WHAT IS A VIDEO GAME?

What exactly constitutes a ‘‘video game’’? Although the term seems simple enough, its usage has varied a great deal over the years and from place to place.

We might start by noting the two criteria present in the name itself; its status as a ‘‘game’’ and its use of ‘‘video’’ technology. (These two aspects of video games may be reason for why one finds both ‘‘video game’’ (two words) and ‘‘videogame’’ (one word) in use: considered as a game,
‘‘video game’’ is consistent with ‘‘board game’’ and ‘‘card game,’’ whereas if one considers it as another type of video technology, then ‘‘videogame’’ is consistent with terms like deotape’’ and ‘‘videodisc.’’ Terms like ‘‘computer games’’ and ‘‘electronic games’’ are also sometimes used synonymously with ‘‘video games,’’ but distinctions between them can be made. ‘‘Electronic games’’ and ‘‘computer games’’ both do not require any visuals, while ‘‘video games’’ would not require a microprocessor (or whatever one wanted to define as being essential to being referred to as a ‘‘computer’’). Thus, a board game like Stop Thief (1979), for example, which has a handheld computer that makes sounds that relate to game play on the board, could be considered a computer game, but not a video game. More of
these kinds of games exist than games that involve video but not computer, making ‘‘video games’’ the more exclusive term. The term ‘‘video games’’ is also more accurate in regard to what kinds of games are meant when the term is used in common parlance, and so it will be the term used here.
Although even definitions of ‘‘game’’ can vary, elements one would expect to find in a game are conflict (against an opponent or circumstances), rules (determining what can and cannot be done and when), use of some player ability (such as skill, strategy, or luck), and some kind of valued outcome (such as winning vs. losing, or the attaining of the highest score or fastest time for the completing of a task). All these are usually present in video
games in some manner, though to differing degrees. In video games, the scoring of points, adherence to the ‘‘rules,’’ and the display of the game’s visuals are all monitored by a computer instead of by human beings. The computer can also control the opposing characters within a game, becoming a participant as well as a referee.
Most video games are one-player games in which the player faces computer-controlled opponents and situations. Due to the almost instantaneous speed at which a computer can process user input, respond with reactions, and display the action on-screen, video games are often designed to require fast action and reflexes, much like sports or games like
pinball or table tennis. Fast action is, for some, so important to the gaming experience that narrower definitions of video game exclude text adventures, adaptations of card games and board games, contemplative puzzle-based programs like Riven (1997) or Rhem (2002), or any of the Ultima or Zork series, all of which generally do not require quick reflexes, and some of which are more like puzzles and arguably not ‘‘games’’ in the classic sense.

Another element is the identity of the computer as a player. Keith Feinstein, the owner of the video game museum Videotopia, has suggested that the playing of a video game has a necessarily emotional element to it, similar to that of struggling against a playmate of comparable skill and ability. In his view, the computer must be more than a referee or stage manager controlling the video game’s world, but an active opponent who competes with the human player. By assigning an identity to the computer player and creating a ‘‘one-on-one’’ situation within the game, competition becomes possible and emotional stakes are raised, just as they might be in a two-player game in which human beings compete against one another.

The programs mentioned above, however, are all marketed as games, and would be included in the broader definition of the term found in popular culture.

Almost all programs designated as games by their makers contain the criteria mentioned above, albeit to varying degrees. For example, in SimCity (1989) and other ‘‘Sim’’ programs from Maxis Software, outcomes are ongoing, as conditions of the simulated world improve or worsen
depending on the player’s decisions. Conflict occurs between the player (who is trying to provide order to the city) and circumstances or situations (such as natural disasters, taxpaying citizens, crime, pollution, and occasional wandering monsters). The ‘‘rules’’ are built into the game’s responses; tax the citizens too much and they will move away,cut funding to the police station and the crime rate will rise, and so on. In puzzle-based
games like Myst (1993) or Riven, conflict may arise from the difficulty of puzzle-solving,pitting the player’s mind against the game-designer’s mind. Outcomes are also valued in these games; in each, several different endings or outcomes are possible, one of which is more desirable than the others.
A still broader (and less accurate) definition of the term ‘‘video games’’ sometimes includes educational or utility cartridges made for dedicated game consoles. Some of these, like Mario Teaches Typing (1991) incorporate gameplay into learning, although many do not. Still, educational cartridges [like Atari 2600 cartridges Basic Programming (1979) and Fun With Numbers (1977)] and utility cartridges (such as diagnostic and test
cartridges) often appear in lists of game cartridges, are sought by collectors, and are included within the popular and very loose usages of the term video games found in stores and Internet discussion groups. Even though these programs are not games (according to the above criteria), the read-only memory (ROM) cartridges containing them are the same
as those used for games; they are also given identification numbers similar to the games;and they receive much the same treatment as game cartridges in the marketplace. Thus,the grouping of educational and utility programs together with games reflects their status as commercial and cultural artifacts more than they reflect actual considerations of the program’s content or the player’s experience of that content.

While the degree to which a program can be considered a game depends on varying cri￾teria, its status as ‘‘video’’ is less problematic. By the strictest definition, ‘‘video’’ refers to the use of an analog intensity/brightness signal displayed on a cathode ray tube (CRT), the kind of picture tube used in a television set or computer monitor, to produce raster-based (filled-area images, as opposed to wireframe ones) imagery. The father of video games,
then, is Ralph Baer, who was the first to create games that used television sets as their display devices, and the creator of the first home game system, the Magnavox Odyssey,which appeared in 1972.
But popular use of the term ‘‘video game’’ in society, culture, and the industry itself has grown much looser and broader than the original technical definition. Arcade games and home game systems used CRTs as their displays, but not all of them were used to produce raster imagery. Some displayed vector graphics, using a different signal and method of
creating screen images. Because both vector and raster games used CRTs, vector games became included in the term ‘‘video games,’’ and later as the same games appear on different imaging technologies, popular use of the term came to include games using liquid crystal display (LCD) screens, like Milton Bradley’s Microvision or Nintendo’s Game Boy, and an even light-emitting diode (LED)-based screen in the case of Nintendo’s short-lived Virtual Boy system. Indeed, with many games ported across many systems,
from arcade versions to versions for home consoles, home computers, and handheld game systems, and games becoming available for new technologies like plasma HDTV screens, the idea of a video game has become something more conceptual and less tied to a specificimaging technology, at least in its popular usage.
The term ‘‘computer games’’ is sometimes used, though it covers a wider range of games (including those without any graphical displays), and it is arguably more accurate, since the majority of video games depend on a microprocessor. But by the mid-1980s, ‘‘video game’’seemed to have become the general term most used in both popular culture as well as the commercial game industry itself, while ‘‘computer game’’ was often reserved specifically for versions of games released for home computers. This may be due to the central place of the image and screen in the gaming experience, while the computer itself remains behind the scenes, quietly controlling all that goes on within the game. Such a demarcation might
also have been encouraged by the fact that the computers present in arcade games and game consoles during the 1980s and 1990s were usually dedicated machines that only played games, unlike home computers which had other uses.
On the other hand, the use of a CRTwith raster graphics is not enough to make a game a video game; one would expect the action of the game to take place interactively on-screen.

Thus, certain games, like the Clue VCR Mystery Game (1985), a version of the board game Clue which uses video clips on videotape, would not qualify since the video image is not interactive, nor does the action of the game—such as the moving of a player’s pieces—occur on-screen. Some games walk the line between board game and video game, involvingelements of both. Three games for the Philips Videopac video game system, Conquest of the
World (1982), Quest for the Rings (1982), and The Great Wall Street Fortune Hunt (1982),all involved on-screen video game play as well as a game board with movers, combining video game and board game play. As the other cartridges available for the Videopac system were all on-screen games, the three video/board games are usually listed along with them, although they are really hybrid games. There are also games which used plastic overlays
placed on the screen, such as the early games for the Magnavox Odyssey 100 system or the GCE/Milton Bradley Vectrex system. These overlays contained background images,while the screen provided the moving elements of the player-characters and provided color to black-and-white screen graphics. A number of early arcade games also added non-video
elements to their game screens, such as Warrior (1979), which featured two vector-graphics kind of picture tube used in a television set or computer monitor, to produce raster-based (filled-area images, as opposed to wireframe ones) imagery. The father of video games,then, is Ralph Baer, who was the first to create games that used television sets as their
display devices, and the creator of the first home game system, the Magnavox Odyssey, which appeared in 1972.
But popular use of the term ‘‘video game’’ in society, culture, and the industry itself has grown much looser and broader than the original technical definition. Arcade games and home game systems used CRTs as their displays, but not all of them were used to produce raster imagery. Some displayed vector graphics, using a different signal and method of
creating screen images. Because both vector and raster games used CRTs, vector games became included in the term ‘‘video games,’’ and later as the same games appear on different imaging technologies, popular use of the term came to include games using liquid crystal display (LCD) screens, like Milton Bradley’s Microvision or Nintendo’s Game Boy, and an even light-emitting diode (LED)-based screen in the case of Nintendo’s short-lived Virtual Boy system. Indeed, with many games ported across many systems,
from arcade versions to versions for home consoles, home computers, and handheld game systems, and games becoming available for new technologies like plasma HDTV screens, the idea of a video game has become something more conceptual and less tied to a specific imaging technology, at least in its popular usage.
The term ‘‘computer games’’ is sometimes used, though it covers a wider range of games (including those without any graphical displays), and it is arguably more accurate, since the majority of video games depend on a microprocessor. But by the mid-1980s, ‘‘video game’’ seemed to have become the general term most used in both popular culture as well as the
commercial game industry itself, while ‘‘computer game’’ was often reserved specifically for versions of games released for home computers. This may be due to the central place of the image and screen in the gaming experience, while the computer itself remains behind the scenes, quietly controlling all that goes on within the game. Such a demarcation might
also have been encouraged by the fact that the computers present in arcade games and game consoles during the 1980s and 1990s were usually dedicated machines that only played games, unlike home computers which had other uses.
On the other hand, the use of a CRTwith raster graphics is not enough to make a game a video game; one would expect the action of the game to take place interactively on-screen.Thus, certain games, like the Clue VCR Mystery Game (1985), a version of the board game
Clue which uses video clips on videotape, would not qualify since the video image is not
interactive, nor does the action of the game—such as the moving of a player’s pieces—
occur on-screen. Some games walk the line between board game and video game, involving
elements of both. Three games for the Philips Videopac video game system, Conquest of the
World (1982), Quest for the Rings (1982), and The Great Wall Street Fortune Hunt (1982),
all involved on-screen video game play as well as a game board with movers, combining
video game and board game play. As the other cartridges available for the Videopac system
were all on-screen games, the three video/board games are usually listed along with them,
although they are really hybrid games. There are also games which used plastic overlays
placed on the screen, such as the early games for the Magnavox Odyssey 100 system or
the GCE/Milton Bradley Vectrex system. These overlays contained background images,
while the screen provided the moving elements of the player-characters and provided color
to black-and-white screen graphics. A number of early arcade games also added non-video
elements to their game screens, such as Warrior (1979), which featured two vector-graphics

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