Video games: The good, the bad, the addictive!

By Peter McNamara

The video games industry is booming. In 2018, the global games market was valued at around $134.9 billion. The American market alone is forecast to reach $230 billion by 2022, making it the largest in the world.
Germany is the biggest market in Europe, valued at over €4 billion, followed closely by the UK. Ireland spends over €250 million on games each year.
One thing is clear: video games are here to stay. For some, they are a wonderful way to stimulate curiosity and creativity, as well as being a tool for recreation and relaxation. For others, increasingly powerful and often violent games seem to threaten morality, foster bad habits, and cause ill-health. Every few years, a new kind of video game emerges on the market, and, being so unprecedented, it leads many into a panic.
But gaming isn’t a new phenomenon. We homo sapiens have a surprisingly long connection to all sorts of games: in fact, they seem to be hard-wired into our very natures.
When it comes to the first video games, you might have fond memories of Super Mario and Tetris in the early 1990s. Or perhaps you remember Pacman and Space Invaders in the 1980s. Maybe you cast your mind all the way back to Pong in the early 1970s.
In fact, the first recorded human games can be dated to 5000 BC. And games of all kinds can have positive benefits – for one thing, they’re a remarkable means of developing strong teamwork and problem-solving skills.
Given that we humans have an instinctive connection to games, it seems a worthwhile endeavour to find a way to play along. Is it possible to enjoy the benefits and pleasures of video games, without suffering their ill-effects? Can we strike a gaming-life balance?

Humanity loves to play
Human history and games are inextricably linked. Down through the ages, we have invented countless ways to entertain and challenge ourselves and each other. Fun and games aren’t just frivolous pursuits – they come naturally to us, as essential parts of learning, socialising, and understanding our world. In the animal kingdom, playing games is regarded as an indicator of species intelligence – though it might not seem that way to some!
Monkeys are especially fond of playing around. Assuming, as seems likely, that human beings are just better evolved monkeys, itʼs likely that weʼve been playing games for a long, long time. We were probably playing games before we evolved the ability to speak or even to stand on two legs. Although we’ve no idea what the very first games we played were like, historians do have a good idea of the timeline of modern game development.
If you enjoy a game of Monopoly or Scrabble, you’re in good company. The earliest known board games are 5,000 years old and were played by the Egyptians. We donʼt know the rules of these games, but there is a “Senet” board that dates back to about 3500 BC. The Chinese invented their first known board game in 200 BC, and, in Western Europe, they were playing Tafl (a game very similar to chess) from 400 BC.
If youʼve ever played go, chess, or backgammon, then youʼve played a game with more than a thousand years of history. Go originated in Korea in 200 BC, backgammon first appeared in Iran around 600 AD and chess was invented in India at roughly the same time.
Dice are among the oldest known gaming tools known to man. During an excavation in Southeastern Iran, archeologists discovered a set that was 3,000 years old. We donʼt know exactly what games those early Persians would have played with them, but the popularity of dice has endured throughout the centuries. Whether carved in bone or cast in plastic, the simplicity of a die – a cube with dots and nothing more – as an effective, if chancy, determinant is ageless. Almost every board game now available uses dice as its central gameplay mechanic – in fact, it makes for a good game trying to name a few that don’t.
Tiles and dominoes are two other age-old gameplay inventions. There are references to tile games in China that are over 2,900 years old. Dominoes emerged in China 1,000 years later, during the Song Dynasty. However, Western dominoes probably only began in the 18th century, and mahjong, the most popular tile game in the world, didnʼt arrive until a century later.
The first use of a card deck was probably in ancient China, during the Tang Dynasty (6th century AD to 9th century AD). Cards reached Europe in the 14th century, and early decks would have been similar to tarot cards. The four-suit (hearts, spades, clubs and diamonds) deck that weʼre most familiar with was invented in France around 1480. The oldest card game that we still play is probably Cribbage, which came from the 17th century. Bridge didnʼt arrive until the early 19th century.
Snakes and ladders appeared in India in the 16th century. The first commercial board game arrived in the year 1800 and was produced by George Fox in England. “The Mansion of Happiness” was a race-type game, similar to Ludo.
Formed in 1860, the oldest surviving board game company is Milton Bradley, whose famous titles include Twister, The Game of Life and Connect 4.

Gaming goes electric
You may be surprised to find that the first electronic game was invented in the United States before the computer. The first recognised example of a game machine was unveiled by Dr. Edward Uhler Condon at the New York Worldʼs Fair in 1940. The game, based on the ancient mathematical game of Nim, was played by about 50,000 people during the six months it was on display, with the computer reportedly winning more than 90% of the games.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that American scientists began playing computer games on computer mainframe systems. Back then, electric gamers were few in number – for the vast majority, acquiring the hardware to join in the fun would have been astronomically expensive.
The first game system designed for commercial home use emerged in 1967, with the “Brown Box”. The “Brown Box” was licensed to Magnavox, which released the system as the Magnavox Odyssey in 1972. It preceded Atari by a few months, which is often mistakenly thought of as the first games console. Unfortunately, it was a little ahead of it’s time. People couldn’t yet grasp the concept of a home gaming console, and the Odyssey was soon discontinued.
The way was clear for Atari to raise the bar for what the video games industry could be. The company not only produced revolutionary games consoles, they also created a whole new market around the “arcade.” In 1973, Atari released the first real electronic video game Pong, and special coin-operated machines began emerging in bars, bowling alleys and shopping malls around the world. In the mid-1970s, technological advancements, such as Intelʼs invention of the worldʼs first microprocessor, saw personal computers and mass-produced gaming consoles become a reality.
In 1977, the Atari 2600 was released. After a mixed reception, the release of Space Invaders for the console in 1980 marked a new era of gaming: sales of the Atari 2600 shot to two million units.
A video game boom ensued, with a huge number of new companies and consoles. However, with so many consoles, and so few decent games to play on them, consumer confidence began to wane, and the market crashed in 1983. Many companies went bust, and truckloads of unpopular, poor-quality titles were buried in the American desert just to get rid of them!
In 1985, Nintendo revitalised the industry with its Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). The 8-bit gaming console Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), with it’s ground-breaking graphics and sound, and faster gameplay, soon became the best-selling system. The company had been a significant player in the market since 1981, with its Donkey Kong arcade game. That game was one of the first to feature multiple levels, and it also introduced us to a character we’re now well familiar with: Jumpman, or, as he’s known to many today, Mario. But Nintendo had been making games as far back as 1889, when it released its first line of playing cards. In 1989, it released the Game Boy, and revolutionised the hand-held gaming industry.
Around that time, Alexey Pajitnov created the iconic puzzle game Tetris, but had to cede the game’s rights to the Soviet government, as personal profit was outlawed under the communist system. In 1988, Nintendo purchased Tetris from the Russians, to launch it with their new Game Boy system. The addictive puzzler went on to sell 35 million copies. Pajitnov only started to see royalties from his creation in 1996 – though his net worth is a healthy $2.9 million.
In 1989 Sega released the Mega Drive, and Sonic the Hedgehog was born. In 1991, the 16-bit Super Nintendo (SNES) arrived. By then, the pioneering Atari was all but eviscerated from the market.
However, in 1995, a new challenger appeared. Electronics company Sony released their ‘PlayStation.’ Aggressively marketed to teenagers and adults, and with eye-popping graphics, the PS1 became the first console to ship over 100 million units, which it achieved nine years after its initial launch
Nintendo replied with the N64 in 1996, and after the unsuccessful Dreamcast, Sega soon exited the console market. The Playstation 2 arrived in 2000, and the following year another commercial behemoth laid their claim to the increasingly lucrative video game market: Microsoft released their first ‘Xbox’ in 2001. At the turn of the century, we had in place the three major players that still dominate the market place today.

Incredible power, worrying influence
Through the 2000s and 2010s, with the PS3 and PS4, and the Xbox 360 and Xbox One, incredible realism in video games became the norm. Game developers had come a long way from coloured blocks jumping on a blank background. This increased power, however, has not always been used for the most family-friendly of content.
Violent and sexual elements began to feature in games in the 1990s. Back then, it wasn’t much of an issue: the games were mostly niche PC titles, with poor and therefore inoffensive graphics. There were many fighting and shooting games on home consoles, but it wasn’t until the appearance of GTA on the PS2 in 2000 that parents and politicians began to take note.
Special warning systems (similar to those on DVDs) were devised to help guide parents towards age-appropriate games. As the first school shootings began to occur in America, many called for an outright ban on certain titles, and video games, along with action movies before them, were blamed for all manner of anti-social behaviours.
What’s more, aside from the content of the games, parents are increasingly concerned about the lifestyle that goes with these electronic indoor machines. When not enjoyed in moderation – like all things in life – an imbalance can emerge. Children may spend too much time sitting down, eating snacks and other convenience foods; they might not be getting enough exercise, or spending enough time in the physical presence of their peers.
That said, there are many benefits to playing video games. Compared to simply watching television, video games are an active pastime, not entirely unlike playing a musical instrument, that can develop creativity and problem-solving skills. Games can help a child see the value of team work, and perseverance – after all, you can’t quit when you’re only one more level from the finish.
They offer children and adults a sense of accomplishment, proof that hard work really does pay off. Also, be it together in the home, or on online servers, there is some potential for socialising and building personal confidence – more shy children might find their tribe in an online gaming community, where they are valued by likeminded people for their unique abilities.
And finally, given the processing power of consoles and PCs today, video games offer a vivid transport from everyday life, into worlds of utter wonder. Games today are not only remarkable feats of computer design: between their storytelling and world-building, they are coming to be seen as legitimate works of art.
And, thanks to Nintendo, games can be enjoyed by the whole family. The Japanese company has always been committed to family-friendly releases – it’s the home of iconic, bright-coloured characters from Mario, Zelda, and Pokémon.
In fact, their commitment to producing only non-offensive content started to cost them in the 1990s, when the market began to focus on teenage customers, so much so that by the early 2000s this century-old company was on the brink of collapse. It was then that they released the Wii, and created an entirely new market for games, and once again changed the industry forever.
Arriving in 2006, the Wii was the first console to use motion sensors: complicated gamepads and button combinations were replaced by intuitive gestures and swipes: sitting on the couch became jumping around the living room. You might recall swinging the white controllers not too long ago, trying to throw a bowling ball down a lane, or putting a golf ball on the green.
The Wii made games accessible to all. For the first time, grandchildren could play with grandparents – and with games like Wii Fit, the console even turned into a home gym, with screen-directed exercises. Nintendo’s non-violent and accessible Wii console became one of the biggest-selling consoles of all time, with 101.6 million units shipped to date. With a little open-mindedness, games can surprise you.

Striking a game-life balance
In the UK, a new study by McAfee has revealed that children play video games for an average of 15 hours a week. The research also found that 94% of parents are concerned about the risks their children are exposed to while gaming. On average, children play video games for 2.13 hours a day, and 92% of parents let their children play at least an hour of games a day. 8% admitted that they let their kids play more than five hours a day.
“Over the years, gaming has grown dramatically in popularity and it’s now become an everyday habit for many people, particularly children,” said Gary Davis, at security software firm McAfee. “There are many advantages to playing video games, and they can be a great tool at parents’ disposal during the summer months when they need to keep their children entertained while trying to manage everything else.”
He might have added that, given the current national situation, distractions like video games perhaps have never been more helpful in keeping the peace while everyone is stuck at home.
The study found that 62% of kids play games where they directly interact with other players, drastically increasing their risk of being targeted with inappropriate content or asked to share sensitive information. The vast majority, 89%, of parents are aware of the dangers of this, with 71% particularly concerned about them being groomed to share sensitive details or being shown inappropriate content such as violence, sexual images or drugs.
“But,” Davis adds, “it is imperative that parents understand the risks to their children while playing video games, do their own research about the games that their children are playing and know how to provide proper guidance to their children to keep them safe online.”
While many parents do keep an eye on what their children are playing, 9% of those quizzed in the McAfee study admit to not monitoring at all, and 6% don’t talk to their children about what is and isn’t appropriate behaviour. Additionally, 13% of parents admitted to letting children play games with age ratings more than five years over their own age.
This means that children as young as 12 could be playing games that have been exclusively rated for mature audiences due to intense portrayals of violence, strong sexual themes including nudity and rape, glamorisation of use of drugs.
It has long been said that a person should take everything in moderation, and this advice is no less true for modern gaming. If any parent is wondering how to help their child strike a healthy game-life balance, you might try to set a routine around gaming. Be it for 30 minutes, or two hours, make an agreement with your child to allocate a certain amount of time each day for playing games.
You might also make yourself aware of what games your kids are playing, and how long a game lasts. For instance, a round of Fortnite is approx 25 minutes: if you know this you can better understand where your child is in the game and what expectations to set. If you want to help your child to take breaks from gaming, and to get more physical exercise, you could even try to engage in an activity with them yourself – though I’m sure that’s easier said than done, especially in the last few weeks.
All in all, humanity thrives on challenges, and lives for curiosity. Games – and video games – stimulate our most elegant mental faculties. They offer experiences and escapes that we couldn’t find anywhere else. But like any good thing, you can easily get too much of it. With a little bit of discipline and common sense, children and adults can avail of one of humankind’s most remarkable creations.