Gamers Did That

online role playing games by Combined Media, on Flickr

Illustration by Michael Whitehead for Livewire - Green Guide

Love your new, super cool smartphone? Being extra productive on that blazing fast laptop? Surfing the net faster than you can click your mouse? Thank a gamer.

When the first personal computers came out they were nothing more than a curiosity for technophiles. Few, if any, people saw any real-world advantage and certainly business owners weren’t going to shell out the thousands of dollars per machine to bring them to every desktop in the office. Then VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet program, came along and suddenly everyone understood what this new computer evolution meant. Later hardware would lead the charge with the introduction of the mouse. For the first time desktop publishing and digital design were feasible. But through it all, there was one group of users who constantly pushed the envelope and forced hardware and software makers to improve and innovate and they are still doing it today.

GPU, G-P-Me

GPUs (graphic processing units) are specialized circuits that are specifically designed to rapidly perform complex three dimensional calculations. They can generate and manipulate images based on mathematical formulas and equations far faster than non-specialized circuits such as those in most CPUs. More than that, their efficiency and power make them ideal for use in building super computers. GPUs are the core components for video processing in most computer systems today.

There was a time, not too long ago when some of the best selling computer accessories were graphics cards. Computer and electronic stores would devote entire isles to box after box of video cards with impressive sounding names like Nitro, Extreme, and Voodoo. Tech news was flush with press releases about some new video card that was twice as fast as the old one or had three times the memory. PCI connections replaced ISA and VESA, which were then displaced in turn by AGP, AGP 2x, AGP 4x, AGP 8x and PCI Express. This often meant you had to upgrade your motherboard along with your video card or simply get a new machine altogether. So why don’t you see this anymore? First, most computers sold today have built-in GPUs that are an order of magnitude better than even the best video cards sold during the heyday, but more importantly, the pressure on the industry from gamers has dropped off significantly.

Video and computer games were at the heart of the GPU evolution. Each new video game system had to advertise the best graphics so they pushed each other to develop better technologies. Computer games like Quake, Half-Life, Starcraft, and Diablo pushed the envelope in terms of graphics processing. It got to the point at one time where serious PC gamers almost needed to buy a new video card every time a major new game came out. PC games and video cards were so interconnected that they were often bundled together. Now however, the advertising focus for game developers has shifted away from proclaiming the best or sharpest graphics and moved toward multi-player support or family-style gaming. Not coincidently, major improvements in GPUs have nearly ground to a halt.

Plenty of LAN for All

Three words that make you sound like an old man: “Before the internet . . .”

Before the Internet there were still gamers playing against one another. Of course, the first such multiplayer games had users sharing the same computer and in some cases, the same keyboard. Neverwinter Nights on AOL in 1991 was the predecessor to the MMO games we know today, but that was way ahead of it’s time and was more of an isolated incident than a trend. Most games that supported multi-player from different systems offered one of two approaches. The first option was to directly call another computer using a dial-up modem. I often played these type of games and I can tell you that they were a frustrating and slow experience. Connections were buggy and often failed, needing to be redialed and you could only connect with one other user meaning that true multiplayer was not possible.

The other option was to support ethernet connections which at that time were very new. Today, ethernet is the fundamental wired connection for almost all local area networks or LANs. But back then, before WiFi or DSL, gamers would haul their computers and gear to a central location, usually someone’s living room, plug into the LAN and game for hours on end against one another. All these gamers buying NIC cards, routers, and ethernet hubs drove the prices down and pressed for innovation in ethernet hardware and software, without which you might still be using a Token Ring. This doesn’t even include how much innovation LAN parties promoted terms of portability and mobility. Gamers carring around PCs demanded smaller cases leading to innovations in size and power. It’s no coincidence that the first Mac Minis looked alot like the Nintendo Cube. Gamers pushed for advances in laptops that led to better, smaller, more effeciant processors eventually leading to modern smartphone CPUs.

Although less popular, LAN parties still go on today and serve as key features in major gamer gatherings such as PAX.

Bandwidth for Broadswords

When the Internet first gained wide acceptance, I wouldn’t say that gamers were the first to jump on the bandwagon. In fact, most game development companies were hesitant to support the new infrastructure. Games required a lot of data and typical Internet speeds, even from the fasted dial-up connections were just not up to par. Eventually however, new connections were possible: DSL, Cable Modems, and Fiber. Suddenly games has a fast enough connection to function without compromises and game companies began to take advantage.

Once again gamers were at the forefront. Want to kill Trolls in EverQuest? Then you needed to get broadband. Want to take down 24 enemy soldiers in a row with your sniper rifle in Metal of Honor? You needed to get broadband. Want to mob Zerg in Starcraft? Broadband. Gamers began to ask their cable and phone companies to extend broadband service. They would choose new apartments and houses based on broadband coverage, and more importantly, they would pay for it, giving the ISPs all the incentive they needed. Chances are, if you have broadband in your neighborhood, a gamer helped make it happen.

AppStores are for Newbs

Apple gets a lot of props from the media for its “innovation” in conceiving of an AppStore: a single curated enviroment where users can quickly and easily download new applications. Apple however, was just taking its cue from game consoles that had been on the market for years already. The iPhone AppStore opened its digital doors in 2008. By that time, Nintendo’s Wii Shop Channel has been selling curated apps and games for two years, Microsofts Xbox LIVE had an online store for six years, and the originator: the Sega Dreamcast had been selling downloadable content for over nine years. On the PC, Valve’s Steam network had provided a single source for buying and downloading games and other content since 2002. Even in moble devices the Sony PlayStation Network began making downloadable games available directly on the PSP in 2006: two years before Apple would sell its first app. Developer tools, revenue sharing, and subscription models were all pioneered by gaming consoles long before Steve Jobs and company thought them up.

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Overall, we have a lot more to thank gamers for than just World of Warcraft and a few really funny movies. Next time you see one, offer to shake a gamer’s hand . . . after they’ve saved their game of course.

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