E3 — the annual celebration of all things video gaming in Los Angeles — was born out of a bit of consumer electronics ignorance nearly a quarter of a century ago.
But the reason big video game news remains absent from CES these days is more about the medium’s evolution than that decades-old snub. Hardware is beginning to fade into the background for consumers of games as the creators in the medium focus more on the art it delivers than the technology that drives those creations.
The birth of the Electronic Entertainment Expo can be traced to the early 90s, CES, and a tent. In 1991, video game industry members discovered that their booths for the Consumer Electronics Show, historically shoved to the back of the annual show, had been pushed clear out of the buildings.
“The CES organizers used to put the video games industry way, way in the back. In 1991 they put us in a tent, and you had to walk past all the porn vendors to find us,” Tom Kalinske, CEO of Sega America at the time, told MCV. It didn’t help that it rained that year, and leaks in the tent spilled over Sega’s new Genesis game system. “I was just furious with the way CES treated the video games industry, and I felt we were a more important industry than they were giving us credit for.”
It was the tent that broke the camel’s back, and Sega never returned to the show. As the video game industry continued to seethe about its treatment at the show, it finally got a voice three years later. The game industry formed the Interactive Digital Software Association to help fight off a call by Congress to create a government-backed ratings system.
The association, which later became the Entertainment Software Association, formed the Entertainment Software Rating Board, and then turned toward helping to promote the game industry. Among its first ideas was to team up with publisher IDG to create a trade show for video games.
That decision led to a showdown of sorts between the newly established Electronic Entertainment Expo and the Consumer Electronics Show. While CES offered to give the game industry a dedicated space, it eventually gave up, ceding the game industry to its own expo.
The first E3 was held in 1995.
For a time, gaming continued to show up at CES in different ways over the years, including significant presentations from the likes of Microsoft and Sony. But recently the only video games one can find at CES are the ones used to show off displays or other gaming-centric peripherals — a decision that reflects the growing maturing of the game industry.
Video games were essentially birthed with the creation of “Spacewar!” in 1962, a game conceived not as art, play, or entertainment, but as glorified advertising for the tech upon which it ran. A motley crew of friends created that first significant game as a lark, a way to show off the cutting-edge technology of the PDP-1. It was a demo that accidentally created a new sort of entertainment, a new form of expression, a new medium.
Once other creators realized the value of what had been created at MIT, that people would pay, and pay, and pay, to shoot apart jagged asteroids or eat pellets while running from ghosts, video games became profitable digital diversions. And while video games made the leap to homes and a much broader audience in the ’70s with the rise of early consoles, they were still viewed through the lens of the hardware upon which they ran. They were gadgets that delivered play.
As games continued to evolve, they remained shackled to the technology that drove them. Nintendo’s massive success with the Nintendo Entertainment System redefined games, changing the public perception. Where video games were once viewed as extrusions of advancing technology, now they were toys, entertainment for children. But games were still defined in many ways by the physical product upon which they ran.
The notion of games as art, around for nearly as long as the games themselves, didn’t really find a massive voice until the 2000s. The rise of the video games as art debate was driven by the soaring achievements of the expanding pool of game designers, and by the reoccurring push by self-appointed cultural gatekeepers and politicians to define video games as dangerous. In 2011, video games were declared protected speech and art by the Supreme Court of the United States. But even that acknowledgment and protection didn’t free gaming from its hardware shackles.
That didn’t really start to happen until last year.
In the past year, Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, Microsoft, PlayStation, and Nintendo all talked about or alluded to a post-platform video game industry. A time when games can be played anywhere, regardless of what game console, computer, or piece of tech the player might own.
After nearly half a century of struggling under the mantle of a fractured landscape driven by a community of walled gardens, game developers are finally eyeing a possible future where technology constructs don’t limit the audience. Instead, creators can focus on attracting an audience through its message rather than carving up that audience based on the hardware they happen to own.
Video games, these days, leave CES to the glut of gadgets that drive distraction, instead focusing on shows that provide a canvas to the masses for their artful creations.
Play of the Game is a news and opinion column about the big stories of the month in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Reach Crecente at Bcrecente@variety.com