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Tracing the evolution of entertainment: gaming tech innovations through the ages

Gaming tech has come a long way and this article will walk you through its inception to where we are today.

Gaming tech has come a long way and this article will walk you through its inception to where we are today.

It would seem that humans have always played games. Pitching our wits against each other in games of skill and fortune is integral to what makes us human. Games represent some of the first documented examples of social interaction and as technology advances, the games we play grow increasingly sophisticated – at least in terms of technological innovation.

The advent of Pokémon Go recently brought a new dimension to gaming through the implementation of Augmented Reality (AR), and the introduction of Virtual Reality (VR) headsets is certain to transform gaming yet further. But this is nothing new: since the beginning of recorded history, it is clear that games have always marched in lockstep with technological advance.

Games of the Pre-Industrial Age

As soon as mankind learned to whittle, we tried our hand at whittling game pieces. Early gaming tools were crafted from whatever materials prevailed in the region. Shells and stones made for ancient game counters, also wood, beans, ivory, and bone. The oldest game pieces thus far discovered were interred at the 5,000-year-old Başur Höyük burial mound in southeast Turkey.

Early games were often imbued with religious or ceremonial significance. We know from a Babylonian treatise on the subject that the _Game of Twenty Squares_, also known as the _Royal Game of Ur_, with its ornately decorative board, knucklebone dice and twenty pawns, doubled as a divinatory instrument. This race game was popular across Egypt and Syria around 3000 BC, and variations have come to light in Crete, Sri Lanka, Cyprus, and Iran.

The 30 squares that made up the Egyptian board game Senet, (circa 3500 BCE – 3100 BCE) represent symbolic steps toward the afterlife. Here, the draughtsmen each represent a human soul on its journey to unite with the sun god Re-Horakhty.

Again and again we see the same themes being developed, in unrelated cultures spanning the breadth of the world. Perhaps the ancients looked upon life as a game, and themselves as pieces shuttled across the board by invisible hands.

As centuries pass, artisanship refines and new wood-turning methods are adopted, the quality of game pieces and boards improves commensurately. Beauty and craftsmanship were as prized then as now, and lavish game sets were seen as status symbols by the social elite, and often given as diplomatic gifts.

The forerunners of games such as chess, Go, and backgammon had established their rulesets by the late 14th century, and spread via trading routes around the globe. But the next step of gaming evolution was prompted not by craftsmanship but by industrialization.

Games of the Mechanical Age

The industrial revolution began in 18th century Britain and spread rapidly around the world. It brought with it new ways of manufacturing goods and birthed a class of consumers for those goods. Upheaval was enormous, but when the dust settled, the landscape of national economies had changed forever. The working classes now had a measure of disposable income, and new games were devised to keep people entertained in brand new ways.

One consequence of this change, and a fitting example to trace iteratively across the decades, was the invention of the slot machine. The precursor to the modern slot machine first appeared in the United States in 1891 and soon became a staple feature of bars and hostel rooms of that era. Patented by Sittman & Pitt of Brooklyn, New York, the name derived from the slots in the side of the machine for the insertion and retrieval of coins- originally nickels. At the pull of a lever, five rotating drums could spin into any of the winning hands in a poker suite. The prizes for a winning score varied from establishment to establishment, but a degree of consistency was established with Charles Fey’s “Liberty Bell” machine, which followed soon after in 1895.

The “Liberty Bell” opted for 3 reels instead of 5, to make for a simpler and more efficient design. It’s five symbols – spades, hearts, diamonds, horseshoes and the big prize Liberty Bell, became the template for what we now know as Fruit Machines. The automatic mechanism was enthusiastically copied by other manufacturers, and the Liberty Bell arrangement was soon standard for the industry. By 1938, some 23% of Americans regularly played a slot machine. Another gaming innovation to occur at the same time as slot machines was table football: although similar games can be traced as far back as the 1890s, table football as we know it was patented in 1923.

Mechanical slots took an almost Heath-Robinson approach to aesthetics, reveling in the whirr and clank of spinning drums, with gaily-painted casings and polished hand levers. “Money Honey”, the first electromechanical slot machine came along in 1963, dispensing with the need for a side lever, and these were themselves overtaken by fully electronic machines from the late 70s onwards. Each iteration improved upon the last, until we get to the machines of today, with their winking lights, playful tunes and screen-based gaming.

The games arcade was ready to be born.

Games of the Electronic Age

When we hit the digital age, events began to move swiftly. Pioneering electronic games were curios at first; brave and forward-looking experiments, but restricted by their unwieldy solid-state wiring and bulky vacuum tubes.

Dr. Edward Uhler Condon unveiled the first recognizable game machine at the 1940 New York World’s Fair, modelled on the ancient mathematical game of Nim, but it wasn’t until 1967 that the first home gaming systems emerged to test a hitherto unexplored market.

The “Magnavox Odyssey“, based around Ralph Baer’s “Brown Box” conception, beats Atari by a factor of a few months to lay claim to the title of the original games console. Games for the system were monochromatic and rudimentary – but included ping-pong, and even a light-gun accessory for a target shooting game. Basic as these games were, they were incredibly exciting at the time and also represent a paradigm shift; entirely new, and with gameplay that stretched electronics and set the field evolving in new directions.

One of these directions was of course the arcade. Atari, founded by the titular godfather of gaming, Nolan Bushnell, dominated the early arcade market, with a rash of freestanding game machines beginning with “Pong” in 1973. Taito followed up with the iconic “Space Invaders” in 1978, and competition between the two giants spurred further innovations, which lead ultimately to the development of the home gaming market, from which the entirety of modern gaming springs.

As saturation in the 1980s crashed the arcade market, game developers switched their attentions to the burgeoning market of PC gaming, on the new desktop computers that were established by Apple and Microsoft. This in turn led to the emergence of next generation consoles from the likes of Nintendo and Sony’s PlayStation, 8-bit, 16-bit, 32-bit and (way) beyond.

With refinements in silicon chip technology, the games themselves could become more complex in nature, and more challenging to the player. Graphics saw a spike in development; more processing power led to faster processing speeds and this always translates to larger, more graphically-intensive games drawing on chip enhancements to deliver pixel clarity and the kind of superlative digital lighting effects to be seen in modern sandbox releases such as “No Man’s Sky“.

Onward to an Immersive Future

The ink is still wet on what the future might hold, but we can say with some assuredness that gaming is set to become more immersive and 3D than ever before. VR and AR will see to that: this new technology will give rise to a new generation of games, fit for the digital age. Pokémon Go is merely the beginning.

Chris has been blogging since the early days of the internet. He primarily focuses on topics related to tech, business, marketing, and pretty much anything else that revolves around tech. When he's not writing, you can find him noodling around on a guitar or cooking up a mean storm for friends and family.

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