Gaming has become the largest form of media by revenue and in 2021 it even surpassed the movie and music industries combined! What is now an enormous worldwide phenomenon was not always so popular, beginning as a niche hobby for the outliers of society.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the humble beginning of gaming and its meteoric rise over the last few decades.
1950s – Scientific origins
Many people do not realize that the inception of video games actually started in 1952 when a British professor called A.S. Douglas developed a project called ‘OXO’ as part of his dissertation at the University of Cambridge. This was essentially a computerized version of tic-tac-toe. A few years later in 1958, a similar project was developed at the New York Brookhaven National Laboratory called ‘Tennis for Two’.
1960s – Brave frontiers
Things were stagnant for a while until another scientist at MIT created a simple cosmic combat game called ‘Spacewar!’ which was the first instance of a game that could be installed on multiple computers.
Toward the end of the decade, a company called Sanders Associates invented the very first home video game console that could be connected to television sets which they nicknamed ‘The Brown Box’.
1970s – A new Odyssey
This home console device was licensed to a company called Magnavox in 1972 who began marketing the system to consumers under the name of ‘the Odyssey’. Unfortunately, sales never took off and the very first home console died a premature death, having paved the way for many companies still in business today.
The Odyssey had launched with 28 built-in games and one of these became the inspiration for legendary games company Atari to develop and release ‘Pong’ in 1975, which became a massive craze at the time and was the first successful video game for the home market.
This was just the beginning for Atari, who went on to release the Atari 2600 in 1977 which was a home console with joystick controllers, game cartridges and color visuals for the first time. This console became the foundation for many to follow and the cartridge system was a huge innovation to catapult Atari to new heights commercially.
By the end of the decade, massively popular games like Space Invaders and Asteroids had launched and third party organizations like Activision had started to emerge to capitalize on the boom by developing games despite not manufacturing their own consoles.
1980s – An existential crisis
In the early 80’s, video game companies had become complacent and were licensing an enormous amount of games, effectively saturating the market. Many of these games were rushed out and were extremely low in quality such as the infamous E.T. movie tie-in game which cut development short to release in time with the theatrical release of the film.
The resulting product was unfinished, riddled with bugs and extremely boring, causing a huge backlash and many returns of the product. Consumers had lost trust in Atari and other game companies, with sales falling off a cliff and nearly ending the video game industry as a whole.
Notably In 1981, a tile stacking game known as Mahjong Solitaire was released for the PLATO computer system. Mahjong Solitaire was more widely enjoyed by the public later on in 1986 when Activision released their version of it, titled ‘Shanghai’ for various computer systems. Despite some successful computer game titles, the home console market was still in massive trouble.
Who better to save the day than Nintendo? Once a playing card company, the Japanese company made the shift to video games with the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1985 to widespread acclaim. The system featured groundbreaking 8-bit graphics, colors, sounds and gameplay with high quality hardware and games.
During this decade, they released legendary titles such as Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda and Metroid which are all franchises that are still around today. Nintendo weren’t the only juggernauts to emerge in the 1980s, since Capcom released Pac-Man, Microsoft released Flight Simulator and Square released Final fantasy.
By the end of the decade, home consoles had cemented themselves in the market but Nintendo innovated even further by releasing the Game Boy in 1989, paving the way for the enormous handheld market to follow. The Game Boy often came bundled with Tetris, which is one of the most famous, best selling games of all time that is still enjoyed widely today.
1990s – Clash of the consoles and the dawn of 3D
In 1990, Microsoft released their Windows 3.0 operating system which came with a card game called Klondike Solitaire built-in. This started a whole new casual gaming craze, with many people around the world becoming obsessed with the column-based digital card game. The game’s popularity led to the inclusion of other card games like the Hearts card game and FreeCell in later Windows versions, further cementing the operating system’s role in popularizing digital card games.
In the first few years of the 90s, another Japanese game company called SEGA had emerged to challenge Nintendo for the throne of home video game consoles. After releasing the superior, 16-bit SEGA Genesis console alongside their new game Sonic the Hedgehog in 1991, they began to gain ground and sell a massive amount of units. Nintendo responded with their own 16-bit system, the Super NES (SNES) the same year, kicking off the first ever ‘console war’. Nintendo eventually came out on top but the early years of the decade gave way to some iconic franchises like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat.
This is probably the first instance where the public became concerned about violence in video games, particularly because of the brutal death animations in Mortal Kombat. This led to the creation of the Videogame Rating Council in 1993 which eventually became the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) that is still used to give games age ratings today.
In the mid-90s, Sega had released the first 32-bit console called the SEGA Saturn which made the jump from game cartridges to CDs. In 1995, the same year as the Saturn’s release, gaming newcomer Sony released their first console, the PlayStation which also utilized discs, was significantly cheaper and had a much better launch library of 3D games. Nintendo also released their 64-bit system the Nintendo 64 which still made use of cartridges, leaving many to believe that the company was stuck in the past. The PS1 went on to absolutely dominate the late 90s and cemented Sony as a true player in the video game space.
2000s – Console Wars continued
At the dawn of the millennium in the year 2000, Sony released their follow-up to the PlayStation with the PlayStation 2. This was the first video game system to run games on DVDs rather than CDs, allowing for better graphics, performance, audio and more. With a vast array of excellent exclusive games, the PS2 sold incredibly well and at the time of writing is still the best selling video game console of all time.
Nintendo and Microsoft attempted to follow suit with their systems the GameCube and the Xbox in 2001, although both systems failed to challenge Sony in their worldwide domination of the space. That being said, the Xbox spawned one of gaming’s most iconic, best selling franchises in the critically acclaimed Halo.
Seeing this extraordinary boom in the popularity of video games, Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo doubled down and released the next generation of consoles in 2005 with the PlayStation 3, the Xbox 360 and the Nintendo Wii. This time around, Microsoft and Nintendo were much more successful and gave a challenge to Sony that they had never experienced before.
The Xbox 360 had much better online capabilities than the PS3 despite similar graphical performance and the Nintendo Wii sold incredibly well due to its innovative motion controller system, family and fitness focus. This time around, Nintendo had won the console war and the Wii went on to sell over 100 million units, with the Xbox 360 falling just short of the PS3 overall.
Nintendo didn’t just dominate the decade in home consoles however, since their dual-screen handheld device the Nintendo DS took the world by storm after it was released in 2004 and still remains the second best-selling game console ever made.
As the noughties neared its end, the rise of smartphones paved the way for mobile gaming, which would go on to generate billions of dollars of revenue.
2010s – The rise of 4K and virtual reality
In 2012, Nintendo released the Wii U, a console which featured a controller with a touch-screen and motion controls. Despite the innovation, this console was a commercial disaster and became Nintendo’s worst selling console of all time.
In 2013, Sony and Microsoft released the PS4 and the Xbox One, with the latter putting a focus on entertainment and TV integration. This approach was a misguided one from Microsoft, leading Sony to dominate once again with the PS4 through excellent exclusive games like God of War, The Last of Us, Uncharted and more.
With the introduction of 4K televisions, Sony and Microsoft released updated versions of their consoles with the PS4 Pro and the Xbox One X with 4K gaming capabilities in 2017. In the same year, Nintendo came back with a bang by releasing the Nintendo Switch, a home console and handheld hybrid that put the Japanese titan back on the map and sold over 100 million units to date.
There was also the emergence of virtual reality, with several companies releasing headsets that allowed users to experience games in a whole new way.
2020s – The next generation of gaming
In 2020, Sony and Microsoft released their next generation gaming systems in the PS5 and Xbox Series X|S. With 4K visuals, high quality graphics and excellent performance, console gaming has finally started to rival PC systems for the first time. Microsoft has innovated with their Game Pass service, a monthly subscription that gives players access to a vast library of games and has led Sony to follow suit with their PS Plus offering.
Gaming has come a long way from its humble beginnings in the research labs of universities to being the biggest form of media on the planet, enjoyed by hundreds of millions of players around the globe. With mobile gaming becoming more prominent and the development of better virtual reality hardware, there are many innovations to come from the video game space in the near future and beyond.