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Let's face it, in the world of entertainment it's easy to equate video gaming with the bad boy from down the street. You know, the kid who tempts children to ignore homework, get into fights or hide porn under the couch cushions. A few years back, Pong creator and Atari founder Nolan Bushnell went so far as to say, "Video games today are a race to the bottom. They are pure, unadulterated trash, and I'm sad for that." And he's the guy known as the father of electronic games.

But let's not throw Mario out with the bathwater quite yet.

Sure, it's true that many groundbreaking titles over the past two decades have generally been known for their problems. For example, Mortal Kombat was a pretty big leap from most popular platformers back in 1992. This rough-and-tumble fighter introduced three-dimensional characters who "finished" opponents by decapitating them, plucking out their hearts or ripping out their spines. The pumped-up graphics continued improving with the bloody Quake shooters in the mid '90s. They were followed by gory slasher titles such as Manhunt (2003), God of War (2005) and the infamous Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, a game that really stirred people up with its hidden "hot coffee" sex scenes.

But while all of that general messiness was going on, games made quite a few family-friendly leaps and bounds as well. In my house, for instance, we were playing Sonic the Hedgehog and the space-zapping Wing Commander in the early '90s. Then came the incredibly realistic-looking adventure game Myst, as well as an early PC world-builder called Sid Meier's Civilization. Gran Turismo was every wannabe race car driver's dream in 1997. And let's not forget the annual pigskin-chucking madness of Madden NFL. In many ways, the last 20 years of gaming have been fun, interactive and inviting. And my kids and I have had great bonding times along the way.

What I'm saying is that while the bad boy of video gaming may have had a corrupting influence on the culture at large, he was on his best behavior in our home. We demanded as much. And if you think about it, some of today's video games also hold quite a bit of potential. They deliver hyper-realistic graphics that dance before our eyes in hi def. They're manipulated with shocking realism by motion-sensing controllers. And they're built around intricate, thought-provoking gaming stories that can lead to any number of conclusions in online worlds that stretch on forever.

Yep, that high-flying tech can result in some nasty action if you're not careful. But with the right discernment and supervision, it can also deliver the kind of fun people have been dreaming about ever since a tiny digital blip first bounced off a Pong paddle.

You'll find this article and other 20th anniversary reflections—including quotes, letters, statistics, a timeline, trivia and more—in our special online flipbook. 
Click here to check it out!

Published October 2010