It’s 1962 in the United States. A bunch of students mill around a computer screen across a few campuses. They’re looking at one of the first video games, called Spacewar!. The graphics are rather simple – the sun, for example, is depicted by a cross – and the game is played on a PDP-1 computer that’s to be found at several American universities. The computer is so large that it takes up a whole room. A far cry from the present-day Playstation 4 or Xbox One.
Nowadays, a popular game such as Spacewar! would be big business. Yet, in the Sixties the full potential of this game remained commercially unexploited. Idealistic students in the United States developed the game and then made it freely available. It wasn’t until Pong in 1972 that computer games were first developed with profit in mind, when games were no longer just played in public buildings such as universities, but were also played at home on the television, at a price.
With the commercialisation of video games came enhanced trepidation about their impact too. Politicians mistrusted arcades in the Seventies and Eighties. The general opinion in those days: arcade machines lured children into gambling, and they were altogether non-educational.
A good twenty years later, in the Nineties, hysteria concerning games with a violent content abounded. The fear being that young children in particular who played these games would become more aggressive. To this end, in 1993 there was even a congressional hearing in the United States as a result of games such as Mortal Kombat and Night Trap, in which opponents could be ferociously killed. The upshot was a rating system, with age categories and symbols. Yet, violent games are still popular. Telling is that in 2007 a number of leading researchers concluded that more than 85% of all games contained some degree of violence. This is why the debate surrounding the impact of violent games on the behaviour of youngsters continues to this day. To date, no correlation has been found.
Meanwhile, the lion’s share of games is no longer developed by independent student boffins. Over the last few decades, the games industry has mushroomed. Thanks to the advent of numerous consoles (e.g.: Xbox, Wii and Playstation), the market for game developers has opened up. As a result, enormous sums of money come into question, across the globe. The American game developer Zynga (known, among other things, for Farmville) took over the British game and software company NaturalMotion in 2014 for a staggering 527 million dollars (389 million euros). According to market research agency Newzoo, the total global turnover of games companies in 2015 amounted to around 91.5 billion dollars. The agency expects this figure to rise to 99.5 billion in 2016. In 2015, the Netherlands was in eighteenth global place, with 464 million dollars.
Lex Bontjes (60) is Customer Manager at Shared Service Centre Education, Research and Student Affairs, and played Pong (1972)
“With this game, you had to connect up a square machine with two buttons to the TV. As such, two of you could play against one another; the idea being to get a block into the other’s area. At the time, I found it truly fascinating to control and influence figures on the TV. All of a sudden you could take part in a TV programme, which before you could merely watch! Pong was truly the first gadget. I often played it at home with the family. But after a few weeks the novelty wore off and the game was consigned to the back of the cupboard. It was too one-dimensional, apart from being able to adjust the size of the paddles and the speed of the little block. Furthermore, Pong was the only game you could play using the machine. Yet, in hindsight, it kick-started my gaming career.”
Pepijn Damen (39) is Virtualization Manager (ICT) and played Asteroids (1979)
“You played with a space ship, which you had to use to dodge all sorts of asteroids (debris). You earned points by shooting the debris to smithereens. A black joystick controlled everything. The game was on a cartridge, a sort of memory chip, which you had to stick into a games console. I had the ATARI 2600. Actually, the game started pretty quickly. Before that, you still had to insert cassette tapes into a machine, in which case it could take up to ten minutes for the game to start. With Asteroids, I mostly played the single-player, with friends, when we took it in turns to try and get the best score possible. But, once you’d finally reached a score of 999,999 the score reset itself and, moreover, as of a certain point the debris didn’t move any quicker. This made it a little boring after a while.”
Etienne Augé (43) is Lecturer in Communication (ESHCC) and played Gauntlet (1985)
“Before and after school I ran like a mad thing to get to the arcades, to play there. In the game, you stepped into an elf’s, magician’s or warrior’s shoes. The objective was always to get out of a labyrinth, and to destroy all the opponents you came across. This required little skill, as all you needed to do was move and shoot. You could also collaborate, so the game was a sort of precursor to online multiplayers. Which is precisely what I liked about it so much. So there I stood with three friends around the one arcade machine, in a fog of cigarette smoke! My parents weren’t too delighted, as my school work suffered and it was believed the arcades were packed with bad boys looking for a fight. There was no lack of competition; someone who wanted to play after you was quick to place their token on the machine. If you ‘died’, you had to throw a new token into the machine within ten seconds, otherwise you had to wait until the next round. I spent a great deal of money on it.”
Saulius Krygeris (25) studies the Master Management and played Prince of Persia (1989)
“I started playing this game in 1997. It was my very first game on my very first computer, the HP Vectra. The game itself was only around 10 MB, whilst you could only save 1.5 GB on the whole computer. In order to play the game, you had to copy it from a floppy disk onto the computer. The game involved a prince who had to escape and a princess who had to be saved. Honestly, it took me quite some time to work out how to grab the sword which would take you up a level. It was very frustrating and challenging, as you had to play out all twenty levels within an hour, otherwise you’d have to start all over again. I always invited my friends to come over to mine to play; you see, in Lithuania few people had computers then.”
Lovisa Salomonsson (21) studies the International Bachelor Arts and Culture Studies and played The Longest Journey (1999)
“I’m probably one of this game’s biggest fans; it’s a game I’ve completed a total of three times. When I played it at first in 1999, I thought the graphics were brilliant. In the game you had to collect all kinds of magic stones, which you found by talking to various people. At first, I wasn’t at all interested in games, but my dad gave me the game when I turned five. It’s quite amusing looking back really, as the characters swore a lot and a lot of sexually explicit comments were made. It also contained a scene where an old woman changed into a monster, which still gives me the heebie-jeebies at 21 years of age. How could my dad have thought to give this to me, a little girl? Actually, it was quite a political game, in which the fear of technology veering out of control, think George Orwell’s 1984, clearly came to the fore. The game made a clear distinction between a romantic, magical world on the one hand and a rational, technical one on the other. That appealed to me.”
Pim de Bree (24) studies Medicine and played Grand Theft Auto San Andreas (2004)
“When the game became available on a PC, I bought it straight away. The game was comprehensive, which appealed to me. In the single-player mode you had a whole story line you could play out, in which you kept following the protagonist. You had to complete all kinds of missions, and kill people. I also often did the mods, with which you could adjust existing objects, for example, or add new missions. It was a relaxing game; you didn’t have to think for a while. I don’t really go with the idea that games make you aggressive. Of course, there’s an element of incitement, but that only becomes an issue to those already unstable by nature. I should think almost the entire student population has played this game, yet only a very small number of these are truly aggressive.”
History-student Christiaan Hoogenboezem (23) plays Crusader Kings II (2012)
“I often play the single-player on my computer. With this game you can step into the world of medieval dynasties. It is very advanced and there are countless scenarios. For example, you can play out each year between 1066 and 1453 in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and India. Moreover, there are a couple of thousand characters, all with their own personas. In turn these personas influence the number of alliances and wars you have. You can rewrite history, which as a history student I find fascinating. For example, being the brother of Charles the Great, who then tries to overthrow him. Ultimately, with a dynasty you play from generation to generation. At the same time, during the game things happen over which you have no control, as the game’s artificial intelligence comes into play. The most bizarre that I’ve come across in this instance is that my third son murdered my two other sons. The devil had got to him, and later he committed suicide, although he’d been on the throne for ten years by then!”
Around half of the Dutch population– babies and pensioners excluded – regularly play games on their computer. What a contrast to fifty years ago when the first video games were only played at American universities: from Spacewar! to Crusader Kings; from pixels to artificial intelligence.