought peace of mind back to an industry that had rapidly spiraled out of control, allowing Nintendo to sell over 60 million consoles.

While Nintendo dominated the North American market, though, it didn’t take over the world entire.

In Western Europe, Sega’s Master System became the dominant home game console, foreshadowing the competition to come between video game manufacturers to build the preeminent gaming system, a competition in which, it turned out, neither Nintendo nor Sega would come out on top.

Console Wars

Throughout the late 80s and early 90s, the video game industry was booming, the sheer sales of at-home systems demonstrating the uptick in video gaming’s popularity.

In the United States, with the release of their handheld Gameboy in 1989 and the Super Nintendo in 1990, Nintendo still dominated, while Sega at last got a toehold in the North American marketplace with the Sega Genesis and its popular Sonic the Hedgehog games.

It wasn’t until an electronics company already known for making quality audio and video products entered the video game scene in 1994, though, that the first video game console to sell over 100 million units was produced.

The Sony PlayStation incorporated the latest in video game technology, focusing on 3D graphic support and storing game data on compact discs instead of cartridges.

This change in storage format, from cartridges to CDs, reduced the cost per unit for game manufacturers, prompting many popular game developers to stop developing for Nintendo and start developing for Sony.

So, although Nintendo’s next console release in 1996, the Nintendo 64, featured the most enhanced 3D graphics of any system of its time, it had only two games available at launch and sold only a third of the number of systems as Sony.

This increase in competition continued through the next decade with computer developer and manufacturer Microsoft entering the gaming sphere with their home console, the Xbox, in 2001.

Though the Xbox sold nearly 25 million units, the video game market had grown to such epic numbers that even that couldn’t be considered a runaway success. That honor went to Sony’s recent release, the PlayStation 2, which hit the market in 2000 and sold 155 million units to become the bestselling video game console of all time. (This record still holds).

The Xbox did, however, outsell Nintendo’s release from the same year, the Nintendo GameCube, which sold just under 22 million units.

Everything is New Again

This onslaught of competition might not have been good news for Nintendo, but it was a boon to gamers everywhere. The changing nature of the consoles that were besting Nintendo in sales indicated that innovation would be the key in console design going forward.

Even companies that weren’t in the top three were taking strides toward a better home gaming experience.

The Sega Dreamcast from 1998 was the first console with a built-in modem, and the first to make an attempt to incorporate online gaming, the PlayStation 2 was the first game console to play regular DVDs, allowing owners to watch movies through their consoles as well as play games, and Microsoft’s Xbox was the first game console with a standard built-in hard drive and Ethernet port.

This allowed Microsoft to successfully launch Xbox Live, its online gaming service that found success where Sega stumbled.

It’s worth noting that during this period of innovation and transition, Nintendo did maintain its stronghold in one area of the video game industry where they had yet to be truly challenged by any competing game company – handheld game devices.

Their Game Boy Advance, released in 2001, sold over 81 million units, outperforming their home consoles, just as the original Game Boy had a decade before.

The Phoenix Rises

After the Dreamcast failed to secure a decent share of the home console market, Sega’s hardware division became financially unsustainable, and Sega, the company that once helped Nintendo restore some of the industry’s reputation, dropped out of the console race.

Just when it seemed as though Sony and Microsoft might combine to drive the final nail into Nintendo’s home console coffin as well, though, Nintendo made a move that would bring the entire marketplace to its feet. Literally.

With Sony and Microsoft charging forward with the latest in graphics, hardware design, and online connectivity to continuing success, the Xbox 360 selling just under 86 million and the PlayStation 3 just under 85 million units, Nintendo took home video games in an entirely new direction, releasing the Nintendo Wii in 2006.

The first home game console to use motion detection in its gameplay, the Wii was marketed toward a wider audience than its competitors, much as Pac-Man had been 25 years earlier, and instead of going gentle into that good night, Nintendo came away with its first 100 million+ selling console.

The Nintendo DS, released two years prior in 2004, also became Nintendo’s most popular handheld, selling over 154 million units and closing in on the PlayStation 2’s record as the bestselling console of all time. Sony’s first handheld, the PlayStation Portable, released in 2005, by comparison, sold 82 million units.

And now here we are.

All video game consoles released since 2010, including the Wii U, the PlayStation 4, the Xbox One, and the Nintendo Switch, are part of the current generation of home gaming systems.

Of these, Sony’s PlayStation 4 is the top-seller, while the Nintendo 3DS handheld is the top portable device, maintaining a hierarchy that, aside from the sweeping success of the Wii, has remained largely unchanged for more than twenty years.


image credit: Betsy Weber/Flickr, CC2.0

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