Video Games in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Video Games in Canada

Video games are interactive electronic games. Canada’s video game industry developed in the early 1980s and throughout the 1990s, with studios emerging in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal and Edmonton. Popular among adults and children, this hobby has made Canada a top-performing developer and consumer of video games. The positive and negative impacts of video games and their content have been debated, but they are increasingly being recognized for their immersive and social value.

Player using a gamepad to play a video game.

Early History of Video Games

Video games are an interactive medium. Through some kind of user interface, usually a controller, players engage with and manipulate video, audio and text produced by a computer program and electronically displayed on a screen (usually a TV, computer or mobile device). The earliest video game development can be traced back to the 1950s and 60s. At the time, computers were not accessible to the public and video games remained quite limited in their influence. The introduction of the arcade game Pong in 1972 by the newly formed company Atari in California is widely recognized as the game that helped launch the video game industry.

Picture of the Pong video game system.

Growth of the Video Game Industry in Canada

In Canada, the video game industry is generally considered to have developed in the early 1980s. The launch of the game studio Distinctive Software by Don Mattrick and Jeff Sember in Burnaby, British Columbia, in 1983 was a key player in that development. Distinctive Software would go on to be purchased by the American company Electronic Arts (EA) in 1991. After being purchased by EA, Distinctive Software became EA Canada, which is EA’s oldest active studio. In the short period of eight years from 1992 to 2000, EA Canada went from employing 80 people to 660. As of 2021, it employs approximately 1,300 people across Canada.

The founding of Distinctive Software and its purchase by EA were also important for the growth of new studios in Vancouver, such as Radical Entertainment in 1991, Relic Entertainment in 1997 and Barking Dog Studios in 1998. These studios eventually led Vancouver to become a key city in video game development, both in Canada and worldwide. Ontario and Quebec also grew to be critical hubs for the video game industry in Canada. The company Silicon Knights was founded in St. Catharines, Ontario, in 1992, and Ubisoft Montreal was opened in 1997. After receiving more than $250 million dollars in tax credits from the Ontario government, Ubisoft also opened a Toronto studio in 2009. An exception to the general dominance of Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto in the industry was BioWare, a studio founded in Edmonton in 1995. BioWare produced a slew of very popular games in the decade before it was acquired by EA in 2008.

The Video Game Industry in Canada Today

Over the past 40 years, the video game industry has grown to become a significant part of the Canadian social and economic landscape, and the Canadian video game industry has become the third largest globally. As of 2021, the industry contributed $5.5 billion to Canada’s economy, which represents a 23 per cent growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) contribution since 2019 alone. In that three-year period, Canada has also seen a 35 per cent increase in video game company creation, with 937 active video game companies recorded in 2021.

Canadian Video Game Players

As the video game industry in Canada grew throughout the 1980s and 90s, Canadians also began taking to video games as a pastime, first in arcades and then increasingly at home with consoles like Atari and the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). By 1993, more than one-quarter of Canadian homes had an NES console and consumers were spending $370 million (over $630 million in 2022 dollars) on games. This has only increased over the past 30 years. In 2020, 61 per cent of Canadians under the age of 65 played video games, and for those between the ages of six and 17, the rate was 89 per cent.

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Canadians also play video games on mobile devices, including phones. Phones have become a popular platform for video games. According to the results of a 2020 survey published by the Entertainment Software Association of Canada, 48 per cent of Canadian adults play games on their mobile devices. 

When video games first emerged, they were largely seen as being for children, but as those children of the 1970s and 80s grew up, they maintained their love of gaming. In 2020, the average age of the Canadian gamer was 34. As of 2021, the uptake of video gaming in Canada has led it to become the eighth largest market in the world in terms of games revenue.

Video Games in Canadian Culture

Video games in Canada have been received with hesitancy and sometimes with overt resistance. Critics have expressed concerns about the effects of violent video game content and screen time on children. Debates about the effects of violence in video games continue to occur, but no conclusive data is readily available. Similarly, research around screen time, including for video games, suggests that a more nuanced approach is required beyond simply equating higher screen time with negative consequences.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the video game industry and the games it produced began maturing and, as gaming grew in economic importance, both government and mainstream understandings of video games and their role in Canada began to change. In 2004, The Globe and Mail started a Gaming section, covering reviews of games and gaming news, reflecting the extent to which video games had been accepted in wider Canadian society.

The kinds of games that Canadians play today cover a wide spectrum, from fighting, sports and racing games — which may be more aligned with notions of “traditional” video games — to strategy and role-playing games to word and puzzle games. Like any other form of media, video games are not static, and they have grown to explore serious issues of identity and belonging, culture, community, politics and mental health. The interactive aspects of video games allow players to inhabit characters and to have immersive experiences that players might otherwise never encounter. The possibilities that video games have offered Canadians to connect and be social are being recognized as of significant value. During the COVID-19 pandemic, video games were increasingly recognized for their ability to connect Canadians and facilitate social interaction.

The rise of esports in Canada is also notable. While esports have grown as a worldwide phenomenon, projected to exceed US$1.8 billion in market value in 2022, esports have become particularly popular in Canada: between 2019–2020, 35 percent of adults and 29 per cent of kids and teens engaged in esports. Game streaming amongst Canadians has also grown in popularity, with 41 per cent of adults and 46 per cent of kids and teens engaging in game streaming either as players or spectators in the same period. The establishment of Esport Canada, a not-for-profit organization providing resources and support for esports for K12 students and educators, in 2020 is reflective of the growing place of esports in Canada. Similarly, the Conduit Research Lab at Ryerson University in Toronto is a key example of the place that esports is coming to have both as a legitimate social activity and as a source of skills development, career opportunities and economic growth.

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