& CULTUREAn Open Education Resource

7.0 DTC 101

Digital Games

People of all ages play games on computer devices in order to connect with others, to work, to learn and to pass the time. "Likes" and "retweets" are forms of digital game play in social networks. High scores, levels, and badges are shared with friends and colleagues. Once confined to consoles and arcades, video games have infiltrated embodied life in augmented experiences, such as Pokemon Go, and virtual reality games that give us new bodies and spaces in which to play.

The study of games has existed for some time, and is not confined to video games. In 1961, games scholar Roger Caillois described the variety of games and game-playing in human history: games with rules, games without rules, competitive games, games based on chance, imitation games and games based on disorientation or vertigo. (Man, Play and Games, 1961) How many of these categories of human game-play have been affected by digital technology and binary code? Of course, all of them. Computers work efficiently with all the elements of game play: specific instructions, chance operations, user interaction, processing inputs and delivering outputs of data, not to mention simulating immersive experiences.

This chapter focuses on the social impact and effects of digital technology on the ancient pastime of game-playing. To cover everything about digital games would take more than a short chapter. Here, the attempt is to give you a peek inside a growing field by exploring the evolution of video games and the ways contemporary game designers are using digital technology in new and exciting ways, including the possibilities for games applied to address social issues.

7.1 A History of Video Games

A "video" game, technically, is a game involving a video signal transmitted to a cathode ray tube that creates a rasterized image on a screen. Games on a high-definition computer monitor or handheld display are therefore not exactly "video games" but computer or electronic games. However, it is now quite common to use the term "video game" for any game that runs on computer hardware, that involves interaction and that outputs to a visual display.

1. Stand Alone Games (1948–1972)

The first video games in the 1950s were for training or instructional purposes, for AI research and to demonstrate new computer software to the public. The first computer game designed for entertainment was created in 1961. It was called Spacewar! It involved a battle between two spaceships, rendered simply in the form of two shapes that could turn, thrust, and shoot each other.

Spacewar!, 1961

"Conceived by Steve Russell, Martin Graetz, and Wayne Wiitanen in 1961 and programmed primarily by Russell, Saunders, Graetz, Samson, and Dan Edwards in the first half of 1962, Spacewar! was inspired by the science fiction stories of E. E. Smith and depicted a duel between two spaceships, each controlled by a player using a custom built control box. Immensely popular among students at MIT, Spacewar! spread to the West Coast later in the year when Russell took a job at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL), where it enjoyed similar success. The program subsequently migrated to other locations around the country through the efforts of both former MIT students and DEC itself, more so after cathode ray tube (CRT) terminals started becoming more common at the end of the 1960s." - from wikipedia

2. Atari 2600

The home video game craze began with the console game Pong, which allowed people to interact with their television screens by playing a simple version of tennis. The Atari 2600 featured cartridges that players could insert into the console for a variety of gaming experiences. It typically came with the game Combat (a variant of Spacewar!), and popular titles included Space Invaders, Asteroids, Missile Command, and Pac-Man. Ervin (2017) among others has argued that the game Adventure represents not only a high point for the 2600 console, but for videogames in general. It features somewhat open play, allowing the player to roam about the space as they please, as well as the first Easter Egg in a videogame, which featured the name of its creator, Warren Robinett.

Adventure (Atari 2600) Finding the Hidden Easter Egg

3. Arcade Games

By the early 1980s, video arcade games were a full-fledged phenomenon. Beyond what was happening in the home console market, people flocked to video arcades to play higher-resolution coin-operated video games. No shopping mall in America was complete without a video arcade, and being a “gamer” developed a cachet of cool for the first time. Notable games included Tempest (used a vector display), Ms. Pac-Man (featured a female protagonist and cut-scenes, which are dramatic digital interludes that connect the game play), Donkey Kong (included the first appearance of Mario), and Dragon’s Lair (worked off of a laserdisc, and featured an animated character created by former Disney animator Don Bluth).

Pong, 1972 (arcade)

4. Nintendo Entertainment System

Videogames fell somewhat out of favor in the middle of the 1980’s, largely due to over-production, and an abundance of less-than-stellar games. They returned for good with the introduction of the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1986. The system featured controllers with a “D pad” as opposed to a joystick, with more buttons than previous video consoles’ had on their controllers.

This system remains perhaps the most revered among all gamers; the 8-bit graphics allowed for variety of levels, yet the games often had a simple elegance to them.

Super Mario Brothers 2, 1988 (side-scrolling 2D)

5. Nintendo Game Boy

The Nintendo Game Boy allowed users the chance to play a variety of games on a portable system. It had a monochromatic color scheme, but the graphics were close to the NES. Despite over a thousand titles, most people know it for just one- Tetris. Though not native to the game Boy, Tetris’ popularity took off with its handheld form.

In many ways, Tetris on the Game Boy serves as the precursor for the modern day mobile game—simple rules, quick gameplay, and busy but not crazy game play. It remains the gold standard for simple and addictive game play.

Super Mario Brothers, 1985 (side-scrolling 2D)

6. PC Gaming

In the 1990s, personal computers increased their penetration into people’s homes. The Internet began to achieve mass use, and people looked for ways to utilize their new household appliances. Videogames filled this void. Among the myriad of games from this time, two stand out for their innovations, Doom and the Sims.

Following in the footsteps of Catacomb 3D and Wolfenstein, Doom became the biggest first-person shooter of its time. Instead of players manipulating an avatar, the mouse was used to represent the (visible) hand and gun used to combat alien monsters. The game combined elements of a first person maze game (finding the exit to each level was a challenge) and shooter games that involved the player attacking everything around him in order to survive. This utilized the affordance of the mouse, while not requiring a joystick for full functionality. The game also had a then-novel strategy for promotion. Users could download a sample level to acclimate to this playing style, and once hooked, could pay for the full game featuring the rest of the levels.

The Ultimate Doom (Original DOS Version) - Episode 1: Knee-Deep In The Dead

The second game, the Sims, originated from Will Wright’s SimCity games. These games, commonly called sandbox games, gave players the glamorous experience of planning a city. Although perhaps sounding mundane, the game was quite addictive, and users could experiment with a variety of ways to build a city (though skilled players eventually realized that the game algorithm favored mixed-use development). The game featured infinite play, meaning that players could keep building and changing as long as they wished. There were no villains to fight--only catastrophic events such as the occasional UFO attack that destroyed sections of the city.

After several versions of Sim City, the Sims drilled down and looked at the lives the people in these houses. Users designed houses from the ground up, choosing the exteriors, interiors, furniture, etc.. They could then fill them with people who could take on jobs (or stay home), shop, have friendships, go on dates, move in together, have children, and even die. The Sims remains notable as the first video game that sold equally to male and female players. The different aspects of the game had a mass appeal, and it spawned numerous expansion packs that featured a town center, pets, and the opportunity to achieve fame and fortune. People could also create skins for Sims, creating infinite ways to expand the game play.

The Sims 1: Gameplay #1 (No Commentary)

7. Mobile Games

With the advent of mobile phones that featured digital interfaces, technology companies began to work on ways that the people could use the devices beyond making phone calls. One of the earliest applications of this was the game Snake, a monochromatic game that involved maneuvering an ever-growing snake through the screen.

The biggest breakthroughs occurred with the release of the iPhone in 2007. Using the familiar look and feel of the iPod, the iPhone featured a phone, a full color touch screen, GPS capabilities, a camera, and numerous other features that game designers and app makers could utilize.

With the joystick/keyboard/mouse replaced by a touch screen, early games that caught the public’s attention utilized this interface to great effectiveness. In Angry Birds, players swiped their fingers across the screen, simulating the hurling of a bird into a stack of evil pigs. Other games used the “tower defense” mechanic, wherein players placed weapons that defended them from an onslaught of attackers. For example, in Plants vs. Zombies, user selected a variety of plants to protect their house from a trickle of zombies.

Pokemon Go, released in the summer of 2016, was the first game to take the augmented reality aspect of mobile devices to a mass population (more than 800 million people downloaded the app). Players build up their characters by visiting battling and completing activities. Using augmented reality, these activites are based in a physical space, yet appear when viewing them through the screen on the mobile device. Pokemon Go used the built in appeal of Pokemon to introduce to many people a digital game that involved a physical space, and the coordination of other players in the area to complete a common goal.

Pokemon GO Part 1 - I Choose You! Gameplay Walkthrough
Ingress, 2012 (mobile, geolcation)

7.2 Game Analysis

There are numerous ways to break down video games into parts, including space, time, rules, operations etc. For simplicity’s sake, we will adopt Darran Jamieson's four elements or layers of a game: challenge, choice, changes, and chance. Read Jamieson's two part blog post for an elaboration on these elements:

In short, Jamieson segments games into four key elements:

  1. Challenge: A game is not a toy. With a toy, you have the potential for somewhat aimless play—when you pick up a set of Lego bricks, there is not a set objective. You build and act out stories as you please. Games have objectives and goals. There is an object that you have to complete and/or master.

    For illustrative purposes, let’s take the game Tetris. The challenge of the game is complete solid horizontal lines with falling blocks of four cubes. Completing a line results in the blocks in that row to disappear. When the blocks pile to the top of the screen, the game ends.

  2. Choice: The choice is something that we can do. In theory, the better we are at a game, the better the choices we make will be. Some choices are long and slow, such as a choice you would make on a chess board. Other choices are rapid, such as hitting the “A” button to cause your character to jump at the appropriate time.

    In Tetris, you have several choices available. You can control the speed of the block as it falls down the screen. You can rotate it clockwise, and you can rotate it counter-clockwise. One of the appeals of Tetris is the easy to learn and simple choices that you make while playing it.

  3. Change: The change provides the differing content. Rather than doing the same thing, the game provides different levels, speeds, patterns, etc… Many times, players find it hard to stop playing when they are close to advancing to a new level, and to experiencing a new change. For the game No Man’s Sky, the game makers promised 18 quintillion planets (generated through an algorithm), though users of the game complain that there is not enough variance in the game’s play, and the game play suffers from monotony.

    In Tetris, the change comes mainly from the speed the blocks fall. As the levels increase, the user has less time to make decisions, inevitably leading to costly mistakes.

  4. Chance: This is as you would expect—games usually have some element of randomness. A game such as chess has next to none, whereas a game such as Frogger can have moments that are randomly easier or more difficult.

    The element of chance in Tetris comes from the order of the blocks that fall. You have likely experienced the agony of waiting for the one piece you need to knock out three rows, only to never have it appear. To play the game well, you must adapt to the randomness of the blocks that fall, and set up a variety of contingency plans.

How would you analyze your favorite video game using these four elements?

7.3 Gamification

"There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play." - James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility

Gamification involves using game design and game elements in everyday activities. First-graders receive stickers when they behave well, which can accumulate into something such as getting to watch a video at the end of the week. Shoppers at a grocery store earn “Reward Points.” A person’s favorite coffee place has a punch card that they complete every time they purchase a cup of coffee. Games have infiltrated many aspects of people’s lives, whether they realize it or not. While gamification is not new, the advent of digital gamification through mobile apps that track data, such as health markers and learning progress, has made the idea and its potential personal and social benefits intriguing to designers and developers.

“Gamification” is the use of game design elements in non-game contexts." Sebastian Deterding

Scott Nicholson explains gamification by commenting on Deterding's definition

Educators use digital gamification in the classroom to help students work on skills or to simulate complex problems. Badges or achievement levels with online learning platforms, such as Khan Academy, can supplement classroom work by making subjects intrinsically more rewarding and personalized. In large lecture classes, student can use clicker apps on their phone to answer questions posed by their professors. They receive instant feedback about the quality of their answers, as well as information detailing how they compare to others in the class.

Parable of the Polygons: a story (game) of how harmless choices can make a harmful world from Nicky Case

Game designer Nicky Case creates games that tackle issues such as inadvertent segregation or the difficulties of coming out to one’s family. Beyond reading a book or hearing a talk, games allow people to embody a variety of experiences, and gain a deeper, more visceral understanding of a topic. An adaptation of John Conway's 1970 computer game,The Game of Life, Case’s Polygons is an interactive game with simple rules, but it is used to start a discussion about how bigotry works from small, seemingly harmless choices.

The Game of Life
(a segment from the TV series Stephen Hawking's The Meaning of Life)

In John Conway's The Game of Life (1970), there is no winner or loser. The computer is programmed to simply play a game with itself indefinitely following these four rules:

  • Any live cell with fewer than two live neighbours dies, as if caused by underpopulation.
  • Any live cell with two or three live neighbours lives on to the next generation.
  • Any live cell with more than three live neighbours dies, as if by overpopulation.
  • Any dead cell with exactly three live neighbours becomes a live cell, as if by reproduction.

The Game of Life demonstrates an emergent system, one that grows in complexity on its own, and introduces the idea that perhaps life itself evolved into complexity through a few simple game rules. In Case’s Polygons, these simple rules are employed to illustrate how segregation actually works in the real world.

7.4 Unit Exercise: Gamify Goals

For this exercise, consider some aspect of your life that you want to work on-- it can be weight loss, making the Dean’s list, finding companionship, watching every season of the Bachelor, eating every hamburger within a mile radius of your house… anything. The question you should address is: How will you benefit in reaching this goal by using digital gamification?

  1. 1. State the goal you hope to achieve
  2. 2. Chunk that goal into realistic pieces, such as losing one pound a week
  3. 3. Create “levels” based on these chunks.
  4. 4. Create rewards based on achieving these levels—what can you reward yourself with that is simple—a sticker? a badge? a treat?
  5. 5. What theme could you use to make it fun?
  6. 6. Now, comes the big part—combine them into a prototype for a mobile app! Now that you have these elements in place, write/draw/sketch a mobile app that could help you achieve your goals. Use the previous steps to create levels, rewards/incentives, with an overarching theme that makes this fun.
  7. 7. Now, let’s formalize the process. Answer these questions:
    • What is the challenge?
    • What is the choice?
    • What is the change?
    • What is the chance?
    • What social features would you build into this?
    • How can the outcome of play be both fun and solve the problem?

Congratulations- you are now a game creator!

7.5 Glossary

7.6 Bibliography

Bogost, Ian. How to Talk about Videogames. F First Edition Used edition, Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2015.

Game Studies - Playing and Gaming: Reflections and Classifications. http://www.gamestudies.org/0301/walther/. Accessed 4 Sept. 2019.

Gee, James Paul. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. Second Edition. 2nd edition, St. Martin’s Press, 2014.

Koster, Raph. Theory of Fun for Game Design. Second edition, O’Reilly Media, 2013.

Module Prototype V4. http://gseweb.gse.buffalo.edu/org/game/html5.html. Accessed 4 Sept. 2019.

Video Game History Timeline. 24 Mar. 2016, https://www.museumofplay.org/about/icheg/video-game-history/timeline.