History of video games/Understanding Historical Technology

When studying the history of video games, it is very helpful to have an understanding of historical technology. This chapter intends to catch up readers on relevant developments which were influential in the development gaming technology. Readers with a background in such history may consider reading ahead.

Prior Developments


A number of prior developments would prove influential on the development of video games. This section covers those technologies that either paved the way for game systems, or showed how earlier people perceived automated entertainment - the socio-technological bedrock of the gaming industry.

At the same time, many technologies involved in gaming are much older than one might expect. It's important to note that none of the developments in this section are directly video games themselves, and many of these developments remained unavailable to the common person until the development of mass production.



The use of moving pictures as a form of artwork may date back to the stone age.[1][2]



People have desired autonomous entertainment since ancient times. This is evidenced by the Ancient Greeks, who are said to have built a theater of automatons in Alexandria.[3] Early concepts of simulated realities can also be seen in Plato's Allegory of the Cave.[4] In particular, Hero of Alexandria describes automated theater systems in Automatopoietica, including moving not only automaton actors in 3D space, but also tricks that would later be used by 3D games, such as using 2D graphics convincingly in a 3D space.[5] The ancient Chinese also employed automation for entertainment at various points in their history, also primarily in mechanical theater.[6]

The Ancient Chinese and the Ancient Greeks were both aware of the natural phenomenon of the Camera Obscura, an important observation which would later lead to more advanced cameras and understanding of optics,[7] both technologies that would later see use in games.

The philosopher Thales of Miletus, one of the seven sages of Greece, was among the first to document electromagnetic phenomenon.[8]

The mathematic concepts, especially those relating to geometry, pioneered by the Greek philosopher Euclid of Alexandria would later be commonly used by game developers.[9] The Greek Philosopher Plato described how triangles could be used to represent 3D shapes,[10] a mathematic concept fundamental to computer 3D graphics, especially by the real time graphics used in video games.

Age of Enlightenment & The First Industrial Revolution


While Video Games are often seen as a relatively new medium, many foundational technologies for gaming were developed just decades or a century or two prior to the development of video games, which is a very short period of time in most historical fields.

The Mechanical Turk of the 1770s showed a desire by people to play games with a machine,[11] though in truth the machine was operated like a puppet by a human hidden beneath the playtable.

From the 1830's to her early death, Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (Known popularly as simply Ada Lovelace), a skilled mathematician who studied under Augustus De Morgan himself, becomes arguably the first programmer, having written a complex program for the analytical engine designed by Charles Babbage which incorporated now common hallmarks of programming, including nested loops, bugs, debugging techniques, and variables.[12] In addition to her mathematical work, Ada Lovelace received musical training, and it was she who first wrote of using computers to generate music programmatically - A topic of specific importance to the history of video games.[13] Further attempted developments of the machine by Babbage were almost certainly hindered when Ada Lovelace was afflicted by illness, eventually dying young as a result.[14][13]

The Second Industrial Revolution


Recorded Audio


In the 1877 Thomas Edison would invent the Phonograph, enabling the accurate recording of audio to be played back at a later date.[16]

The War of Currents


During the 1880's the war of the currents highly influenced electric standards.[17][18][19] The resulting AC standards would influence television standard refresh rates,[20] and in turn influence standard video game refresh rates.[21]

For more information on the War of the Currents, one can consult the Wikibook Nikola Tesla, though bear in mind this important figure was only a one part of the event.



Depending on the source, Joysticks were either invented during the American Civil War between 1861 and 1865 for use in submarines at the earliest,[22] or invented in 1923 by C. B. Mirick while working for the US Naval Research Laboratory at the latest.[23][24] Their use as a control scheme for specialized vehicles made them a natural choice for early game systems.



Racing Games as an arcade genre date back to as early as 1912.[25]

The Modern Era


Broadcast Standards, and all that Jazz


The earlier War of Currents would influence broadcast standards for television, which would influence what frame rates, resolutions, and other standards used by computers and game consoles. Though standardization greatly improved compatibility between devices from different companies, a number of incompatible standards arose across the globe. This lead to massive variations and incompatibilities early on in gaming history, as systems had to be designed for NTSC, PAL, or SECAM depending on their geographic region, and often had to be designed to take a specific voltage and frequency of AC, which alternated between countries. As time went on, digital standards made these early television standards mostly irrelevant, and the introduction of better power supplies which could handle nearly any AC power standard used across the globe also reduced such concerns dramatically.

Other Innovations


After early developments in the 1930's, printed circuit boards see widespread use in World War II munitions.[26] These boards aid standardization, and help pave the way for mass production of consumer electronics.

The Information Age


Though gaming as a medium is proceeded by its foundational technologies, most of these technologies continued to experience significant improvements alongside gaming technology. This means that every decade since the inception of video gaming as a medium, the core technologies supporting gaming have also improved substantially, making the relationship between the two in significant flux.

The nearly concurrent rise of computer industry with the video game industry directly lead to improvements and innovations in both industries. The Wikibook History of Computers covers the general history of computers in more detail. This section discusses these innovations as they relate to gaming.

Transistors, Integrated Circuits, and the Microprocessor


The miniaturization and resulting ability to mass produce advanced yet relatively cheap electronics was a key moment in this history of all consumer electronics applications, but especially video games. There would likely be no significant market for a room sized gaming device which cost exorbitant sums of money every minute to operate and regularly required downtime for vacuum tubes to be replaced by skilled technicians.

In his 1945 article As We May Think for The Atlantic Dr. Vannevar Bush proposes Memex,[27] a concept which would evolve into hypertext, paving the way to the World Wide Web, and by extension, games on the web.

Video Game Era


This section covers common recurring trends seen in technology use and adoption in video game history.

General hardware


In the late 1980's to the early 2000's a trend emerged where marketers would promote their systems by the bit size used by the internal computers of their devices. In general, there is a sliver of truth that larger bit sizes did aid development. However bit size alone has little to do with anything gaming related, especially after 32-bit processors became commonly used. Other factors, such as improved clock speeds, instructions per clock, internal architecture improvements, and perhaps most importantly, dedicated chips for applications such as graphics and audio, are much more responsible for the increased performance seen as time went on. Increased storage capacities of media also helped developers focus more on improving the game, and less on optimizing for hardware.

Hardware paradigms


In a generation there is typically a wide spectrum of power available on individual systems. Most systems fall into a sort of Goldilocks area where they are powerful enough for games of the time, but cheap enough to be viable on the market. However there are a few commonly seen strategies which buck this trend.

A common alternative strategy is to use cheaper underpowered hardware, and hope that the resulting high marketshare from a lower price attracts developers to a platform anyway. Skilled developers can often make up for hardware which is only moderately underpowered, but if the hardware is too underpowered, it creates a sort of chicken and egg problem where consumers don't want even cheap hardware because it lacks compelling games, and third party developers aren't interested in such hardware because it lacks marketshare and is difficult to develop for. An example of this model is the Watara Supervision, which undercut the popular GameBoy on price, but was unable to attract a marketshare with its poor game library.

The inverse strategy, using much more expensive overpowered hardware, is also commonly seen. Modest cases of this are especially true for major game consoles at launch, which often require a razor blade model where the console itself is sold at a loss, and profit is instead made on game sales. However some systems take this model to an extreme, finding a small market niche by offering unparalleled experiences at an unparalleled price. A good example of this strategy is the Neo Geo home console, which was essentially identical to the arcade systems made by SNK at the time.

Especially early on, some companies employed engineers with such skill they were able to do much more than their competitors for much less. A notable example of this is the Apple II home computer, which Steve Wozniak was able to add color capability to using clever tricks while keeping costs much lower than other competing color computers. This relatively cheap home computer with great potential for gaming in color took the market by storm as a result. As time went on, such massive leaps became rarer, but there were some companies which were able to use their massive manufacturing capabilities from other markets to undercut gaming companies by making things in house and eliminating third party middlemen.

Occasionally a device manufacturer attempts a completely different paradigm, often by introducing a new user interface technology, to attract consumers.

Developer Friendliness


Another commonly overlooked technological aspect which has improved with time is developer friendliness. As time has gone on systems have generally gotten easier to develop for, allowing developers to use high level programming languages, standardized APIs, and later standardized game engines to more easily target multiple systems in a generation.

A key point to note is that underpowered systems with well understood architectures tend to not be too impactful on developers, who will often be able to make a game appropriate for the hardware. However a number of systems have released historically with strange technological decisions which theoretically offer much greater performance than other hardware of the time. In these cases developers, especially third party studios, often struggle to actually take advantage of this poorly understood hardware and the benefit is often reduced, lost entirely, or even backfires with implementations that run worse than on much weaker systems. This lessons over time given widespread adoption.

As an example of this phenomenon, many software developers in the 1990's had trouble leveraging systems with multiple CPUs. By the late 2010's utilization of multi-core CPUs was much better. This is aided by improvements in the hardware itself, such as designing CPUs with multiple cores instead of putting two independent CPUs on the same board, as well as software improvements such as game engines supporting multiple threads by default.


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Introduction · Early games