Looking Back: History of Video Games

August 28, 2018

As summer winds down and the kids head back to school, we would like to reflect on a cultural pastime that many of us likely participated in at some point this summer, video games.  In honor of our new exhibit “20th Century Gamer: 50 Years of Innovation and Technology in Gaming” we consider the history of computer and video gaming, and the controversy that has surrounded it from the beginning.  While the debate about violence and adult themes in video games is ongoing, we can reflect on the history of that debate. 

Even before video games, pinball parlours, the first arcades, were governed by anti-gambling laws throughout North America.  The first pinball tables were simple machines whre the player would simply pull a spring and launch a steel ball to see where on the board it went.  It was not until 1947 that flappers were added, making the game one of chance AND skill, which took it out of the realm of gambling.

Controversy soon moved to video games, with the first pong games available to the public beginning in the early 1970’s.  Those early debates centered on the health of staring at the TV for hours on end, and spending too much time indoors, a debate that had begun with the growing popularity of televisions in the 60’s. 

Despite the new availability of home video game consoles, they were expensive machines, making the local arcade the best place to affordably play the newest and coolest games.  The popularity of arcades skyrocketed as companies produced games exclusively for arcade machines throughout the 1970s and 80s.  The growth of arcades, and the fact that the primary audience was children and teens, prompted lawmakers, and eventually laws limiting how close an arcade could be to schools.  The main argument was that arcades were so addictive they resulted in sever truancy.  Some cities passed laws restricting arcades from opening during school hours, laws that are still in effect in some places today.

When the first person shooter game came about on computer games in the mid 80’s, the debate about violence in children media began in earnest.  This debate was continuing over from violence in comic strips, which had been protested by child welfare groups since the 1940’s.   Despite growing criticisms and controversy, first person shooter games, mostly war themed, quickly caught on and eventually expanded to the ever growing home video game console market.  As graphics got better and home consoles became more powerful the debate has only continued.