The Secret History of Video Games

by Darius Kazemi on February 22, 2005

in Uncategorized

One historical aspect of the video games industry that has been overlooked by almost every historian I’ve read is its undeniable origin in wargames. While wargames such as chess are thousands of years old, the first complex modern wargames were developed by the Prussian military in the 19th century for “training, planning and testing military operations.” These exercises were crucial to the Prussian pursuit of the unification of Germany, and were kept secret until the end German unification in 1871. However, it was during World War II that scientific techniques such as systems analysis were applied to wargames. The first modern commercial wargame based off of military simulation technique was a game called Tactics, released in 1953 by Charles S. Roberts. The paper wargame industry grew from selling almost no units in the late 1950s to peaking at sales of 2.2 million units a year in 1980, the year that computer wargames entered the market. (Dunnigan ch. 5)

Traditional military wargames led to fantasy and science fiction variants, the most famous of these being Dungeons & Dragons, a game whose influence on the video game industry is denied by no historians. Modern video games are derived both from solitary engineers building novelties with excess military funding, and from the paper wargames with their origins in the military training operations of Otto Von Bismarck’s Prussian army.

Dunnigan goes so far as to say that “it is quite possible that some form of wargame existed before the first organized war” (Dunnigan ch. 5). If this is the case, then early wargames were not abstractions of war as experience by early humans. The wargames actually enabled the human mind to conceive of war as an organized affair, providing an abstract ideal for humanity to reach, an ideal of orderly and professional warfare.


Dunnigan, Jim. The Complete Wargames Handbook. 2nd ed. 1997.

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