I’m writing this blog while carrying a phone with the potential to play tens of thousands of games like Angry Birds, Temple Run, and Words with Friends. The incredible diversity of game options reflects a revolution in mobile gaming. Today’s smart phones offer a cornucopia of choices inconceivable to users who back in 1997 were satisfied playing Snake on their Nokia phone. But while the number of different mobile games available is new, the desire for games to play on the go is quite old.
Before mobile phones, portable video game systems like the PSP and 3DS proved the best option for game play. Portable platforms like the Neo-Geo Pocket Color and Atari Lynx often featured great technology, but the most successful systems provided great content at an affordable price and included long-lasting batteries. Nintendo’s Game Boy line dominated portable gaming after its debut in 1989, because it excelled on all three of these factors.
Ten years prior to kids booting up Tetris on their Game Boys, Milton Bradley’s Microvision offered portable play and interchangeable games. But consumers preferred dedicated games like Simon, Coleco’s and Mattel’s football handhelds, and Texas Instrument’s educational products like Speak-‘n-Spell, Little Professor, and Data Man. (Nota Bene: if you’re wondering why Data Man made it into this blog it’s because I spent hours of my geeky childhood immersed in the glow of its blue LCD display, tackling one math problem after another on it).
Advances in technology have long contributed to the development of new mobile toys. During the Baby Boom of the 1950s and ‘60s, however, it was plastic, not electronics, that toy makers used to meet the insatiable demand for fun. Prosperous parents throwing down big money for new cars didn’t mind tossing their kids a few dimes for cheap, plastic, handheld maze games, bagatelles, and other ball-rolling amusements from manufacturers like Leo Marx. Peace and quiet in the back seat was well worth it!
These handhelds often reflect the tenor of the times in which they were created. One game, for example, hearkens back to the bombing black outs of World War II—as a Messerschmitt or Zero swoops down on a city, players must roll BBs into holes to “cover” the light post. Another variation simulates warfare between World War I era tanks. Pigs in Clover, the dexterity game from 1889 that first-popularized these ball-rolling handhelds, hearkens back to America’s agrarian past. A favorite of President Benjamin Harrison, it challenges players to roll marbles (representing pigs) back into a small chamber (representing the pen). It’s still fun and challenging today, and the eternal appeal of this ball-rolling mechanic explains why many modern mobile games, like Super Monkey Ball, still feature it.
Even before Pigs in Clover, game makers invented portable, easy-to-play games. The Game of Authors, a ubiquitous, educational title from the late 19thcentury, taught users the major masterpieces of prominent writers of the day. Milton Bradley produced perhaps the first dedicated portable game: a travel version of his Checkered Game of Life. During the Civil War Bradley realized soldiers craved pastimes that filled the tedious hours of waiting that constituted the majority of a their life. Bradley miniaturized his new game for soldiers to play by the campfire.
Of course the humble deck of cards was a far more popular gaming device among people of that period, as it had been for centuries before and continues to be today. From smoky barrooms, elegant parlors, and Mississippi river boats, to mess halls, dorm rooms, and poker tables, cards have brought people together over games of poker, whist, bridge, rummy, and a thousand other countless game variations. Easy to carry and easy on the hands, cards have endlessly entertained millions. They are perhaps the perfect portable platform for play.
Thus even though my phone offers an astounding variety of games and an always-on electronic opponent, I suspect the best mobile games of today still can’t match the capacity of a humble deck of cards to bring people together and create friends. That’s something this old-fashioned play form still has in spades.
By Jon-Paul Dyson, Director, International Center for the History of Electronic Games and Vice President for Exhibits