Video Games Take Flight

As a young child, I loved to climb the stairs of my aunt and uncle’s house to my cousin’s room filled with model airplanes he had assembled. Spitfires, Zeros, Messerchmitts, and B-17 Fighting Fortresses lined the shelves, parked on bureaus, and hung suspended from the ceiling. I still remember how I felt as I gazed in wonder at the formations of planes flying overhead.

Ever since the Wright Brothers first flight, the romance of aviation has entered our play. In the 20th century, board game manufacturers published games that celebrated the courage of Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, model makers issued kits for children and grownups to assemble their own planes, and manufacturers stamped out millions of model aircraft, first in wood and metal and then in plastic. The Strong owns one of the finest collections of these toy planes, and it’s tempting to take one off the storage shelf and fly it through the air, making it soar, glide, and bob.

And yet it was not until the advent of computers that a play product truly began to simulate the experience of flight. I thought of this recently after reading an article in the latest issue of Edge about Wargaming’s forthcoming title, World of Warplanes. The game promises exciting dogfights, historically accurate aircraft, and the joys of co-op play. These elements, combined with Wargaming’s commitment to quality free-to-play gaming, should make the title the latest in a long line of popular flight simulations.

Perhaps the first widely-successful commercial flight simulator was Atari’s Red Baron. This coin-op classic, the twin to the tank combat game Battlezone, featured pioneering 3D wire-frame graphics from a first-person perspective that, while crude by today’s standards, broke technological and visual ground in 1980.

SubLOGIC’s Flight Simulator for home computers debuted one year earlier. After Microsoft acquired the title, they rereleased it as the enduringly-popular Microsoft Flight Simulator in 1982. That same year, a heated match of Red Baron inspired Sid Meier and Bill Stealey to found MicroProse and create Hellcat Ace, a combat flight simulator for the home computer. Microprose followed with a series of increasingly sophisticated combat flight simulators, including F-15 Strike Eagle, which Microprose eventually ported back to the arcades in a coin-op version of the same name.

Flight simulators also pioneered the development of online play. The first massively multiplayer online graphical game Air Warrior (1986), created a dogfight in cyberspace in which players dueled over 1200-baud modems. The opportunity to fly against many other people, not just computer opponents, more than made up for the game’s rudimentary graphics.

Players loved all of these games, and hundreds of other console, computer, and arcade flight simulators, because of the opportunity to experience the dizzying, exhilarating experiences of flight—all, of course, while remaining safely planted on the ground! And that’s why game makers continue to take advantage of advances in computer power to create new products that let us play at being pilots and top guns.