From sociable to isolated video game players
A recent GameFAQs poll asked about the social context of the respondents' video game playing -- are you usually with another person, playing physically alone but with someone else online, playing totally alone, etc. Here are the results from over 31,000 American respondents, and here are the results of over 54,000 American respondents for the same question asked in December, 2009.
Only one response says that other players are physically present when you're playing, and that answer has fallen from 21% to 16% just within the past 2 1/2 years. So the cocooning trend of the past 20 years has not bottomed out yet, and it shows up in every corner of life that I've checked out -- including apparently playing video games.
Even circa 1990 you could not have found 84% of people playing video games primarily while alone.
We used to go to our friends' houses all the time, rarely for the purpose of playing Nintendo, but we'd usually do that for 30 minutes or an hour, in between throwing the football out in the street and riding our bikes over to the park or woods. This was a great way to play games you didn't own yourself -- unlike with today's online multiplayer games, where both friends need to have plunked down the $60 for the game.
Some friends had an entirely different console than the ubiquitous Nintendo, also an experience you can't replace with online "connections," where both friends need to own the same console. My best friend had a TurboGrafx-16, another best friend had an old Atari 2600 (yes, considered "old" even back in 1991), and another friend had a Genesis early on when no one else did. There weren't many games for it, but it did have pretty good ports of Altered Beast and Golden Axe, which before you could only have played in arcades.
That was the other mainstay of social video game playing -- arcade cabinets. You didn't need to have a separate arcade room set aside in the local mall. Arcade games used to be in every bowling alley, a good number of convenience stores, pizza parlors (including the cocktail table games at Pizza Hut), even laundromats. Then when the ultra-mega-multi-plexes opened up, they had their own arcade section just off of the main lobby, before the ticket stand, so you didn't need to pay to see a movie.
I don't remember the video game culture of the early '80s, and wasn't alive in the late '70s. But arcade revenues hit an all-time peak in 1981 (they climbed back to another local peak in 1988 before their steady fall afterward). I don't have many references to pop culture showing kids playing video games at each others' houses, though. The advertising of the time shows family members gathered around the TV and video game system. (E.g., for the Vectrex, Atari, and Intellivision.) Then there's the beginning of Vacation where Rusty and Audrey are playing Atari together in the living room, before they use it to mess around with their father Clark's course-plotting computer program.
The social setting became much more isolated during the '90s, I'd say even by 1994 or '95 it was noticeable. Arcades were already in decline, I didn't go over to friends' houses as much to play games, and didn't feel like playing games with my brothers that much either. By the later half of the '90s, it was just the occasional visit to my best friend's to play GoldenEye or Mario Kart 64, or staying in with my brothers to play (what else?) GoldenEye and later Perfect Dark. As with the broader society, the collapse of social networks has affected our ties with non-kin more than with close kin.
There wasn't any online technology for video games back then either, not for 99% of players. So it wasn't a substitute of online multiplayer for real-life multiplayer. People just started shutting themselves away, a trend that's only gotten worse since. But the key is not to see that as reflecting an outside tech change; it was an inside change in our social tendencies. The rise of online multiplayer is just an outlet for an already cocooning society.