Thursday, May 4, 2017

Toward a History of Video Gaming

While researching the history of genre science fiction I found that its historians manage to produce a relatively coherent picture of it through the '70s. There is, for the half century up to that point, a series of centers on which to focus--key editors, publications, themes, styles, subgenres, movements, authors, works. Not everything is tidily reducible to these centers. Still, the center is a helpful starting point for an analysis--and even the outliers can often be related to it, if reacting against or paralleling it. (Arthur C. Clarke, for example, is a Golden Age giant--but he was not cultivated by John Campbell as part of the Astounding crowd the way Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein were, instead influenced by Olaf Stapledon, coming out of a related but different tradition.)

After the '70s--"after the New Wave"--the picture becomes much more confusing, the field lacking such centers, and it proves more difficult for anyone to get a handle on it all, even with the decades of perspective we now have. People talk about, for example, cyberpunk as having been important, but even that term's use is contentious and confused in a way that "Golden Age" or "New Wave" are not. In fact, after many, many years of thinking about the issue the best I was able to do for Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry was find a series of key themes running through the last four decades or so:

1. The rise of science fiction as a mass market genre. (This was a commercial, business change rather than a strictly artistic development, but hugely important for all that.)
2. Postmodernist science fiction. (Postmodernism in science fiction goes back at least to Philip K. Dick--but amid talk of "radical hard science fiction" it became an explicit, self-conscious object for an influential coterie of writers, and cyberpunk and steampunk are best understood through this lens, even as some of their elements, and the labels themselves, entered into much wider usage.)
3. Alternate history. (Again not new, but it became more commonplace, and actually started to become a genre in its own right.)
4. The blending of science fiction and fantasy. (Also not new, but again more common and more self-conscious--as evident in the "New Weird" and so forth.)

Right now the history of video gaming seems comparable. It appears relatively easy to get a coherent history up to a point--the '90s in this case--but after that coverage of the subject gets much more chaotic. Before then, the arcade and home console/computer were centers--and closely connected ones at that, with arcade hits regularly going on to become successes on the home console. However, now we have a good deal more fragmentation. There is the traditional, solitary experience--but there is also massively multiplayer online gaming. We had mobile gaming before, but now there is the division between users of dedicated devices accommodating complex play, and gaming on the cell phones and tablets "everyone" has. There are the divisions between hardcore and casual gamers, between those who grab the latest game right away and retro gaming. Meanwhile, the near-dominance of gaming by Japan (and indeed, Nintendo) has given way to not just a renaissance of Western gaming, but by way of the relative ease and low cost of producing games for the more casual player, a more globalized market (with the Angry Birds coming out of Finland, Flappy Bird coming out of Vietnam).

There are simply too many different technologies, markets, subcultures for any one analyst to feel themselves in command of it all. Or so it seems to me.

Does anyone have a different take on the situation?

Review: Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life, by Chris Kohler
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
My Posts on Gaming
Just Out . . . (Star Wars in Context, paperback edition)
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry

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