A history of the computer game

The history of the computer game is, in parts, a history of technology. The computer game requires technology capable of handling large amounts of data and of representing this data. The relationship between a technological phenomenon such as the computer and the less formally based culture is not a simple one: some theories will claim that technology determines culture, some will claim that culture determines technology. It may be most reasonable to see this as a history of mutual influences, where technology can inspire (or enable) cultural developments, and cultural developments can inspire new technology. To quote an obvious example, the computer game was originally developed on equipment designed for military and academic purposes. But today the computer game is the driving force in the development of much hardware such as 3d graphics accelerators.

Spacewar!, the first computer game. (1962)

The first computer game is generally assumed to be the game Spacewar!, developed in 1962 at MIT (Stephen Russell a.o.). Spacewar originally ran on a PDP-1 computer the size of a large car. By today’s standards, the graphics are rather primitive, although less primitive than many games form the 1980’s. The game as such is not bad: Two players each control a spaceship circling a planet. The players can shoot each other, turn their ships, and accelerate. The goal is - naturally - to hit the other player before being hit yourself.

Pong. (Atari 1973) Advertisement for Pong.

The first commercially available video game, Pong (Atari 1973), was introduced 11 years after Spacewar! Pong is a simple concept that has turned out to be surprisingly durable even though the graphics are simply white rectangles on a black background. In the beginning, Pong was placed at entertainment venues, markets, and fun fairs, next to mechanical pastimes and as a supplement to these. This is the same kind of place where the game Space Invaders (Taito 1977) was also introduced. Space Invaders defines most of the basic parameters of what I call the classical action game: A player controls an object/an actor against some enemies; a score is kept; the game is real-time and requires fast reflexes; the player has a fixed amount of lives (typically three); the game is based on successive levels of increasing difficulty; the game (or just the title) places the player’s action as part of a minimal narrative.

As should become clear, there are many types of computer games. In the classical action game you can almost never win, the game just gradually becomes harder, and the highest honour achievable is to enter the high score list. The most general thing to say of the evolution of the computer game is probably that it has become gradually more based on genres. Almost all of the early computer games introduced new gameplay elements; later games tend to be examples of specific genres, borrowing traits from earlier games. (The computer game has become more intertextual, if one so desires.)

About the term computer game: This term is in sharp competition with video games, console games, and arcade games. Video games and console games usually means games connected to a TV, whereas arcade games means games placed in public spaces (and individual cabinets). Computer games are occasionally taken to mean games played on a PC. Since all of these areas have been developed in close parallel (and because all of these games are played on computers), I am using the term computer game to denominate all of these areas as a whole.

But it is an important development in this context, that the computer game has changed from being primarily played at an arcade to be primarily played in the home. This has made it possible to develop games of longer duration, to have games not focused on the simple goal of having as many players insert coins as quickly as possible.

Atari VCS 2600, the first popular home computer game system. (1977)

Many developments in the history of the computer game are not technological but purely conceptual. Whereas Spacewar! and Pong are games for more than one player, the time from approximately 1977 to 1993 is completely dominated by games for single players. The multi player game becomes widely popular when Doom (ID Software 1993) allows for connecting several PCs, for being several people present in the same game world. Doom is on the whole an incredibly influential game. It has been criticised for being violent, but it’s one of the most popular computer games ever and it has led to a whole genre of games, the 3d-shooter or first-person-shoot’em’up.

In retrospect, there was no technological reason why the multiplayer game didn’t become popular in the mid-1980’s. It would have been perfectly possible to network home computers like the Commodore 64, only nobody did. And this must be explained culturally: The first computers (like the aforementioned PDP-1) were giant machines priced at millions of dollars, and were thus shared by many users. In the mid-seventies, the idea of the personal computer emerges; a computer becomes something one person places on a desk. In the beginning of the 1990’s the Internet takes off outside academic circles, and the computer starts to be seen as connected to other computers, part of a network. The single-player computer game is dominant during the reigning years of the isolated, personal computer.

Interactive fiction: Utopia and genre

The first "text adventure", Adventure (Crowther & Woods 1977) was created 15 years after Spacewar!. Unlike the action game, an adventure is not based on fast reflexes; the time of the adventure game is on pause when the player does not do anything. In the text adventure, the player communicates with the computer textually - movement is initiated by typing the direction one wants to move in. A typical start of Adventure looks like this (">" marks what the player types.)

Welcome to Adventure!


At End Of Road

You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building. Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of the building and down a gully.

>enter building

Inside Building

You are inside a building, a well house for a large spring.

There are some keys on the ground here.

There is tasty food here.

There is a shiny brass lamp nearby.

There is an empty bottle here.

>get lamp


The traditional adventure game is mostly based on a loose interpretation of the books of J.R.R. Tolkien: elves, trolls, dragons, caves, and treasures. A typical game involves travelling through a system of caves to find a treasure. Adventures revolve very much around puzzles; how to open the gate, how to catch the bird, etc.

The rhetoric of interactive fiction

In the early 1980’s, the adventure genre was renamed interactive fiction, a very controversial and slightly ideological term. Interactive fiction was never defined theoretically, and the theorist Espen Aarseth rejects it completely as pure connotation without any real meaning. (Aarseth 1997, p.48) I think this is basically correct: We lack a theoretical definition, the term is basically used to claim literary qualities for a game. But the basic image of interactive fiction is as simple as it sounds: It is the image of a fictive world (fiction taken to mean "narrative"), a world to interact with, to participate in. Interactive fiction has from the very beginning been defined in opposition to other types of computer games, but later on many games have been promoted as more true "interactive fictions" than other games with the same label. In actuality, the products labelled interactive fiction have not developed much on a structural level; they haven’t become more complex or dynamic. The primary development has rather been a move from text-based games to games based on graphics. Interactive fiction is then two things: A utopian idea and a genre continually claiming to have created this utopia.

The rhetoric of interactive fiction is interesting partly because it has been constant for the past 15 years: Many text adventure classics were developed by the company Infocom. Their trilogy Zork (1981a, 1981b, 1982) is based on the blueprint of Adventure, with the addition of better textual descriptions and an intelligent sense of humour. The advertisements of Infocom at the time presented their games as the thinking person’s alternative to the demented (and graphical) action game:

We unleash the world's most powerful graphics technology. You'll never see Infocom's graphics on any computer screen. [...] We draw our graphics from the limitless imagery of your imagination - a technology so powerful, it makes any picture that's ever come out of a screen look like graffiti by comparison. [...] Through our prose, your imagination makes you part of our stories, in control of what you do and where you go - yet unable to predict or control the course of events. (Infocom 1983b)

According to the advert quoted in the introduction, the player allegedly becomes part of story. The same advert claims credible characters. The games of Infocom claim to possess qualities closer to those of the novel than those of the action game.

In the mid-1980’s, interactive fiction began to become gradually more graphical. In the early hybrid The Hobbit (Melbourne’s house 1984), all interaction still is done by typing, and all game elements are described textually, but some locations are also represented graphically:


The Hobbit: Textual and graphical representation.

Among early players of text-based interactive fiction, a certain amount of nostalgia is directed to the old games and newer, graphical games are views with scepticism. In Steven Egmond’s FAQ for the USENET newsgroup rec.games.int-fiction, the age of Infocom is described a golden age, followed by the more superficial games of today:

[...] Zork was written by MIT grad students; these students were the nucleus of a 1980 start-up company called Infocom, which produced a version of Zork for the TRS-80 Model I and other machines. This led to widespread popularity of interactive fiction games, and was later referred to as the Golden Age of the genre; for several years, Infocom's products were the top-selling games on the market. Later events, however, led to the decline of the IF genre. As the educational level of the average computer user decreased and the features and capabilities of the average computer increased, the trend in computer games went to 'arcade' games instead of text. (Egmond 1997)

The last purely text-based interactive fictions were published in the late 1980’s, and with the arrival of the mouse, textual interaction was replaced by graphical interfaces.

In recent years, interactive fiction has had a giant comeback with the game Myst (Cyan 1993).


Structurally, Myst is quite close to Adventure. The player explores a world and solves a variety of puzzles. The most notable thing about Myst is probably the slightly literary frame story, explaining how the player arrived in the game world:

You have just stumbled upon a most intriguing book, a book titled Myst. You have no idea where it came from, who wrote it, or how old it is. Reading through its pages provides you with only a superbly crafted description of an island world. But it's just a book, isn't it? As you reach the end of the book, you lay your hand on a page. Suddenly your own world dissolves into blackness, replaced with the island world the pages described. Now you're here, wherever here is, with no option but to explore... (The Myst manual.)

The image of the player entering the story was used in the ads of Infocom, in Myst the "enter a story" figure is the part of the frame story. Myst also tries to differentiate itself from the action game with its excessive use of violence and death:

Myst is real. And like real life, you don't die every five minutes. In fact you probably won't die at all. [...] The key to Myst is to lose yourself in this fantastic virtual exploration and act and react as if you were really there. (Ibid.)

We can compare this with a 1984 interview: The software designer Byron Preiss from Trillium Software designed game based on novels like Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Byron Preiss says of his mission:

We're trying to make a game that is based on plot and characterisation, not puzzles - the way a book is. If you read Fahrenheit 451, you don't get stuck on page 50. And if you play the game, you don't get stuck on frame 50, because the whole idea is that you're interested in the game because of the characters and the plot and what's happening. (Darling 1984, p.52)

Interactive fiction is then a utopian idea that has been constant for the past 15 years. A utopia, that new games continually claim to have created, while denouncing earlier games making the same claim.

Brenda Laurel and Janet Murray

The idea of stories to interact with and take part in has been extended in a more theoretical way by the American dramaturgist and computer theorist Brenda Laurel. (Laurel 1985 and Laurel 1991aa, p.135-142.) Where the brief rhetorical examination above focuses on games, Laurel proposes a system for generating well-formed plots as defined by Aristotle in his Poetics. In this proposed system, the computer program must take on the role as author while the game progresses. Any action by the player must lead to the system adapting the fictive world so as to make sure every story is well formed.

A later but parallel work has been done by the MIT researcher Janet H. Murray. She has developed the utopia of Laurel in her own direction: To import the qualities of the Victorian Novel into the digital age. (Murray 1997, p.1-10). Following Laurel, Murray says that such work has to move from simple structures of forking paths to more flexible systems, capable of adapting to the actions of the player. The problem is that this presupposes that it is at all possible to teach a computer rules for the generation of stories, wich again presupposes that one is aware of what a story is in the first place. Aristotle has provided a static and normative framework for this in the Poetics, but in narratology, nothing suggests that the work is done in any way. In the actual work with computer-generated stories, an often-used tactic is to code basic knowledge of the needs and interactions of humans, their goals, and then make them act in this fictive world. But this is not easy, as the following generated story indicates:

Joe Bear was hungry. He asked Irving Bird where some honey was. Irving refused to tell him, so Joe offered to bring him a worm if he’d tell him where some honey was. Irving agreed. But Joe didn’t know where any worms were, so he asked Irving, who refused to say. So Joe offered to bring him a worm if he’d tell him where a worm was. Irving agreed. But Joe didn’t know where any worms were, so he asked Irving, who refused to say. So Joe offered to bring him a worm if he’d tell him where a worm was... (Murray 1997, p.200)

The story repeats because the computer-controlled character Joe Bear does not know how to convince Irving using anything else than worms: Joe Bear has no worms, wants Irving to help him and so on... The program is incapable of creating a proper story because it lacks sufficient knowledge of the world. And even if the program knew how to avoid absurdities as this, it would still lack a way of creating good stories. And after this the actions of the players would still need to be integrated. There is a long way to go.

Laurel and Murray share two things: That they describe and extend the idea of something interactive, better than the action game, something that adds literary qualities to the computer game. And that their ideas have not led to any actual attempts at fulfilling these visions.