Nick Sherriff


In Chapter 1 I review the literature on the history of videos games attempting to set out its’ size, importance and make-up within society. Chapter 2 encompasses a further literature review of pleasure and attempt a scheme to chart the possible options. Chapter 3 offers some pilot research and Chapter 4 summarises the findings. In Chapter 5 the conclusions and recommendations are discussed.

Chapter 1

The Instigators

Arguably physicist Willy Higinbotham at Brookhaven National Laboratories invented the very first video game in 1958. (Donald. 2000)  ( see references) Arguably because others (See J,C, Herz ‘Joystick Nation’ and Le Diberder and Le Diberder ‘L’Univers des Jeux Video’) would have us believe it was actually some four years later and with Steve Russell. However, Higinbotham who had worked on the notorious Manhatten Project (The Atomic Bomb) had produced a table tennis type of game played on an oscilloscope for the purpose of entertaining the visiting public at his workplace. At this point it is worth noting the military links, a presence that, remains throughout the video game’s development. A year later he improved on the initial idea and moved the game on to a 14” monitor however believing he had not actually invented anything novel he failed to patent it. (Herman, Horwitz and Kent. 1998.) Perhaps a rather fortunate error when one considers that any patent of ‘oscilloscope tennis’ would have belonged to the US government, a thought that one doesn’t wish to speculate upon.

Ralph Bear on the other hand has been called the ‘Thomas Edison’ of video games and it was under his supervision that he and some 500 technicians built the first video games console in 1966. (Hart. 1997.) Bear had been working for Sanderson Associates who were a consultancy firm for the US military when military strategists approached Sanderson’s with a proposal for a secret project. Here the military is more directly involved but not with actual games although it may sound game-like by modern standards. Sanderson Associates were asked to develop computerised simulations for the battlefield soldier in order to improve the soldier’s strategy and reflex skills of which Bear was tasked with building the best TV set ever. The first attempt showed two dots chase across a black screen and within a year the team had developed a working ball and paddle game. (Referring to the joystick or controller.)  By the end of 1966 this moderately sophisticated video game (a sort of tennis or hockey) was in console form and ready to show to the Pentagon. (Hart. 1997) Although it is alleged that the Pentagon was not impressed they did see enough to warrant further research.  Therefore video games could be seen as rather an ironic spin-off in a similar way to that of the Sony Walkman some years later. (See DuGay for the complete story.) It was alleged that at this particular meeting Baer first expressed his entrepreneurial leisure skills and rather opportunistic theory that this sort of device could be a profitable form of entertainment, however this was of little interest to the military at this time. 

Baer later recalled,

  “The question of how to make use of home TV sets, other than watching over-the-air programmes, had been bothering me since the early sixties.  There were well over 100million TV sets in the US alone by 1965. The idea of attaching some device to even a small fraction of that many TV sets was a pretty powerful incentive for coming up with something, anything, on which people might actually want to spend their money.

(Cited in Haddon. 1988.)

For the next several years Baer would covertly try to obtain the rights to commercially reproduce the game machine but it was not until 1968 that Baer was actually able to patent his interactive TV idea. Baer must have realised the potential hence the covertness of his actions. For many such as Harvey (1990) this is the influence of post-fordism, ‘As mass production becomes less profitable [post-fordism] flexible accumulation has led to capitalism exploiting smaller markets with more tastes thus encouraging greater diversity’. As such the original use of computers and televisions is extended to include video games increasing the market place and in turn facilitating diversification.

In 1970 Magnavox obtained the licence from Sanderson Associates and in 1972 began the manufacture of the first commercial video game console named the Odyssey. The Odyssey by modern standards looked more like a compendium of games with over three hundred separate parts including overlays rather than background graphics, dice and playing cards. Despite such complexities the Odyssey achieved moderately good sales of over 100,000 units at $100. (Hart. 1997) Although, it must be noted that this was the only system commercially available at this time, therefore Magnavox had a monopoly on the market, which could suggest that sales may have also had a novelty value, thus further detracting from the Odyssey’s perceived success.

Up until this point very few individuals had ever played a computer game like Steve Russell’s ‘Spacewar’ and even if they had it was only feasible on $40000 machines, which at the time took up the space of a small room. (Herman, Horwitz and Kent. 1998.)  Russell and friends had developed ‘Spacewar’ as students at MIT in the early 1960’s using the new computer PDP-1. The game had obvious cold war connotations and melodrama with two spaceships firing torpedo like lasers across a stellar backdrop. At this time President Kennedy’s promise of getting to the moon was still fresh in the minds of the public and the game seemed to capture the imagination of all who played it.  However after a brief attempt to sell the game Russell concluded that nobody would buy it and releases the source code to all who wanted it, more desperation than altruism. During the games circulation of the computer labs across the US that Nolan Bushnell was to see it, a name soon to become synonymous with the video gaming world. In 1962 Bushnell first saw the game Spacewar and would spend the next seven years trying to improve on the size and cost of the machines. Again like Bear, Bushnell does appear to be somewhat of an early leisure entrepreneur and was eventually successful in his task. At this time the video game had not reached the masses, the world at large was unaware of a plethora of pleasures that await them. As Poole suggests, ‘It [video gaming] was a closed community, a priesthood without a parish’. (2000.).

In 1971 Bushnell’s new and improved ‘Spacewar,’ called ‘Computer Space’ was launched and although it was the first arcade video game unlike the Odyssey it failed to catch on. (Haddon. 1988.) In a later interview he suggested,

"You had to read the instructions before you could play, people didn't want to read instructions. To be successful, I had to come up with a game people already knew how to play; something so simple that any drunk in any bar could play."

(Bushnell, N cited in Hart. 1997.)


It is interesting to note that Bushnell was sent by his parent company Nutting Manufactures to the Burlington Game Convention in order to look at Baer’s Odyssey but after playing it he reported back that it was uninteresting and not valid competition for Computer Space, probably because the two markets where somewhat different. At this time there was no such thing as Haddon’s cross licensing (1988:67) notion of competing for the same entertainment dollar. Understanding that games needed to be less complicated Bushnell left Nutting and started the now infamous Atari Company. Bushnell hired Al Alcorn but due to Alcorn’s programming inexperience had him programme a simple video tennis game as a kind of assessment. (Herman, Horwitz and Kent. 1998.) They later tried to sell this proto-game to established arcade manufacturers Bally but after their disinterest the pair decide to go it alone in a typical entrepreneurial garage industry style. The game Alcorn programmed was ‘Pong’ and was an immediate success and it ironically broke down in the first week because the coin drop was full; such was the interest at the time. (Donald. 2000.) Bushnell’s earlier complexity problems had been overcome and simplicity had been achieved, Pong’s one line instruction read ‘avoid missing ball for high score.’

Magnavox however, saw the striking resemblance of ‘Pong’ to their Odyssey tennis and sued Atari. The case was eventually settled out of court once the guest book from the Burlington Game Convention showed Bushnell’s name, suggesting that he had stolen the idea of Pong from Magnavox at the convention.  Atari agreed to pay a license fee to Magnavox and went into production of ‘Pong’, which became an arcade phenomenon. Such was the obvious success of the video game at this time that by the end of 1973 over twenty five different companies including Nutting are creating similar consoles all of which were cutting into Atari’s profits (Herman, Horwitz and Kent. 1998.) although Atari’s sales were still $3.2 million (Donald. 2000.) but at the end of 1975 those sales soared to an incredible $40 million. In 1977 Bushnell sold Atari to Warner Communications for $28 million although he retained a seat on the board but by 1978 he left Atari completely although not before signing a lucrative five-year deal not to compete with the company he had started back in 1972. It is an assumption to think that the video games were a garage industry as the evidence shows they soon became the property of corporate business, a trait that remains to this day.

The Golden Age of Gaming

The period from 1978-1981 is nostalgically known for many as the ‘Golden Age’ for video games. During this time new companies such as Nintendo, Midway, Milton Bradley, Mattel, Sega, Intellivision, Imagic and the infamous Activision appeared to give Atari what they might have considered as, real competition.   Disgruntled employees of Atari left during this time because of a dispute over accreditation for their work – there is no room for individualism within the corporate image. The disgruntled workers formed their own third party developer, Activision, which recognised game developers and put their names on the packaging and marketing.  Later more Atari workers along with Intellivision staff left to start Imagic but promised to release games for both Atari and Intellivision. (Herman, Horwitz and Kent. 1998.)

Keyboards also started to appear during these years with the Atari 400 – 800, Magnavox Odyssey 2 and both Mattel and Milton Bradley many of which offered future upgrades to become personal computer like. However, the public associated many of the companies with games and few were ever taken seriously. (Herman, Horwitz and Kent. 1998.) This is a rather interesting point that was to set a precedent for future years. The video game would have to wait until the turn of the century to be openly accepted by society as an entertainment media for all ages.

Vectored graphics (line drawn) appeared for the first time in the shape of Cinematronics Space Wars similar to Bushnell’s earlier Computer Space. Other games to utilise vectored graphics include the cult status game Tempest (colour vectored graphics), Battlezone the tank simulator that was the first 3D, first person perspective game; later to be commissioned for the US Army but in an enhanced version; and Atari’s best selling title of all time, Asteroids. (Hart.1997.) Note the persistence of military involvement and space themes a trait that seemed to dominate the early video game.

Fiske suggests video game arcades had a bad reputation and influence upon the youth of society hence the initial acceptance of the video game home market. Presumably the adults could keep an eye on the youngsters and regulate their behaviour. However as the video game industry grew so did the arcade and many games were cross-licensed. Midway imported Taito’s Space Invaders, which broke all known sales, records in 1978 and whose popularity saw coin shortages and truancy both in Japan and the US respectively supporting Fiske’s and others ‘moral entrepreneurial’ stance. Space invaders was also reproduced for the home market on the Atari VCS (later known as the Atari 2600) as well as the arcade, during this years Atari sales reached $238.1 million. (Donald. 2000.) As such players could be introduced to a particular game at home and continue their interest more socially at the arcade. Thus the perceived negativity of video games rather than being regulated in the home was further facilitated by cross-licensing.

 Williams the pinball manufacturer released it’s now famous Defender, a horizontal scrolling game with only part of the action displayed therefore the use of a radar at the top of the screen was required to show the whole picture. However the ‘golden age’ will probably be remembered for the release of Namco’s Pac Man which is the most popular arcade game of all time, selling over 300,000 units worldwide. Pac Man was the first game allegedly to appeal to both males and females. (Herman, Horwitz and Kent. 1998.) As to why needs clarification, the yellow pizza like character is genderless and slides across the screen constantly searching for and consuming smaller dots whilst negotiating a maze and avoiding the characters (ghosts) that police the maze.  The game is the ‘personification of eating’ celebrating our genderless relationship with food thus the similar appeal to both sexes. However I would argue that another perception is available, the name Pac-Man is somewhat masculine and whilst eating is genderless the gathering of food has been predominantly the remit of the male. Look deeper at the semiotics and a Marxist scenario of late-capitalism is witnessed with Pac-Man constantly searching for things to consume whilst at the same time avoiding those who wish to slowdown, alter or stop such consumption. He is a pure consumer wanting only to feel whole, something he can never attain. (See Poole. 2000:189-193) As to whether players actually understand or see such semiology is unclear but both sexes saw or experienced something that they found pleasurable.

At the end of this period the US arcade market had at the time their highest revenues of $5 billion. (Herman, Horwitz and Kent. 1998.) At this point the video game industry might have seemed fruitful but lurking around the corner was the near extinction of the industry, The Great Crash. (Herman, Horwitz and Kent. 1998.)

The Dark Ages.

The great crash or the ‘dark ages’ as Hart calls it followed the best ever figures for the video gaming industry. At its peak the video game industry grossed upwards of $3 billion in America alone with Atari’s sales grossing $2 billion encompassing two thirds of the market (Donald. 2000.) but at the end of 1985 total worldwide sales only reached $100 million.

 Various theories have been offered but the most plausible does seem to be the failure of the industry; namely Atari; to keep pace with technology. (to convert its data storage device to the then new magnetic disk drive.) However it is important to understand that the arcades did change. This change increased the storage capacity from 4-16 kilobytes to 180 kilobytes per side a vast difference in the amount of information that could be used for gamming. In a 1982 Atari press release they suggested, ‘ [Magnetic] media is entirely to fragile for the consumer to adequately handle.’ (Hart.1997) Due to Atari’s domination of the industry there was little resistance to their decision and those that did for instance Coleco did not last for long. Up until this point there had been little difference between the qualities of the arcade machines to that of the home console, however with the inception of new magnetic devices the gap became a gulf. This is clearly demonstrated with the 1982 release of Atari’s Pac Man clone on the VCS that did not actually resemble the arcade original and Cinematronic’s first arcade laser disc game Dragons Lair that, was too advanced for home consoles. Such failures for Hart were some of the many causes for increasing public disenchantment towards Atari, their games stopped breaking new ground, perhaps even becoming a Bricolage but lacking eclecticism. The industry as a whole could be considered as suffering from a kind of ‘commercial intertextuality’, every thing looked similar and as soon as an original appeared so did various clones. It is accepted however that this is no different from today’s’ industry but due to its size such intertextualities are lost in a sea of variety. However in 1982 the industry was not so big or diverse as such on 7th December 1982 Atari announced that VCS sales had not met their predictions and Warner Communications stock dropped 32% in a single day. (Herman, Horwitz and Kent. 1998.) This could be seen as the beginning of the end for Atari and by the end of 1984, faced with rising loses, Warner Communications sold off Atari Incorporated but kept the arcade division. By 1985 Atari sales had fallen to only $141 million. The new Atari owner Tramiel announced that the company has no plans to sell video games consoles.

The Techno Age.

The re-launch of the VG industry was reborn during the mid 80’s and it has been suggested that this was due in part to the advance in technologies. New cheaper technology made hardware less expensive and therefore more viable as a marketable and profitable business. The reduction in cost of the microprocessor and Dynamic RAM (DRAM) further allowed for greater memory capacity and a better transfer rate than conventional magnetic disks. Arguably the most obvious tag associated with game consoles is the bit-processor, which at the re-launch was an 8-bit processor. All these had the effect of lowering the prices of previous machines and therefore increasing the financial accessibility for the consumer. However despite the availability of new technology many established VG companies tested the re-launch waters with old rehashed machines and games more akin to Eco’s ‘camp recycling’ or ‘simple revivalism’ (1984:71) like the clone or the sequel for instance. Thus a sustainable re-launch of the VG industry was to come from new companies with fresh ideas.

Then came Sega with the launch of its Master System (8 bit) that achieved very good sales but in the short term only. Launching its Famicon (short for family computer) in Japan, Nintendo had no intention of an oversees product, however renaming itself the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) the NES (8 bit) was released six months after the Master System, and the battle commenced. Over the next ten years these two giants of the VG industry did battle brining out more machines and better games to keep up with technology and some might say the publics appetite. Perhaps a little of both when one examines the (As discussed in ‘The Dark Ages’ P: 12) downfall and some might say the ineptitude of Atari and it’s earlier failure to keep up with technology. After the 8 bit era came the ’16 bit’ with Sega’s Genesis and Nintendo’s Super NES following this was the imaginatively titled ’32 bit’ machines however because technology is moving so fast it does seem that this era was paid lip service to, at least for the two main players, although Sega did release the 32X but it was an add-on to an existing system allowing it to play new 32 bit cartridges.  Whilst this battle was raging there were other bit part players such as NEC (TurboGrafx), Commodore Dynamic Total Vision (CDTV), SNK (Neo-Geo), JVC (Wondermega) and even a change of heart from Atari who jumped straight in with a 64-bit console (actually 2 x 32 bit processors) named the Jaguar. (Herman, Horwitz and Kent. 1998.) The two horse race became three in 1995 when Sony entered the arena with the Playstation; the release coupled with a good collection of titles was praised by the media and consumers. Oddly the Playstation was designed to be an optional peripheral for the NES but Nintendo dropped the project leaving Sony high and dry (a move that would cost them dearly in the future). Consequently Sony decided not to waste their technology and proceeded to launch their own console, the Playstation. Sega also unveiled a new console; the Sega Saturn; but sales were poor and third party developers were caught off guard by an earlier than expected release date. Later in the same year Nintendo released the long awaited N64, which almost caused riots in Japan but sales almost came to a complete stop due to the lack of software. However rumours were alleviated for the US launch and third party developers embraced the new console. At this point it is worth noting the importance of the software developers (people who make the games) who often are the difference between success and failure. The game writers and developers can carry a poor system but a good system with poor games cannot. Perhaps this was one of the reasons for the most successful next generation console at this time, the Playstation whose sales topped $12 million per day through the Christmas period 1996. (Donald. 2000.) At the beginning of the next year Sony suggested it had installed a base of 3.2 million units within the US alone and Nintendo counter claimed that it could have sold 2.5 million units had it been able to manufacture that many. This is nothing compared to the figures later released by Sony who suggest that 5 million units were sold in Japan, 4 million in the US and 2.2 million in Europe but within the next four months the figure doubled as the 20 millionth unit is sold.  (Herman, Horwitz and Kent. 1998.)

It was not until 1999 that a genuinely new era for the console was to appear. Sega released the Dreamcast complete with unique internet access for online gaming, Sega also released the Dreamcast for the arcades allowing for easier conversion of arcade titles and it also used Microsoft’s operating system; Windows CE; again allowing for easier conversion to and from the PC. All of which was to maximise sales via cross licensing. Microsoft joined the affray with news of their console named the X-Box also using the same Windows CE operating system. The new Playstation 2 was released in 2000 whilst not with internet access it had the capabilities for upgrades such as a computer like hard drive and an internet connection. The reason for this was the rudimentary nature of existing technology and Sony felt it better to wait until certain technologies had been proven. Early in 2001 Sega announces the termination of its console based operations in favour of software development (games) and promised to write for both Sony and Nintendo.

As the industry crosses the threshold into the 21st century it is prudent to note that statistical information is now available to dispel certain myths surrounding video game culture. According to the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA) more than $250 million computer and video games were sold in the US during 1999 and sales topped $6.1 billion for the same year. In a more recent press release the IDSA suggested that they expect US sales to grow 20% between 2000 – 2004 increasing video game software sales to more than 10 billion. (IDSA. 13 November 2000.) In its 1999 report The State of the Industry the fastest growing entertainment industry in the world is the computer and video game industry with a 25% increase in 1998 followed by films (9.2%), books (6.4%) and records (5.7%). In the same report it suggests that statistical evidence shows video games, as a Childs’ medium is no longer true with 69% of PC game and 54% of video game players being over 18 years of age. (Peter, D. Hart Associates for the IDSA. 2000.) In fact the IDSA go further and suggest that of the most frequent players only 42% are under 18 yrs, 37% are between the ages of 18 and 35 leaving 21% who are over the age of 35 yrs. What is more remarkable is that of these 21%, 13% are over the age of 50.

Having established that video games are not a passing fad and that there popularity is unquestionable across the ages, what exactly is the appeal, what are the pleasures of these video games?

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