The Evolution of Video Games

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The gaming industry has gone through a long journey since the days of multicolored sprites on tiled block backgrounds to the immersive 3D environment (Porcino & Lucasarts, 2004).  Since its inception, the industry of video game has been not only been a new medium of innovation and art but also a key driving force in the progression of many technologies¬¬¬. Often, the gaming industry has been overlooked, but today it has changed from a hobby to a multi-billion dollar industry. With the emerging technologies that have advanced gaming graphics, the industry gives an insight and understanding of where it has come from, where it is today and the possible future. Due to better graphics, video games have become an interactive medium of art which inspire people to create and explore. Back in the days, characters in a video game were represented as sprites, which are bitmap images. Presently, a character in a game entails 1500 to 10000 geometric primitives and not a simple pixilated image. These characters use only a few megabytes of texture due to enhanced graphics. Graphic design in gaming is very significant. Therefore, to understand how vital graphics are, it is important to consider the evolution of gaming. Limited Random Access Memory (RAM) in the earliest computers meant that gaming programmers were limited in terms of using text to create a superb gaming environment. Even when the transition of using visual-based gaming environments started, there were continued limitations on processing power and this meant that graphics were crude. In 1977, the Atari 2600 that was viewed as a revolution in gaming technology had almost no RAM at all. However, today’s gaming systems have dedicated chips that render graphics that verge on photorealism.

The bitmap mode of display is based on subdivisions of a computer screen in tiny units known as pixels. Most individual values of graphics are associated with these pixels by two set of restrictions which are: processing capabilities (central processing unit frequency and working memory) and display capabilities (simultaneous on-screen colors and screen resolution). These two aspects are closely related. Therefore, early games can be described as those having low screen resolution (the maximum resolution of an early game called Atari 2600, for instance, is 192*160). By 1980 the gaming movement was greatly improving and skill levels were becoming more realistic. However, graphics still left a lot to be desired. Gaming technologies began evolving through a steady flow of personal computers, home consoles, and arcade games. Objects viewed from odd angles could be represented by higher resolution bitmaps hence adding depth to the graphics with simple pictorial illusion. In the 1970s to around 1990s, among the most famous techniques applied in gaming was pixel art.  During that time, small screen resolution and 256 colors of color palette were restrictions made on graphics engines. Regardless of the innovative technology currently, the art still exists in some recent indie games bearing in mind that Pixel art was a key portion in outlining stylized game graphics. Games that used the pixel art style include Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario. These games used the 16-bit and 8-bit consoles respectively.  The smallest block of building in which a screen displays in pixel art is referred to as a pixel. The arrangement of these pixels block by block makes animations and images used for screen display. Due to limited bright color palettes and sprite sizes that was the capability of the game systems at that time, environments and characters were cartoony in the pixel art style. Many game developers had no option but to create characters to be as representatives as possible in images that were small in size, whether the cartoony appearance was there or not. In the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, realistic styles were endeavored, making it simpler for graphic designers to create memorable characters in simple styles of cartoons. This made many popular game characters cartoony at that time. Realism in 2D graphics was not highly sought during the 1970s and 1980s since there limitations in graphics. Realistic games during the 1980s were achieved with the digital sprites technology. These digitized sprites, unlike the drawn ones, made use of real photos of models and actors who portrayed game characters. Thereafter, these pictures were put into the games as sprites to achieve a look of realistic graphics. Mortal Kombat is one of the popular games that used digitized sprites.

Pixel art evolved and improved to the 16-bit era up to the 1990s. At this time 3D graphics were preferred than 2D graphics after the third generation of game consoles. Pixel art did not become outdated compared to other theoretical graphical styles, regardless of the new trends. More so, pixel art exploited advances in technology like screen resolution improvements, color palette, and data storage to add enhanced animations to the sprites make game graphics more detailed. This led to the style looking refreshed over the years. There were two main sets of pixel art namely modern pixel art and retro pixel art. Retro pixel art referred to pixel art style from the 1970s to mid-1990s used in games. During the recent years of gaming, a renaissance has been made by modern pixel games. Pixel art has been found by developers to be easy to create and relatively appealing and currently, game developers are not obligated to do pixel art because of graphical limitation, many developers preferred to imitate the nostalgic sensation in retro games. Stylized graphics has existed continually in several two-dimensional video games from the 1990s up to date (Pacey, Gilmore & Casey, 2013). The most popular choices to play games were side-scrolled, isometric and top-down but they were meant to be played in a single perspective. Artistic visuals, cartoon styles, and drawing-styled sprites operated favorably because most games were observed in one angle. A number of the 2D games use 3D models. However, because of the perspective, it created an illusion of 2D. Similar to pixel graphics, the majority of 2D games have been created in artistic styles.

The 1990s became the prime age for game development. Publishers and game designers emerged as technology became transformative. Gaming heavily relies on computing and electronic devices hence video games can only be as complex as the degree of technology available. During this era, there were significant advancements in graphics and computing technologies that had a big impact on the gaming industry. CPU speed, downsizing of circuit-based hardware and memory enhanced graphical improvement in games. Similarly, advancements in Graphical Processing Unit and CPU processing paved environments for 3D graphics. Nonetheless, 3D environments enabled game developers to express their ideas in interesting ways to the players. In late 1994, Sony Corporation introduced its PlayStation console. Sony was successful in the launch since games such as Battle Arena were highly praised for their gameplay and graphics. In 2000 when Sony launched PlayStation2, the graphics were enhanced. Even as recent as 2013, PlayStation 2 was still used due to the quality of graphics it had. Looking back at when video games began as a source of home entertainment, we can only notice a few pixels on the screen. Games have been evolving into complex works of art which can take many years to develop. There has been a great extent in game evolution meaning games are almost comparable to animated feature films. Introduction of motion capture technology and the use of complex rigs in facials have enabled a great leap in game realism. Character animation has become significant due to the forward leap in technology (Humbert, 2016). Improved graphical representations have made it possible for animations to add stories and bring life to games. Modern games have graphics with characters who feel and appear real. Additionally, the games have effects of drawing players into the game thus extending their interest going for long. The simple attack features, run and basic walk of games of around 1980 and 1990 have now been replaced with high-end graphics which makes games more realistic. In his findings, Humbert (2016) highlights that Donkey Kong which was among the most popular games of the 1980s had fairly crude graphics. In contrast, modern games such as Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, for the PlayStation have complex graphics that each orc character in the game has a distinctive facial feature. During the 1990s, video graphics greatly transformed from sprites and pixels to become graphics superbly rendered in 3D. Mimicry of realistic characters became a new trend. Majority of game developers utilized those techniques to full capacity. Due to this, there was successful co-existence of stylized graphics hence availing an alternative to photorealistic style. Additional stylized graphics could be carried out in a number of techniques and were extremely versatile. Cel-shading, semi-realistic and cartoon were the most renowned sub-categories for 3D stylized graphics.

Evolution of video game graphics has been remarkable since it began in 1970. Back in the days, there was only so many graphics and so much movement. As the years passed by, games steadily improved to become better in terms of speed, graphical representation, and involvement. Innovations in graphics began taking place when gaming machinery made the leap to 32-bit processors from 16-bit. Till then, video game machines were superior in moving backgrounds and sprites around. Hence, the planar view into a flat dimension crafted more elaborate interactions and characters. Minimal high-profile gaming machines advocated for this paradigm to the ultimate limit, scaling, rotating, moving and relaying huge numbers of big sprites (Porcino & Lucasarts, 2004). In gaming, a graphic refers to a visual representation or image of an object or character. Computer gaming graphics are mainly images that are displayed on the screen: that is the visualized game objects viewed on the display of a gaming platform. Graphics is the most significant aspect of gaming because it greatly affects a player’s experience hereby making it fun and interesting to play. According to Therrien (2003), illusion refining has been attributed to be the major driving force behind the evolution of video games. The need for ever-more realistic depictions in gaming justifies the purchase of new and expensive gaming machinery, be it dedicated computer parts or latest consoles. The improving quality of dynamic and static renders affiliated with a wide range of graphical and imaging techniques more or less suited to the proficiencies of any given video game reveal the steady evolution of visual representation in history. Visual representation of video games began from scratch back in the 19th century. In his findings, Therrien (2003), stipulates that the first arcade games, PONG (1972) and Computer Space (1971) suggested amazingly intangible universes which could nevertheless be related with referents in the real world. The visual appeal of video game entertainment during the first decade of the gaming history was to be found elsewhere rather than in figurative potential. Games during this era used simple graphics due to the lack of adequate processing capabilities of computers.

Renowned game companies have benefited greatly from computer technology and graphic design developments. The CEO of Activision Blizzard, Bobby Kotick used graphical developments to come up with new paths in terms of developing games. Without the development of graphic design, the likes of Activision Blizzard would have never developed gaming environments of the present epic games, known for their excellent qualities. In his article, Therrien (2003) puts across that computer-generated imagery, which has been the core principle behind High Definition graphics is a dedicated computer tool that is used to simulate a 3D world in video games. Whole scenes and objects are modeled from manipulation and combination of geometric primitives. Two – Dimensional images are applied to the modeled surfaces. Selected algorithms handle factors such as volatile matter, transparency, shading, and reflection. Today, computer-generated imagery has reached near cinematographic realism in visual representation. Today, the current gaming consoles expend approximately 10 Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) cycles per vertex on average. With the rapid increase in technology, these gaming systems will be able to expend up to 100 or more GPU cycles per vertex. With such kind of processing per pixel, we can be able to achieve complex graphics like those in rich animated films. Multiple Graphical Processor Units combined together to provide a teraflop. Dedicated multiprocessing GPUs now provide floating-point pixels which give superior image compositing. Graphics play an important role in gaming allowing a player to immerse himself in the gaming experience. We may take for granted the technology used in designing gaming graphics but it has been a long journey of experimentation in line with the general trends in computer technology to be where we are today. The increasing complexity in games, in graphical terms, has even been introduced in smartphones – case point being the phenomenally successful Angry Birds.

As mentioned earlier, game developers have opted to come up with photorealistic 3D graphical representations due to adaptability, convenience and superior performance to video game interaction. There are four major factors that seem realistic in describing realism in-game graphics: texture, animation, lighting and the number of polygons. Photorealism is one of the methods used to elaborate realism as a style attained in different 3D visualization methods. It attempts to simulate reality with the photographic likeness in every way possible.  Rasterization is a technique used to render the current 3D games. It is an algorithm that uses a 2D display to render a 3D scene. The gaming industry’s main agenda is shifting from rasterization to ray tracing. Ray tracing will involve the end results of the graphics to more realistic than ever experienced, reducing the workload for graphic designers. According to Pacey, Gilmore & Casey (2013), ray tracing technique needs a lot of computing power to render quality graphics thus a major drawback from progress. The lighting and shadows are simulated separately and achieved through scheming from a specified light source. This technique brings good results but is cumbersome to graphic designers, and many speculate that impending photorealistic computer games will use ray tracing that is a major rendering technique in image synthesis. For many years, ray tracing has been a major procedure applied in rendering highly realistic 3D animations and scenes for movies. Different from rasterization, shadows, and lights do not have to be manually simulated since the technique uses light rays. Hence, light rays can bounce from one object to another hence creating very realistic and complex scenes. Astronauts were part of game developers who used a technique called photogrammetry. The technique involved obtaining several objects and photos to get a view of each angle of the subject. Thereafter, these photos were put in 3D rendering software that comes up with photographed theses that are realistically textured models in 3D. Successful improvements of the photogrammetry technique are what has enabled video games to have realistic graphics today.

The current advancement in technology has improved the graphics of computers in video games. High Definition graphics have been achieved thus achieving a great degree of photorealism in these games. According to Therrien (2003), graphics technology has been almost at the same level as the human eye physical limits hence the improved photorealism in games. Our visual world entails phenomenon that is less tangible than sprites. Explosions, fog, smoke, and fire are hard to mimic with polygons that are simple textured. Today, impressive graphical array techniques have been convened through modern special effects applied to video games. Such techniques have enabled the production of Full High Definition, Ultra High Definition, and 4K games. An example of such a technique is the programmable shaders which affect the display of vertices or pixels (point in space defined by 3-D coordinates) which subsequently contribute to many sub-systems of the graphical engine. The main function of the graphical engine is to reformulate simple primitives such as small 2D objects and control them to simulate subtle desirable behavior. Normal mapping has enabled the addition of shading values of an uneven surface to a regular flat polygon without additional geometry. Visual realism, being a decisive aspect comes from the integration of light-related phenomenon in environments that are interactive. To dynamically adapt a player’s action to achieve high graphical representations, it is prudent to calculate in real time, shadowing, the material reflection of various kind, light dispersion, transparency, and reflections. Consequently, many games today have been able to simulate these aspects to successful lengths thus achieving high-end graphical representations (Therrien, 2003). Games such as Call of Duty, Battle Field, and Tomb Raider have depicted excellent graphics due to the excellent application of the aspects highlighted above.

Based on the discussion above, it is evidence of how gaming has evolved throughout the years. As of now, gaming has become a worldwide phenomenon with realistic visual representations. Clearly, we can observe the strength of the gaming industry development. The integration of interactivity and expressivity has been the major driving force behind gaming evolution. With the emergence of new techniques, video games will continue to refine their illusionistic deception. Current gaming systems average scene loads and total character in tens of thousands of triangles. In the near future, consoles will dedicate that graphical complexity to single characters and to environments as well. It is evident that the gaming industry’s fascination for improved graphics is still strong. As observed, the major driving force behind the evolution of games is the harmonious fusion of interactivity and expressivity. It is clear that the unsteady character of this evolution is becoming more prevalent. As discussed above, visual design in video games requires high graphical technicalities. Artificial intelligence is responsible for how characters in the games evolve in their respective environments other than the diversity and quality of animations. As video games continually strive to refine the graphical representation and illusionistic deceptions with the emergence of new techniques, we cannot deny that these models affect the way we look at games. Today, games are more realistic with superb user experiences due to the efforts that developers have put in coming up with high definition images, The 4K is the most recent resolution that gaming is currently using. The degree of realism depicted in the 4K resolution is the best that has been achieved during the evolution of video games. Indeed, it is important to appreciate the efforts that developers have put over the years to develop graphics from pixels to Ultra High Definition and 4K resolution. These resolutions use photorealism which is the main standard in video games and their graphical styles.


Porcino, N. (2004). Gaming graphics: The road to revolution. Queue, 2(2), 62.

Therrien, C. (2003). Visual Design in Video Games. Disponível para acessor.

Humbert. M. (2016). The evolution of graphic design in the gaming industry. Designer Daily.

Pacey, L. J., Gilmore, J. C., & Casey, M. P. (2013). U.S. Patent No. 8,454,428. Washington, DC: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Langdon, W. B., & Banzhaf, W. (2008, March). A SIMD interpreter for genetic programming on GPU graphics cards. In European Conference on Genetic Programming (pp. 73-85). Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.

Murray, J. H. (2006). Toward a cultural theory of gaming: Digital games and the co-evolution of media, mind, and culture. Popular Communication, 4(3), 185-202.

September 04, 2023


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