The history of game design


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My alma mater offers a major in interactive media and game design, a field that didn't exist during my time there as a student. It's one of many such programs that have popped up across academia in the past decade, in response to the growing popularity and cultural acceptance of video games as an industry and pastime.

Yet electronic game design predates its study by decades. When there were no templates, exemplars, formulae, or rubrics, creative programmers experimented with creative and risky innovations, setting the course for thirty years of successors. Although modern games can still be ingenious, such variation from popular game design is often relegated to low-budget "indie" games and not the big-budget blockbusters sold at retail, which are almost always sequels to existing intellectual properties (IP). This was not the case with the Apple II; visionary games such as Lode Runner, Oregon Trail, and Choplifter were enormous successes and are remembered fondly today.

When today's students are educated in game design and theory, it only makes sense to reflect on historical successes as well. Some academic institutions have wisely chosen to complement their modern game design with this retrospective look. Such a course was once offered at Stanford as the "History of Computer Game Design".

This course provides a historical and critical approach to the evolution of computer and video game design from its beginnings to the present. It brings together cultural, business, and technical perspectives. Students should come away from the course with an understanding of the history of this medium, as well as insights into design, production, marketing, and socio-cultural impacts of interactive entertainment and communication.

The course's required reading includes Dungeons & Dreamers, a book I gave high marks to when I reviewed it for Juiced.GS for its analysis of the 1970s and the era's intersection of popularity in Dungeons & Dragons, The Lord of the Rings, and personal computing. Considering such engaging assignments, I have to wonder why Stanford's course wasn't popular enough to have become a regular part of the school's curriculum; sadly, the "History of Computer Game Design" course does not appear to have been offered since 2005.

This class was part of an accompanying interactive project that has likewise not been updated in nearly a decade. It had an ambitious and socially relevant mission:

The aim of this project is to explore the history and cultural impact of a crucial segment of contemporary new media: interactive simulations and video games. Once the late-night amusement of nerds and hackers who built "Space Wars" and the "Game of Life" in the 1950s and 1960s, video games and interactive media have emerged as one of the most vibrant elements of today's entertainment industry. However, despite the growing popularity and legitimacy of video games, the importance of the medium itself has all but eluded notice by most scholars and media critics. As a result, this project seeks to ground the history and study of video games within a framework of rigorous academic discourse.

While Roger Ebert may contend that video games are not art, others have suggested the better question is: "Can artists express themselves through the video game medium?" I feel the answer to that is an obvious "Yes!", as demonstrated by games from the Apple II to today. It's only a matter of time before game design history is as common a field of study as art history, film theory, and music appreciation.

In addition to the aforementioned Dungeons & Dreamers, other books providing academic perspectives on game design's history include Twisty Little Passages by Nick Montfort, and Dungeons & Desktops by Matt Barton.

(Hat tip to Jason Scott)