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CHRISTOPHER CRUISE: I’m Christopher Cruise.
BARBARA KLEIN: And I’m Barbara Klein with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English. Video games have evolved over the past fifty years into one of the most popular forms of modern media entertainment. This week on our program, we explore the history of video games and look at some popular releases from the past year.
CHRISTOPHER CRUISE: Early versions of video games were not devices for the average person to play at home. Programmers developed them using what were then huge university computers.
In nineteen sixty-two, a team of students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed a game called Spacewar! It had a big influence on future games. But it could only be played on a computer at MIT.
BARBARA KLEIN: Ten years later, in nineteen seventy-two, an engineer named Nolan Bushnell and a programmer, Ted Dabney, started the Atari company in California. Atari produced coin-operated video games.
Their first big hit was called Pong. It was an electronic form of ping-pong or table tennis that was easy enough for anyone to play. Atari video games became hugely popular at arcade centers.
Soon, other companies in Japan and the United States started making similar games. Popular games during the late seventies and early eighties included Space Invaders, Asteroids, Defender and Pac-Man.
CHRISTOPHER CRUISE: Little by little, gaming technology became more complex.
Back in the nineteen sixties, an engineer named Ralph Baer started work on an idea. He wanted to turn television sets in every home into a gaming device. His work resulted in the development of the Magnavox Odyssey, a video-game console for home use. The system was released in nineteen seventy-two and came with twelve games.
But it was hard to compete against Atari. Atari's video game system became the most successful on the American market. And it stayed that way until the market crashed briefly in nineteen eighty-three.
BARBARA KLEIN: By that point, another company had established itself as a big name in gaming: Nintendo. The Japanese company was not new at making games. It began in the nineteenth century as a producer of traditional playing cards.
The family-owned business later expanded into developing other kinds of toys.
Nintendo also began developing arcade games, and then game systems that could be played at home. One of the most influential programmers in the world works for Nintendo. Shigeru Miyamoto helped create hits like Donkey Kong, Super Mario Brothers and the Legend of Zelda.
CHRISTOPHER CRUISE: Nintendo also found success with the Nintendo Entertainment System for playing video games at home and the handheld Game Boy.
Today the main competitors to Nintendo systems are Sony’s PlayStation and Microsoft’s X-Box 360.
In two thousand six Nintendo released its first Wii system. The Wii was not like a traditional video game. It was the first wireless system that could capture the movements of the player’s body. This way people could play sports against the game or against another person without ever leaving the house.
These days Wii systems can be found in retirement homes and community centers. One of Nintendo's aims with the Wii was to make video gaming more social and more popular with wider audiences.
BARBARA KLEIN: GamePro Media is a publishing company that follows the gaming industry. We asked news editor A. J. Glasser what makes a good video game.
AJ GLASSER: “It’s difficult to say. It will be different, I will say, for each platform.”
For example, games on mobile devices are less technically complex than games played on a system at home and with a high-definition TV. Those games can be enjoyed for hours.
Ms. Glasser says a great game on a mobile phone is a game that can be played for a short time -- even for just a minute on the train.
CHRISTOPHER CRUISE: We also asked her about some of the best games of the past year. She says the horror game Dead Space 2 has been extremely successful.
AJ GLASSER: “It’s sort of a visceral, very gory sort of horror game but at the same time sort of a psychological thriller.”
CHRISTOPHER CRUISE: Another popular game is Red Dead Redemption.
AJ GLASSER: “It’s open world in the way that Grand Theft Auto is, so you play a character that can go almost anywhere, and do almost anything. But it’s set in the Wild West, so you are doing it with horses.”
BARBARA KLEIN: A.J. Glasser at GamePro Media says the video game industry recognizes that many gamers today are girls and women.
AJ GLASSER: “It’s no longer just the twelve- to twenty-one-year-old boys that want to shoot up people or just solve puzzles. It’s everyone wants to play a little bit. So they try to make games for everyone, or at least make games that don’t forbid anyone from enjoying them.”
CHRISTOPHER CRUISE: Ryota Wada is a ten-year-old boy who recently moved with his family from Tokyo to Herndon, Virginia, outside Washington. Ryota is listed in the twenty eleven Gamer's Edition of Guinness World Records. He received a perfect score on the most difficult level of Dance Dance Revolution.
The game plays music and requires players to move their feet in difficult dance moves. Ryota began playing Dance Dance Revolution when he was three. He spends hours day playing the game he loves.
BARBARA KLEIN: But is it healthy to spend so much time playing video games? The journal Pediatrics recently published a new study. Researchers studied about three thousand students in Singapore for two years. The study found that children who played video games "obsessively" had higher rates of depression, social fears and stress. Of course, that observation alone does not prove that video games cause mental illness.
Other studies have linked violence in video games to aggressive behavior. In nineteen ninety-three American lawmakers pressured the video game industry to develop a rating system. Since then the industry has rated games based on the age group for which they are considered acceptable.
CHRISTOPHER CRUISE: Video games may have their critics, but other experts see them as offering benefits. The Journal of Adolescent Health just published a new study by researchers at Brigham Young University in Utah.
The researchers said girls who played video games with a parent behaved better, felt more connected to their families and had stronger mental health. Said researcher Laura Padilla-Walker: “We’re guessing it’s a daddy-daughter thing, because not a lot of moms said yes when we asked them if they played video games."
For boys, playing video games with a parent made no noticeable difference in their behavior.
Other studies suggest that video games can be useful in teaching, supporting teamwork and improving hand-eye coordination.
BARBARA KLEIN: Mobile phones and other devices have created big competition for the handheld video-game industry. People might wonder why they need to buy a device like Sony’s PlayStation Portable or Nintendo’s DS player. Games that can be downloaded to a phone cost a lot less than games for those handheld players.
CHRISTOPHER CRUISE: For example, the game Angry Birds is a huge hit on the Apple iPhone and other devices. Players launch birds to try to crush their enemies, the fat green pigs. The game is easy enough for children yet difficult enough to keep adults interested. The game has been downloaded tens of millions of times around the world.
A market research company reported an early estimate of fifteen and a half billion dollars in sales of all games content in the United States last year. The NPD Group said that was about the same as the year before.
BARBARA KLEIN: In March, Nintendo will launch the American release of a new device that might make some people forget about playing games on their phones.
The new handheld game player, the Nintendo 3DS, offers three-dimensional images that do not require special glasses. The 3-D technology is not for everyone, though. The company warns that children six years old and younger should not play its games in 3-D mode. Experts say looking at the images for long periods of time could damage young eyes.
CHRISTOPHER CRUISE: Sony is also working on new handheld game devices. In late January, the company announced its next-generation portable entertainment system. The system does not have a name yet but it will have a touch screen, two cameras and 3G wireless service. The system is expected to be released by the end of the year, offering another example of the continuing evolution of video games.
BARBARA KLEIN: Our program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I'm Barbara Klein.
CHRISTOPHER CRUISE: And I’m Christopher Cruise. Our programs are online with transcripts and MP3s at voaspecialenglish.com -- where you can also tell us what video games you like and how often you play. You can also post comments on our Facebook wall at VOA Learning English. Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.