I was born in 1982, the same year the Atari 2600 went on sale. My dad waited until I was older and could fully appreciate it before purchasing the system for me. That purchase would shape my life more than he anticipated. In his spare time, we would sit in front of the TV together and play Tank and Pong and attempt to decipher the disastrously designed E.T. For my dad, it barely ranked as a hobby. He was more interested in fishing and grilling.
But I had a lot more spare time than him and was far less interested in the outdoors. Every Christmas list was packed with requests for video games and the systems that played them. Faced with requests for a new console every four years or so, my parents would complain about forced obsolescence, that frustrating moment when you realize that a perfectly good piece of technology is no longer useful—a trend that started with the Nintendo-Sega arms race and not with Apple’s iPhone, as many assume.
As a result, I was intimately aware of the evolution of the video game medium. This may be why I was both intrigued and underwhelmed by Andrew Ervin’sBit by Bit: How Video Games Transformed Our World. Ervin seeks to provide a kind of historical walkthrough of the form, offering us a bird’s-eye view of just how drastically the aims and audience of video games have changed over time. He comes at his subject matter from an outsider’s perspective, transporting himself back in time to the first-ever video game, Tennis for Two, and exploring the twists and turns of the art form’s history by way of its most noteworthy creative innovations.
An Outsider’s Encounter
So much attention has been given to the evolution of the video game industry—financial models, money earned, misguided marketing, and the player acquisition and manipulation that comes with it—that the art form itself has been mostly overlooked by the mainstream. This makes perfect sense in a world that proclaims value based on dollars spent, and dollars spent has indeed been the industry’s claim to fame. As video games came into their own in the ’90s, the industry was generating revenue more than two and half times larger than the film industry.
Add in marketing typically aimed at a primary audience of teenage boys and an innovation cycle tied to realistically depicted violence, and it’s easy to see why video games largely lost the trust and curiosity of the mainstream. Ervin himself writes, “I never wanted to associate myself with the millions of people for whom bloodlust—even virtual bloodlust—became a virtue.”
As part of this disinterested mainstream, Ervin was disgusted when he first encountered the darker tendencies of some video games. He writes of trying the violent first-person-shooter DOOM: “While dated, the original incarnation remained disconcertingly brutal, even in our desensitized age.” And on the prospect of shooting his friends in Goldeneye, he writes, “If shooting creatures from hell had felt vaguely disconcerting, shooting human avatars of my friends felt positively sickening.”