The History of the World – Part I

If you asked the average person where video games came from, they would say something like “I don’t know…there was pong, and then I guess people started playing video games.”  Or, more likely, “Why are you asking me such an asinine question?”  Then they would quickly wander off, assuming you were a weirdo.

The History of The World, as a series, will look to explore where we came from, where we’ve been, and where our cultural milestones stand in the history of time.  It’s been a long road, with several crashes and mis-steps along the way, and we’re not just talking the Virtual Boy.  How did we get from the bored man working with radar scopes, all the way to the consoles and PC Games of the modern age?  Let’s take a long step back and consider The History of the World.

The Proto-Era

The question begins, where does one start?  The history of gaming, itself, is older than one could even consider.  Playing cards certainly have their place in history, a long standing one.  Collectible cards, the origin of Nintendo, had their place.  Nothing comes from nothing, except possibly the Ouya. And cheap shots at the Ouya.  We’re going to start with the concept of engineering hobbyists, and the penny arcade.

Since the beginning of time, people have been bored.  This has, mostly, been a good thing, as boredom brings invention.  It also brings trolls, true, but that is for our next series, The History of The Internet (Which may never happen, thanks to legal proceedings with Al Gore).  Looking to liven up the relatively mundane game of pinball, a classically spring-loaded game, electronics and transistor-activated bumpers were added, adding to the robustness of the game.

It was with these games in mind that the scientists and the hobbyists of the day, looking to see the limits of the technologies they were creating, began experimenting with the electronics of the day.  Most of the early ‘video games’ were relatively banal, hitting a button in time with sequence.

This brings us to what could be considered the first ‘video game.’ Keep in mind, most early games are relics of a bygone era, so while we will be making our own videos for future games, we’ll be relying on others with actual access to the games for the proto era of gaming.

In 1958, physicist William Higinbotham created what could arguably be the first video game.

Tennis for Two, 1958, Higinbotham

Using an oscilloscope and some hand-made aluminum controllers, he created the very basic mechanics for the game in a few hours, though it took several weeks for the machine to be functionally useful.  The game was put on display at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, something otherwise considered quite the dull experience.  The exhibit was on display for several years, even eventually getting an upgrade that simulated the effects of gravity on the ball.  The game even included a sound that the game made when the ball was hit, giving the users feedback to their play.  Though popular, it was ultimately an exhibit to display the capabilities of the early machines. And despite attempts to market was ultimately dismantled, though it was later reconstructed for its 50th anniversary.

In 1962, the game ‘Spacewar!’ was developed in the MIT labs.  Considered the first hack in known creation, it far more resembled a radar system than a video game.

Spacewar!, 1962, MIT

While the game is fairly simple by modern conventions, it is actually fairly complex in design even by 70′s arcade cabinet games.  The gameplay was likely what encouraged future titles such as Asteroids.  Two players could fly space ships about an empty field and attempt to shoot each other.  What made the game interesting was, at the center of the field existed a sun with a gravity field.  You could use the sun’s gravity to alter the trajectory of your shot’s course, and even your ship’s course.  Touching the sun, of course, destroyed your vehicle.  While later iterations would include a scoring system, points would have to be manually tracked.

‘Spacewar!’ became a fairly popular game amongst the colleges of the time, one of the few places with the equipment to run it, and the number of hobbyists interested in modifying, or hacking, their existing equipment.  Not bad for the world’s first rom hack in history.

Enter Sega, initially Service Games, to the scene.  Video games, as shown above, were primarily the domain of hobbyists and laboratories wanting to show off their abilities.  Sega would show that these video games were financially viable.  Having already a long history of creating midway attractions such as pinball and jukeboxes, and having moved far away from its American Military roots, basic coin-operated games with video monitors were a natural progression for them.

The first popular arcade game, ‘Periscope’, was released in 1966.  It was a basic light gun shooter, similar to Duck Hunt, also originally published by Sega in 1969.

Sega MISSILE, 1969

Sega’s early days used basic microprocessors to process gameplay, and, mostly, used moving parts to convey movement rather than on-screen directions and visuals.  However, it was quite the hit, and a huge novelty of the time.  The games had so many moving parts they required the then unheard of amount of a quarter to play, which became the industry standard for years and years to come.

All of these things, however, had a few requirements.  Complex machinery and non-standard equipment that simply do not exist in large quantities.  In the case of ‘Spacewars!’, existing equipment had to be hacked for use.  Sega’s midway games still required moving parts and very little on the end of electronic display, a large part of the consideration of what we would modernly call a video game.

The Rise of Home Gaming

The history of gaming is amusing in a certain sense in regards to how little of the early archives of gaming were developed, not for the entertainment of the masses, but as proverbial mechanical versions of ‘Look what I can do!’  It’s with this in mind that we look at Sanders Associates, Inc – a military defense company.

Ralph Baer was, at the time, a busy man.  Though he had proposed when designing a television the inclusion of a a built-in game to distinguish it from the competition at Loral, his thoughts of using the television to display things other than commercial broadcasts mostly sat on the back-burners for almost a decade.

On September 1st, 1966, Baer would write up a proposal document for the company; a proposal now on display at the Smithsonian, that would go over the basic concepts of a device that would allow for a user to play games on a regular home television.  It was standard practice, a way to protect what was, at the time, just an idea.

However, Baer, having a large enough team at his disposal, had enough people that he could set aside an engineer or two to help build concepts of his ideas.  He was able to pull in Bill Harrison, and later Bill Rusch.

Together, they would eventually produce a ‘brown box’ that would have swappable games, the first being ‘Chase’, and a light gun accessory which was the first of its kind to work on the televisions of the time.  The idea was to have a cheap, simple set of hardware that could be played at home.  Baer would show his brown box to several producers of home electronics, which would continuously reject his proposals.  It was not helped when Nolan Bushnell attempted to bring ‘Spacewars!’ to the public as ‘Computer Space.’  People of the time found this to be too complicated, as the use of physics, and multi-button gameplay, was found disfavorable.

It would finally take Magnavox in 1972 to purchase Baer’s Brown Box, recommissioning it and its light gun peripheral as the Magnavox Odyssey.  So came the first generation of home video gaming.  Magnavox took to promoting and distributing this new product quickly, gaining the endorsement of the likes of Frank Sinatra as spokesman quickly.

Commercials for Magnavox Odyssey

The commercial seems pretty cool, right?  Other than the creepy voice telling us just what the Odyssey is, which I swear was mere seconds from telling us about all the candy he has in his van.  Describing the gameplay of the original Odyssey is, well…

You are given two controllers.  Each one creates a bright white shape on the screen.  You plug in your game cart, and the unit turns on, playing the game plugged in.  I should state, there is no real artificial intelligence in these games, it was simply unheard of for the time.  Instead, you were usually competing with your friends in things like makeshift mazes and board games.  There was one game that did stand out for having actual on-screen interaction.  The game, marked 1, had a ball you could bounce back and forth between the two paddles.  It certainly had its problems though, as there were no constraints on how you moved your paddles, there was no scoring system, and at times the game simply refused to reset properly.

Baer and Harrison playing Game 1

And as stated before, there was the light gun.  It certainly stood as a marvel of the time, and the first home console peripheral that was not a set of knobs and buttons.  The light gun registered to white light, so if you aimed it at the other player’s cursor, it would register a hit.  There were several games with overlays that had the first player shooting the second player’s cursor.  However, this always required the use of a second player.  This, too, stands as introduction of “Kid Brother/Girlfriend” mode, wherein you get someone else to play the part of the game you don’t want to play so they feel included.

As the console itself is over 40 years old by now and in states of rapid decay, it would take a nerd to have a fully functional version of a game console that is, to say the least, bland.  An annoying nerd.  One whose mere voice brings a divide amongst game reviewers around the world, who sadly seems to understand the game better and HAS the games, unlike most reviewers, to give a proper display of the games.  You have been warned.

AVGN, Magnavox Odyssey

If you haven’t been sold, neither were the good people of the 70′s.  The Odyssey did not sell well.  Partially because it was, well, boring.  Ever stronger against it was the sticker price.  Baer had expected his console to sell at $20, a reasonable price at the time.  Magnavox sold the console for $100.  People simply were not biting.  It would take a lot to save the home console.


‘Computer Space’ may have been a flop, but it was far from keeping Nolan Bushnell off his game… so to speak.  ‘Computer Space’ was a hit in at least one way, hobbyists applauded it because it did something no one else had done so far: use transistor-to-transistor logic to have the game play on the video monitor effect the actual course of the game.  This allowed for more complicated gameplay and functional artificial intelligence, which ‘Computer Space’ included in the way of UFOs that attempted to zap the player.  Buschnell would leave Nutting after their inability to market his ideas, founding what would eventually become Atari.

As a programming exercise, Bushnell gave a task to Allan Alcom to create a table tennis game, in the same vein as ‘Tennis for Two’ and the Odyssey’s… game one.  While the game was certainly unoriginal, it took elements from the game and made them better than they ever were before.  The movements of the paddles were smooth, the interaction between the stage layout and the moving elements intuitive, the feedback from the simple bloops and bleeps gave players real-time feedback to their actions, and most important for the time, the controls were simple to digest for a population not used to controls any more complicated than pinball flippers.

Come on, you’ve seen Pong before, right?

In November 1972, Atari began producing ‘Pong.’  While Atari released several other games in the arcade sphere, ‘Pong’ was its runaway hit.  On the Christmas of 1975, Sears would produce the first home console version of Pong, and this turned out to be the hit of the season.  Whereas Pong sold steadily, it gathered attention both wanted and unwanted, unleashing what would be the first home console war, with Magnavox and Atari placed firmly against one another.

Coming up next – The History of the World Part 2 – Magnavox, Atari, and the Great Pong Wars

Travis is a tech nerd that spends far too much of his time drinking beer no one drinks, listening to music no one likes, and playing video games where he rolls larger things over smaller things. He also makes Let’s Play videos and posts on twitter for grins and giggles.

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