How Video Game Systems Work

By: Jeff Tyson

Inside Game Systems

The basic pieces really haven't changed that much since the birth of the Atari 2600. Here's a list of the core components that all video game systems have in common:

  • User control interface
  • CPU
  • RAM
  • Software kernel
  • Storage medium for games
  • Video output
  • Audio output
  • Power supply

The user control interface allows the player to interact with the video game. Without it, a video game would be a passive medium, like cable TV. Early game systems used paddles or joysticks, but most systems today use sophisticated controllers with a variety of buttons and special features.


Ever since the early days of the Atari 2600, video game systems have relied on RAM to provide temporary storage of games as they're being played. Without RAM, even the fastest CPU could not provide the necessary speed for an interactive gaming experience.

The software kernel is the console's operating system. It provides the interface between the various pieces of hardware, allowing the video game programmers to write code using common software libraries and tools.

The two most common storage technologies used for video games today are CD and ROM-based cartridges. Current systems also offer some type of solid-state memory cards for storing saved games and personal information. Systems like the PlayStation 2 have DVD drives. The PlayStation 3 goes even farther -- it has a Blu-ray DVD drive.

Microsoft, a rival to Sony, attempted to outmaneuver the PS3's Blu-ray drive with an HD-DVD drive designed for the Xbox 360. Unfortunately for Microsoft, they backed the wrong horse: the HD-DVD format fizzled in early 2008.

All game consoles provide a video signal that is compatible with television. Depending on your country, this may be NTSC, PAL or possibly even SECAM. The Xbox 360 and PS3 support HDMI cables. Those two and the Nintendo Wii support composite, component and S-video connections. Most consoles have a dedicated graphics processor that provides specialized mapping, texturing and geometric functions, in addition to controlling video output. Another dedicated chip typically handles the audio processing chores and outputs stereo sound or, in some cases, digital surround sound!

In the next section, you'll learn a bit about the games you can play on these systems.