Remembering the Video Game Crash of 1983

During a recent review of the contents of a couple old USB drives that I had forgotten that I stashed away, I found a handful of articles that I had written for a gaming site that went defunct. Since I hate for words to sit unread (even those in incoherent, rambly sentences), I decided I might as well share them here. Here’s one from around January 2013 in which I did a little looking back on the history of video games and the video games industry. Interestingly, though this post was written over four years ago, the questions here remain relevant, as it seems we are still in the process of understanding and debating what this industry, which has itself undergone some significant changes in just the past decade, means to us today, as well as where its future lies.

Though we’re just a few weeks into 2013, it’s already shaping up to be an interesting year for gaming. While next gen Playstation and Xbox consoles burn up the rumor mill, an elder statesman of the industry, Atari, declared bankruptcy. A plethora of new sequels and new IPs promise nothing less than sheer gaming ecstasy. And new technologies continue to push the boundaries between gaming and reality and force the question “what is a video game?”

But 2013 also marks something else a little less spectacular (or just a spectacular, depending on your point of view) — the 30th anniversary of the video game crash of 1983.  It was kind of a big deal. And now that we’re in a time of gaming overabundance, I can’t help but see a few parallels.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, video games were THE thing.  In less than a decade, video games had rapidly evolved — from Pong to Ms. Pac-Man — in a time when personal computing was just beginning to take off.  Electronic games, arcade games, consoles that allowed video games in the home were incredibly popular and technology was in vogue.  This “golden era” of gaming was akin to the “space race” of the 1960s, except now kids could go to the moon…virtually, anyway.  With high demand came abundance. Arcades popped over seemingly overnight (like Starbucks still do today). Consumers seeking to buy a console had no less than a dozen (or more!) from which to choose. Games, great games, crappy games were made public without a second thought.  There was money to be made in video games, as much as there was once gold in them thar hills!

Through a series of unfortunate events, retailers found themselves with more video game related stock than they could handle, video game companies such as Atari were hit with some big time failures (ahem, E.T., ahem), and internal strife developed within the gaming industry.  Video games and gaming fell almost as quickly as it had risen.  Between 1983 and 1985, the billion dollar industry lost millions in revenue.  This led to bankruptcy for some companies that could no longer compete.  A bunch of games were supposedly buried in a desert, and people moved on with their hair metal and acid-washed jeans.

So here we are 30 years later. The video game industry is comfortably back to being a billion-dollar industry.  Great games and crappy games are still being produced for…how many systems?  PC, Mac, Playstation 3, Playstation Vita, Wii, Wii U, Xbox 360, Android, iPad/iPod/iPhone, Nintendo DS and 3DS…and maybe someday soon the next versions of the Playstation and Xbox.  That’s about a dozen or so systems.  There are too many publishers, developers, and game companies to mention — mergers seem to happen every day and new ones quickly pop up.  We have no shortage of games to play.  We have abundance.

The video game industry is in a much more stable environment than it was years ago.  The spirit of the early video game industry probably wasn’t ready to be a shooting star. Video games then were like meteorites, they shone bright and powerful but were destined for a quick, hot demise. They were a fad like pet rocks and friendship bracelets.  But they weren’t destined to become little more than an historical footnote. Video games survived, the industry survived, and it today is reigns alongside the film and television industry and vies hard for our everlasting attention.

The industry was founded on invention and innovation and its spirit remains, well…where is that spirit? Is it with the big companies or the independent developers?  It is with those that have money or those just scraping by? Is it with the players or the publishers? What do you think of the industry today?


  1. History will always be relevant. I’m glad you decided to share this! Nintendo revived the video game industry, which is one of the reasons I think we the fans put up with some of their ridiculous shenanigans. I never noticed that there was even a crash, but then again I *was* only three in 1983, and we had Coleco and Atari. This might be the reason we had so many games, because I’m assuming if there was a crash, they were potentially cheaper so my dad just bought a bunch of them. We had so many games…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That just how it was for us too! We didn’t get a home console — the Atari 7800 — until the mid 1980s, and by then, you could pick up cartridges by the dozen without breaking the bank. It was great too, because even though the NES was just starting to make headway, most of my friends had Atari consoles, so we were all still on the same page, so to speak, with games. They were plentiful, and many of them were terrible. But we loved them anyway because they were what we had to play!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. All the unnecessary DLC and “always online” requirements bug me, but I like the direction the industry is going in terms of gender equality. I’ve rescued so many damn princesses over the years. It’s nice to see strong female lead characters, like Aloy from HZD, being widely admired these days.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m not a fan of either DLC (generally) or the “always online” thing. That last is one of the reasons I’ve pretty much avoided games that absolutely require an online connection at all times. It just seems ridiculous.

      But as for diversity, YES! 🙂 I’m loving that we’re getting more female leads, more characters of color, more orientation options, and so on. Games haven’t always held a mirror up to society, so it’s great to see that happening on a regular basis nowadays. It’s proven that the game industry can be a leader when it comes to promoting the ways in which our society is positively evolving and growing.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A lot of people are a little too quick to dismiss the industry today as overly greedy and derivative. The latter is debatable, though personally, I think it’s an issue that’s gotten better with time, for as creative as those pioneering eighties games were, they were hampered with the limited technology available to them at the time. As for the corporate greed, that’s a problem that’s always existed. A lot of people (rightly) complain about companies pushing preorders and microtransactions, but back in the day, people could get suckered into buying barely functional pieces of trash that happened to bear famous licenses (i.e. E.T) or happened to be terrible sequels to existing franchises (i.e. Super Pitfall). The greed is still there, it just manifests in different ways, and with the internet, it’s easy to learn of their tactics whereas back then, you could regularly blow $60 on an incomplete mess, which is far worse even without taking inflation into account.

    At the end of the day, I’d rather continue to deal with the problems plaguing the industry these days than bring back the ones from yesteryear. I’ve said that while the 2000s (and so far, the 2010s) may have lacked the sheer volume of good games the nineties could boast, it more than made up for it in quality, and I don’t intend to back down from that stance any time soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You make any excellent point there about those “great” games that we used to play. Nostalgia may paint a pretty picture, but there were So. Many. Bad. Games. made during that “Golden Age of Video Games.” We remember well the supreme successes (Pac-Man) and the outright failures (E. T.), but between them was so much drivel. One need only look at compilations of Activison games today to know the truth — those games were “great” because they were what we had to play, not necessarily because they were indisputably awesome. There’s certainly an argument to be made that developers then were doing the best with what they had, and sometimes that resulted in some oddball experiments, which is all well and good. But we still plunked down $30, $40, $50 (that’s nearly $100 in today’s dollars) for those little cartridges and often didn’t get much in return. That nonsense really wouldn’t stand today.

      I’d also rather “put up” with today’s game industry, one that is much more transparent than it use to be. And one that has evolved to know it’s consumer base perhaps better than it ever wanted to. Business is business, after all.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ll have you know that Friendship bracelets WILL make a come back. In a big way. My portfolio investor told me so when I had the chance to pick up a ton of shares cheap 😉

    Atari went bankrupt in ’13 eh? Man, I remember playing frogger and that game where you were a little guy in the jungle climbing up ladders and vines and jumping pits and stuff. “Something” Runner I think?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Would that have been Pitfall? (Or I should say “Pitfall!”? I’m sure that exclamation point was many a copy editor’s nightmare.)

      You might also be rolling in lots of dough soon, as I understand that friendship bracelets are once again all the rage thanks to some intrepid Etsy-ers. Only this time round, they are much more creative than those silly little things we made at camp way back when. May you enjoy your millions wisely. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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