Some Thoughts Toward a Non-Linear Game History

Matt Barton's picture

Over the past few weeks, I've been toying with an idea that sounds downright preposterous at first. I pose it as a Twilight Zone-esque "What if?" scenario: What if games haven't really "advanced" at all, but only changed, similar to how clothing fashions change over time? Let's explore some alternatives to the technological determinism so ubiquitous in our field.

For instance, would we say that someone dressed in a modern style is somehow more advanced than someone decked out in 50s duds? Assuming the person has dressed in such a way deliberately (rather than just emerging from a fallout shelter somewhere), we might even think he was amazingly cool looking. Indeed, we often find out that "vintage" fashions suddenly reappear, albeit slightly altered. What happens is that the trendsetters go out to Goodwill or wherever and buy the old clothes; once they are popular, popular brands began manufacturing new clothes based on that style. The short of it is that whatever "way uncool" things are sitting on the racks right now at your local Goodwill may one day be the basis of a new fashion.

None of this is really new when we're talking about clothes, but once you apply it to games people insist that we have a linear progression--games from 1980 are vastly inferior to games from 1990, and those are vastly inferior to games from 2000. However, I claim that this "linear progression" is simply an illusion (or ideology) brought on by the industry to keep selling us new hardware. It's rather like car companies; they need you to buy the new model, so they pretend that it's somehow way more advanced than last year's. Yet there is still something very cool about a '66 Corvette.

So what I'd like to propose is a thought exercise. Let's place an Atari 2600 next to a Sony PlayStation 3 and play games for each system. While doing so, pretend that both are brand new systems of roughly equal popularity and cost. Now compare the games not by which one has "better" graphics or whatever, but merely by style--the same way you'd compare a pair of vintage jeans from 1970 with another pair you just bought from the store. I think if you're willing to indulge in this kind of thought for an extended period, you'll begin to see what I'm talking about. The PS3 games are no more "advanced" than the jeans--it's just a different style of gameplay.

Now people outside the ideology (say, many grandparents) don't have a problem with this line of thought. You show my grandfather an NES game, and he would probably not even realize it was an "old" game. He certainly wouldn't understand that it wasn't as much fun as a Wii game just because it's old. For him, a game is either fun or it's not. Why do we feel differently?

 Obsolete, or just unfashionable?Oregon Trail: Obsolete, or just unfashionable?Again, I'd argue it's part marketing and part indoctrination. I don't know about you, but I was raised and educated with the idea that technology has steadily progressed, and it's important to stay on the "cutting edge" and decry older tech as obsolete. This seems to serve the interest of science, surely, but also the market. I particularly point at hardware companies here, because they're the ones that have the most to gain when we all rush out to buy the "next generation" of consoles and accessories. Software developers, on the other hand, seem mostly to prefer innovating with existing technology; they like stability and the challenges of overcoming technological limitations. Give software developers ten years with a given platform, and you'll see an amazing amount of diversity. Indeed, you probably wouldn't recognize that the games made in the last year were for the same system as the first ones. We have a few examples of this with the NES, Commodore 64, etc.

Sadly, the hardware companies are so hellbent on pushing us to "upgrade" that we often have to reclaim whole swaths of games ourselves, often illegally via emulation, roms, etc. Still, we're already starting to see more and more "classic" and "retro" games re-branded and re-introduced for modern systems, much as bell bottoms come into and out of fashion. My theory is that eventually we simply won't see games in the same linear way we do now, but will simply enjoy the games that fit whatever style and mood we want to employ that day.

So, with this in mind, what are some take-away points for gamers and developers?

1. Think of console "generations" less in terms of better and faster technologies, and more in terms of what the "kids these days" are wearing. Games will come into and out of fashion like shoes and shirts.
2. Consider making more new games based on old styles. We're already seeing this on the fringes with homebrew, but more will come.
3. The "walled gardens" of consoles are a temporary and unstable situation of the market; the walls will come down. This will require developers to think more than ever in terms of styles rather than technologies. You can make a new NES-style game for browser-based play on modern PCs, for instance. Again, only the market wants you to think in terms of distinct "platforms." Everyone else should be content with distinct styles and fashions.
4. Even if you believe we have made huge strides in game development, consider that chasing after the "cutting edge" really does more harm than good. Particularly, it removes many of the constraints that make development fun and rewarding in the first place. It's rather like reading the back covers of a bunch of different books rather than sitting down to really enjoy one (which could well require many re-readings).
5. A focus on style and fashion opens up many wonderful opportunities for development without requiring "originality." There is something refreshing about seriously looking at Atari 2600 or Commodore 64 games without the distorting lens of technological determinism, to use a fancy word. If that word describes you, consider exploring some other views and perspectives.

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Bill Loguidice
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Another way of looking at it
Matt Barton wrote:

The view I'm reacting against here posits that technology just continues to evolve, and games will just inevitably get better. The other view is that these things take place in societal and cultural contexts. Furthermore, unlike natural selection, there's nothing intrinsically "better" about a 360 than an original Xbox (or even an Atari 2600). We all know people who would argue that each of those platforms is superior. The one that is the "best" depends on personal tastes, such as preferred gameplay style, preferred aesthetic, nostalgia, consciousness of budget, etc.

I certainly get your point, though it could be argued that a 360 is better than an Xbox, because not only is it actively supported, but it also plays a large portion of the original Xbox games properly formatted to modern TV's. It can also be said that the selection of games on the 360 is superior to the Xbox or Atari 2600, because again, it not only has all of its modern games, but it also plays games for both of the other platforms, so the games argument - for that particular example anyway - kind of falls apart in the face of the modern platform's options. Perhaps a better analysis would be defining a platform by its best original games. That to me seems the only logical way to give older platforms a fighting chance, especially when a modern system can play a high percentage of an older system or systems games (which both the Wii and 360 excel at, and even the PS3 does not do too badly at).

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Matt Barton
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Styles
Bill Loguidice wrote:

I certainly get your point, though it could be argued that a 360 is better than an Xbox, because not only is it actively supported, but it also plays a large portion of the original Xbox games properly formatted to modern TV's. It can also be said that the selection of games on the 360 is superior to the Xbox or Atari 2600, because again, it not only has all of its modern games, but it also plays games for both of the other platforms, so the games argument - for that particular example anyway - kind of falls apart in the face of the modern platform's options.

That's true from a utilitarian perspective, but again, we're not talking about rational things here. For that view to work, you'd have to value being able to play a lot of different games (old and new), but that's not something everybody values. Again, coming back to many of the gamers I know, as long as they are able to play their favorite game or three, they're happy.

Somebody could go ga-ga over some lame DS game based on Shrek or ANTZ or whatever and think it's the best game in the world. Likewise, someone could simply not like the 360 and prefer the original. Maybe they hate all the newer games. Maybe they just think it's cool to be one generation behind. Who knows? Again, it comes down to your perspective, and in most cases that is largely guided by the marketing and views of your peers, etc.

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Bill Loguidice
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Analysis
Matt Barton wrote:

That's true from a utilitarian perspective, but again, we're not talking about rational things here. For that view to work, you'd have to value being able to play a lot of different games (old and new), but that's not something everybody values. Again, coming back to many of the gamers I know, as long as they are able to play their favorite game or three, they're happy.
Somebody could go ga-ga over some lame DS game based on Shrek or ANTZ or whatever and think it's the best game in the world. Likewise, someone could simply not like the 360 and prefer the original. Maybe they hate all the newer games. Maybe they just think it's cool to be one generation behind. Who knows? Again, it comes down to your perspective, and in most cases that is largely guided by the marketing and views of your peers, etc.

I understand that, but as game scholars/historians, it's important to set some type of ground rules, otherwise it always come down to "personal preference" and we wouldn't get anywhere. For me, anyway, looking at say, the top ten ORIGINAL titles for a given platform and comparing them to both their peers and what came before would not only be the best way to determine once and for all if games have really "advanced", and at what points there was stagnation, etc.

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Matt Barton
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Tastes
Bill Loguidice wrote:

I understand that, but as game scholars/historians, it's important to set some type of ground rules, otherwise it always come down to "personal preference" and we wouldn't get anywhere. For me, anyway, looking at say, the top ten ORIGINAL titles for a given platform and comparing them to both their peers and what came before would not only be the best way to determine once and for all if games have really "advanced", and at what points there was stagnation, etc.

No, I agree, there are certain perspectives that are just specific to an individual. What really matters is who is saying X is better than Y and what standards of judgment are they employing--are they able to make a convincing argument that the audience will respect and accept? Take your 360 example again; I completely agree with that for the reason you gave. I'd also consider you (or me, for that matter) to be in a better position to make such claims than a young child or person who has only played a few games on one platform, etc. Furthermore, we are able to articulate our views clearly, something that (sadly) many other gamers are unable or unwilling to do (i.e., "This game rawks! That game sucks! 'nuff said!).

The thing that I don't think either of us are doing is claiming that technological developments automatically lead to better and better games--or that somehow the technology itself changes society (in this case, gamer culture). I'd argue that the games culture of the 80s or 90s is significantly different than the game culture today, but that's primarily a result of the people involved--choosing to favor certain games in certain contexts (i.e., the arcades of the 80s vs. the consoles and multiplayer of today). The rise of consoles didn't cause the game culture to change to one favoring living rooms to arcades; that was a result of the people losing interest, perhaps buying into the hype, perhaps wanting something new, perhaps not willing to spend so many quarters or wanting games that lasted longer. In any case, it wasn't like "Hey, guys, I can't go to the arcade any more because of the NES." That'd just be silly.

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Bill Loguidice
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Agreed
Matt Barton wrote:

The thing that I don't think either of us are doing is claiming that technological developments automatically lead to better and better games--or that somehow the technology itself changes society (in this case, gamer culture). I'd argue that the games culture of the 80s or 90s is significantly different than the game culture today, but that's primarily a result of the people involved--choosing to favor certain games in certain contexts (i.e., the arcades of the 80s vs. the consoles and multiplayer of today). The rise of consoles didn't cause the game culture to change to one favoring living rooms to arcades; that was a result of the people losing interest, perhaps buying into the hype, perhaps wanting something new, perhaps not willing to spend so many quarters or wanting games that lasted longer.

Intuitively, I agree 100%, but it would be awesome to do an analysis of nearly every valid platform and what are considered their top 10 games and see if that "feeling" holds up. Maybe there has been advancement. Maybe certain movements are tied to cultural norms. Maybe certain technology didn't change anything, but others did. Maybe some things changed and some didn't. Etc. It would make an awesome research project, but I can't see any publisher touching that with a ten foot pole.

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Chris Kennedy
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Additional thoughts

As more time passes by, I find myself turning into one of those people that calls for the one console future. While hardware evolves to allow for greater potential (never assumed to be better!) software, the problem lies in the fact that you also have to choose which platform you are going to stick to using.

This does several things -
1: Creates fanboys for a particular console because human nature dictates that one defend their purchase
2: Alienates people from certain games because they don't own ALL consoles.
3: Before today's (limited) backward compatibility, it meant old consoles (and therefore the *games*) had to be placed elsewhere in favor of the new.

So it isn't only a matter of people saying that new games are better than old - the entire mechanics behind the evolution of consoles basically says, "get rid of the old in order to make room for the new." You can't play the old games on the new system, and you need room for the new system...so get rid of the old system.

Games should NEVER lose their ability to be played because their console is no longer available, but that is just how it is. VHS, Beta, Laserdisc, DVD, Blu-ray - all of these are delivery mediums that do not work (save special case) on the previous generations' players. You buy a new player, you replace (to some degree) your movie library, and life moves on because you get the same experience (with the latest technological enhancements) for a given movie.

But companies redo all of the movies in the new format. It isn't like you have to buy a converter to play your VHS tape on your blu-ray player. Companies manufacture a movie in the new medium and release it.

The sheer volume of games as well as the lack of marketability suppresses games from being re-released for each new platform.

So again I call for the one console future -
1: Do not limit the exposure of new software to which console someone purchased
2: Stop spending company time porting a new game to all current platforms (because there should be only one)
3: Help make old game preservation easier by only having one previous generation console to worry about when it comes to backward compatibility.
4: Unify a platform for old games.

Could you imagine having one machine that played Wii Sports, did Microsoft Arcade, played every Playstation game made, and had the entire Wii Virtual Console available for download? Top that off with the fact that anyone that games in the current generation would own said console and have access to the same things as their neighbor?

People would argue that Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft find the need to compete with the hardware - I would say "screw that" and tell each company to focus on 1st party software. I realize, of course, that this would be money lost. But again, I say - It is about the software evolution - NOT hardware evolution (well...mostly).

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Matt Barton
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Yes, it definitely would be.

Yes, it definitely would be. At least in terms of computers, it seems hard to argue that the Amiga 1000 wasn't superior (in many ways) to the much more expensive PCs of the time, but of course we know who won that "war." Clearly, technological "superiority" is not always a trump card, especially when the other companies have great marketing, reputation, focus, etc.

Chris's argument seems to be getting at the heart of it all--the market contexts in which these things are manufactured, marketed, and sold. I'd argue that the "one console future" might seem negative for at least a few reasons. One is that the marketing campaigns do a good job of presenting themselves as distinct communities; take Apple vs. Microsoft, or Sony/Nintendo vs. Microsoft. Or go further back to Nintendo vs. Sega. This suggests in the minds of consumers that the gaming industry is robust with lots of diversity--i.e., don't like Mario? Go Sega! This "diversity" is largely artificial, since most of the same games (or at least the same styles) are available on both. We could argue fine points about individual titles and such, but that's playing into the marketing game (they *want* us arguing about all of these fine points because that keeps the brand in our mind). Sega actively encouraged it, of course, and Nintendo played right along.

It's similar to what happens with political parties. Don't like the way things are going? Vote for the other party! This way, we appear to have a real choice and ability to make an impact on government. Do we? Somehow, I doubt it. Likewise, I doubt that buying a PS3 instead of a 360 is really going to make that huge of an impact on your actual gaming, though you may feel you've chosen a side, are committed to a brand, really enjoy the hell out of the "exclusives," etc.

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Alan Vallely
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Hey guys, just want to throw

Hey guys, just want to throw in my 2 cents. Since I'm late to the game, there's lots to comment on (sorry about the length!) Good discussion thus far!

SEPARATING GAMES FROM TECH, *IF* THAT'S POSSIBLE!

Be careful with the word 'better', as it can mean very different things to different people and really needs to be qualified. I think what you mean is that, from an enjoyment level, new tech does not mean the game will be "better". Because you can argue, as far as game development tools or technical enhancements go, that new IS better :) Then there's always the issue of "immersiveness" - it would appear newer games can do this aspect "better" than older ones as well (though this is subject to the classification of 'immersiveness').

It's also tricky knowing what to compare in order to make the judgment that "newer is better" or "newer isn't better". From a narrative point of view, new games often superior in the aspect of story to say, Atari 2600 games. 2600 games drew their game design approach from the arcade, and lacked more than a tiny narrative justification for what the player is supposed to do ("save the girl from the gorilla"). However, when I move forward to something like King's Quest 3 (circa 1987), there is much more complex narrative. In fact, you could argue KQ3's story parallels the structure of Grand Theft Auto 4, with a master narrative being driven by smaller "mini-quest narratives". That's 21 YEARS without a fundamental change. But, again, that's like comparing narratives in film to novels - film narratives are almost always inferior to novel narratives, but that's because you're discounting film's advantages - the audio + visual itself!

So, are we actually able to separate the tech from the rest in a game to determine it's value? I don't think so, beyond general judgments like "was it fun?" or "did you like it?". But even this requires a large test group, to meter out the personal preferences of what different people consider "fun" ;)

THE ESSENTIAL CANON OF GAMES:

Matt, your comment about different generations really raises an interesting point, which reminds me of the academic world's somewhat "elitist" (for lack of a better word) approach. "Well, younger kids don't KNOW about all of the classics, therefore their opinion is invalidated because they do not possess sufficient knowledge".

This is a very easy thing to justify when it comes to classical music or literary novels, as these generations have been around extremely long and have established their canon of "the best" which most people are familiar with. However, with video games being so young, and changing so fast, no canon of games can be established (or at least, a single, universal list). It's a huge problem with the VG area, because you can't be assured everyone has the same foundation. But you know what? Even film has this problem to some extent. The canon may be determined by the academics, but the average person won't have seen 80% of it. Maybe video games will reflect this trend.

ONE CONSOLE FUTURE:

A 'one console future' is just as likely of happening as a one car manufacturer ;) It's important to understand that video games were born from less-than-profound circumstances - to give people basic entertainment and as a function of capitalism. Thus, there will always be (and need to be) competition. But I agree that it makes assessing the "most valuable" games tricky, because you haven't played games on all the platforms (particularly, for us, the other-region consoles like the ZX Spectrum or the Sony MSX!). So if us experts haven't done it, the average person sure as heck hasn't!

- now that I'm caught up, I'll try not to respond so lengthy next time!

Al.

Catatonic
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The demand for new cars & new

The demand for new cars & new videogame systems seems to be generated in the same way. The manufacturers bring out new models on a regular schedule, calculated to make you want to get rid of your old one, even if there was nothing wrong with it. It appeals to our desire for novelty. A new car or a new game system makes you really excited at first but you soon get used to it & want something new to get your adrenaline going again. It doesn't have to be better, just new. This also applies to fashion, houses, girlfriends, money, physical exercise (i.e. if you get into running, you may find yourself wanting to go farther and farther distances beyond reason), you name it.

Matt Barton
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Like Hunger
Catatonic wrote:

The demand for new cars & new videogame systems seems to be generated in the same way. The manufacturers bring out new models on a regular schedule, calculated to make you want to get rid of your old one, even if there was nothing wrong with it. It appeals to our desire for novelty. A new car or a new game system makes you really excited at first but you soon get used to it & want something new to get your adrenaline going again. It doesn't have to be better, just new. This also applies to fashion, houses, girlfriends, money, physical exercise (i.e. if you get into running, you may find yourself wanting to go farther and farther distances beyond reason), you name it.

That's a good point. Barry Brummett mentioned that style and fashion works a lot like hunger--the ads always promise lasting fulfillment, a great meal, etc., but it's inevitable you'll just end up hungry again. There's no meal so good that you'd never be hungry again. Where the novelty comes in is pretty interesting. I guess that eating the same foods, playing the same games, driving the same cars, or even sleeping with the same lover over and over again can condemn people to a life seeking endless variety. There's seems to be something psychological thing with desire going on there. It's pretty unsettling to think about a salesperson praising the current model as the best thing ever, knowing full well that next year he or she'll dismiss it as all but worthless compared to the new model.

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