Bob Dunn | Game On: A lot has changed in 50 years of gaming, but it's still a social experience

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In gaming parlance, I recently hit level 50.

In more general terms, I just got old, crested the hill, entered middle-age and became embroiled in its accompanying existential crisis.

The fact that we, as a species, consider 50 "mid-life," instead of, more accurately, "two-thirds-life," shows the amount of denial and conflict we have around our mortality.

I wish I could comfortably believe I was in the middle here and had another 50 to look forward to, however, that feels like the longest of shots and a sucker-bet at best.

But, I digress.

I've had the privilege of being able to indulge in this hobby we discuss here for almost all of those 50 years. As a result, I've seen it evolve from simple, 5-minute experiences for which you paid a quarter at a time, to ones that create spaces in which players spend months or years.

During that same time, games went from avatars and environments made from nothing but blocks and imagination, to fully-realized three-dimensional worlds and computer-generated photo-realistic characters that rival the latest in cinema special effects.

From early on, games have been about stories, it's just how and how well those stories are told that's changed.

Games that had barely enough memory and power with which to work, conveyed those stories through the documentation that used to come with your software.

Backstory and character couldn't be developed in early games, so that was done through sometimes elaborate presentations in the instruction manuals that used to come with games.

Those stories often gave a player a sense of purpose beyond simply moving through the game's sometimes crude mechanics.

You weren't just moving left-to-right through a virtual obstacle course in "Pitfall," you were, in fact, Pitfall Harry, looting jungle treasures years before Lara Croft and Nathan Drake became gamers' adventurers of choice.

Physical instruction booklets were replaced long ago by in-game tutorials that instruct the player along the way, and games have taken great pains to find ways to tell more elaborate stories while they have a player's attention.

Many games have incorporated subtextual information about their worlds and characters within themselves, through collectible items that provide either text or audio that provide additional, but non-requisite information at a player's discretion.

Storytelling in video games has certainly improved over the decades, but, in many cases, it's still in a position where it keeps players at an arm's-length; having intentions of saying something of substance, but ultimately succumbing to the need to be a game and to turn a profit, sell the maximum amount of copies and please shareholders.

The more interesting storytelling often comes by way of smaller games from independent studios that can afford to take bigger thematic risks by having to please fewer people to be viable.

Storytelling in mass-market games is improving, but seems to be in a spot where its success is the result of being able to stand upon lowered expectations.

Gamers have been so accustomed to pedantic stories that, when a game does attempt something more ambitious and with the intent of "having something to say," like the recent "Death Stranding," it gets immediately praised as a masterpiece, despite it being an incomprehensible mess that isn't nearly as clever as it thinks it is.

More on that in a future column.

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The technological leaps go mostly without saying, but it's worth taking note of just how far it's come in all that time.

Games have gone from the most simple of presentations that had to be contained within 6-foot-tall wooden cabinets, to ones made up of dozens and scores of gigabytes of information that can be transmitted from source to destination via wireless signals.

It still feels like arcane magic sometimes and it's often taken for granted.

What hasn't changed in all that time, though, is that gaming, despite being derided as anti-social, was and is very much a social activity; it's just that the manifestations of those interactions has changed.

Arcade gaming was always a group activity, even when only one person was playing.

The arcades had unspoken, but well-understood rules about the order of succession regarding who got play and when.

In competitive games, everyone got their turn to try and unseat the reigning champ, but only after you laid down your quarter on the edge of the cabinet's display and waited for "next."

Even when games came home and became more insular, there were many post-school afternoons and snow days with a group surrounding a console, sharing a controller, offering unsolicited advice and trading (usually) good-natured insults.

Even when we weren't actively playing, gaming was still social. There were many meetings outside of school to discuss new game or boast about a new achievement.

There were many cases where those aforementioned instruction manuals were lent to classmates, who wanted a taste of a game's flavor before they were able to get it for themselves.

There was no Internet to access for the type of information, trailers, reviews, gameplay broadcasts that now come standard and deluge prospective players with information before a game even releases.

As communication technology improved, so did gaming's social reach. Players went from watching their friends, to playing with them while they were in the same room, to playing remotely together in real-time from anywhere on the planet.

I'm old enough to remember the days when between rounds of competitive play, everyone congratulated each other with "good game."

Sometimes, we even meant it.

Speaking for myself, my gaming has become both welcome and needed time with my friends, a notion which flies in the face of the notion of gamers being isolated agoraphobes, losing their own identities in virtual fantasy.

For us, it's more like a regular poker night, but without all the math and prospect of losing money.

We cooperate, advise, celebrate our successes and laugh about our failures.

It's all part of being a unique group inside a massive community, and it is what makes this hobby of ours special.

I can't wait for us to see what's next.

Game on.


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