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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Alan Vallely
Alan Vallely's picture
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Joined: 06/11/2010
Welcome to our culture of

Welcome to our culture of consumption!

Probably the closest parallel for Video Games is Mobile Phones :) People always want the next big "thing" (see: often a fad).

However, this is just due to the exponential growth in technology. The average person can drive a 10 year old car and be fine with it, but they can't play a 10 year old game or (shudder) use a 10 year old phone! Why? Because there's been such massive changes, and people's expectations have changed with them.

But you know, we are always trying to find connections to video games with other more "physical" things like cars or phones. A video game is more an experience like a roller-coaster ride or a movie. And in this respect, you'll find the same behavior - people experience it, think it's great, and then move on. Unless they were so impressed they come back for another ride or viewing. But it is part of our nature, I think, where we are given the chance to experience so many things, we tend to just keep trying to experience new things. Travel's another great example - very few people feel the need to vacation in the same place every year (unless there's ties like family, friends, etc) when there is so much else out there!

So when you consider it from this angle, how does it feel to be part of a "disposable" medium of study? ;)

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