By Any Other Name

So, in my first two posts, I have explained my goals, my methodologies, and my sources of information, so that only leaves one final introductory matter: What exactly are these “video game” things I say I will be writing about?  In today’s world, where over one billion people are estimated to be playing video games (Source: PC Gaming Alliance Research), this may seem like a needless exercise, but the truth is the term “video game” is too often thrown around with wild abandon without a clear idea of what the term actually means and where it comes from.  Therefore, in the next few paragraphs, I will take a look at a few attempts to define the term and try to piece together a workable definition for this blog.

First, a historical note on the origin of the term “video game.”  From a legal standpoint, the concept of a “video game” first manifested in Ralph Baer’s 1972 patent for a “Television Gaming Appartus” (U.S. Patent 3,659,285) and his 1973 patent for a “Television Gaming and Training Apparatus (U.S. Patent 3,728,480).  While the term “video game” does not appear in either of these patents, they set out a basic game system in which a control unit is attached to a television receiver and then generates a video signal to create symbols on the TV screen.  In the first landmark patent case in video game law, The Magnavox Co., et al. v. Chicago Dynamic Industries, et al. 201 U.S.P.Q. 25 (N.D. Ill. 1977), Judge Grady named the ‘480 patent the “pioneer patent” in the field, making the Magnavox Odyssey technology the progenitor of video gaming in the home from a legal standpoint (Source: Patent Arcade blog post)

Technically, the “video” in “video game” is derived from the idea of manipulating a video signal as described in the ‘480 patent.  By this narrow definition, a true video game would be one in which “electronic signals are converted to images on a screen using a raster pattern, a series of horizontal lines composed of individual pixels.” (Source: Brookhaven National Laboratory History of Tennis for Two) This narrow definition would eliminate any game that uses a teletype, oscilloscope, vector monitor, LCD screen, plasma display, etc., since they do not make use of a video signal.  From a technical standpoint, these games would be more properly characterized as “computer games” or “electronic games” rather than video games.  Popular sources aimed at the layman have almost never bothered with this technical distinction, however, so it serves more as an intellectual curiosity than a workable modern definition of the term.

Early video games were called by a variety of names before that term became well established.  In the arcades, for instance, it was common to refer to the products as “TV games” highlighting the main feature that set these games apart from earlier coin-operated amusement products. (Source: Replay by Tristan  Donovan, 2010) Perhaps the earliest reference to a “video game” appeared in the March 17, 1973 issues of Cash Box magazine, which uses the term “video game” in a headline, though it appears to be an abbreviation in this case for the longer “video skill game” as used in the article body (Source: All in Color for a Quarter Blog)  By late 1974, it appears the term had gained at least some acceptance (see, for example, the September 17, 1974 edition of the Lakeland Ledger).  By the late 1970s, the term became standard. (Source: Replay)

As one would expect for such a new concept that is still evolving rapidly, there is no clear consensus yet in authoritative sources as to what a video game actually is.  Let’s start with two gold standards for English-language knowledge: the Oxford English Dictionary and Encyclopedia Britannica. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a video game thus:

a game played by electronically manipulating images produced by a computer program on a television screen or other display screen. (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/video-game)

Right away, two elements stand out as problematic: a computer program (ie software) needs to be involved, and the results need to be rendered on a screen. This definition is largely workable for today’s games, but it would actually exclude most of the important progenitors of the industry.  Both the Magnavox Odyssey and the Syzygy/Atari Computer Space and PONG units were created entirely through hardware designed to control a CRT to generate and move dots on a screen.  Arcade games did not start incorporating software until 1975, and it was not until 1978 that software began to displace Transistor-Transistor Logic (TTL) circuits entirely.  In the home, dedicated hardware was not complemented by programmability until 1976 and not displaced fully until a couple of years after that.  As for displays, most early mainframe computer games did not incorporate displays, which were extremely rare on most systems until the early 1970s.  Instead, these systems tended to print results on paper via teletype.  As a result, this definition is not completely satisfactory, but we can draw three key concepts from it: manipulating images (ie interactivity), the presence of a computer, and some form of display.

Here is how Encyclopedia Britannica tackles the subject:

any interactive game operated by computer circuitry (http://library.eb.com/eb/article-9001562 [subscription required])

Note that Britannica lumps both “computer games” and “video games” under the catch-all header of “electronic games.”  As for computer circuitry, Britannica also has an article on that concept and defines it thus:

Complete path or combination of interconnected paths for electron flow in a computer. Computer circuits are binary in concept, having only two possible states. They use on-off switches (transistors) that are electrically opened and closed in nanoseconds and picoseconds (billionths and trillionths of a second). (http://library.eb.com/eb/article-9472097 [subscription required])

This general definition works a lot better.  Rather than identifying software as the key element it identifies computer circuitry, which in this context means ciruits incorporating transistors and logic gates.  This means that TTL games like PONG and games executed in software are both covered.  Again, the key elements of interactivity and a computer appear in this definition.

Here are a couple of additional definitions in reputable dictionaries just to paint a more complete picture of how video games are perceived today.  The Mirriam-Webster Dictionary goes with “an electronic game in which players control images on a television or computer screen” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/video%20game), while the American Heritage Dictionary claims a video game is “An electronic game played by manipulating moving figures on a display screen, often designed for play on a special gaming console rather than a personal computer.” (http://www.ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?q=video+game&submit.x=0&submit.y=0).  Both of these definitions emphasize that a video game is electronic, that is it relies on parts such as transistors that manipulate electrons in order to function.  Like the Oxford Dictionary, these definitions also emphasize a screen.

So where does that leave us?  Clearly an object that satisfies the modern definition of a video game requires three core components: interactivity, a program run by hardware containing electronic logic circuits, and objects rendered on a display.  Therefore, these are the types of games this blog will cover, whether they be on mainframes, personal computers, arcade hardware, consoles, handheld systems, or mobile devices.  The only exceptions will be the simpler electronic games found in toy aisles that are generally considered “toys” rather then “video games” from a commercial and marketing standpoint and certain systems aimed at young children primarily used for education rather than pure entertainment.

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