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Casting Pods

I should have another post wrapping up the Computer Space saga sometime this week, but in the meantime I wanted to interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to announce a new initiative: a They Create Worlds podcast.  The format will just be my friend Jeff and I talking about various topics in video game history.  We aim to post two a month (1st and 15th), and they will run about an hour each.  The first two will be introductory episodes before we start tackling issues in more depth in a sort of documentary interview style.  The first episode is now live at podbean, and it will hopefully be up soon on iTunes as well.

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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.

Facts and Figures

Before I actually start spooling out some history, I feel I should take a moment to explain where all of this history is coming from.  My research has focused on acquiring primary sources.  This mostly consists of newspaper and magazine articles, trade publications, and interviews.  Some of these interviews have been conducted by me personally with executives involved in the industry, while others are drawn from the Internet or excerpts in books and magazines.  I have interviewed around two dozen people myself and am still actively collecting more.  When interviews conducted by others are added into the mix, I am drawing from several hundred accounts of the video game industry.  Interviews are one of the less reliable primary sources due both to memory fading over the passage of time and to interview subjects having their own biases and agendas (sometimes even just subconsciously), but they represent some of the best “insider info” currently available due to the difficulty of accessing corporate archival material.

Ideally, my work would be based almost exclusively on internal company documents and personal papers, but except in a few rare cases where documents have appeared online or as illustrations in books, these materials are not available to me.  This is partially due to an inability to travel to where these documents are located, but is largely due to a lack of availability.  Because the video game as a commercial product is only around forty years old, most of the major players are still alive and active in the industry, so there have been few donations to academic institutions as of yet.  Stanford, the Computer History Museum, The Strong Museum, and a few other institutions are beginning to acquire important collections, but there is still a long way to go.  In time, wider access to such collections will probably completely alter what we think we know about the industry, but for now recollections and published sources will have to do.

I would also like to use this post to make a brief comment about sales figures.  Sales figures are naturally a useful tool for ascertaining commercial success and are therefore of great interest for a business history such as this.  If this were a blog about the music or movie industries, finding such figures would be a relatively straightforward process, as there has been reliable and transparent sales tracking in those industries for decades.  Unfortunately, the video game industry is not so lucky.  There is no single source that compiles worldwide sales data with any degree of accuracy.  VGChartz is the only one that even appears to try at all, but the organization does not directly track retail data for the most part, so their estimates are usually unreliable.  In the United States, the NPD group has tracked sales in the video game industry since at least the early 1980s, but few figures were recorded in public sources until the late 1990s, and now the NPD has stopped reporting specific sales figures at all.  Furthermore, while the company has a sound methodology for estimating retail sales, they are still estimates.  Japan has more reliable sales reporting through Media Create, but again these are reliable estimates rather than actual sales figures.

So where does that leave this blog?  I will report sales figures for games and systems whenever I can, but I will make it clear where these figures came from (publisher press release, interview, retail tracking agency, analyst estimate, etc.)  As these numbers come from various sources and many of them will be estimates, they will not be accurate enough to assume an absolute sales ranking or chart with precision the growth and contraction of the industry over time, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s.  It will, however, give a general idea of how the industry was doing at any given time and which games, genres, and hardware systems were particularly popular.

Well, I hope this post helps to explain where my info will be coming from and how reliable it will be.  For my next post, I will probably take a moment to pin down the definition of “video game” and how it has changed over time before diving into the history of the earliest computer games in the 1950s.

Introduction

So here it is, my very own blog on video game history.  This blog will be slightly different from other blogs that have tackled this subject in the past, as I am using it as a research companion for a three-volume history of the industry I have been researching since 2006.  I first became interested in writing about video game history when I realized how many omissions and inaccuracies had crept into most of the books and articles written on the subject by the middle of the last decade, and this blog will serve primarily as a source critique pulling from every book, article, and recollection I can bring to bear on a particular topic.  While the state of video game history scholarship has improved mightily since about 2009, there are still a lot of facts to be uncovered and stories to be debunked.

This blog will unfold a comprehensive history of the video game industry on all formats (coin, console, computer, handheld, mobile, etc.) across all major markets (US, Japan, Europe, East Asia, etc.) from the earliest beginnings of electronic games in the 1950s until the present day.  In addition, I will post what I call “historical interludes” from time to time tackling important developments in other fields that relate to video games such as the history of the coin-op industry between the 1880s and the 1970s, advancements in computer hardware, and the birth of the World Wide Web.  Each post will cover a particular topic in video game history, but will not unfold strictly in narrative form.  Instead, I will present a historiography tracing the original sources for particular facts, any disagreements between the sources, and commentary on what I feel was the most likely sequence of events.  For many topics, this will be a straight forward task of stitching together primary sources to tell a narrative; for other topics, however, this will involve sifting through contradictory accounts and information.  I do not have a particular posting schedule in mind, so we shall see how this goes.

One final caveat to bear in mind: my research into the history of video games is ongoing, so there are still gaps in my knowledge.  Each post will present as comprehensive a treatment of the subject as I can craft with the sources available to me, but there are bound to be gaps.  There are also sure to be errors borne of incomplete data as well.  I will endeavor only to report what the sources say, but that is no guarantee of correctness.  I will, of course, correct any errors that come to my attention.

Well, I think that does a pretty good job of covering all the bases.  I really have no idea whether my ramblings will be of interest to anyone else, but at the very least this will serve as a place to organize my own thoughts and research as I continue wrestling with my manuscript.  Comments and feedback are welcome.  I hope you enjoy this journey through recent history.