Monday, March 08, 2010

The Golden Age of Gaming: A Prophetic Article from 2001

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.


DM Osbon said...

Both the 80's & 90's were hotbeds for my PC gaming experiences, less so 00's. I kind of agree with the sentiments but HD console gaming is beginning to make a similar impression on me and the gaming experiences I am having. And no that's not dependant on multiplayer.

mbp said...

Hi DM I have to admit that consoles are now at the forefront of gaming and games like "Hard Rain" do seem to be breaking genuinely new ground. You are playing that at the moment aren't you? What do you think? Is it a genuine new beginning?

DM Osbon said...

Have completed a playthrough of Heavy Rain now - I think it has a good and healthy approach that's close to a dawn of something special. The next 10 years should be very exciting!

Anonymous said...

Note: Your link to GamesFirst doesn't go there.

I don't think I'd agree the gist of it though. From your description I'd say the viewpoint is very PC centric. Like DM has said, there was just as much before the PC as when the PC came to dominate. I'd say the real golden age was back when the C64, Spectrum, AppleII and Atari800 were slugging it out with the Amiga and AtariST nicely following through.

The PC's so called golden age of horribly buggy and bloated gaming only came about after it had squashed all the others.


mbp said...

Link fixed. Thanks for pointing it out Solbright. I admit my viewpoint is very PC game centric. There have been other golden ages such as the golden age of arcade gaming in the 1980s. We may even now be entering a golden age of console gaming. I do think there was something special about the golden age of PC games though. Yes it fed off those precursors and yes the games and the machines were awkward beasts to manage but I do think It was a confluence of technological innovation and sheer creativity that has yet to be equalled. Significantly the period represents the transition of gaming from being an activity aimed mainly at kids to being a legitimate pass-time for adults.

Anonymous said...

From where I'm sitting, that sounds snobby! ... I guess it's just ignorance though.


Chappo said...

Good post.

I will always remember my first couple of games, Colonisation, Baldur's Gate, and the incredible adventure game Downunder Dan. :P
My experiences with these games were incredible and the sheer joy of playing those games has not been replicated since.

Gaming culture, demographic, and attitudes towards gaming has all had a major shift in the past decade. Its commercialized and simplified and certainly provides a whole different experience.

My hope is with indie gaming. They're getting more recognition for their innovative and original gameplay, and hopefully we'll begin to see some truly good and pure gaming coming back to the front.