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Why we owe so much to “play time”

When we were little kids, I didn’t realize how much we were learning by simply going out to play. We ran outside and met our friends, rode our bikes, played sports, had fun and fought battles. We developed important social skills that we may not have realized, at the time, were the building blocks of how we would interact as adults.

Fortunately (and only in this case) I feel lucky to be old enough to say that I was right in the sweet spot when video games started showing up in arcades and homes. Looking back now, I realize just how fast those times were moving and those days really were not that long ago at all.

I remember it all started in the arcades. Our lust for gaming was born with pinball and new game called Pong. I saw Pong for the first time at a beach arcade in the 70’s, housed in this completely awesome cabinet that looked like it came from Lost in Space. When Atari released the game console for home players, I was one of the first kids in my town to have it. Yes, I was popular on that day.

Atari and Midway were in a glorious race to release video games, as my friends and I were in a similar race to be the first one to buy them. There were great games like Tank, Night Driver and Space Invaders.
By the time we got into the 80’s we were seeing some fast changes in what these games looked like and all of a sudden a new term was being used: “User Experience”. Computer graphics was an industry that was booming along side of gaming and once they started to merge, the games got better, more colorful and more fun…really fast. But one thing was always the same, you and your buddy were sitting on the same couch in the same room and although we may not have thought so at the time, this was a problem.

I also remember when personal computers started showing up at schools and businesses in the late 70’s. First, you had just terminals (again…with wonderful Jetsons stylings) by long- gone companies like Wang and Digital Equipment Co (DEC). But that “user experience” was not quite as fun as the games we were playing at the time. The screens were nasty little orange or green text on a black field and if you left your monitor on overnight, the text would burn right into the screen permanently. Then the stand-alone personal computer arrived and the good thing about these things (for us younger people) was not that you could get more work done faster, it was that these boxes could be connected on a network. That meant you could connect with the person in the other room. That was very interesting.

Because fun is the frontier of progress, it was not long until we had games to play on networked computers. But there was a big compromise at first: the graphics were horrible and by horrible, I mean they didn’t exist at all. When our first IBM personal computers showed up, there were soon dialup bulletin boards, where you could log on and play these text-games with other people. They were basically adventure stories and mazes you would navigate through while typing in commands and details about what you were doing, like “now I’m killing you” and that’s how you knew you were dead. These games were called “MUDs” (multi-user dungeons). We loved it, but got sick of it pretty fast. Luckily, the industry was changing just as fast and soon we had a game called “Snipes”. It was another “way too basic” text interface, but at least you could aim and shoot a gun in this one. The race was on again, this time with merging players from the computer industry, the arcade industry and the software industry.

The 1980’s progressed and the Commodore 64 was out, the Apple II was out, IBM was growing like a wild weed. New manufacturers were coming in and others were being pushed out. Connectivity was growing too. Here’s a list of vintage online networks that might make you smile: CompuServe. GEnie. The Source. Prodigy. And ultimately AOL. These were the founders of what we now called The Internet. But back then, we kids saw them only as new ways to play games with people around your building and then around the world.

OK…skip ahead, and by skipping ahead, I mean that we jump only a few years to 1990 when our computer networked games started to look more like we were used to in our console/arcade games. Console games were getting better. We had Super Mario, Donky Kong, and a host of role playing games by our new friends Nintendo and Sega. But computer “multi-player” games were still behind in terms of “user-experience” and graphics. But that didn’t last long. Suddenly there was a massive leap. The 90’s brought a new term that changed everything “Massively-Multiplayer-Online-Role-playing- Games” or MMORPG’s. And the graphics cards that were in computers took a big jump as well.

“Doom” was our game of choice and that was soon replaced by “Quake” which was the beginnings of the “first-person shooter” phenomena that took over the entire 90’s. Quickly, we jumped to “Unreal” and then came the Sony Playstation era and the XBox which now dominates networked gaming. And, of course, during these fast moving times our friend The Internet was booming quietly along side, taking connectivity to the heights we now enjoy today. It all happened so fast.

Now in this new millennium, we are still in the shallow end of the Virtual Age, where our Avatars move through these environments with user experiences that rival reality. Sure, we can play our games even better than before, but now we can also attend meetings, visit tradeshows and conduct business. All because of us kids who only wanted to go out and play. Where will it go from here? Our desire to explore the outer limits of fun will without a doubt lead us there.

2 Responses to “Why we owe so much to “play time””

  1. Barry Clegg says:

    You know, I have never been truly able to play a computer game with any skill. Although, I was always pretty good at this one…I think.

    http://classicgaming.gamespy.com/View.php?view=GameMuseum.Detail&id=266

  2. Bobby P says:

    Classic. I love the old-school style of this.