A (Very!?) Brief History of Games

I was fortunate enough to attend the Media Guardian “Changing Media Summit” in 2008, and one of the sessions I attended was looking at the issue of games.

I’ll be posting more about the session later, but one thing that came up related to the definition of a ‘gamer’. Members of the audience were asked whether or not they consider themselves to be “gamers” (would you consider yourself to be “a gamer”? Why/why not?) and then asked to show whether they had played various games recently: Grand Theft Auto, The Sims, or Scrabulous, for example…

One thing that came out of the discussion was that people are unlikely to class themselves as gamers unless a significant part of their self-defining identity is wrapped up in gaming culture. Another point that came out was that computer games now have a claim on cultural grounds to be rightly placed as part of the tradition of gaming down the centuries, rather than as a geeky,spotty youth subculture!

Anyway, one of the most popular forms of computer game today – in turns of numbers of people playing them – are ‘casual games’ like Solitaire, Snake or Minesweeper. Casual games are easy to grasp and may be targeted at a mass audience and played over a short period of time. If you play games during snatched moments of time, such as a coffee break, or on your mobile phone whilst waiting for a bus, or train, the likelihood is that you’ll be playing a “casual game”.

Many people first play casual games that are based on variants of real world games they are familiar with. Historical games have provided a rich source of inspiration for many computer based puzzle games, from straightforward replicas to what might be fairly termed ‘derivative works’.

Not surprisingly, many of the earliest games we know about have been discovered through their remains or visual records of them. Some of the games are still played today – “living fossils” from the ludic past! –although whether the rules are the same today as they were several thousand years ago is open to question.

UPDATE: see if you can find two or three games timelines on the web. Do they show the same games? What criteria do you think were used for including a game on the particular timelines you found? What criteria would you use?

I was going to give a brief history of games, here, but instead I’d like to try out a little game… ;-)

I’ve set up a form to play the game using a Google spreadsheet: “History of Games” timeline.

The game is very simple…

Rules of the “History of Games Timeline Game”

  • I have seeded the timeline with scant details of three games and the periods they are thought to date from.
  • The game is time limited and next runs for fourteen days from May 3rd, 2009, for fourteen days.
  • The game proceeds by players committing sets of entries to the timeline.
  • You may make one set of entries to the timeline per clock hour, but make as many sets of entries as you like given that constraint for the duration of the game.
  • A set of entries is defined as follows: Pick one game from the games listed on the timeline, and enter two other games: one that dates from a period after the game you chose, another that first appeared before it.
  • Furthermore, the two games you add to the timeline must not be more recent than the most recent game in the timeline, nor should they be older.
  • You may optionally add a third game to the list that is either more recent than the most recent game, or older than the oldest game.
  • You may challenge as many other game entries as you like if you think the date, name, ‘creator’, location, or description given they have given for a game is in error; to post a challenge, enter the game details you believe are correct, using the same game name, and tick the challenge box;
  • Points will be awarded for each entry you make, and each correction you make, and deducted for each change that is made to one of your entries.
  • All rules are subject to change, and I may make arbitrary or incorrect rulings against them…
  • If you would like to suggest rule changes or modifications to the Timeline game (this is a first attempt after all!), please post a comment…

I have no idea whether this experimental game will work, so please engage with it, and please bear with me if one or two things need ironing out around it!

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10 Responses to “A (Very!?) Brief History of Games”


  1. 1 Chris Bird March 13, 2008 at 3:25 pm

    An interesting discussion; ie whether someone is a ‘gamer’.

    I’m minded of Myst (and the sequels) that I once saw described as “The computer game for ‘Guardian’ readers who don’t play computer games”. In other words, “Oh, computer games are for for the ‘geeky,spotty youth subculture!’, whereas we engage with Myst”.

  2. 2 louise March 13, 2008 at 9:05 pm

    I’ve created an account as louisemh and joined the History of Games group. I don’t know much about the history of games though!

    I suppose I think of a gamer as someone who’s fairly hardcore about playing games — a serious hobby with a high investment of time and/or money. I wouldn’t generally consider myself a gamer though there have been brief periods where I’ve played one game obsessively for a short time. I’d consider myself a [very] casual gamer at the moment — I respond to requests for scrabulous and scramble games, but that’s about it.

  3. 3 Tony Hirst March 14, 2008 at 9:31 am

    “I’ve created an account”
    and I think (?!) I’ve invited you as an editor of the timeline…

    “I don’t know much about the history of games though!”
    Nor do I! I guess I need to provide a bit more framing around the game/exercise?

    There are a few things I wanted to explore:

    1) how to start writing ‘user provided content’ activities – in this case, I guess it’s an info skills, resource discovery, summary writing exercise (find a game, ‘research it’, summarise it). I did think about using a form to solicit date, name of game, ‘historical context’ of its creation and say on, and then find a way of displaying that data on a timeline, but the xtimeline widget looked interesting… which leads to the next point:

    2) I maybe need to ask some leading questions about the timeline widget, and the use of this sort of ‘interactive media’ as a display technology, compared to a long, fixed list of dates that you might find in a traditional timeline like this one, for example: http://www.historicgames.com/gamestimeline.html
    Setting up the activity THAT way also provides a lead in to how you might start looking for games to include in the timeline?

    3) The design of the rules of the ‘game’ themselves. For example:
    a) How to get a distribution of games across the ages? – pick one game from the list then add one before it and one after it.
    b) How to stop one person just adding huge lists of entries – one turn per hour
    c) How to stop people just adding nonsense/encourage fact checking etc when posting an item to the timeline – lose points if someone challenges and corrects facts in your entry
    d) how to encourage people to critically review other entries on the list – points for making corrections or improving on an entry

  4. 4 louise March 15, 2008 at 7:03 pm

    I don’t have access to edit — I have submitted a request to be added as an editor via the website.

  5. 5 Tony Hirst March 15, 2008 at 7:08 pm

    Ok Louise – that should be sorted now… and Martin added too :-)

    (I don’t think i can make the timeline public editable, which is a bit of a pain… Maybe I should have tried to work out a solution that made use of the simile timeline widget: http://simile.mit.edu/timeline/ )

  6. 6 Rebecca March 15, 2008 at 10:09 pm

    Hi, I’ve registered as RebeccaMF. Can you sign me up? Thanks.

  7. 7 Tony Hirst March 15, 2008 at 11:11 pm

    Rebecca – you should have received an invite by now; if you accept it, I’ll then have to add the editor priviliges in the admin a/c.

    If anyone else wants to join the timeline crew ;-) then I *think* that if you get an xtimeline account, you can go to the “xTimeline: History of games” timeline (http://xtimeline.com/timeline/History-of-Games) and request editing rights? Maybe? ;-)

  8. 8 Rebecca March 17, 2008 at 8:16 pm

    No invite yet :-(

  9. 9 Tony Hirst July 9, 2008 at 9:35 pm

    It seems that it’s anniversary time… A recent article from Times Online (“Invade and conquer: Space Invaders thirty years on” [ http://technology.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/tech_and_web/gadgets_and_gaming/article4254644.ece ]) describes the origins of the classic arcade game “Space Invaders”, contrasting it with today’s games, and asking to what extent contemporary games may be considered as art or serious training environments…


  1. 1 The History of Computer Games « Digital Worlds - Interactive Media and Game Design Trackback on March 21, 2008 at 5:26 pm

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