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Game Guts

Video games are big business, and they're influencing pop culture more than ever. LSA explores the ways that alums and faculty have contributed to the mechanics of the medium.
by Brian Short

This is an article from the fall 2018 issue of LSA MagazineRead more stories from the magazine.

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There isn’t just one place and time, there isn’t just one game, where video games started. Some people say it began with Dr. William Higinbotham who, in 1958, made a computer game called Tennis for Two that ran on an oscilloscope, with movement determined by the means of two simple, box-shaped controllers. 

Others say that Spacewar!, a space combat game developed in 1962 in New England, was the beginning. Spacewar! became popular with students at MIT, where it was first developed, and was quickly installed on computers in other parts of the country. 

Others might point to the Rolling Stone article from 1972 about Spacewar! as the real beginning — the moment when video games stopped being a secret and became a much larger part of the popular imagination. There are all kinds of firsts out there where you could begin this story. The first in-home video game console. The first million-unit seller. The first gigabyte game. The first CD-ROM.

But whenever and wherever you start the story, the end is still far, far away. Video games have developed a level of sophistication in conception, execution, and analysis to rival any other popular art form. And they have developed a complicated set of elemental genres, mechanics, and constraints — a set of ideas that have become the DNA of contemporary video games — that are worth exploring. 

And in every major era and at every significant turning point in the history of video games, there have been LSA alumni, students, and faculty making, selling, writing, and thinking about games, finding sucess by paying close attention to what it feels like to play a game and by taking the people who play games — and the games themselves — seriously.


Our video game avatar comes in many forms and styles over the course of this story—and that variety can be seen vividly below—but her main costume is that of a hoplite, a member of a heavy infantry unit from ancient Greece. The hoplite armor is a nod to the Hellenic origins of the liberal arts. (Also, the name “Lusia” includes the letters L, S, and A…but you probably already noticed that!)


The Sandbox

It’s 1987. Three Men and a Baby is blowing up the box office. “Walk Like an Egyptian” is on your radio. And if you’re at all into video games, Sid Meier’s Pirates! is on your computer.

By the mid-1980s, legendary game designer Sid Meier (B.S. 1975) had transitioned from tinkerer to part-time game builder to hugely successful full-time game developer. He and his longtime business partner, “Wild” Bill Stealey, produced a series of fun games throughout the era that had sold increasingly well: Spitfire Ace, Floyd of the Jungle, F-15 Strike Eagle, and more. Silent Service, a submarine game released for the personal computer in 1985, sold more than 400,000 copies. 

Meier’s company brought on specialized staff, and they gradually expanded the time they spent on each game. Sid Meier’s Pirates! took a whopping nine months to make, which was a lot for Meier’s company MicroProse at the time, and the result — a sprawling, open-world game of intrigue, trading, buccaneering, and exploration — was one of the must-play games of 1987.

One of the ways that Pirates! differentiated itself from its predecessors and competitors was in the scope of the world and what players could do in it. Players could ask themselves: What kind of pirate do I want to be? What do I, as a pirate, care about? You could maximize your gold, letting greed guide you as you stuffed your pockets. Or you could be an explorer, sailing to the edges of the map and landing at every port you could find. Or you could embrace your role as swashbuckler, chasing down buried treasure and engaging in all manner of saber fights and naval battles. This open-world sandbox lets players invent some of their own story within the larger constraints of the game, and pursue that narrative vigorously.

Meier and his team followed Pirates! with the similarly epic Railroad Tycoon, and followed that with th even more ambitious Civilization. That initial entry spawned a number of sequels and spinoffs, most recently 2016's Civilization VI, which sold millions of copies around the world and continues to set the standard for the eon-spanning, globe exploring, socity-building strategy game.


Open-world or “sandbox” games encourage exploration and discovery by allowing players the freedom to choose how and when and where they go in a massive game world with minimal constraints. This means that players determine the sequence in which most events happen in a way that’s largely independent of any larger story that’s going on—and sometimes there isn’t any story at all.

It is often described as both a genre and a mechanic that includes sword-and-sorcery titles such as Ultima and Skyrim, action games such as Shenmue, retrofuturistic apocalyptic role-playing games such as Fallout, and more.

Of course, we should note that there is legitimate disagreement over what fundamental elements constitute an open-world game—How nonlinear does the ‘plot’ have to be? How big does the world have to be, seem, or feel?—and that means that any list of examples—even this one—is going to be controversial.


The Loop

For even a simple video game, the variety of challenges and the pleasure of succeeding — the joy of making a series of perfectly timed leaps over open-mouthed alligators, say, or of an exploding turtle shell missile delivered just ahead of the finish line — can keep players interested from level to level and for years after the first time they play. 

These games — in fact, all of the games ever made — are built around something called the core game loop. A core game loop is a set of tasks that players do over and over and over again in the course of a game. In a platformer, for example, the core loop likely involves running, jumping, and smashing blocks or shooting at enemies. 

The challenges usually start out small and get progressively harder as the levels continue. For a platformer, an early level might include springs to bounce on and slow-moving elevators. Later levels might include more complicated and fast-moving challenges, such as disappearing blocks, frictionless platforms, narrow landing areas, and swarms of tough-to-kill bad guys. As players proceed, they are hopefully mastering the actions and sequences of actions in the core game loop, meaning that as they face harder and harder challenges, they have already developed the required skills to eventually overcome those obstacles. 

And LSA alumni have had plenty of global hits built on strong, compelling fundamentals. In Crash Bandicoot, directed by Jason Rubin (A.B. 1993), the core loop involves jumping, doling out smash attacks, and collecting items. In The Sims, whose development was overseen by Lucy Bradshaw (A.B. 1985), the characters' basic actions are quotidian tasks like eating, sleeping, talking, throwing trash in the trash can, and other stuff that you do every day in your real life. For the pulp-and-anime-inspired competitive shooter Overwatch — created by Activision Blizzard, which is run by CEO Bobby Kotick (LSA 1982) — the core game loop relies on a combination of competitive and cooperative actions, which, along with stellar game-play mechanics and over-the-top visuals, combined to make Overwatch a smash hit when it came out in 2016.

Animation of flying heart with wings.


A core game loop determines certain fundamental aspects of the game, but doesn’t necessarily determine the game’s feel or aesthetic. The Super Mario Bros. core loop bears some similarities to that of Mirror’s Edge, for example. Both games are platformers, and being successful in both means getting good at making complicated jumps and sticking difficult landings. But the latter game takes place in a dystopian future filled with greedy megacorporations and a malicious government surveillance state while the former has you bouncing around on the tops of frowny mushrooms while you listen to music that sounds an awful lot like “The Sailor’s Hornpipe.” So, pretty different.


Infinite Levels

It’s not just that there’s no way to predict the future of video games, but that each different thread or branch of video game culture — from DIY game makers to AAA franchise companies to mobile match-and-flash puzzle game developers — might have its own future. The video game industry is massive enough now that while individual platforms and genres might speak to each other, it’s harder to argue that any one game in a given year is speaking to all current gamers — or that everyone even agrees what “gamer” means anymore.

But as the medium’s economic and cultural power grows, there are places and people working to preserve its history. At places like the Video Game History Foundation and the International Center for the History of Electronic Games, on podcasts like Retronauts and in the pages of Retro Gamer magazine, the mission of capturing, collecting, and communicating the history of video games is taken seriously.

Pieces of that history from the dawn of Atari to the most recent PlayStation 4 release can be experienced at U-M’s Computer and Video Game Archive (CVGA) on North Campus by anyone — just bring a picture ID.

The archive allows people to experience and re-experience video games for research of all kinds. Valerie Waldron, the archive manager for the CVGA, says that she has come up with lists of games revolving around a number of themes for LSA classes, including games featuring organized crime, Japanese samurai, and even transhumanity. LSA courses that take advantage of the games in the video game archive include “Film, Television, and Media 368: Video Games as Culture/Form” and “Communication Studies 404: Video Games Culture and Industry” from winter 2018.

The archive also gets used for social gaming — its most popular games are the FIFA soccer series — but, in collecting, protecting, and archiving these games, the CVGA is serving a larger purpose that ties into the work of other preservationist institutions.

"I think there's a nostalgic factor related to video games that people played in their childhood," Waldron says. "There's also more attention being paid by game collectors and preservationists related to games on physical media that are quickly aging and disintegrating. So there's been a lot of talk about preserving the original play experience as games come and go in popularity."


Illustrations by James Anderson
Release Date: 10/22/2018
Category: Alumni
Tags: Department of Film, Television, and Media; LSA Magazine; Communication and Media; Brian Short; Computer Science