Participants play League of Legends
© Ryan Scott Hadji / Red Bull Content Pool

How has gaming evolved?

From arcades to online, how gaming has changed with the times.
Written by Chris Higgins
7 min readPublished on
The evolution of gaming has been one of the most rapid shifts in any entertainment art form. Despite not existing until the latter half of the 20th century, technology has improved so significantly since then that video games have come to represent the bleeding edge of human ingenuity. The same technology that powers Fortnite is now being used in blockbuster films and TV shows to create even more awe-inspiring worlds, and scientific simulations rely on GPUs invented to make games look so shiny.
The road to the future of gaming has been a long one with many twists, turns and Pitfalls along the way. Here’s how gaming has evolved into the hobby we know today.
While there were a number of game-like programs on computers in the 1950s, they were mostly recreations of tabletop games. In 1951, British mathematician and cracker of the Enigma code Alan Turing attempted to convert Turochamp, a chess game capable of playing against a human, for the Ferranti Mark 1 in Manchester. Sadly he died before it could run unaided. Other games of the ‘50s were tic-tac-toe or training programs, with William Higinbotham’s temporary installation Tennis for Two paving the way for Pong some years later. But it wasn’t until the next decade that someone broke the mold.
Gaming controller
Gaming controller
The first original game to be distributed and played on multiple computers is widely recognized as Spacewar!, the 1962 brainchild of bored Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists. Developed by Steve Russell and a handful of MIT colleagues, the game was a basic dogfight between two human-controlled spaceships around a star’s gravity well. It was perfectly suited to the circular output oscilloscope of the PDP-1 minicomputer it was built on, and thanks to the prevalence of these machines in academic institutes all over the United States it was easily distributed among other programmers looking to fill their lunch breaks.
While Spacewar! was an extremely basic game, it set a number of important precedents we still see today. For one thing it was a multiplayer game, pitting players against each other – mostly because the AI to control enemies would have been another thing to code and they simply didn’t have the capability for it at the time. This, along with distribution of the game to other university labs around the country, resulted in the world’s first esports tournament in 1972, as programmers who had a decade of practice came together at Stanford University for the Intergalactic Spacewar! Olympics, sponsored by Rolling Stone magazine.
Of course professional play at this level required professional input devices, as most computers at the time were still controlled by banks of switches. One of Russell’s co-developers, Bob Saunders, soldered together a basic gamepad to avoid the pain of hunching over the PDP-1 mainframe’s switchboard to play, which was causing a condition the players called “Space War Elbow.”
Tokens at Red Bull Pindrop
Tokens at Red Bull Pindrop
So even before coin-operated Pong cabinets started appearing in pinball halls, most of the hallmarks of modern gaming were in place. Once computers hand shrunk enough to fit inside a single 6-foot cabinet enclosure, the golden age of the arcade began. The late-70s and early-80s saw companies such as Atari, Namco, Midway and Taito competing to make the most engaging and attractive machines in the new arcades springing up in shopping malls all over the world.
Taito’s Space Invaders (1978) is arguably the most iconic of these early cabinets, with a high score memory and the first game to feature background music (despite it just being the same four notes repeating faster and faster as the invaders approach). Atari dove straight back in with Asteroids in 1979, adding even more high score features such as a leaderboard to let people stake their claim to being king or queen of the arcade. But it was Namco’s Pac-Man in 1980 that signalled the next phase of gaming.
Attempting to appeal to a wider audience of women and girls, Pac-Man designer Toru Iwatani created a game about eating food with cute mascot characters navigating a maze. This inspired games like Q*bert and Donkey Kong, introducing us to Mario and leading the way for Nintendo’s reign over the ‘80s gaming market. Up until the arrival of the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1983, home consoles were focused on replicating the arcade experience, which didn’t work out too well.
In the aftermath of the North American video game crash of the same year, caused by a market flooded with poor quality arcade ports and the commercial failure of Atari 2600 games such as E.T. (thousands of which were simply buried in the New Mexico desert), Japanese companies like Nintendo and Sega came to save the day.
This generation of home consoles put fresh emphasis on games that couldn’t exist in the score attack confines of a noisy arcade. Story-driven RPG games like Zelda, Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy became the start of genres and franchises we still adore today. Throughout the ‘80s technology continued shrinking the necessary components for gaming, with Nintendo’s Game & Watch LCD-screen toys paving the way until our first true handheld console arrived: the Game Boy.
Nintendo Game Boy classic
Game Boy
By the start of the ‘90s everything is moving incredibly fast in the evolution of games. Sega, Nintendo, Atari and even Sony are starting to dip their toes into home consoles. Games like Star Fox and Virtua Racing on the new SNES console experiment with 3D-rendering polygons instead of 2D sprites using processors embedded into the cartridges themselves to give the console more oomph.
With 3D graphics in the mix, this opened the door for even more genres of games, and it isn’t long before programmers using more powerful home PCs are putting this new technology to the ultimate test. Inspired by the top-down stealth game Castle Wolfenstein, John Carmack and John Romero used the basic 3D maze gameplay of previous games to make a first-person shooter. The pair then used the lessons learned in Wolfenstein 3D to make an even more violent shooter, Doom, in 1993.
As well as signaling a period of panic for parents all over the world as violent video games like Doom and Mortal Kombat began appearing on their kids’ toys, this was the start of an essential evolution to get to where we are today. Just two years after Doom was first sent out to enthusiast gamers through shareware floppy disks, iDoom let people use the barebones dial-up internet of the day to play against other people in death matches.
By the mid-90s then, basically everything we use for modern gaming had been introduced. Gamepads with joysticks and D-pads, home consoles and PCs, even online matches. But of course nobody stopped there. Technological improvements in graphics cards, jumping from 64-bit processors, to 128-bit, to multi-core CPUs has seen the size of games grow exponentially.
Participants playing video games at Red Bull Pindrop
Participants playing video games at Red Bull Pindrop
Graphics technology advancements have seen us move from stumbling into 3D worlds to soaring through virtual reality ones. And the constant pervasiveness of the internet through our lives has given birth to new genres like MMOs and, more recently, the Battle Royale genre which has swept the globe with Fortnite.
The thing about the evolution of games is that even the building blocks started out resembling the modern day gaming we already know, but it’s the tiny improvements that have led to huge sweeping changes along the way. So even now, as you play an MMO on your phone using Xbox’s cloud gaming infrastructure, you’re only a few (hundred) evolutionary steps away from those first gaming pioneers, installing Spacewar! on the university supercomputer during their lunch break.