Reaching a new level
Professor traces dynamic history of digital games in new book
February 15, 2017
Video games, played via
television screens, smart phones and computers, are ubiquitous today. They have
become so mainstream that University of Wisconsin-Stout and other
universities around the country offer bachelor degree programs in game design.
In the first half of
the 20th century, however, there was no video game industry. How did it grow from
late 1800s strength-testers at the county fair to high-tech, animated
environments, a $30.4 billion a year industry supporting more than 2,400 companies
and 220,000 jobs?
Andrew Williams, an
assistant professor in the School of Art and Design at University of Wisconsin-Stout,
tells the story with his new book, “History of Digital Games: Developments in
Art, Design and Interaction.” It was published in early February.
“History of Digital
Games” was written as a university textbook but could appeal to any game
aficionado because it “shows how ideas from
the late 1800s are still present in many games of the present,” Williams said.
As the subtitle indicates,
Williams doesn’t just trace the rise of video games but the interrelationship
between game design, art and the development of input devices. His work looks at
video games as designed objects and how the design trends were shaped
historically, culturally, economically and technologically.
“History of Digital Games” is
published by CRC Press, an imprint of the Taylor and Francis group, and is available
from CRC Press and at this link on Amazon.
Williams answered several questions
about “History of Digital Games”:
Q: In general, what’s the arc
of digital game growth through the decades?
A: The book starts with a
discussion of mechanical and electromechanical amusement devices of the late
1800s and 1900s such as strength testers, Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope,
coin-operated sports games and pinball machines. These and other public
amusement devices were one of the major sources that helped inform the design
of 1970s and 1980s video arcade games.
The other major source came from computer
hackers of the 1960s and 1970s who created games as a way to understand the
capabilities of electronic computers. Forces of commercialization led to games
such as “Pong,” “Space Invaders,” “Pac-Man” and “Donkey Kong,” which created sensations in the arcade and
provided companies the motivation to develop the home market, further leading
to home consoles such as the Atari 2600 and, eventually, the Nintendo
Personal computers appeared
simultaneously with these consoles, further expanding the ways that people
engaged with video games. The late 1980s and 1990s was a period of rapid
advancements as interactive film and virtual reality pointed to the beginnings
of a 3D revolution in video games. This momentum, aided by computer hardware
specifically designed to calculate 3D objects, eventually enabled the
photorealistic imagery seen in many big budget games of the present.
The explosion of broadband
Internet connections and touch-screen smart phones and tablets in the 2000s,
meanwhile, provided video games with an even greater presence in people’s daily
lives. The 2000s also was noted for the emergence of independent games, which
often challenged the assumptions about games and game design practiced by
mainstream videogame developers. Smaller in scope, often made with a handful of
people, and employing a sense of the unconventional, independent games found
success that ranged from niche to mainstream audiences.
Q: What important discoveries
did you make through your research and writing?
A: One of the key narratives I saw
emerging from my research was the importance of coin-operated games for
developments in home console and home computer games. In addition to porting
arcade games to these platforms, arcade games influenced the design of
controllers as well as physical hardware specifications. The links between
these different contexts is not always made explicit, as arcade games, home
consoles and home computers tend to be soloed and looked at separately. Writing
a book that provides a general overview of these developments allowed me to
better see the links that unify them.
Q: How long did you work on the
book, and why did you feel it was important to write?
A: The writing process took more
than two years, which included conducting dozens of interviews with past and
present video game developers, computer hackers of the 1970s and collectors of
antique, coin-operated devices. My research also included an even greater
amount of reading, as well as visiting one of the largest arcade collections in
the Midwest and, finally, playing games with a critical eye.
Video games and their history is a
new subject of interest in higher education. I saw an opportunity to lend a
different perspective to video game history, than that which had been covered
before, one that considered games as designed objects and included a broader
spectrum of topics. I believe this view highlights the professional nature of
game development and can lead to a greater appreciation for the innovative
accomplishments of the medium.
I was fortunate to be able to meet
many wonderful people who helped me in the creation of the book. In particular,
James Hague, a professional game designer from video game developer Volition in
Champaign, Ill., was key in providing critical feedback during the writing
process. Additionally, UW-Stout
students Chelsea Bunkelman, Hassan Javaid, Jack Haessly, Maria Kastello, and
Keaton Van’t Hull aided in prepping photographs and gathering sources of
Top: Andrew Williams, an assistant
professor at UW-Stout, has a large collection of video games and books on the
topic in his office. He has written a book, “History of Digital Games.”
Bottom: “History of Digital Games” by