Video Game History Foundation explores early names for “video games”

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Video games, by any other name, would smell as sweet. Which is to say, I dunno, they smell like whatever you smell like while playing them? (Recently, my replay of the Dead Space series has lead to some very sweaty moments. Yes, I’m sweating over video games and I need to go for a walk.) But when did the term get… coined? The folks over at The Video Game History Foundation looked into that question, and watching 1970s journalists trying to agree on terminology is both fascinating and infuriating.

~~Brief aside~~
As Alice notes: “Obviously we know that video games TWO WORDS is correct.” Yes. We didn’t have to ask the Video Game History Foundation about that. We all know that videogames is the only right way to do this. Videogames. (I just heard a head explode. Yay.)

In the piece, a reporter in 1976 found herself outraged by the Death Race arcade game, which shows motorists getting points for killing civilians. Incidentally, the game and its instruction manual calls the targets “gremlins” but this reporter thought the hit and runs sounded like the screams of a child, so there’s that. The piece (which is also maybe the first major call-out of video games for inappropriate content) was syndicated by 100 newspapers that week. Which meant editors across the country had to find some approximation of the term “arcade game” before that term had been agreed upon as a standard for this kind of entertainment. The results are WIIIIILD.

On a different note, I have no idea why there would be outrage for this when the film it is based on, Roger Corman’s Death Race 2000, came out a year earlier and has numerous decapitations and people actually trying to hit babies. Hey Wendy Walker, maybe see a movie every once in a while, you goof.

As for the one true name, Chris Chapman noted:

“Curiously, the names which in retrospect seem the most obvious were neglected entirely. ‘Video game’ wasn’t an unknown expression; by early 1976 it was regularly used in Magnavox and Atari advertising. But perhaps its association with home consoles had led people to think that was the only valid usage; no editor referred to Death Race by these words. The second surprising omission was ‘arcade game’, a phrase that through the 1950s and ’60s was popularly used for mechanical amusements like pinball and shooting games.”

There’s a lot of great screencaps in here. Every single one of them could be a new Twitter header image for any of us. I’ve got my eye on the last one.

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Well. That really just glides off the tongue.

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Electric Bar Game is my Electric Six cover band.

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Death Toy was the working title for Small Soldiers.

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When you didn’t really have a take, but deadline was sneaking up on you so you just went for it and also thought you could quote a general mood instead of an actual person.

Go. Get those header images changed. Show the world that your read An Unit Of Journalism.


  1. SaintAn says:

    Maybe one day we will have a name for a game where a massive amount of players play together online at one time that people can use correctly.

  2. pookie191 says:

    I still call them computer games :)

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      phuzz says:

      Yeah, videogames was either an Americanism, or what console gamers called them.

    • grimdanfango says:

      Yeah, I know “video” literally refers to the display of any image on a screen, but I feel like “videos” got there first… to me, “video games” always sounds like it’s describing a 90’s FMV-adventure.

      “Computer games” just sounds more… right. Less like what someone who isn’t into computer games would call them.

      Edit: Or yeah, as above… perhaps “vidya games” is just an Americanism :-)

    • Rob Lang says:

      Same here. I’m not zealous about it, however. Video games sounds weird when I say it out loud.

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      alison says:

      Me too. Like my sibling commenters, I am not religious about it, but I tend to favor the term “computer games” for the kinds of games I play.

      I think the different terms are still useful because they provide a clue as to the type of experience being described. Arcade games brings to mind people showing off on boardwalks and in pubs. Video games are for people with enough money to own a living room. Computer games evokes a dark room where a person may put on their robe and wizard hat. Mobile games appear to be primarily used to avoid looking at other people while on elevators or public transport. People like all kinds of games.

    • Koozer says:

      Dear god I’m not the only one! ‘Video games’ is a really weird sounding phrase.

    • fish99 says:

      I definitely grew up calling them computer games, but then I was mostly playing on computers (ZX Spectrum, C64, Amiga, Atari ST etc) so I guess that makes sense. We kinda skipped most of the console until the N64/Playstation came along.

      The idea of ‘beating’ (as opposed to finishing) a game is also something I never heard in those early days, and most games didn’t have bosses back then either.

    • Kollega says:

      Fact: in Russia and post-Soviet countries, despite the availability of NES and SEGA clone consoles in the 90s, the medium is primarily known as “computer games” (“компьютерные игры”). That’s because a decade or two ago it was way more expected that someone familiar enough with technology (including a stereotypical gamer) would have a computer for many tasks including games, rather than have a separate piece of hardware to just play games; if someone could afford a knock-off console, they could also afford some stripe of PC, and having a PC was handier. Piracy on IBM PC/Windows systems was also far easier, which was definitely a major factor during the “hungry lawless 90s” era of post-Soviet history. And “video games” is still treated as something of an imported neologism relating to consoles, AFAIK.

    • Vilos Cohaagen says:

      Me too. Video games is an Americanism and console thing. Everyone I know in the UK still calls them computer games.

    • MrEvilGuy says:

      I’m genuinely curious. Are British people like the Russians, and call all games including console games “computer games?”

      I’ve always thought video games are the one true name, whereas computer games are a subcategory referring only to computer games.

      • unimural says:

        The first rule of Penkridge Middle School is: you do not talk about console games.

        In Finland, at least among my peers the distinction is generally maintained, but if the conversation is about games in general games are simply called games.

        I suspect this is because we grew up in the microcomputer era, and at least in Finland those were the main gaming platforms. Probably do to copying of games.

        Kids these days probably do something different, but the Games -magazine says it covers PC and console games.

      • napoleonic says:

        Consoles are a form of computer, so all of these games are computer games, played on computers.

        However, only console games are (usually / traditionally) played on a TV screen rather than a monitor, like a video (VHS / DVD), and so only console games are video games.

    • napoleonic says:

      Agreed. The only people I know here in Blighty who talk about “video games” are online shooter meatheads, and old people who don’t know anything about computer games.

  3. notcurry says:

    Poolhall thrill seems most adequate. Don’t see a reason to use any other term from now on.

  4. Asrahn says:

    Funnily enough a dichotomy still exists in Swedish, where games for computers are known as “Dator/dataspel” (lit: computer/data games) and games for consoles are referred to as TV-spel (you guessed it: TV games).

  5. Amstrad says:

    Ask anyone’s mom, they’re all Nintendo. (At least my generation, I suppose it probably changed to Playstation at some point). Then again, my mom was able to acknowledge the difference between a console and a PC. She never called the computer a Nintendo.

  6. Spacewalk says:

    It’s all a bunch of radio ga-ga to me.

  7. mike69 says:

    So RPS decided to write an article about language, and got its American writer to do it? What’s happening to this place.

    Videogame is an Americanism. Like ‘movie’.

    It’s a computer game.

    Get more English writers please RPS, or at the very least American ones who have an ounce of cultural awareness.

    Next up – “Why do some Devs make cars drive on the left it’s so kookie”.

    • Vilos Cohaagen says:

      It is sad how RPS is losing its British identity. It feels increasingly American and less relevant to me. Now it and the Gamer Network are owned by Americans I can only imagine this increasing. I’m sure Brock meant ‘one true name’ as a joke but it rubbed me up the wrong way.

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      Waltorious says:

      The question of when the term “video game” was coined is not automatically invalid just because the term was coined in America. Also, the article is looking at a bunch of American newspapers trying to figure out a term.

      So, while it’s inherently absurd to take offense at the nationality of the author of this piece, it’s even more absurd to demand a British author, given that the subject matter is entirely American.

      Or perhaps you simply wish that the subject matter of RPS posts was always British?

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        alison says:

        I really like Brock Weekends. RPS used to be such a wasteland over the weekend, but now we have this weird uncle who pronounces things differently and makes cultural references I don’t always get. That might ruffle some feathers, but I think it’s fun to have a different perspective.

  8. Plastic Legs says:

    TV games surely?

  9. Jimbo says:

    I am from the future. The final form is Interacties.

  10. int says:

    I just call them James.

  11. Foosnark says:

    “Video game” distinguished them from pinball, skee-ball etc. all of which were “arcade games”.

    A lot of arcade game manufacturers referred to their business as “the coin-op (amusement) industry.”

    Atari, Namco, Taito, Bally, Williams, Sega, etc. never referred to any arcade game as a “computer game.”

  12. fray_bentos says:

    In UK spoken English I have never heard “video games” used by a native speaker in day-to-day language. Most often people seem to simply use “games”, or to make it more obvious “PC/console games” or phrases such as “games on my/his/her PC/console”. The console name could be the make or model, such as “playing on his Nintendo”, or “playing on his playstation”. “Video games” sounds really cringy and nerdy to me, though for some reason I don’t mind reading it.

    • Ergates_Antius says:

      I’m a native speaker and I use “video games”. I use it as a catch-all term that covers both computer/PC games and console games.

      PC/Console games is clunky, and weird sounding to non-gamers.

    • Phasma Felis says:

      I refuse to pretend that playing, say, Spelunky on Xbox is such a different experience from playing it on PC that it requires an entirely different name.

  13. TrenchFoot says:

    Electronic Time-Diddler is a neologism, but I think we’re all OK with it.

  14. Jernau Gurgeh says:

    In my rapidly decaying aging mind, the rules are as follows;

    – If it’s played on a personal computer, it’s a ‘computer game’.

    – If it’s played on a games console, it’s a ‘video game’.

    – If it’s played in an arcade, it’s an ‘arcade game’.

    However, I do tend to think that ‘video games’ is the best catch-all term these days, considering that the same games are often played on multiple platforms in multiple scenarios.

  15. Harlander says:

    If Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden taught me anything, and I’m pretty sure it didn’t, the correct term is ‘vidcons’.

  16. Joshua2112 says:

    As an American reader, I sometimes miss the meaning when a British term is used. Sometimes I forget that RPS is British till I see some odd term that I’ve never read before. That’s part of why I like the site anyways.
    Video Games has always sounded a bit childish to me. When I was younger I tried to get people to start calling them “Electronic Entertainment,” but nobody called it that and everyone still usually calls them video games. When I’m talking with friends I usually drop the “video” part of the name and just say “I played a game where…”

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