history of three ways to play mobile video games from left to right a handheld football game from the seventies a nintendo game boy from the eighties and a current mobile phone

Alamy / Getty / Zynga

Video games have evolved over time, and have become more interactive with improved visual displays. (Left Mattel Electronics Football; Middle: Nintendo’s Gameboy; Right: Words With Friends on a smartphone).

‘We knew interactivity was cool.’

Want to pilot a commercial aircraft, step into the boots of an action hero or just create an alternative you in an alternative world? If you still think of video games as kid stuff, the equivalent of an electronic toy, you are missing out on the most sophisticated form of entertainment available. Yes, it used to be that video games were about clearing the screen of objects — take your pick: asteroids, dots, centipedes, alien invaders — while evading death en route to the high score. But today, many modern games create immersive experiences, with varying goals. Some play out like a movie, with you as the star. The choices you make determine how the story plays out. Still other games approach the existential, providing environments where players don’t compete so much as build, explore and share.

“The creative side of you, rather than the competitive, can come out,” McNealy says. Take the Civilization series of computer games. They were launched in 1991 by Sid Meier, 67, an industry rock star whose name still graces the box. To read this Wikipedia description of Civilization is to realize how far video games have advanced from the days of a yellow puck chomping dots: “The player is tasked with leading an entire human civilization over the course of several millennia by controlling various areas such as urban development, exploration, government, trade, research, and military.”

“We always knew we had something special, that we were doing something unique that allowed the players to create their own stories, to be their own star,” Meier told me. “Our graphics weren’t as good as movies. Our sound wasn’t as good as records. But we had a special thing. We knew that interactivity was cool.”

The Civilization franchise, which now has 13 games, is more popular than ever. The latest installment, Sid Meier’s Civilization VI, came out in late 2016 and is still cited each quarter by publisher Take-Two Interactive Software as one of its top money-makers. It’s one of several games, including Final Fantasy, The Elder Scrolls and Doom, that have been around long enough to engage and entertain generations of players.

Another is the SimCity series and its offshoot, The Sims. A game about city planning and the lives of artificial people might not sound like a rollicking good time, but both have captivated gamers for decades. In SimCity, released in 1989, players managed zoning, infrastructure and municipal budgets. It was strangely compelling and launched a wave of simulation games. I talked to designer Will Wright, 61, now a giant in the industry, about his inspiration. Turns out his revolution was based on chance. “SimCity was an offshoot of an earlier game I did — Raid on Bungeling Bay — which was ‘fire on and blow everything up,’ “ he says, describing a typical game of the era. “I had to create a world to blow up, so I built myself a tool to build the world, and I found it was much more fulfilling to create the world.”

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