From dice made of stone to colorful Monopoly cash to limitless virtual worlds, games have come a long way. Some say they could take us a long way further.
A few millennia have come and gone since we were slinging knuckle bone dice in the dirt. Remains dug up in Iran tell us the ancient Persians played a game that looked like backgammon some 5,000 years ago. Greek historian Herodotus wrote about nomadic soothsayers who played pickup sticks.
Still, none of those games pack the shock and awe of gunning down insurgents in corpse-strewn alleys in Iraq and seeing it all in high-res, turbo graphics — really feeling the controller quake in your hand as the shrapnel of an IED hollows out a mud pit next to your combat boots. And while nobody dies when you press the kill button on your Xbox controller, the line between the real and the virtual has certainly been blurred.
“In some war simulations now, they use actual footage from Iraq and import it into the game,” says Sam Samanta, professor of physics at Finger Lakes Community College, which offers a degree in game-design.
The day after U.S. military forces bombarded Baghdad five years ago, Sony Corp., makers of the PlayStation series of consoles, applied for a patent on the term “Shock and Awe” for a videogame title. The company pulled the patent about a month later, but still produced — and still produces — games based on the conflict.
Many critics decry the pairing of entertainment with brutal reality. But were those ancient predecessors all that different?
After all, many experts believe chess was invented to train generals for war. As for games such as online poker, gambling has been around throughout recorded history. Modern games with occult bents? Ancient pickup sticks divined the future. And "Monopoly’s" predecessor was invented in by a socialist in the early 20th century — a time when anarchists were bombing Wall Street — to illustrate the evils of big capitalism.
In fact, there has long been a fear of games that mimic reality, according to Larry Dugan, assistant professor of computing sciences at FLCC. People are afraid of what they don’t know. They’re afraid that the unknown will supplant what they know. Then where will they be?
“When soccer came out for Atari, the biggest fear was that nobody was going to play soccer anymore,” says Dugan. “What happened? It became one of the biggest sports of that generation” in this country.
Still, it is hard to deny that videogames have usurped all other types of games and entertainment.
Last September, "Halo 3," a first-person shooter for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 platform, set sales and use records. Microsoft reported that "Halo 3" reaped the highest-grossing opening day in entertainment history: $170 million in its first 24 hours. As a comparison, the biggest blockbuster film, “Spider-Man 3,” took in just under $60 million on its opening day last spring.
Despite the videogame coup, classics such as chess and poker are far from extinct, of course. More than 742,000 people are registered at the online chess site GameKnot.com, which is one of more than a handful of such sites. Poker, too, has recently witnessed a renaissance in American culture. Estimates of how many Americans play poker at least once a month range from 60 million to 80 million, and many of them play online.
“This is so foreign to so many decision-makers,” says Dugan, a frequent online poker player. “All they have read about is kids who play games and go out and shoot people. The reality is, it’s not going to go away. It’s market-driven.”
There is no lack of psychological studies stating flat-out that violent videogames lead to violent behavior. In an essay posted on the American Psychological Association’s Web site, one researcher even says it’s a myth to suggest otherwise.
“I recognize there are pitfalls,” says Samanta. “There are people addicted to videogames, people who waste an enormous amount of time and resources.”
“But video games are also now developing tools with an impact in medicine, warfare, education and therapy,” he adds.
Just as soldiers use battle simulations to prepare for war, pilots often fly virtually before they ever take to the real skies, and even truck drivers get their training on a pixelated highway.
“We can use the videogame as a more natural pathway to cognitive processes,” Samanta says. “The brain is very plastic, but it will not automatically reorganize. It needs the right feedback training. Videogames can do that with visual and tactile feedback.”
At the Canandaigua VA, the Nintendo Wii — an interactive game console that operates via a motion-sensor remote — has taken on just such a role. There, veterans play tennis, golf and bowling without having to get up out of a wheelchair, but with no less verve. It’s therapeutic. It engages them physically and mentally, gets them together in a group, cheering each other on (see adjacent story).
Samanta hopes to take that to the next level. That is, he wants to use the mathematics of chaos theory to render the design of a game more dynamic, then turn around and use that game as a tool to teach the mathematics. Hitting full stride, he goes on, talking in terms of how a designer can use inverse power law distribution and the non-Euclidean geometry of fractals, for example, to make trees or a shoreline look more realistic.
Or by integrating a Duffing oscillator into the mathematics of the design, a flock of birds can be made to move more naturally, or a panicked crowd of civilians can become more frantic and random, and the gameplay more adaptive and challenging, says Samanta.
“A person should also be interested in how a videogame is made, not just the kicks they get from playing it,” he says. “That’s the portal to math and science.”
A HISTORY OF GAMES: POST-PONG
(All dates are approximations at best. This list is very far from comprehensive. Just because a game is not mentioned does not mean it is not fun.)
• 1974 — E. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson publish "Dungeons & Dragons," giving birth to the fantasy role-playing genre that would eventually lead to the online phenomenon "World of Warcraft."
• 1983 — The great American video-game crash. Owing to such gaffes as the impossible-to-play "ET" game for Atari 2600, sales throughout the fledgling industry plummet, companies go bankrupt and kids everywhere wonder why they wasted their allowance on a game that consists solely of a film-star alien who walks around and bobs his head. It’s the beginning of the end for many consoles, including the Atari 2600, ColecoVision and the Mattel Intellivision.
• 1985 — Nintendo Entertainment System hits the American market and sets off the next great boom in video games. Thanks to "Mario Bros." and "Duck Hunt," everyone falls back in love with video games.
• 1985 — Lame house parties all over the country are saved by the release of "Pictionary." Party games start to hit their stride — think "Scattergories," "Balderdash," the more recent "Apples to Apples" and the ultimate party game: "Trivial Pursuit" (which was released eight years earlier, in 1979).
• 1991 — Video-game maker Sega unveils "Sonic the Hedgehog", a spiky-haired, ultra-fast, blue hedgehog that runs around collecting coins and battling Dr. Robotnik. His flashy style is likely meant to rival Nintendo’s popular Italian plumber, Mario.
• 1993 — Id Software releases the computer game "Doom." The phenomenon of the first-person shooter game is born.
• 1998 — "Dance Dance Revolution" (DDR) is released in Japan. Players dance on touch-sensitive pads that trigger in-game buttons synched to the rhythm of a song. The game is eventually released in a take-it-home version that comes with the DDR mat.
• 1999 — "EverQuest" is released, and the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORG) is brought to the mainstream. An MMORG allows millions of people to play the same game concurrently online. Most of them take off from the fantasy role-play system and style created by E. Gary Gygax.
• 2004 — The Atari Flashback is released to the great joy of nostalgic gamers everywhere.
• 2005 — "World of Warcraft" holds an online, in-game funeral for one of its players — a Chinese girl nicknamed Snowly — who died after playing the game continuously for several days straight.
• 2005 — "Guitar Hero" is released for the Sony PlayStation 2 console. It comes with a guitar as its controller. Players press the buttons on the frets and the strum bar.
• 2006 — Nintendo releases the Wii console to compete with Sony’s PlayStation 3 and Microsoft’s Xbox 360 by appealing to a broader group of gamers. Its controller is a hand-held remote that responds to motion and acceleration, so that players can use it to throw a baseball, swing a bat or thrust with a sword. This moves game control away from the static input of buttons and joysticks.
• 2007 — "Halo 3" sets an all-time U.S. entertainment sales record: more than $170 million in the first 24 hours. More than a million people go online with the game before it has been out for a day.
• 2007 — "Rock Band" is released for Sony PlayStation 3 and Microsoft’s Xbox 360. It is the next step in the “rock game” evolution. Players may choose between a guitar, a drum set or a microphone. An online community develops a month or two after release to allow virtual bands to profile themselves, go on photo shoots or find other band members.
• 2008 — E. Gary Gygax dies. He was 69 years old.
• 2008 — Online players of "World of Warcraft" top more than 9 million.