There’s only one thing to do with a video game: play it. At their core, games are guided by play, and the two words will forever be associated. The invitation of play that video games extend to us is the fundamental difference the medium has with TV, film, and books. For this reason, and that for as long as humans have existed, they have played and created games, and it is important to analyse this fundamental trait possessed by games. Play is rooted in human nature and scrutinising its connotations while also studying the history of video games can inform us of their reputation in society.
Play is a part of the human condition. It allows us to forget the world while we partake in an activity outside of time itself, with no other end but enjoyment. Tangentially, cultures have in some form or variation created games to be played. Games can be defined as an attempt to accomplish a set of arbitrary goals by means that are not efficient, but are permitted by a set of rules. We accept these rules because they are necessary in making the game possible. The goals themselves are trivial, and the conditions or rules by which to attain them are guided by play. Play is viewed by many as a source of human creativity, and is limited by socially acceptable behaviours created by cultures. That is why it is important to look at the socially constructed notions of play to understand why video games hold a childish connotation now.
The roots of our current perception of play started in the late 18th century. It was in this moment that children’s books and toys had begun being manufactured and mass produced for the first time in Europe. The differentiation of the products as “for kids” created a dichotomy in people’s mind which resonated as other aspects of life became segmented. Adding to the borders of child and adult was the concept that leisure and labour were opposed to each other. As the industrial revolution took hold, play was viewed as acceptable only if it had productive purposes. Childhood was categorised as playful and full of discovery, while adulthood was to be structured logically around being productive. As the top-down, management-based business practices of industrial life crystallised and transcended through the 1970s, the attitudes of childishness directed at play lingered as well.
Yet, looking at play alone does not illuminate the whole picture surrounding gaming’s social derision. The lineage of gaming and entertainment must be traced back to the 19th century to reveal the source of contempt. It was in this time period that entertainment became extremely visual with the introductions of stereoscopes and zoetropes. Alongside this changing norm was the focus of commerce on sensual pleasures, while a view developed that saw consumers as audiences to be entertained by commodities. One source of amusement were slot machines. As early as 1880, these provided gameplay in a very basic sense, and even featured animated figures that players needed to “compete” against. Some even employed basic controllers. These machines could be found in the United States, Europe, and Japan, and often had to disguise themselves in order to not get banned. To do so, they used sports like tug-of-war, rowing, football, and table tennis to create a facade to distract people from their money-making intentions. The visual nature of the games hoped to masquerade the addictive habits forming around them. The worry of addiction surrounds the medium still today.
These gambling devices were found in bars and pubs, and when the first widely available video game Computer Space was released by Nolan Bushnell in 1971, it found its home next to these long-established gambling games, because that was where the players were. By placing this arcade machine in the pubs with the other gambling machines they inherited the suspicion and shadiness associated with these adult environments, while also promoting the idea that games were also for adults. The tension between play as childish and addictive, yet adult are indicative of the conversation still being had about games today.
Games culture is becoming pop-culture, and the established attitudes about the medium are beginning to be challenged as more people begin experiencing them. They also play a major role in introducing people to computers for the first time, and computer technology is increasingly becoming more game-like in its colourful, glossy, and fun interfaces. Yet, the childish connotations of video games and the fear of their addictive qualities can be traced back to industrialisation and gambling machines. However, play is rooted in human nature, and as attitudes towards its role shift, so will the connotations associated with gaming.
This article draws from the book Video Games and the Social Imaginary: Digital Media and Society Series by Graeme Kirkpatrick, a professor at the University of Manchester, more specifically chapter 2.