Eating dots with Pac-Man, rescuing the princess with Mario and Luigi, or wiping out your opponents in Fortnite: over about three generations now, video games have shaped the childhood of millions of people. A look back at 50 years of gaming history.
1950 – 1970 – Tinkering
The history of video games is closely linked to the evolution of the computer. In the 1950s, huge, room-sized computers solved relatively simple arithmetical problems. There was no question of playing games with these behemoths. And yet, at universities in the USA, creative minds developed simple computer games. However, these inventions were intended not for entertainment, but rather to demonstrate how the new technology worked. Tennis for Two, appearing in 1958, was the first video game programmed purely for entertainment.
1970s – Birth of the video game machines
Up to the beginning of the 1970s, students tinkered with increasingly compact computer systems. In 1972, the firm Atari was founded. The company not only dominated the video game industry for the next decade – it also developed Pong, the first game to become a global success. Although the idea for the game was not new, Atari integrated the computer, together with a display screen, into a box with a coin slot – thus inventing the video game machine. For the first time, a video game was available to a broader public for very little money. The game Space Invaders (1978) heralded the beginning of the golden age of the arcades, where the teenagers of the 1980s gambled away their pocket money on video game machines. Prior to this, computer technology had made significant progress, with the founding of Apple in 1976 and the development of microprocessors.
1980s – The infancy of video games
Many classic games that are still going strong today came out in the 1980s: Pac-Man (1980), Ultima (1980), Mario Bros (1983), Tetris (1984) and SimCity (1989). At the beginning of the decade, not only was the market awash with countless new consoles, but increasingly cheaper and more powerful home computers started appearing. In 1983 the console market collapsed. Many companies, among them the industry highflyer and games pioneer Atari, went bankrupt. But before that, Atari did manage to release the game E.T. (1982), still considered the worst video game of all time thanks to its crude graphics and complicated gameplay. Out of the rubble of the industry emerged the firms Commodore, with its Commodore 64 home computer (1982), and Nintendo, with the Nintendo Entertainment System console, or NES for short (1985). With the more refined technologies, the games pushed forward into new spheres; gameplay and graphics became more innovative. Games got their own characters and more complex stories. Most genres as we know them today have their origins in this period. The Commodore 64 even allowed highly motivated users to program their own games.
1990s – A new dimension
Like the first generation of players, the games industry had grown up. Video games entered a new dimension – literally, because in the second half of the decade the graphics became three-dimensional. Players were now able to move in three directions instead of two. These game worlds looked more realistic and offered more complex possibilities. Console and game manufacturers vied for a share of the ever-growing market. In 1994, Sony launched the PlayStation – in technical and graphic terms, it was a quantum leap compared to the existing consoles. The game design studios churned out more innovative ideas, with history often serving as inspiration for the gameplay: in Age of Empires (1997), gamers built entire civilisations, and in Command & Conquer (1995) they waged war. In Tomb Raider (1996) they searched for historical artefacts alongside Lara Croft; in Monkey Island (1990), it was pirate’s treasure they were after. But in the 1990s the games industry also lost its innocence because, inaddition to the gameplay action, violence also increasingly became a theme. Starting with Wolfenstein 3D (1992), ‘first-person shooters’ emerged. In these games, a player uses a weapon to kill off his or her opponents from a first-person perspective.
This is the brief history of video games before the millennium.