In a prophetic Gamesfirst article from 2001 Mark Blackburn predicted the rise of casual gaming. It is a particularly interesting article written at the very end of what Mark terms the golden age of PC gaming. While his hopeful prediction that computers would continue to dominate serious gaming leaving casual gaming to console players has not worked out at all, the main thrust of Blackburn's argument certainly holds true.
Describing that heady period of the late 1990's Mark says:
Imagine that for five years the majority of films were made for a select and highly sophisticated audience. An audience versed in the history of cinema and able to, at a glance, discern a variety of influences. Imagine if almost every book published for five years was aimed at the most literate and critically aware individuals. I contend that that has been the state of computer games from say 1996 to 2001, and we are currently in the last days of the golden age.
Today nearly a decade after Mark's article I believe that history has proven the truth of his declaration of the end of the golden age of computer gaming. I think the golden age it self could be extended a few years earlier than 1996 - encompassing Lucas Arts later works and of course Doom, the game that changed everything. It was a period when technology just barely crested the level required to create rich immersive gaming experiences but the rules of this new art form had yet to be written and the limits remained to be discovered. This provided a window of opportunity for almost unbridled creativity - resulting in a catalog of interactive entertainment experiences of a type that had never ever been seen before. I could mention personal favourites like Half Life, Homeworld, Deus Ex and Sacrifice but the list of astounding games from that period is much longer.
It is not that modern games have declined in quality. Indeed today's top titles such as Modern Warfare and Dragon Age are better in almost every way than their 1990's forebears when viewed by the exacting quality standards of today. Today's games however have nothing like the impact that the seminal works of the golden age had in their day. I suppose it is like comparing the impact of the first model-T with a modern Ford saloon. The modern car is better in every way but it is nothing more than one car among the crowd. The model-T in its day was a technological and social revolution, harbinger of a new epoch.
Gaming today is mainstream and commonplace and games have as a result become far more accessible. In the 1990's in contrast serious games designed for and played by adults had not yet been discovered by the mainstream. The popular media conception of gaming at the time was stuck in the days of Mario plat-formers played by joystick wielding kids. Mark Blackburn points out that the PC gamers of the time was a highly sophisticated audience of literate and sophisticated individuals. This sound like an elitist boast but how could it have been otherwise? PC gaming at the time was a complicated business. The rapidly evolving permutations of hardware and software (remember EMM386 anyone?) meant that only the most dedicated could pursue a serious gaming hobby.
I have been playing computer games on and off since the 1980s but it was the astounding games of the 1990's that grabbed my inner soul and converted me into a serious gamer. There was a feeling of being involved in something new, something as yet undefined that might just change the world. In many ways gaming has actually fulfilled the heady promise of those days. It has taken its place among the pantheon of media experiences and has become mainstream. Nevertheless I do miss the heady exhilaration of those days.