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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Mark Vergeer
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Wow this discussion is a very interesting read!

I really have nothing to add here right now other than state that I have thoroughly enjoyed myself reading this discussion!

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Rowdy Rob
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Agreed.
Mark Vergeer wrote:

I really have nothing to add here right now other than state that I have thoroughly enjoyed myself reading this discussion!

I think this discussion is fascinating. Perhaps we are all just too close to the source, each of us having our own experiences that colour our judgment. It just might be too early to tell! After all, cinema had its "kinescope," silent movie, and black-and-white eras. Perhaps that's where we (comparatively) are: the silent movie era! What will videogames be like 30 years from now? Will they have settled into a form that would be unrecognizable to us today?

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Matt Barton
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Silent Era
Rowdy Rob wrote:

After all, cinema had its "kinescope," silent movie, and black-and-white eras. Perhaps that's where we (comparatively) are: the silent movie era! What will videogames be like 30 years from now? Will they have settled into a form that would be unrecognizable to us today?

That's what I've been wondering a lot, too. But there were of course many earlier "eras" before even the silent one; lots of experiments and short-lived technologies that very, very few of us care about today. I mean, it's rare enough to find someone today who wants to watch something like Thomas Edison's movies just for the heck of it--they probably only watch it because they have a historical interest.

Even if we *were* in the "silent era," that'd still be an amazing achievement for the medium. After all, there are many silent films that are considered masterful works of art and are watched by many people even today. Think of Charlie Chaplin's films, Metropolis, Battleship Potemkin, Nosferatu, etc. The list goes on and on. I can't think of any game that I'd put on the same pedestal as these film classics. On the other hand, though, maybe games aren't "good" in the same way as a good film or book is good, but rather in some other way unique to the medium. What I mean is some non-dramatic, non-narrative quality that is nevertheless artistically worthy. I suppose that still leaves the visual hanging on (graphics) and perhaps audio (music), but I might also wonder if we could appreciate the gameplay (the "ergodic" quality) enough to justify greatness.

In other words, might a fellow one hundred years from now still admire the gameplay of something like Pac-Man or Super Mario without recourse to any other factor, such as nostalgia or "cultural impact" or whatever? Might he just thing it was amazing just because of the way it plays? Or do we *require* some type of narrative/affective/drama/aesthetic to consider anything to rise to the level of art? Can the purely ergodic (i.e. gameplay) be art in and of itself?

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Bill Loguidice
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I don't know, I think

I don't know, I think videogames don't necessarily need to age much more in terms of development for us to appreciate them. Gameplay is gameplay. There's going to be a point - the holodeck on Star Trek for instance - where what we'll be playing can no longer be classified as a videogame. Perhaps the key is to separate the audio-visual aspects from the gameplay aspects. So yeah, to answer Matt, Pac-Man and Super Mario should, in theory, be forever playable, because they don't rely on audio-visuals to achieve the desired effect. They reached an acceptable minimum threshold for audio-visuals and should, in theory, be timeless because of it in conjunction with their gameplay. Oddly enough, the aesthetic appeal of later games probably won't age as well as many of the earlier games, particularly FMV, raycast and early 3D (polygonal) games.

So my original argument in the blog post still stands. The period I identified (we can go to 1985 if you wish to include Super Mario Bros., or even later to say 1993 if you want to include the peak of 16-bit, but I don't think either one is necessary) established every genre and gameplay standard we have today and will likely have outside of a holodeck-like experience, where it will cease to be a videogame. That to me is the "golden age". Acceptable audio-visuals and every gameplay standard on every possible type of platform.

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Matt Barton
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Threshold
Bill Loguidice wrote:

So yeah, to answer Matt, Pac-Man and Super Mario should, in theory, be forever playable, because they don't rely on audio-visuals to achieve the desired effect. They reached an acceptable minimum threshold for audio-visuals and should, in theory, be timeless because of it in conjunction with their gameplay. Oddly enough, the aesthetic appeal of later games probably won't age as well as many of the earlier games, particularly FMV, raycast and early 3D (polygonal) games.

That's a fascinating point, really. There seems to be some games that are optimized for their level of graphics/audio, and Pac-Man, Bejeweled, and Tetris are great examples of that. However, many other games would seem to benefit directly for enhanced graphics/audio, such as Super Mario Bros, King's Quest, Myst, etc. Then there is another consideration--the gameplay. How well does the interface age over time? I'd argue that King's Quest has aged very poorly; I'd also add Zork and most adventure games to the mix. It really isn't until you get to modern times that adventure games reach a point where they are both graphically optimized and very intuitive for even novices to control. On a side note, it always seems that games with cartoony or abstract graphics age better than anything that tries to be realistic. Compare something like Gabriel Knight II to Day of the Tentacle, for instance. DotD looks like it could have been made yesterday; GKII looks primitive.

Of course, almost all FPS and most other types of games "suffer" from their dependence on passing technology. Half-Life II looked great when it came out, but how good will it look in 50 years, and will anybody still play it? I doubt it. On the other hand, perhaps they'll still be playing Tetris. Perhaps Rogue will be the only CRPG to pass the test of time, since it's one of the only CRPGs I know that doesn't base at least some of its appeal on audiovisuals.

On a more positive note, perhaps remakes of these games will continue to keep them alive, much like colorization gave new life to old b&w films.

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Bill Loguidice
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Too much to chew on
Matt Barton wrote:

On a more positive note, perhaps remakes of these games will continue to keep them alive, much like colorization gave new life to old b&w films.

That's an interesting subject. I talked a bit about colorization of old films in an old issue of Armchair Arcade, and if you think about it, the trend has pretty much died out in favor of merely restoring the original to pristine condition. Take the recent release of the The Three Stooges collection on DVD. It's still black and white - not colorized - but they cleaned the film up to look as good as it ever has (stunning, really) - a far, far cry from what we used to watch on Sunday mornings. And what of the films that were filmed in black and white ON PURPOSE (like the ones in the 70s)? In short, the point is, when something is designed with a particular audio-visual aesthetic and with a certain type of hardware in mind, is it an improvement to muck with that or just unnecessarily meddling to maybe make it appealing to a subset of people who couldn't appreciate it on its own merits anyway?

And yes, the simpler the graphics - to a point - the better they age. Even Pong has a certain timeless charm even though it's just made up of blocks. Also, the cleaner the visuals, the better they age, as you say, which is why stylized or cartoony work well if they're not too jaggy. Again, few other mediums have the same issues videogames have to deal with in that regard. While film technology has improved, it's been the same reality filmed. There never was a period of say just shadows appearing on screen and then over the years this started to clarify into recognizable images. Same thing with music and books. Technologically speaking, while there have been improvements, the core has remained the same. The only core similarities we have with videogames - and probably the only core similarities we'll ever have - are the basic gameplay mechanics. That's why I argue that once we reach close to the holodeck stage, it ceases to become a videogame and turns into something else.

And I agree that most - if not all - FPS's will be forgotten (i.e., not played), while games like Tetris will likely still be played, just like Pac-Man will still be played. There may be other reasons for that though that we'd have to explore. It could the whole complexity threshold. Again, a game like Tetris or Pac-Man probably have been stripped down just enough to their core elements and are not dependent upon anything in particular to be enjoyable. Perhaps those games are like our chess and checkers analogs.

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Nous
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Matt, patronage is indeed a

Matt, patronage is indeed a very interesting model - and it doesn't have to involve aristocrats or authoritarian systems. Anyone who appreciates the medium and its potential and has enough money to spare could support the development of experiments and designs that would be enjoyed by all and at the same time associated with his or her name for eternity.

While this model is not being currently used widely, there are interesting analogues in the form of government grants or similar financial support (european union, nordic countries, canada, etc) where certain countries offer various incentives to studios and talented teams.

On the other hand, independend game developers implement a kind of self-funding model - by keeping a day job while funding their "hobby" at the same time - which, while different from patronage, still creates similar possibilities for innovation. Incidentally, that was common during the first cambrian explosion (80s) as you pointed out, but it is becoming fashionable again today due to market changes.

I would definitely like to see a somewhat traditional patronage model used widely today though. It's not very realistic to expect anything like it, but still. Again, there are hints of it when you see large companies genuinely funding experiments implemented by small teams for a short period of time (6 months or so) without really expecting much in return - if something great comes out of it, then great. Otherwise .. no big deal. It is also interesting that a game like ICO was created in almost such a manner and, even though it was never destined to become a big hit - in fact it totally bombed, selling barely 400k copies originally - Sony continued to fund the team and that led to the subsequent creation of Shadow of the Colossus (a more successful game, commercially speaking) and now the Last Guardian. But your point about "Da Vinci" having to be subjected to the commercial pressure of market realities, today, still stands.

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About whether games require a narrative for them to acquire artistic value .. I don't think they necessarilly do. I think gameplay is in many ways more similar to music than to literature, in that spatio-temporal patterns without words dominate the medium and there is no need for any story or characters. Having said that, the next quantum leap in game design *will* definitely involve artificial intelligence and interpersonal interactions that are far removed from gamepads, spatial relations and physical simulation.

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I disagree with Bill on one point: I don't think all of the genres and gameplay patterns and mechanics were established in the first cambrian explosion i.e. during the first half of the 80s ... perhaps most genres were hinted at in some way, while admitedly some (many) were actually established more completely in terms of gameplay, but there were some genres that were not even touched upon and even more which may have been attempted but completely failed to hit on (let alone establish) most of the essential gameplay mechanics and dynamics that appeared later. I think for the most part, and to various degrees, simulation games (flight simulation, racing simulation, war simulation), God games, some strategy genres, most fighting games, horror games, adventure games, and so on were only vaguely hinted at - similar to how during the biological Cambrian explosion you may get various body types with a neural system, but e.g. to have what appears to be four very primitive limbs sprouting and a somewhat centralised cluster of neurons is not *at all* the same as them becoming a biped ape with an opposable thumb and a self-reflecting brain; it's just a WHOLE different ball game, but you can still sort of trace its origins back to the almighty bacteria of course.

So, while I still agree with your idea of the first cambrian explosion happening during that period, I just think it wasn't the only one or even the relatively most impotant one necessarilly (except perhaps in a limited number of cases), and I do firmly believe there are far more important innovations about to happen in the next ten years. And I don't mean the "holodeck" concept, which I personally don't much care about, quite frankly: interaction is not limited to kinetic perception, physical actions or more elaborate sensory input (chess is extremely interactive, more so than playing with a physical toy); it has to do with intelligences interacting with each other conceptually in unbounded, complex and interesting ways. As I've said before, the core essence of the videogames revolution does not lie in what seems to be the dominant characteristic at first glance (visually dynamic interactions), but instead it is to be found in the processing capacity of the "other side" and its ability to simulate arbitrarily complex systems with which we can interact anyhow, not just in ways we're already familiar with (using our bodies inside a physical world, etc).

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"Elegance has the disadvantage that hard work is needed to achieve it and a good education to appreciate it."

-- Dijkstra

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stevefulton (not verified)
Golden Age

To me, the Golden Age of video games is this:

1. Born with Star Wars in 1977. The idea of "Space" as an adventure invades the lives of kids (of all ages) world wide.
2. Actual Golden Age in earnest in 1978 with the domination of Space Invaders Kids use Space Invaders (the Asteroids, etc) as a conduit to play "Star Wars"
3. Golden age ends in 1983 when the "Star Wars" arcade is released, and people can actually "play" Star Wars for real.

IMHO

-Steve

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