Steve Jobs: Accidental video games visionary

Apple's late co-founder exerted a huge influence over video games, and he wasn't even trying.

The one thing that every video game visionary has in common is that they all set out to make something about video games better.

From the guys that came up with the whole concept in the first place, to all of the auteurs, artists, storytellers, and technologists that have followed they've all set about to make the experience of playing video games better. To make them more fun. To make them easier to understand, and more enjoyable to interact with.

All of them except one.

Steve Jobs has arguably had more of an impact on the way video games are consumed in recent years than any other figure in technology. But as far as I can tell, it was almost entirely by accident.

Sure, Jobs had some history in the space. He took a job at Atari as a technician in the mid-'70s, but this was because he was looking for money to fund a spiritual retreat to India. Later, with the release of the Apple II in 1977 he helped usher in a golden age of video games by providing a platform for the explosion of creativity that came in the early '80s: Bubble Bobble, Beach Head, Boulder Dash, Choplifter, F-15 Strike Eagle, Hacker, Hardball!, Karateka, King's Quest, Leather Goddesses of Phobos, Leisure Suit Larry, Lode Runner, Might & Magic, The Oregon Trail, Raid Over Moscow, Skyfox, Ultima, Wizardry, Zork. So many games that so many of us remember fondly, and all of them made possible because of the Apple II and Jobs.

His greatest contribution though, came with the introduction of the iPhone (and iPod Touch) in 2007. Though none of us anticipated the impact it would have at the time, it has changed an entire industry and brought interactive entertainment into the hands of people who were previously indifferent or intimidated by anything other than Minesweeper or Chess on their PC.

The elegance and instinctive nature of its user interface has made it instantly accessible to young and old alike, and with that it has opened the minds of millions to the joys of simple pleasures like Bejeweled, Bookworm, and Words with Friends. From there, it then led them to the delights of more complex games like Fieldrunners, Plants vs. Zombies, Contre Jour, or World of Goo.

And then of course, there's the big one: Angry Birds. The iPhone, and by association Jobs, ushered in the most unexpected pop cultural megahit of the 21st century. The bird-flinging physics puzzler would never have become the ubiquitous experience that it has become today without its start on iOS.

Of the 250 million people who own iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touchs, more than half of them play games. That means the iOS platform is already nipping at the heels of the Nintendo DS in terms of engaged audience, and it's not showing any signs of slowing down.

I've been playing video games for 30 years and writing about them for 20. I've never seen people forge such a deeply personal connection with a device than I have with the iPhone, and now more recently the iPad.

My own kids, age six and eight, have been around video games since the day they were born. My wife and I only allow them to play games on the weekends and even then only for an hour or so.

Do they choose games on the Wii, the PlayStation 3, or the Xbox 360? Rarely. Nine times out of 10, their go-to device is the iPad. They display an unusual degree of reverence and respect for it. It's the only device they'll share without fighting, and it has become the most popular companion on road trips and vacations.

They instinctively know how to use it, and have never once had to ask how to start a game, or interact with something. They play games with each other, with us, and with their grandparents and we all get the same kind of enjoyment from it.

Few devices in the history of video games have been able to bring people together and remove both technical and social barriers to enjoyment. For that, whether they indulge in iOS gaming or not, all gamers owe Jobs a debt of gratitude.

His influence on how we interact with technology will be missed.

John Davison is the VP of Programming for GameSpot.

 

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