Reading 01: The History of... Early Video Games

Nobody woke up one day and decided to create the video game industry. Instead, the industry gradually emerged as a result of side projects, imagination, and quite a few computer engineers passionate about their craft. The earliest video games were typically created for one of two reasons: demonstrating a computer’s capabilities or for the fun of the development. When Tennis for Two was developed by William Higinbotham, he was merely creating an interactive display for Brookhaven National Lab’s visitor day. There was no goal of mass producing or selling the game. In fact, the amount of machinery required was one the reasons Tennis for Two was a one-off game. It was infeasible for a household to purchase a computer or gaming computer that would cost several thousand dollars and take up three rooms of the house.

Unlike Tennis for Two, the game Spacewar! Was created more for the pure fun of the game by Steve Russell and MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club. The game was a collaborative effort, utilizing a DEC PDP-1 computer with a dedicated display screen. Playing Spacewar! in class was surprisingly fun, considering the fame is older than my parents. Even in 1962, the technology was advanced enough to allow for game physics with gravity, random hyperspace movement, and strategic gameplay. I was expecting more games to be similar to the ones for the Magnavox Odyssey, which essentially manipulated a cube of light around a screen with graphics so primitive they literally were taped to the screen. But clearly, there is still a demand for these early video games, as evidenced by the emulators available online.

The major transition for video games from existing in giant lab computers with limited accessibility to common household entertainment took place in bars and arcades. The 70s and early 80s saw the evolution of games like Pong. The game’s hardware was small enough to fit in a cabinet. With the addition of a coin collector, the cabinet could be deployed in bars and transform the early era of gaming. Over the course of a few years, more than 8,000 Pong cabinets were deployed. A few more years later, that number reached 100,000. As Atari’s chief engineer described the game, “You could literally pick up a girl, drink a beer, and play [Pong] at the same time. It was wonderful.” This social aspect of Pong provides for an interesting contrast with modern video games. There was no single player mode. There was no internet connection. If you wanted to play a video game, you had to go out, meet people, and interact in person. This creates a very different setting than what most games are like today.

Over the course of the new few years, the budding video game industry boomed. Briefly. Games made their way into consumer’s homes, attached to the television. The Magnavox Odyssey, the Atari 2600, the ColecoVision and more were sold in a frenzy that eventually resulted in market oversaturation. By 1983, there were too many gaming consoles and low quality games. In addition to the huge supply, the video game industry saw demand decrease as people turned their attention towards the newest tech - personal computers. Thirty-five years later, these two technologies have become intertwined and the video game industry is booming.