Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 125 / JANUARY 1991 / PAGE 60

Electronic worlds without end; the past, present, and future of electronic games. (The Brave New World of Electronic Games)
by Keith Ferrell


They're everywhere! In less than two decades--remember Spacewar and Pong?--interactive electronic entertainment has become a global fact of life. In coin arcades, in living rooms, and increasingly on portable game units, electronic play has never been more popular, more sophisticated, or more widespread.

It's easy to understand why. Today's electronic games, whether played on computer, dedicated game console, or coin-operated unit, are more than just diversions. Good ones become gateways to worlds we might otherwise never visit. The best achieve something like art.

Basically the appeal of interactive electronics is twofold. First, video and computer games draw on our sense of fun, our need for play. More subtly, the games appear at least to provide some long-desired control over the television screen. This point might be argued by those dedicated gamers--and their parents, spouses, and friends--who spend dozens of hours locked in electronic interplay. Who's in charge--game for gamer? Interactive addiction, indeed, might well be a subject for investigation.

Rarely has an addiction been so appealing. Through interactive electronics, we can journey to the far future or the distant past, achieve athletic greatness, become armchair generals out to change the course of history, challenge our eye-hand coordination, simulate high-tech aircraft and vehicles, play games that teach while they entertain.

We are reaching a point where interactive electronics can re-create, to one degree or another, virtually anything.

It didn't start out that way. In the Seventies, when the first video games were introduced, many thought the new entertainment media would be a flash in the pan. The first hint that video games had struck a responsive chord with the public came when those early arcade machines began jamming--from an overload of coins!

What worked in arcades worked even better at home, as Atari found with its phenomenally successful Atari 2600 cartridge console. Millions of consoles and tens of millions of games moved into households almost overnight.

At the same time, many households embraced early personal computers, notably the Commodore 64, the Apple II, and early IBM PCs. While the computers ostensibly served higher purposes than entertainment--word processing, financial management--the platforms immediately attracted the talents of game designers.

What the entertainment marketplace giveth, that same marketplace taketh away. By 1984 the initial video game boom had collapsed cataclysmically, with dozens of companies going bankrupt as quickly as they'd flourished. Legend has it that millions of Atari cartridges, unwanted by retailers or the public, were buried in a desert landfill somewhere in the American West. Informed analysis suggested at the time that the video game boom was over, its flash-in-the-pan nature having simply taken a little longer to play out than was first suspected.

You can't keep a good entertainment medium down, though. The computer software side of the industry never shrank as much as the cartridge side, and excellent disc-based games continued to appear throughout the Eighties. Nor was the cartridge environment as dead as the analysts thought. By 1987 a new name was making noise in the field of video games: Nintendo. By 1990 Nintendo had not only revived the video game market, it had nurtured that market to a size and scope far beyond even Atari's heyday. Nintendo clothing, Nintendo books, Nintendo television, even Nintendo cereal have all appeared over the past three years as the company achieved billions of dollars in sales each year.

Those sales made clear an important point: Interactive entertainment had become a fixture of the modern household and would remain so. In 1991, there are more approaches to interactive entertainment than ever before. Nintendo continues to dominate the cartridge scene, although its dominances faces stiff competition from Sega and NEC. Sega's Genesis system boasts a more powerful processor and more sophisticated graphics and sound than Nintendo's, while NEC's TurboGrafx offers a CD-ROM (compact disc, read-only memory) drive whose storage capacity is enormous. New systems such as SNK's Neo-Geo continue to ring changes on the basic game console format.

Portability is another area of excitement, again defined by Nintendo. The company's GameBoy achieved perhaps the clearest codification of interactivity's popularity when, on a recent edition of Real Life With Jane Pauley, a child was shown playing with a GameBoy in the back of the covered wagon in which his family was experiencing a "frontier" vacation. As far as video games go, you can take them with you--and you may not be able to get away from them. Atari, NEC, and Sega are all mounting efforts to challenge Nintendo in the portable gaming marketplace.

I'll admit a prejudice right here: I think the best, most exciting games around are developed for personal computers. (Having said that, I'll also own up to my own interactive entertainment bias: I use a fast 386 PC with super VGA graphics, an NEC CD-ROM drive, and Ad-Lib soundboard with speakers attached. Now, there's an entertainment system.)

The best PC games are elegantly programmed, taking advantage of the machine's power and minimizing its vulnerabilities in order to enhance the electronic illusions being created. Indeed, some games are far more elegantly programmed than the business software for which the PC is primarily intended. Word processor and spreadsheet designers and programmers could take more than a few pages from the book of game maestros.

Today even education dances to an increasingly electronic, interactive beat. Educational software is often as entertaining as game software, with the added benefit that you're improving your mind as you play. Many games, in fact, have serious educational underpinnings, presented with distinct points of view.

That's a thumbnail sketch of today's worlds of electronic games. Diverse and diverting, the games have spread throughout the world and show no sign of retreating.

And tomorrow?

The skills learned over the first decade of interactive entertainment's life will serve as the foundation for the next generation of games. Programmers' toolboxes now contain thousands of routines and short-cuts. Just as film, recorded music, and television have libraries of effects, so will the entertainment software industry continue to add to its collection. Don't be surprised to see many interactive effects actually mirroring familiar film techniques. Before long, home entertainment systems will let us write, produce, direct, and star in our own movies.

The software itself, both on disc and on cartridge, will grow more sophisticated. The distance between electronic reality and the real world will continue to shrink. Already we're seeing sports games that simulate everything from the influence of a breeze on a baseball to the effect of blades of grass on a golf ball's lie. Historical games incorporate social and political factors in warfare simulations. Simple arcade adventures are hardly simple anymore, with action moving in an increasing number of dimensions, using more vivid graphics and sound effects than those Atari players of a decade ago could imagine.

The software will grow smarter as well. Artificial intelligence has become an increasingly popular aspect of some games. Future entertainment software will quickly and effectively learn your gaming preferences, structuring its own responses accordingly.

The video game console, the coin-operated arcade machine, and the personal computer won't be the only media for interactive entertainment. Some form of interactivity will be built into future televisions themselves. As the tube becomes smarter, acquiring more and more of the characteristics of a computer, it's only logical that interactive entertainment be added to TV's traditional passive entertainment delivery.

On-line telecommunications services such as Prodigy, GE-nie, and CompuServe are experimenting with new approaches to entertainment. Look for large on-line games to become even more popular and assume new roles. One can imagine whole interactive universes where people meet electronically from across the world to play together.

New storage media such as CD-ROM will add dramatically to the size of the games available to us. As data storage devices become less expensive and more widely distributed, game designers will leap at the opportunity to extend their visions with more convincing images and sounds.

Speaking, as it were, of sounds, you'll probably be talking to your games before too many more years pass. While the bulk of the research effort into speech recognition and synthesis technology is aimed at the business marketplace, business advances have a way of being turned into entertainment opportunities. Some games are already "talking;" in another five years you might find yourself training your favorite simulator to respond to your own words.

And that's just a glimpse. Travel back in time a decade or so and ask someone playing Pong or Spacewar what the future of video games held, and the speculation would doubtless be too conservative by half. As is, undoubtedly, my own.

Interactive entertainment will continue to grow and prosper. As the technology becomes more widespread, via consoles, computers, and smarter televisions, there's a chance that we'll see interactive entertainment become the largest of all the entertainment industries.

There are opportunities and delights in such a future--who wouldn't want, for an hour or two, to drop into a convincing alternate world, to display skills and live through experiences the mundane world denies us?

There may be traps as well. The interactive addictions I spoke of early in this piece may become a reality. Some teachers see video games as further lowering an already low literacy rate. The most popular games tend to be the most violent. Some games carry an increasingly sexual content. How far can games go?

The resolution of that and other, related questions will take years, and each resolution will in turn produce new questions, new areas of excitement and concern.

It is clear, though, that far from being a flash in the pan, interactive entertainment has become part of the firmament of popular world culture. It is here to stay, ready to transport us, electronically, to interactive worlds of entertainment without end.