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Computer Games
A Short Cultural History of Computer Games

Vectrex with 3D-glasses (Milton Bradley, 1982) in the Computer Game Museum Berlin, Photo: Jörg Metzner
Vectrex with 3D-glasses (Milton Bradley, 1982) in the Computer Game Museum Berlin, Photo: Jörg Metzner | Photo (detail): Jörg Metzner, © Computerspielemuseum

On a midsummer’s day in 1999, Billy L. Mitchell planted himself in front of a game machine at the Funspot Family Fun Center in New Hampshire. On it he started a game in which a yellow disc eats its way through a maze populated with monsters: the legendary Pac-Man.

When Mitchell again left the machine six hours later, he had played through all the 255 levels of the game completely without error. He achieved the peak score of 3,333,360 points, what is called among Pac-Man enthusiasts the “perfect game”. “Now I never have to touch this damn game again”, the exhausted champion is said to have exclaimed after his masterly performance. He had trained to break the record for nineteen years.

If you talk to Andreas Lange about the story of Billy Mitchell, he nods quickly: “That’s a marvellous example of a flow experience, how it always sets in when you have internalized the mechanics of a game as well as it can be done”. Lange is director of the Computer Game Museum in Berlin, the largest collection of digital games in Europe, and a recognized expert on what might be called the “cultural history of computer games”. Crazy hunts after high scores, according to Lange, are in the nature of digital games.

Drivers of computer technology

The media scientist Claus Pias goes a step further and ventures the thesis that essentially every computer game is nothing more than communication trimmed to efficiency with a digital machine. No wonder, says Pias, for from the start it was about finding a way in which human beings and machines could interact. “The computer had to be humanized while the user had to be mechanized.”

Exactly this was the idea of the American engineer William Higinbotham when, in 1958, he tinkered together what was probably the first computer game. On the small, round screen of an oscilloscope, two players could play tennis against one another. Tennis for Two, as he called the game, was first presented to the world on an open house day of a research lab in Upton, New York, where Hignibotham worked as a scientist. The idea was to introduce visitors to the world of what was then high-tech, a world about which many people felt highly suspicious. The game was a hit. Using comparatively simple means, Hignibotham had managed to enable human beings to interact with machines in an intuitive way.

Since Tennis for two, writes media scientist Mathias Mertens in his book Wir waren Space Invaders (i.e., We Were Space Invaders), digital games have contributed very significantly to our being able to deal more and more creatively with computers. For example, the beginnings of computer research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology/MIT in Boston were largely determined by tinkering with computer games. Here in 1961 researchers programmed Spacewar!, a fight between two space ships in outer space. It was also the beginning of a movement of which Mertens writes: “The most fascinating aspect of this game was the openness of the programme structure. Everyone was learning arcane programming languages and poring over algorithms”. Spacewar!, says Mertens, became one of the first “open source programmes”.

Medium of interactive experience

If tinkering with the code continued to optimize the interface between man and machine, this primarily served one purpose: interaction. In the early 1970s the vision jumped tracks onto another then far more popular technological medium: television. Suddenly, computer games were called “video games”. The home video game console was invented. Game machines made their way into the malls. Digital games, up to then available mainly to scientists conversant in programming, became a part of mass culture.

Parallel to this began the triumphal march of the personal computer. Games genres became differentiated. Computer games were no longer only about quick reactions in action games, but also about making clever decisions in adventure games or planning as far-sightedly as possible in strategy games. Digital games became the ideal medium for interactive experience, the perfect platform of a long-cherished dream to immerse oneself in stories, actually to “experience” fantasy worlds instead of only observing them. Whether these were the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien, as in the adventure game Zork, or the exploits of the Hollywood adventurer Indiana Jones in the form of a character named Lara Croft.

Creativity and control

Computer games have now long been part of the cultural mainstream and recognized by the highest authority. “It was quite impressive to see the unanimity with which the Bundestag agreed about the establishment of a computer game prize in 2007”, recalls Andreas Lange. Still, there are caveats. So-called “first person shooters”, commonly called “shoot-’em-ups”, which are less about re-enacting a story than about the most efficient ways of killing, are criticized for their glorification of violence. And there is still the spectre of social neglect brought about by excessive game playing.

The wide variety of games, the extreme differences in the motivation for playing them and the increasingly dynamic way that programming-savvy users creatively “misuse” computer games for their own purposes, make it difficult to deliver a blanket judgement about risks and benefits. On the one hand, says Andreas Lange, digital games have the potential to influence positive social developments: for example, by showing alternatives to passive consumption. On the other hand, one must also bear in mind that some of the game genres correspond to the capitalistic logic of an achievement-oriented society: “Computers have perfected the quantification of games”. After all, every computer game, explains Lange, contains within itself the mechanism for making actions measurable in an exact way. And they are thus basically aiding a social trend that increasingly evaluates our lives in economic terms: what techniques should I learn, what apps are available, to help me become maximally healthy, happy and successful?

When Pac-Man champion Bill Mitchell was asked what he now intended to do after setting the world record, he is said to have answered that he was planning a career as a show player in Las Vegas. Quite without the enormous pressure of high-score games.