127. Computer Games

Luke gives his personal history of computer games.

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This episode is all about computer games or video games, from the early days of PONG, Space Invaders and Pac-Man to the multi-billion dollar industry that we have today.

While talking in this episode I use various pieces of vocabulary to describe comptuer games and the games industry. Scroll down this page and you can find a list of expressions, phrases and sentences that I say in the episode.

Also, if you scroll down you can watch some videos about computer games which I think you might enjoy and find interesting.

What’s in this episode?
1. I’ll give you my own personal history of computer games (from my first hand-held Nintendo Game&Watch device, to the PS3 that I now have in my living room).
2. I’ll discuss some questions and issues that relate to computer games.

What do you think? I am very interested to know what you think about games, so please JOIN THE DEBATE by leaving your comments in response to this episode and these questions:
-What do you think of computer games? Do you love them or hate them?
-Do you think they’re sad or cool?
-Do you like all games or just some specific ones?
-Do you prefer any games genres more than others?
-Do you play games often, or do you avoid them completely?
-Are they just for boys or do girls play them too?
-Are they just for children, teenagers or adults?
-Do you think they are a good use of your time, or just a total waste of time?
-Are they bad for us, or do they help to keep us fit and teach us skills?
-Are they a good way to connect with people, or are they anti-social?
-Are they immoral or just a bit of fun?
-Can they be the future of entertainment? Will they replace movies as a way to tell a good story?
-Can computer games ever become an art-form?

Listen to the podcast to hear me discuss some of these questions and please leave your comments below this post.

You should read these while listening to the episode. This page is not supposed to be read like a blog entry, it is here to help you understand the audio episode.
*I recommend that you double click words you don’t know, then paste into google or an online dictionary to get definitions*
Many people believe that computer games are just something that is used or done by geeky teenage boys with no friends who never go outside, never see the sun and who just spend all of their time indoors playing games and maybe learning how to become a murderer or something like that.
Maybe we can use America as a kind of benchmark for the way games are consumed all over the world.
Generally speaking I think the trends in America are quite reflective of trends in the rest of the world, more or less, when it comes to computer games anyway.
Consoles – e.g. the Playstation 3, the Nintendo Wii and the XBox 360
There’s a massive variety of games now and they come ‘in all shapes and sizes’.
My girlfriend got completely addicted to Angry Birds.
Games still have a long way to go before they can rival art forms like film or novels in the way that they can tell stories, but they have so much potential in terms of the way they are interactive.
I was born in 1977 and computer games had been around for quite a while when I arrived.
Atari were the original, old-school, retro computer games maker. (They weren’t retro at the time, but now they are really retro!)
IN 1972 they came up with a very early computer game concept, called PONG. (In fact Atari were later sued for allegedly stealing the idea of Pong from someone else)
It was very basic, it was very simple and essentially it was a kind of table tennis or tennis simulator.
You might have even played it, maybe on an emulator on your PC.
There was a little white ball, which was basically a tiny square made of probably about 4 pixels.
The white lines represented your bats, your table tennis bats or your tennis rackets.
It was very basic, but somehow very addictive.
There was something satisfying about the analogue sounds that you got from this game – BOP BIP BOP BIP.
It started out as an arcade machine.
A computer games arcade
Coin-operated games machines
It wasn’t until the early 70s that electronic games were introduced.
They introduced the very first games console, which had a space in the top where you could insert cartridges and the cartridges would be different games.
You could plug this thing into your TV and then “bingo” you’ve got your own tennis simulator.
He brought home some sort of Pong copy of some kind, that he borrowed from a friend I think, and he plugged it into the TV and then we started playing Pong.
I remember there were these kind of dials or paddles that we used to control the line going up and down.
The next game that I got was after my Dad had been to Hong Kong on business.
Hand-held games, e.g. the Game Boy
It had a little arm that would come out of the back and you could prop it up on your bedside table. It would work like an alarm clock.
It was a combination between a bedside alarm clock and a computer game.
The guys in the parachutes would slowly descend.
At the start it was easy because they would just come down one by one.
You’ve got to be very fast with your thumbs in order to catch these guys in parachutes.
You see this little shark’s fin coming through the water, and then they get eaten by the shark!
It was quite a lot of fun, and required quite a lot of skill and dexterity in your thumbs.
The Sinclair ZX Spectrum – it had something like 64k of RAM. (not Random Assisted Memory but Random ACCESS Memory)
You could write code so you could program your own games.
You had to load computer games onto it using a tape player.
They were pretty unreliable and they would crash quite a lot.
It crashed and it never worked again.
I wouldn’t say it was a next-generation computer.
You’d put the cassette in the tape machine, rewind it, get the computer ready.
It would go into a ready mode and then you’d press play on the machine.
You could hear the sound of the code going in. It was a kind of analogue code.
Very slowly the game would load.
Probably about 50% of the time, they wouldn’t work.
If you even breathed on the computer, the chances were that it would crash.
The title screen would be some sort of picture to represent the game.
You’d keep your fingers crossed that it would crash.
BMX Simulator had a top down view.
There were these little, very basic looking, little blobs.
You had to avoid puddles of water.
Everyone would have to crowd around the keyboard.
Not very practical but certainly a lot of fun.
You had to type in the code in order to launch a game.
You had to learn a basic set of commands.
You had to control a little car going through a valley.
A valley, made of ‘number 1s’.
We used to actually want to get up early in order to play the games.
The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) arrived.
I had a paper round. I was a paperboy.
I saved all my money from the paper round and I used it to buy my first NES.
If you don’t know who Mario is then I don’t know where you’ve been.
More American kids were able to identify Super Mario than Mickey Mouse.
A very playable platform adventure.
Super Mario was an Italian plumber.
He used to travel through these green pipes.
Don’t ask me why he was Italian.
They gave him a hat, and they also gave him a mustache.
She was constantly being kidnapped either by Donkey Kong or by Bowser, who was a kind of huge green monster, some sort of evil turtle.
It was up to Mario to find his way through these different worlds in order to defeat Bowser and rescue the princess.
Make sure that you don’t fall in holes.
The sound effects were really great and very memorable.
If you get touched by a turtle, then you would die. I don’t know why if a turtle touches your foot then you would die.
There were various little touches in this game that made it very special.
You felt that he had a sense of weight.
There was a sensation that he had some inertia.
I don’t know what kind of mushrooms Mario was eating.
Not real-world logic there.
All kinds of spin-off games.
It was basically just a grey plastic box with a lid on top.
The Game Boy (1989)
It was a very simple design, very appealing, a very nice aesthetic, very simple layout and everything.
It just oozed charm.
The cute noises that this machine would make.
It was a 2 bit machine.
Any yet with all of these basic limitations, Nintendo managed to produce some really classic games.
It just shows, you don’t need amazing graphics, you don’t need high-quality HD graphics.
All you need is a, kind of, inventive game designer, a simple set of rules and addictive gameplay.
God knows how Nintendo managed to get the rights to put it on the Game Boy.
It’s an interesting story of espionage and computer games.
It was very difficult to master the game.
You get a square, an oblong, a little higgledy-piggledy shape.
You have to make sure that the blocks don’t all pile up.
My parents didn’t really agree with games. They frowned on them. (frowned on / frowned upon)
Once they started playing Tetris, they got hooked, and they couldn’t put it down.
You could play Tetris for hours on end without even realising that the time had gone by.
In fact, if you played Tetris too long you would experience ‘Tetrisitis’!
Eventually you start seeing the graphics wherever you go.
That just shows how engrossing and how, kind of, addictive and fun these games are, that you just get completely sucked into them. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I wonder, I really do.
So after the NES and after the Game Boy, the next console that I got was the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES or Super Famicon in Japan).
It was a lot more powerful than the NES and it had much better graphics and there was a huge range of new games that you could get for it.
As a result you got lots of innovation.
It also looked cool. It was nicely rounded. It looked like it was out of the Star Wars universe in some way. It was kind of grey plastic and it was kind of rounded. It just looked nice, and when you put the cartridge in the top it made a satisfying ‘clunk’ sound. You’d put the cartridge in and it would go ‘CLUNK’. And there was a big button in the middle to eject the cartridge, and when you ejected it would pop out like a toaster.
I had a particular trick at Christmas time for getting tips as a paperboy.
They then felt obliged to give me a cash tip.
I spent my money, wisely, on a SNES.
I bought a SNES which was packaged with Street Fighter 2.
Essentially Street Fighter 2 is a fighting game, a beat-em-up.
Whenever you get punched your power level goes down a bit until eventually your power level reaches zero and you get knocked out.
The key to the game was learning the particular fighting style for that character, learning all their special moves and mastering them so that you could do the special moves in an instant.
Other characters were ones like Ken and Ryu who were the principle characters in this game, and they had a kind of a … sort of a karate style.
One of their special moves was to throw fireballs. So they’d summon up some special energy and then release it as a burning blue ball of plasma of some kind, and if that hit you then it would take away a lot of energy from you. That was one of their special moves and whenever they did it they would say a special command “HA-DO-KEN!”
It was a very effective move.
The dragon punch could inflict multiple hits.
These characters were so well drawn, so well rendered, they were like super heroes. They way they looked on screen, they were big tough guys, with rippling muscles. They were like Greek gods.
I always used to think that the characters were saying “HELLO KEN” “HOW ARE YOU KEN?”
When I read the instruction manual (I realised) that no, they were just speaking Japanese.
I was dedicated to Nintendo.
I used to hate Sega. I shouldn’t have done because they had some great games too.
One of the things they managed to do was aim their marketing at older gamers.
What SONY started to do was combine the gaming experience with the home entertainment experience.
You can play Blu-Ray discs.
Now we’ve also go the Nintendo Wii, which is strangely named, because a wee is something you do in the toilet, so now you can have a Wii in your living room!
It brought Nintendo back.
The thing about the Wii is that it’s got motion sensors.
Your body becomes the controller, as it were.
This is a huge step… a huge change.. a huge innovation for Nintendo.
You just replicate the action from the real world.
You swing your arms and the motion sensor in the controller knows what you’re doing and it replicates it on the screen. Wow, amazing!
As a result, loads of girls started playing Wii.
It also allowed people all over the world to smash their TV sets.
Nintendo decided that you had to wear a strap around your wrist.
You just have to take my word for it.
I probably shouldn’t have spent so much time playing games with my friends.
We had a game called Goldeneye.
It allowed you to run around in rooms, as different characters from the James Bond movies, trying to kill each other.
We spent a lot of time murdering each other in virtual reality.
Why didn’t you join the student union radio and become a DJ?
Ultimately, playing games doesn’t allow you to achieve anything, it’s just fun in itself.
After a while I start feeling guilty because I know that I should be using that time to do something important like organising my finances.
Those are all things I should be doing rather than playing Red Dead Redemption.
It’s just like a big Sergio Leone western, except that you’re in it.
They’re really exciting and exhilarating.
Very violent, very gruesome murder.
There are lots of very wholesome games, like farming simulators. (but why not just try farming in the real world??)
A game like Grand Theft Auto is generally considered to be great because it gives you lots of freedom.
You can mug someone, you can shoot someone but you can’t give someone a bunch of flowers.
Why is it that computer games focus so much on bloody violence?
Maybe we all really would love to go outside and blow things up, but obviously we can’t.
I don’t think there is more murder or more killing now than there was before games arrived. I’m sure that the world was a lot more savage, a lot more brutal hundreds of years ago before anyone even considered the idea of computer games.
I don’t think it’s fair to say there are more killings, considering the number of people who play games.
I don’t think the number of police shootings (shootings of policemen) has not significantly increased since the release of that game. (this just speculation of course)
I don’t think it’s as simple as that.
Maybe it’s cathartic. It allows you to release tension or aggression.
The violence is more realistic and artificial intelligence is evolving all the time.
At what point will it become genuinely immoral?
That opens up all sorts of questions which have already been dealt with in films like Blade Runner.
It’s not really anti-social, it’s just a different kind of socialising.
Online people abuse each other, because there’s that sense of anonymity.
Also it allows people to develop genuine kinds of team work.
It allows people to develop a very refined sense of team work skills.
It’s not really that much different to playing a board game like draughts or Monopoly.
Also, some people say that games allow you to develop quick reflexes and basic motor skills, and decision making skills.
Are they analytic decision making skills? Do they involve making really strategic decisions?
It depends on what kind of game you’re playing.
Games are not mindless, not by any means.
They’re on a similar level as a basic Hollywood B movie.
Normally it’s some sort of visceral feeling, like excitement or fear.
I very rarely experience genuine emotion, sadness, I’ve never cried during a game, except maybe during The Legend of Zelda.
I don’t think games really elicit emotions in the same way that watching the subtle ways in which actors’ faces can convey meanings. Movies can be like fine art, but I haven’t yet experienced a game that’s like fine art. Sure some of them are aesthetic, they’re beautiful, some games but they rarely make me feel emotional. And usually the acting in games is appalling. You get these cut-scenes in which the story line moves on, and they’re just like… awful acting, as I’ve said the story lines are predictable and dull, full of cliches, so sorry computer games have got a long way to go before they can reach the same kind of level of emotional complexity that you get from a film.
At best, they’re like exploitative Hollywood ‘B’ movies, horror movies, westerns, that kind of thing.
If you’ve played a game that genuinely moved you, or that you found emotional, then, again let me know.
I think that’s pretty much it for this episode.

Charlie Brooker’s “How Videogames Changed The World”. This is a BBC documentary about computer games. It is a satirical and humerous look at the history of computer games.

‘Videogame Nerd’ talks about PONG consoles. My Dad brought home a Pong console some time in the 1980s, and we played it for about 2 weeks, before it disappeared from our living room.

Nintendo Game & Watch – Parachute (This is the first game I had as a child)

A short review of the British home computer, the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, which we had in our home for about 1 day before it crashed and never worked again! It was a classic computer though, and although it was very basic, it was used by lots of British teenagers to write their own computer games. This review gets a bit boring and technical but it does clearly show you the computer and how it worked.

Super Mario Frustration
This is a funny commentary video with someone playing a very difficult level of Super Mario Brothers. He gets very angry and starts shouting at Mario. It always makes me laugh. There is some STRONG LANGUAGE and SWEARING in this video so watch out!

Street Fighter 2 on the SNES. This video makes me feel quite nostalgic. I used to play this quite a lot when I was about 13 or 14 years old. I still play it on my PS3 sometimes these days. “HA DOOO KEN!”
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RPj63Ms_q3M&w=400&h=300]

This is why you should take care when playing Nintendo Wii

Here’s a playthough of the classic western game Red Dead Redemption. The commentator is a game reviewer called Stan Burdman. Don’t take everything he says seriously, as he makes a lot of jokes while he talks. This video should show you how games have developed since they first arrived in the late 60s/early 70s. No real rabbits were harmed during the making of this video.