What is the Golden Age of Videogames?

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Bill Loguidice's picture

Based off of a discussion/friendly argument I was having on another forum, I would like to bring up the topic of the "Golden Age of Videogames" and what and when that really means. First off, I'm not a big fan of identifying "ages" of things as they relate to videogames in general, though I have certainly found similar types of categorizations convenient for defining and delineating eras, time periods, and the like. In short, it may be a bit messy with lots of gotchas, but it's a convenient and well worn mechanism for organization. With that in mind, I will put forth my own thoughts on what the "Golden Age of Videogames" is and the reasons why, though, as always, your own input will help to come to a better answer.

First off, I'm dismissing the argument that the "Golden Age of Videogames" is personal opinion, influenced by what you grew up with. There can only be one commonly agreed to "Golden Age", implied by the term "Age", just like there's only one "Golden Age of Hollywood". Second, I'm dismissing the argument that the "Golden Age of Videogames" depends upon region. This is a false argument. As with war, the "winning" side gets to name it, which is why it's the "Golden Age of Hollywood", not the "Golden Age of Bollywood". Finally, I'm dismissing the argument that a "Golden Age" is strictly one of prosperity. If that were the definition, then each new height Hollywood would reach in total sales would be a new "Golden Age", just like there would be no argument now in the world of videogames--if you go strictly by financial success and pervasiveness, it's an open and shut case that right now is the true "Golden Age of Videogames". It is not.

For my purposes, as always, I deem "videogame" to mean all platforms, be it computer, console, handheld or arcade, and any variation thereof. Further, I state that a "Golden Age" is defined by an early period of unusual creativity and explosive growth. Therefore, the period from 1976 - 1984 is the "Golden Age of Videogames". While there was remarkable, though sporadic innovation in videogame design from the 1950s through to 1975, and great arcade success from 1972 - 1975 thanks in no small part to Atari's Pong and the rash of clones, there was no real home videogame or computer market to speak of, outside of a microscopic percentage of the population, and certainly not in a classically recognizable form (general lack of screens and keyboard interfaces on the home computer side and general lack of interchangeable games/programmability on the console side, for instance). Naturally, the first true videogame console, the Fairchild Video Entertainment System, was released in 1976, followed in short order by the RCA Studio II and Atari Video Computer System, and so forth. In 1977, the home computer revolution became practical for the average user with the release of the Apple II, TRS-80 and Commodore PET, followed in short order by systems like the VideoBrain, Exidy Sorcerer, and so forth. The arcade scene was having its own revolution, moving beyond dedicated chips to full microprocessor control and seminal games like Space Invaders (1978) and the first color games, right through and beyond the phenomena that was Pac-Man in 1980. And speaking of games, this was a time of great experimentation and great ideas in videogames, be it at the arcade (take, I, Robot (1983), for instance, which was the first game to use filled polygons) or at home. Classic series like Ultima, Zork, Flight Simulator, Wizardry, Pitfall!, Lode Runner, King's Quest, etc., all had their starts, establishing nearly all of the key genres we have today (the only major omission I can think of being performance games [Edit: Though the more I think about it, even the basis of this was 1984 or sooner]). And finally, of course, for it to be an Age, it must in fact end, which was the idea of "The Great Videogame Crash of 1984", which I've discussed in detail previously. Sure, the industry's resurrection starting in late 1985 thanks in no small part to the Nintendo Entertainment System and Super Mario Bros. was a special time as well, but it does in fact require a different designation, as there was quite a bit of radical change, but little movement versus what was established during the "Golden Age of Videogames". Now, what are your thoughts?

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Catatonic
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I like your thesis. The

I like your thesis. The "golden age" also seems to be the last time that adults - men and women - could openly enjoy videogames.

davyK
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Certainly, for me, the

Certainly, for me, the golden age was the early 80's. In times to come this period may become named to signify it as the time when a lot of the ground rules where put down and many of the genres defined.

A visit to klov shows how much came out at that time that was original. The arcade in 80-81 was a mind-blowing place and I'm glad I was lucky enough to live through it.

Matt Barton
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I use terms like "Golden

I use terms like "Golden Age" for fun and convenience, but really I don't think we have enough perspective to define it in any historical sense. Who's to say what games will be considered important a hundred years from now? It's not like many of us care today about the earliest novels or films. Something like Pong or Pac-Man might be considered turning points or just little blips, no more interesting nowadays than Thomas Edison's "The Astor Tramp" or those coin-operated peep shows, or it could be the equivalent of Battleship Potemkin or Modern Times. I'm sure there will always be folks interested in this stuff purely for the technological/technical aspects and history, but not much else.

My guess is that what will tend to stick around the longest are games that are either very simple and unique, such as Tetris, and very deep, very artistically important games (the equivalent of "Citizen Kane," "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," and "The Seven Samurai.") These films are important because they are technically innovative (some might say "ingenious"), but also very watchable and moving (at least to serious film buffs) all these many years later. Of course, as you say, a "Golden Age" tends to evoke the idea of a bunch of major milestones being hit upon in rapid succession. OR, it could just a nostalgic looking back to one's favorites, that mythical "good ol' days." OR, it could be simple prejudices passed along by historians, such as their loathing of the "Dark Ages/Medieval Period" and their admiration of the "Renaissance" and "Enlightenment."

In any case, I think a Golden Age of Videogames would entail a period of intense growth, both technologically and artistically. We'd have to see big, bold strides being made in areas like graphics and interface, but also (and more importantly) wonderful and very compelling art. Only a few developers seem to really be operating at that level today, and I imagine the best are in Japan. You can't deny that the Zelda and Final Fantasy games are some of the most ambitious in terms of both art and artifice (even if I personally don't care for many of them). I remember thinking Half-Life 2 might have potential for greatness, and just possibly some games like Planetfall and Planescape:Torment. Of course, a big problem in all these cases is that they run the risk of there being too great of strides made in technology, so that later generations wouldn't even know how to approach something like P:T. What I'm saying is there might be such a rift there as there is now between a full-length feature film and those 10-15 second peep shows that cost a dime. OR we might be in that early silent film era...Who knows, really? We'll just have to wait and see.

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Matt Barton
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I might add that you and I,

I might add that you and I, Bill, may play a larger role in this "golden age" business than we might realize, simply because we wrote (and will write/direct) some of the first comprehensive books/films on the topic. Assuming that these works aren't forgotten utterly, it's conceivable that scholars or game buffs in the future might come to rely very heavily on them; in effect they might help define what is considered to be a "classic game" in the year 2050. I might be suffering from delusions of grandeur, but it's very gratifying to me to think that we might very well have helped shape the future of gaming's past. :P

By way of example, why do we think so much of Shakespeare today? It's because so many scholars and fans of literature talk about him so much, and it gets passed on. On the negative side, there might well have been plays written back then that were just as good if not much better, but for whatever reason didn't attract the pen of the historian or critic; they just didn't "stick."

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t. ryan arnold (not verified)
Golden Age

I agree with Matt that it's a little early to begin assigning a Golden Age to games. Although I also agree Bill that if someone pointed a gun to my head I'd say that the late 70s through the Great Crash of 83 would be about as good as any.

Although a lot of how you define a golden age would depend on your own age and environment. To my brother the "golden age" would likely be the late 80s and early 90s. MOst of his "favorite" games are from that time. I think he looks back on the pre NES games as primitive. A Bronze Age if you will.

Also in Japan there really was never a "crash" like there was here in 83. Games just continued unabated so to them it's probably harder to define boundaries on "golden ages".

I guess I like the generational divisions. LIke these games are all from the first gen / second gen. When I'm talking to my friends I'll usually say "8-bit" Era or "Atari Days" or something like that.

Rowdy Rob
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Some arguments for Bill, T. Ryan, and Matt.

I thought about trying to be a contrarian to Mr. Loguidice just for the sake of friendly debate, but I find it hard to find fault with his arguments. During his designated "Golden Age," coin-op, console, and home computer games were new, exciting, and pretty much ubiquitous in the West (particularly in America). All three videogame industries were pumping out exciting games, and the arcades were buzzing!

"t. Ryan Arnold" made a very interesting point about Bill's perspective of "the Golden Era" being perhaps skewed towards his Western experience. I really don't know how Japanese gamers would view this argument either way; would they agree that the golden age could be defined by a similar time period, or would they see it differently? I understand that the coin-op scene in Japan is still going relatively strong, as opposed to the West (particularly America), where it has all but died out. And what about the perspective of the videogame revolution as it was experienced in other parts of the world? Perhaps what we are experiencing now is their "golden age?"

However, Japan is a singular country, but what happened in the West (again, particularly America) had world-wide consequences on the industry as a whole. There are apparently countries where 8/16-bit computing is still going strong, but it isn't a world-wide trend. On this particular argument, perhaps Bill's argument is on solid ground. On the other hand, it would be foolish to argue that Japan has had little influence in gaming culture across the pond. But even on this point, Japan's success in the videogame era was largely tied to the West. I declare "toss up." :-)

I am not sure I agree with Bill that "the Great Videogame Crash" particularly ended the "Golden Age." The "Crash" may have redefined the era, but experimentation and advancement revived and continued into the 16-bit era in all three videogame industries (coin-op, console, and arcade). From the NES, Genesis/Mega Drive, SNES, Lynx, Gameboy, Amiga, PC, MSX, BBC/Acorn, etc. on the computer/console front, as well as Arkanoid, Street Fighter II, etc. on the arcade front, there was still advancement, experimentation, and excitement in all three sides of the gaming industry. Perhaps the "crash" was just a minor speed bump in an overall era. Although I have no offhand knowledge, perhaps Hollywood had similar "speed bumps" in its recognized "Golden Age" also.

It seems to me that the "era" died when the arcade side died. Coin-ops were always more technologically advanced than their home counterparts, and they largely influenced, or even lead, the home gaming fronts, with arcade advancements trickling down to the home front. But you really can't make that argument anymore. "Community gaming" in the arcades is largely gone, instead moving almost entirely to the home front. Without "high scores," the videogame scene seems to have changed dramatically with the loss of the arcade side of the equation.

I guess I'm arguing that the "Golden Era" is largely tied to the rise and fall of "arcade gaming." When the arcades died, the videogame industry/culture changed dramatically.

Matt, you make some interesting points also. However, you backed your arguments by using many "classic works" to make your points. Citizen Kane (cinema), Thomas Edison (invention), and Shakespeare (literature) are no doubt "classics" of their time, but they are singular achievements/people, and not necessarily the sole definition of an "era." In fact, these references are so notable that they stand APART from their "ages." Citizen Kane was certainly a singular classic, but it was merely a part of Hollywood's "Golden Age." Edison's achievements were part of the "industrialization" era, and Shakespeare's works were part of the "Victorian" Era. But their "classic" status seems not so much tied to their "eras," but to their notable achievements apart from their eras.

We all recognize "Star Wars" and "The Godfather" as cinema classics, but they are certainly not products that are considered part of Hollywood's "Golden Age." And we don't talk about the "Shakespeare" or "Edison" era, even though their contributions to their fields has achieved legendary "classic" status.

Similarly, videogames like "Pac Man," "Tetris," and "Doom" will all probably be considered "classics" that stand apart from their eras, noted singularly as "genius" like Edison and Shakespeare in future generations! I'm hoping so, anyway; if games such as this don't get recognized by future generations, then what games will? Will the beginnings of videogaming be considered trash by future generations?

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Matt Barton
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As I was reading your post,

As I was reading your post, Rob, I thought about whether the arcades are really DEAD, or just morphed. I could argue that arcades are still going strong in the form of GameWorks and so on, but that's a weaker argument in my view than saying that the role played by arcades in pushing the industry forward has been subsumed by the big gaming expos (E3 in particular). That's where a lot of the really futuristic, balls to the wall technology happens, eventually making its way into consoles and PCs. The fact that E3 and the like get so much attention via blogs and all manner of multimedia help as well, of course. But, just like in the arcades, these big conventions are places where avid gamers, developers, enthusiasts, media, and so on get their hands on new tech--it's just that the prototyping stage is much more efficient since there isn't the need to manufacture thousands of coin-op machines.

It might be a stretch here...But bear with me a moment. Could we say that *all* arcade machines (besides redemption machines, obviously) are really just prototypes? In the sense that they were prototypes of games running on hardware that hadn't yet achieved the economies of scale necessary to take them to the public in the form of console and/or PC games? I know it's a bit wacky, but do you get what I'm trying to say here?

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clok1966
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for now I think i agree with

for now I think i agree with the original poster. But in the big picture, for such a young hobby I dont think we can assign anything just yet. For the current time frame, I might say golden age would be the current age. As a comic book collector i can only compare. Video games are currently crossing over from the arcades into the homes of most everybody. Alot of people credit HALO as bringing gameing to the mainstream masses, the frat boys, the collage students. Also WoW has brouhgt people to gameing that wouldnt probebly be here. I guess it comes down to how you define the "golden age". Generally in my mind its when the something changes over from being for the collector/hardcore to mom and dad, and others who normaly wouldnt spend time with it. It is also when (only time will tell) certian "ICON" type products are released/made. To me it was the late 70's mid 80's, say 75-85, but (again compareing to comic books) how many people have played PAC-MAN, DIG DUG, ASTEROIDS (just to name a couple)? Many of the current gen may not even know of them. But Supermand and Batman, both considered golden age characters, we all know them, heck even other countries have versions. Now thing video games. Who hasnt heard of WoW, Halo, bejeweled, the Wii? I think its to early (argubly only about 40 years, yes much longer when you look at the "firsts") to set it in the early days. Much like comics, i dont think video games have hit the golden age, but it does seem we may be starting it. I supose one could argue in the 80's everybody knew who pacman was, etc... I do think most would today, but how many have seen an actual pacman screen (a classic collection or other)? I guess if Superman started in the golden age for comics, then would have Space Invaders started in the golden age of video games? or would it be the VCS 2600? Pacman? While all those brought the public in, it was still a nitch thing. Again, by going by comics as a guide (probebly a poor comparasion), I would almost say Wii Sports would be the game (while I personly think Wii games are very poor represtnation of the video game, it has struck a cord). I think up to now .. 20 million sales (Mario games) for home use was KING, but many places state Wii sports is in the mid 40 million area. So from a pure sales point we are currently in the Golden age, Sims in the mid teens, Wii games hitting mid teens, Halo games in the 8 million area each (to keep it in perspective, the best seller on the 2600 was Pac man at 7 million (wow, how many where bought for $5 I wonder?), Nintendo was Super mario brothes ins the 40 million area, (and again wow, the mario games have sold a boat load, all of them!!!) then there is the Wii, currently seems to have several 20 million sellers (most of them wii sports, wii fit, wii play) some of the Wii numbers are probebly a bit deceptive as WiiPlay comes with the extra wand, so are they counting that for sales too?

TO me the golden age is the age where they do the best, as in the most people play, know, enjoy them. It also iw when something comes that changes the face of it, gets people who wouldnt pay attention to look. that to me would be the Wii. I think my assesment is with everything from day one to today, i would say the golden age started when the Wii came out.

Sad thing is i still think the Wii is a fad (as well as natal and the sony sex toy looking thing)

Nous
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Both Bill and Matt are

Both Bill and Matt are making some good points here. I do think it's not as clear cut or as simple as we may like it to be though.

First of all, it's far too early to judge, although certain patterns can be observed already. If the definition of a Golden Era is the equivalent of a Cambrian Explosion (a burst of growth in different, previously unexplored, directions, a period of time densely populated with a large number of successive innovations and discoveries, etc) then I would argue that the early 80s were definitely one such period (1978 - 1986) - especially in the 8bit computer gaming world. But so was the following 16 bit era (arcades, amiga, PC, consoles) that saw a second wave of new technologies, game design innovations and an immense amount of (mostly forgotten) experiments that continue to influence game design to this day. Similarly, I would also argue that the original Playstation, the period between 1995 and 1999, was an extremely exciting period for game designers, with yet another large group of new experiments and game design patterns emerging.

Although technological progress is currently outpacing our capacity to keep up with it, in terms of game design, the latter has still made sufficient progress in the past 10 years. It is possible that we're about to enter a decade (2010-2020) of unprecedented growth and innovation for a number of different reasons.

---------------

"You must not give the world what it asks for, but what it needs."

-- Dijkstra

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Matt Barton
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I was thinking about this

I was thinking about this again, though in an historical sense, and wondered how big a part the aristocratic sponsoring system (the "patronage" system) played in this...As I recall, one thing that could spark a Golden Age would be a new prince who was heavily invested in the arts and sciences. That could lead to a might flourishing, particularly if there were also competition and feelings of great city pride and so on. If you had, say, three different princes in three different cities all interested in outdoing each other in terms of architecture, art, or what have you, there could be a great golden age. Of course, the costs of all this would ultimately be extracted from the peasants, probably under protest and by force.

Obviously, we can't have anything like that now, except perhaps in some dictatorship. I doubt very seriously you could ever levy a serious tax or get enough people interested in heavily investing in art or some new type of videogame or whatever it was. After all, to really be "art" it would need to be disconnected from immediate concerns about financial gain; the artists/developers would need to be independent enough from financial considerations to be able to pursue goals that might very well lead to dead ends.

To put this in game development terms, the problem we have now is that the type of folks holding the purse strings aren't interested in any "basic research," long-term projects, or anything that seems too risky or far out. This means that if there was some Da Vinci out there of videogames, he'd be forced to work on the latest movie-licensed FPS. This is contrast to the early days (the 80s that you guys keep bringing up), in which it was entirely possible for one person to create a full-fledged, commercial quality game. Therefore, it definitely isn't silly to talk about that period being a "golden age" of sorts, since men and women of vision could certainly see their projects through.

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