The Most Influential Video Games of the Last 50 Years

Electronic games have had a global impact on society and culture, changing how people play, learn and connect with each other. They’ve become a ubiquitous presence, played by young and old alike, at home, at work or in arcades. But it wasn’t that way in the beginning.

The first computer-based video game, Spacewar!, was invented by MIT student Steve Russell in 1961. Unfortunately, you couldn’t play it unless you had access to a mainframe computer. How did electronic games make the leap from mainframe to mainstream?

TechNewsDaily asked Jon-Paul Dyson, director of the International Center for the History of Electronic Games (ICHEG) at Rochester, N.Y.’s Strong National Museum of Play, to give us a curated tour of major milestones in the evolution of electronic games.


The first shot in the electronic game revolution was fired by Magnavox in 1972, Dyson said.

“The first home video-game system was the Magnavox Odyssey,” Dyson said.  This interactive television game let players play tennis and other games. Though it broke new ground and moved electronic games out of the lab, it wasn’t a big seller. But it did provide the inspiration for what became the fledging genre’s first homerun, Atari’s Pong, an electronic table tennis game.

Pong first appeared as a coin-operated arcade game in 1972. The first game was tested in a bar in Sunnyvale, Calif., called Andy Capp’s Tavern.  Shortly after taking delivery, the owner called Atari and said the machine was broken.   That wasn’t the case. The game had been so popular that the coin box had become clogged with quarters. “That’s when they knew they had a hit on their hands,” Dyson said. The home version of the game was released in 1975.

Atari authored the next breakthrough as well, the Atari 2600 Video Computer System (VCS), introduced in 1977. It featured the soon-to-be-ubiquitous joystick game controller, games in color and, most importantly, interchangeable cartridges.

It jump-started the console game category and became the industry leader, converting millions of Americans into home video-game players. But being first wasn't the only advantage of the VCS. “It’s a combination of technical proficiency with marketing savvy and execution that really makes it happen,” he said. “The VCS had that combination of all three.”

First video game character

The electronic gaming world got a case of the munchies when Pac-Man was launched for the home market in 1980. The Atari 2600 version became the first arcade hit to appear on a home console.

“Pac-Man was the first real character video game,” Dyson said. “It was the first one you really identified with.” Two years later its politically correct sibling, Ms. Pac-Man, became the best-selling arcade game of all time.

The next few years were a fallow time for the electronic gaming industry as wave after wave of lackluster me-too console games flooded the market and drove sales south. The one bright spot was the rapidly growing popularity — and availability — of home computers, which began forming a parallel ecosystem. One standout in this early era of computer-based games was Tetris, a 1987 Russian export.

Tetris marked a milestone, Dyson says, because it was the first really successful “casual” game that a player could easily and intuitively understand and begin playing without guidance.


The video-game industry was lifted from its doldrums in 1985 when Nintendo launched the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). “The NES really helped revive the industry and made Nintendo the major player it is today,” Dyson said.

It also provided a star turn for a jumping plumber named Mario in Super Mario Bros, which became the best-selling video game of all time until 2009, when it was dethroned by Wii Sports. The game was the creation of Japanese gaming legend Shigeru Miyamoto. “He’s probably the most revered figure in video game design,” Dyson said. “He’s one of the half-dozen most important people in this industry.”

Mario hasn’t shown any signs of age, Dyson says; the game is still fun to play today.

The next seismic event in the electronic gaming, says Dyson, came in 1990 when Microsoft bundled the classic card game Solitaire with Windows 3.0. The story of growth in video computer games is not just about technology but also about broadening the audience as well.

“Solitaire really opened the door,” Dyson said.

Newcomers to computers saw that they could be used to play games as well as work on Excel spreadsheets. Solitaire also helped users become comfortable using a mouse. “It’s not often given the credit it’s due, but it’s very important,” he said.

Not everyone's a fan of the game, however: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg summarily dismissed a city worker in 2006 when he observed an open solitaire game on his computer screen in the city’s Albany lobbying office.

Video game violence

In 1993, the gaming industry found itself embroiled in controversy because the level of violence in games such as Mortal Kombat and Doom, which offered victory celebration scenarios such as ripping out the heart or spine of a vanquished foe.

There was much breast beating in Washington and the United States Senate held hearings on video-game violence. The video game industry responded, Dyson says, and in a preemptive move created the Entertainment Software Rating Board, which generates game ratings such as “E for Everyone.”

“Now, every game has explicit ratings,” he said. “It’s a fairly robust system.”

The audience for electronic games was considerably broadened when Will Wright’s simulation game The Sims was released in 2000. Wright, another legendary gaming designer, credits seeing his daughter play with her dolls for providing the inspiration behind his iconic game. The game, which let users control the activities of virtual people, was a sequel to Wright’s earlier game, Sim City. “The Sims was one of the first games to bring women into the tent,” Dyson said.  It soon became the most popular game with female players.

That broadening of the audience continued with the introduction of Nintendo’s Wii in 2006. "Nintendo started to think differently,” Dyson said. This led them to create a whole new, intuitive kind of experience and game controller. Contrary to the industry practice of continually piling on features and adding power, the Nintendo took a more minimalist approach to rein in price and focus on intuitive functionality. The Wii’s success speaks to the wisdom of that decision; it has outsold Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s PlayStation 3 to become the world leader in console sales.

The launch of Apple’s iPhone in 2007, Dyson believes, was also a tipping point enabling electronic games to be accessible by a wider audience. It has made games ubiquitous, cheap and easy to develop and distribute. Its multi-touch functionality and built-in accelerometer bring a new dimension to the experience of mobile gaming, an exponentially growing segment of the wireless ecosystem.

The sleeper game last year, says Dyson, was FarmVille, a game application on Facebook. Deriving its popularity from social networking rather than technology, it has become the category leader on Facebook with more than 82.7 million active users and, as of this February, more than 22 million fans.

“The success of that took the game world by surprise,” said Dyson, who predicts that social games will become one of the fastest-growing branches of the gaming tree.