The Evolution Of Modern Gaming

The history of gaming is one of surprising depth and complexity. While many might assume that video games were simply invented in the late-'70s and progressed from there, the truth is stranger and more fascinating.
For instance, did you know that Nintendo was first founded in the 1800s, or that scientists at MIT and in the U.S. military were responsible for some of the earliest video games? Did you know that an in-home console called the Magnavox Odyssey beat the Atari 2600 to the market by five years, or that current game design giant Activision was founded in 1979? These and more interesting facts are revealed in a comprehensive timeline of major gaming events through the years

Those events add up to a rich history stretching from early experimentation with digital gaming to the sensational consoles, mobile gaming platforms, and virtual reality headsets we have today. But in this post, instead of merely talking about the linear history of gaming from one device to the next, I want to discuss the nature of gaming through the years: how we go about it, what we get out of it, and most of all whether it's a social or individual activity (or both). In a strange way, looking at the history of gaming with these things in mind reveals certain cycles. 
Beginning with the Atari 2600, it's fair to say that the very concept of in-home gaming was meant to appeal to families. It wasn't necessarily "social" in the way we describe games today (with massive interaction with friends and strangers over online networks), but gaming also wasn't meant as an individual hobby. A commercial for the Atari 2600 from the '80s demonstrates as much, showing two young children who are presumably brothers enjoying a range of games, with their father ultimately getting in on the action as well. This was gaming's place for a while in the early days: consoles and games were often bought for family enjoyment.
This dynamic didn't really change until 1989 and the release of the Game Boy, which of course led to various competitors and improvements over the years. With handheld gaming, an established in-home activity was shrunken down to an individual size, as the games became more private and more portable. That's not to say it was never a shared activity—you may well remember passing a Game Boy back and forth with a sibling at some stage of your life—but given that multiplayer games weren't even an option, it's clear that the dynamic shifted. It was in large part due to individual, handheld gaming devices that video games gained a reputation as being private hobbies, or even activities for the introverted. We started playing games for personal gratification rather than to spend time with family or friends. 

Through the '90s and '00s, we've become used to both types of gaming: console systems that could facilitate family play, and smaller devices for individual play. The interesting development that was built on top of these two motivations for gaming was the gradual emergence of reward systems and incentives that went beyond in-game achievement. Over time, and thanks in part to improving technology in gaming systems, developers realized they could provide new perks that would keep gamers playing.
This arguably began with the rise of online casinos, actually, which occupy their own unique corner of the gaming industry. While the natural incentive for casino game players is to earn money, the sites have long been in the habit of offering additional perks to those who join VIP rooms, play a certain number of games, etc. Today, there are a number of special promotions that illustrate the concept, such as free deposits for referring friends, chances to earn free bingo games, and even rewards that go beyond money (such as a personal shopping spree). Other gaming avenues don't tend to offer perks similar to these, but with the rise of online networks connected to consoles, such as Xbox Live and the Playstation Network, they have been able to provide new incentives. Players can earn points, rewards, etc. toward new gaming downloads and other benefits, simply by playing games and passing milestone achievements. It was a gradual development, but it added a new dimension to the question of why we play games. 

Of course, the biggest change in modern gaming is the expansion of multiplayer from an in-home practice to one that reaches around the world. Just as programs like Xbox Live and Playstation Network added online elements to existing consoles, they also connected players in a way that's redefined gaming. Developers began creating games to tap into the potential of worldwide multiplayer, and we now seldom see a console release that isn't meant to be played among friends, family, and strangers over the Internet. At the same time, the mobile app stores—paving the way for a new era of handheld, individual gaming—followed suit. From Words With Friends through the latest releases, mobile app developers have crafted competitive and collaborative multiplayer experiences that operate online. For the first time, gaming became not just something that could be enjoyed socially, but which was meant to be. The new incentive for gamers was interaction. 

And now we come to virtual reality, something some consider to be the greatest frontier of gaming. Major companies have released VR headsets to the public, and as we move through 2016 it's expected that such headsets will become increasingly mainstream. Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo may even be rolling out a fresh generation of consoles in the near future simply to allow for integration with VR technology. But what we don't know is the effect VR will have on the nature of gaming. Will it take full advantage of the existing online multiplayer channels? Or is the concept of fitting a headset over your face to immerse yourself in a game so isolating that individual player experiences might be best?

The answers to those questions will be fascinating, as they could complete a bizarre cycle. In the beginning, games were meant as group activities, before handheld consoles made them better suited to individuals. Better consoles with multiple controllers brought the social aspect back, but reward incentives were primarily for individuals. And then the rise of online multiplayer made gaming more social than ever, just before VR could make it uniquely private. It's certainly interesting to think about in those terms, though it's worth noting that at this stage we have it all. The leading forms of gaming may dictate the flow between social and individual activity, but at present we can pretty much play games for any reason we choose.

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