What’s Changed About Video Games
A Not-so Systematic Overview
As we delve anew into our survey of games, society and their effects upon one another, it behooves to have a current “State of Play”. A snapshot of where we are, where we’ve been, and how precisely we got here.
“I’ve been playing video games ever since I was a kid” is perhaps now an all too common of a phrase heard throughout the gaming community. And amidst the fond nostalgia of remembering your first love affair with gaming, no doubt consoles like the XBox, GameCube, and Game Boy will have popped up in your head. Titles like Call of Duty, Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Mario Kart, StarCraft: Broodwar and Counterstrike might also be among the titles that memory more fondly offers. But it’s 2022, and chances are you’re aware that much has changed about games: who plays them, who creates them, how they are delivered, and why we play them. It is easy to be overwhelmed when considering how the post dial-up gaming landscape has changed, because it already truly and completely pervades a large portion of current modern social culture.
The Prevalence of Video Games
Let’s take a detour into the past. In the 1980s, video games were no longer a new technology. Games like Space Invaders and Asteroids were encroaching on 10-year anniversaries, and cities designated public areas for the arcade machine. The world was entering what is now fondly remembered as the “Golden Age” of arcade games. Now, look at the audience of these games. Arcades were predominantly populated by kids. This was evident in the marketing, which often featured cute mascots and family-friendly premises; in the representation in pop culture, with movies and TV shows always depicting arcades as hang-out spots for young teens and prepubescents; and in the culture, which was about meeting your friends after school to spend your allowance on trying to beat the high scores of your anonymous peers. Through the 1980s, this was almost exclusively how people engaged with the concept of video games, and thus, it was culturally indistinguishable from any He-Man or Transformers action figure. Video games were kid stuff.
Flash forward to the modern day, and you see a drastic change in how we view video games. There are still the individuals who regard video games as kid stuff, but these are largely people who were too old for video games when they first became popular, or else they are the kids who played in arcades themselves but one day decided they were too “grown-up” to play anymore. To those people, gamers are stunted man-children who refused to mature into full-grown adults. Much like in the ’80s, this image has been perpetuated by pop culture, which created the stereotype of a 40-year-old gamer who lives in his mom’s basement to ridicule those who continued to indulge in their childhood pastimes. But almost as quickly as it was born, this stereotype has been disproven. This is discussed as part of Professional Psychology’s article on video game addiction.
The interest in video game addiction has spurred parent groups and some researchers to link video games to children’s problematic behaviors, lack of social integration, and academic dysfunction. Many of these concerns also fit with stereotypes of gamers as physically unfit, socially awkward, and disengaged from work and school, despite evidence to suggest these stereotypes of gamers are false [ 1 ].
In the new millennium, it’s not uncommon for completely well-adjusted grown men to come home from work and fire up a game like Rainbow 6 or Skyrim. Exactly how common is unclear; Earnest.com reports 16 percent of adults between the ages of 18-24 make gaming purchases, with that number going down to less than 9 percent by age 40 [ 2 ]. With roughly one out of every 10 adults dedicating time to playing video games, it’s become increasingly common to see the concept of adults playing games as harmless, neutral, or even positive in media. Nowadays, it’s considered healthy to relieve stress by playing, although the need to justify a harmless pastime is certainly a holdover from this stigma.
Video game marketing has changed to reflect this shift as well. While the ’80s gave birth to characters like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, who were cartoonish, friendly-looking characters—even though one was conceived as a villain—modern games tend to focus on more “adult” sensibilities. From the violence of Mortal Kombat to the hyper-masculinity of Duke Nukem, the crimes committed in Grand Theft Auto, and the military fantasy of Call of Duty, modern titles have started to lean into the idea of what constitutes adulthood, and what appeals to adults, primarily adult men, for better or worse. In a 2017 survey, IDGA identified the spread of genders that play video games:
“The typical employee in this sample was 34 years old, identified as white or multi-racial with white (85 percent), was male (74 percent), and working in the United States (46 percent). He was heterosexual (83 percent) and was likely to be married or in a long term relationship (57 percent; 38 percent reported being single). He did not have children (70 percent) and did not report a disability (80 percent). He had a university degree (69 percent), probably in computer science/software engineering (20 percent) or game development/design (12 percent)” [ 3 ].
Possibly the biggest change to the world of video gaming is the community. In the past, arcades were a hub for young gamers to meet up and play alongside each other, although their opponents were almost invariably the high scores of strangers. As the internet gained prevalence, and it began to take its inevitable effect on video games, it gave birth to a new way for people to play. Multiplayer games were still common, but now they could be played from the comfort of your own home, sitting at your computer and communicating with others only via headset. Now players could directly engage with their opponents who were more than just computer programs but instead living people with their own skill sets and weaknesses on the other side of the connection. Professional Psychology’s article mentions how this affects the “addictive” quality of video games:
[…T]he social aspects of video games are what makes them addictive, and massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs) are considered to be the most addictive games. In addition to the social elements, it is argued that MMORPGs employ partial reinforcement schedules to keep players playing. It is further argued that, for a minority of gamers, online worlds may be a substitute for the lack of real-life social contexts [ 1 ].
Arcade high scores were often limited to the people who could physically access the machine, but with the internet, the competition became global. The person who organized the raid on your guild’s town might very well live on the other side of the planet. In a way, as much as the changing technology has served to expand the culture of gaming, the spirit of gaming—competition and community—has never really changed. Instead of gathering around the arcade machine to watch the coolest kid in school beat his own high score on Galaga, people subscribe to Let’s Players on YouTube, creating what may be the most profitable career to crop up in the last decade, with people like Pewdiepie and Markiplier making millions of dollars just by recording themselves playing video games.
In their relatively short life, video games have gone from a child’s plaything to a source of catharsis for the average adult. Where they were once a source of derision to be caricatured for a punchline on a TV show, they’re now seen as harmless fun at worst and a healthy stress-reliever at their best. People use video games in all sorts of different ways, including personal challenges and therapy, but also to make friends and connect with people from around the globe through a shared interest. However, while society has changed the way it looks at video games, those games have had to reexamine the way they engage with society as well.
How Society Shapes Games
The changing perceptions of video games have served to highlight their role in society, and that has led to a distinct change in how video games are constructed, both narratively and thematically. In the early days, there was very little analysis as to what a game was about and what kind of story it was trying to tell. Spaceships shoot down aliens, a snake eats eggs to get bigger, two paddles knock a ball back and forth. The game’s stories weren’t complicated, they were merely excuses to lead the players into the gameplay. There exists a sort of tongue-in-cheek term known as “PWP,” or “Porn Without Plot,” a phrase that is rarely relegated to actual pornography. This phrase can be used to describe the decision-making process behind the stories in these early video games; we already know what you’re here for, so here’s a flimsy excuse to give you what you’re looking for. This isn’t meant to discredit the efforts of the game developers, but it’s not an unfair statement to admit that storytelling was not the focus of the 8-bit era.
As these titles began to evolve, one of the first things they adopted was storytelling. While these early plots were mostly still excuses for the gameplay to go exactly as intended, they now included characters to invest in, world-building to explore, and quests to complete. In this era, you met characters like Mario as he fought to beat a dragon that had kidnapped his girlfriend. Not only was this story a take on the classic romantic myth of the hero saving the princess, but it also gave the story a little twist; instead of a brave knight or a dashing prince, the hero of the story was a chubby Italian plumber. The games of these days had a cartoon-like whimsy to them. This may be because in the era of the late ’80s to early ’90s, when console gaming was taking off and the 2-D platformer reigned supreme, video games were still marketed primarily towards kids, and so the cartoonish world that most of these games took place in felt like a natural setting. Enemies were anything that could be interesting as it tried to harm you, and power-ups were varied to things that might seem normal, like a flower or a star, to the truly weird ideas like mushrooms of varying colors. Game developers didn’t care much for consistency within their world because their main drive was to create something that was fun and memorable—and, ultimately, sold lots of copies.
But as society marched on, more thought was put into games. Again, the changing target audience seemed to influence this, likely because developers believed that adults would not take to a game that lacked any sort of consistency for its world. Video games in the modern, post-internet era tend to feature plots at their core, even in genres that have historically not lent themselves to plotting, like fighting or racing games. Even more significant are the meta-plots that are integral to so many online games. Now, not only did you control the “main character” in your game, but the “NPCs” are controlled by other players, to whom you are the NPC! In other cases, a plot unfolds within the world based on your actions, but that plot can also be affected by the other players in the game. Video games have made a long stride from the days when the entirety of the plot could be summed up in “get [x] item from [y] location”.
The flip side to more thoughtful storytelling is that the consequences of that story need to be thought out as well. It’s one thing to make a game about Mario saving the Princess when the plot is meant to be irrelevant to the game. It’s a completely different case when some of the most prominent games have intricate storytelling and your audience has begun to ask themselves what the grander implications are for a video game’s plot. Suddenly, relying too heavily on the “damsel in distress” trope might start to feel lazy at best and exploitative at worst.
Video games have not always been the kindest to women, with many treating them as though they were mere props for the heroes to attain at the end as some sort of reward. Even in cases like Double Dragon, which provided the protagonist’s girlfriend with the opportunity to deal the final blow on the main villain, the point stands that the narrative purpose of the female characters is often to serve as no more than a prize to be given when the player has overcome every obstacle.
In a post-Gamergate world, this can feel very uncomfortable. That’s why it’s become so important to increase diversity in video games, and to use the medium to highlight marginalized peoples and give them an outlet where they can be themselves.
The addition of stories and characters has also changed the way fandom interacts with video games. The focus is no longer just on the gameplay—although that has never ceased to be an integral part of the games, and one that is often analyzed, discussed, and otherwise engaged with. Now fans can choose who their favorite characters are, not based on who has the strongest attacks or the best power ups but based on the same criteria with which fans choose their favorite characters in any book, TV show, or movie.
And in a sort of vicious cycle, as players are endeared to certain characters through their narrative, they’re swayed to favor them when they play. Soon enough, they are so familiar with one character’s play style that they can beat almost any opponent with them. This cycle has led to a modern-day focus on both storytelling and gameplay as two integral parts of game design. But just as the stories of video games have become more sophisticated, so has the gameplay.
What New Technology Has to Offer
It’s not controversial to point out that the technology used to design games in 2021 is very different from how it was in 1981. Developers have built on older technology in ways that would have been inconceivable 40 years ago but could never have been achieved without the developments of past titles. More than arguably any other medium in existence, video games exist on the shoulders of giants. Perhaps a book might have a new take on the themes from a classic, or a camera technique will be improved on in a new film, but these games have taken the technology that shaped titles 10, 5, or even 3 years ago, and used it to propel them far forward into forms that they never could have reached otherwise. Take Stardew Valley, an immensely popular farming simulator. While many have dismissed it as a Harvest Moon clone, Eric “Concerned Ape” Barone specified in a Q&A that Stardew Valley would include the option for same-sex relationships and would give players more options to design their farms, creating a more open-ended gameplay than one would get from Harvest Moon [ 4 ].
Early games were merely pixels on a screen, arranged to give the impression of familiar shapes like people, swords, or cars. Nowadays, the pixels have turned into polygons and those polygons have become so realistic that a still from The Last of Us might be mistaken for Elliot Page’s new movie. But more than that, the interactivity of video games has changed. The simple designs and basic gameplay have now expanded to give players more variety in their choices for video games. According to IDGA’s satisfaction survey:
“[This] shows the features for which students are looking when they are considering a job in the industry. Respondents were asked to check all the options that applied. Note that 50 percent said that learning new skills was their top priority. Location was No. 2 (46 percent). Autonomy/creative freedom, salary and potential for advancement were virtually tied for the No. 3 spot at 33-35 percent. Next was diversity in the workplace which showed a 10 percent gain from 2015 [to 22 percent]” [ 5 ].
It’s clear that every year, new technology arises that allows video games to be more intuitive, and more interactive. Perhaps the height of interactivity, the veritable holy grail that all video games strive for, is Virtual Reality. To step inside a world that surrounds you, taking the place of your own, was once a convention of science fiction. Nowadays, with things like the Meta Quest 2, the Valve Index, and other VR headsets, virtual reality games are quickly becoming actual reality. And if there were any question of how prevalent games that affect your reality are already becoming, then all you need to do is look at Augmented Reality games, which use your surroundings and adapt them as part of the game. Only a few years ago, Pokémon GO looked like the biggest thing to happen to mobile gaming since your aunt discovered Candy Crush, and that game has served as the model for Augmented Reality games ever since. Imagine how future games might be if they take their inspiration from Pokémon GO or the Meta Quest 2’s software the way those games have taken from the ones that came before them.
The change in marketing to focus on adults also led to new opportunities for revenue in the gaming market. Micro-transactions have become an integral part of video games, with the fan response being mixed at best. Pay-to-play and pay-to-win are derisive terms for games that encourage or require that the player spend money to advance in the game. While these are rare, many games, especially mobile games, will include micro-transactions to speed up cool-down times or unlock new features that are otherwise unavailable. Other games include Loot Boxes or Loot Crates which can be bought, usually unlocking new features such as skins or levels. ESRB came out in defense of these.
“ESRB does not consider loot boxes to be gambling,” said an ESRB spokesperson in an e-mail to Kotaku. “While there’s an element of chance in these mechanics, the player is always guaranteed to receive in-game content (even if the player unfortunately receives something they don’t want). We think of it as a similar principle to collectible card games: sometimes you’ll open a pack and get a brand new holographic card you’ve had your eye on for a while. But other times you’ll end up with a pack of cards you already have” [ 6 ].
But as I’ve constantly alluded, the biggest shift in the world of gaming was the development of the internet. Being able to play with people across the globe is one thing, but this has also changed how developers engage with their product as well. Now, the developers’ role does not end with the game’s release. The game’s creators can continue to modify their product while players are already playing it.
On the one hand, this leads to buggy beta tests being released prematurely, but on the other hand, developers can learn what aspects their players enjoy and what they want to see more of, and they can use those experiences to change the trajectory of the game, presenting new challenges and developing the game in real-time. This has created a new kind of relationship between players and developers, far more intimate and codependent than it ever was before.
There’s no denying that the world of video games is changing. There are drawbacks, as there are with anything, and there will always be that longing for the days when you would put a quarter down on the machine to claim the next shot at beating your friends’ high score. But what can’t be denied is that the game industry is ever-changing, and constantly evolving. This series of articles will track the ways in which these games have developed over the years, examining their past and present by following their history. I hope that this journey will prove as enlightening for you as it has for me; and for me, it has been more fulfilling than even Link’s quest through Hyrule.
- “Given earlier controversies about violence and explicit content, after much manufactured hysteria and political gamesmanship, the ESRB Rating system was devised, mirroring the societal construct of movie ratings.” Chan, Stephanie. “ESRB: Devs Will Still Get Free Ratings for Digital Games after Short Form Phase-Out.” GamesBeat, 17 May 2018, venturebeat.com/2018/05/17/esrb-devs-will-still-get-free-ratings-for-digital-games-after-short-form-phase-out
- “The most recent manufactured moral panic, ‘Gaming Addiction’ was deemed an official disorder by the World Health Organization. Surely this will not be a tool for the latest crusade to abrogate parental responsibility. Surely.” knoppper. “Wired hands with joypad stock photo” iStock. 15 Nov. 2019, https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/wired-hands-with-joypad-gm1185872391-334364044?phrase=gaming%20addiction
- “A subject of much modern concern, is the thinly veiled form of virtual gambling known as ‘The Loot Box.’ An ongoing controversy, despite the EU ruling it a form of gambling, and thus subject to the appropriate restrictions, game producers continue to slip it into product.” Sameboat. “Mock-up image of opening a loot box in a video game.” 11 Sept. 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loot_box#/media/File:Video_game_loot_box_mockup.png
Logistics management professional by day and nerdy superfan by night, Rob Kaba has management skills equally suiting both corporate logistics or tabletop and MMO games. He embodies these roles, providing critical assistance to any endeavor lucky enough to have him. Mr. Kaba’s most well known for his cosplay of “The Dude”, complete with rug, as producer of Steam-Funk Studios’ first client, Cosplay Court Case. His early assistance was critical for both The Living Multiverse and The Unconventional.
- Bean, Anthony M., et al. “Video Game Addiction: The Push to Pathologize Video Games.” Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, vol. 48, no. 5, 2017, pp. 378–389., doi:10.1037/pro0000150.
- Morris, Carolyn Pairitz. “The Demographics of Video Gaming.” Earnest.com. Navient Corp., 22 Nov. 2021. earnest.com/blog/the-demographics-of-video-gaming/.
- Weststar, Johanna. “Developer Satisfaction Survey 2016 Summary Report.” IGDA, International Game Developers Association, 4 Nov. 2016. r-libre.teluq.ca/1274/1/IGDA%20DSS%202016_Summary%20Report_FINAL.pdf.
- White, Sam, and Chona Kasinger. “Valley Forged: How One Man Made the Indie Video Game Sensation ‘Stardew Valley.’” GQ, Conde Nast, 20 Mar. 2018. gq.com/story/stardew-valley-eric-barone-profile.
- Weststar, Johanna, et al. “Developer Satisfaction Survey 2017.” IGDA, International Game Developers Association, 26 Nov. 2019 igda.org/resources-archive/developer-satisfaction-survey-summary-report-2017/.
- Schreier, Jason. “ESRB Says It Doesn’t See ‘Loot Boxes’ As Gambling.” Kotaku, G/O Media, 11 Oct. 2017. kotaku.com/esrb-says-it-doesnt-see-loot-boxes-as-gambling-1819363091.