Video games top many 'wish lists' this holiday season… and the rest of the year, too, with annual sales approaching $10 billion in the United States alone. Video and Internet games are constantly evolving, and as they do, they are changing the way people around the world play and interact.
In a relatively short period of time, video games have come a long way. That's what journalist Heather Chaplin realized when she started researching the industry's history. "We actually started all the way back in the 1950s, with a nuclear physicist who came up with the first video game for an Open House day (public relations event)," she says. From there, her research took her to "the original founders of the computer culture, people at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early 1960s… [and to] Nolan Bushnell, who founded Atari, who was really the first person to think, 'This could be something that could be commercially viable.'"
Nolan Bushnell was right, and during the 1980s, the industry expanded. Video game expert Aaron Ruby says it reached a turning point in mid-1990s. "I think the 'PlayStation' coming out from Sony in 1995 was what brought us to what we now think of as modern video gaming," he says. "Because once you have the PlayStation and you get into the PlayStation 2, Nintendo comes out with the GameCube. And then we have Microsoft entering the industry in 2001 with the XBox. That pretty much leads us right into the current modern situation."
Husband and wife team Aaron Ruby and Heather Chaplin have spent the last five years visiting video game labs and designing studios, and attending almost every industry conference and gaming competition. They wanted to meet the real people who create this virtual world. "They are some of the smartest people of their generation," Mr. Ruby says. "They are people who like to use technology to bring new things to life."
"They have devoted themselves to making videogames," Ms. Chaplin says. "We spent a lot of time profiling the developing of a game called 'Star Wars Galaxies' here in the U.S. One of the programmers was at Hubble Space Telescope before coming there. I mean, we have people that have multiple degrees in physics, in psychology, in architecture."
Creating a video game, Ms. Chaplin explains, requires the talents of dozens of people. "A lot of people don't realize what a collaborative process it is," she says. "Every game designer starts at a different place in terms of how to create something fun, whether that is a character or a movement or an environment. Then, at this point, you might have up to 60 or 100 or 400 person teams, animators, coders, music people and managers."
Mr. Ruby adds, "The programmers are representing a smaller percentage because the amount of art and other assets that are required to make a video game these days are so enormous that the artists are actually out-numbering the programmers. There is also a whole number of people whose job is simply to test each version of the game, and make sure that there is no problem. "
Mr. Ruby says the studios where these creative people work look and feel very different from any other workplace. "One of the cardinal rules of the game-designing studios is, you walk in and it's incredibly dim," he says. " They like to work in dim conditions where they can see their monitors. And it's always very cool in there to keep the computers functioning at their peak."
What is usually a relaxing atmosphere, Ms. Chaplin says, can turn into a stressful one when the team is racing to meet a deadline. "It's a known thing that deadlines are almost impossible to meet," she says. "So, if you come anywhere within say, 6 months of a game deadline, they might be working 80 hours a week, living off pizza, diet Coke. It's really an interesting environment."
Video games are a global business. Japan has been contributing to the industry for more than three decades, but Aaron Ruby notes that other Asian countries are now entering the market. "China and Korea, and Koreans in particular, are really starting to develop their own games industry to the extent that they are now starting to move beyond their own market into the western markets," he says. "I think the Korean games, as they move west, have the potential to offer a lot to the game designing community in terms of innovation."
Like other types of entertainment, Mr. Ruby says, video games are changing American culture. "For example, in America, for a long time, play has not been culturally accepted, the way it is maybe in Japan, where the notion of families sitting down and playing together is kind of much more culturally approved," he says. "For example, when Nintendo Entertainment System came out in America, they had to call it the NES, Nintendo Entertainment System, rather than Famicom, which is what they call it in Japan, because they realized that Americans would be turned off by the notion of families playing together. I think that kind of thing is changing. The notion of play as an important part of life and a potential social activity is really increasing."
Not only can video games bring families together, he says, they can bring people from different cultures closer to each other. "I can go on line and play with a friend who lives in Istanbul, who is maybe a teenager," he says. "And we maybe end up hooking up with somebody from Asia who is rather old. We can all get together and share things and experiences that bring us all together.
The more innovative and creative ideas there are, the more new and exciting games are released… and the more competitive this global market gets every year.