The Early History of Video Games (1948–1972)
Defining the video game
The term video game has evolved over the decades from a purely technical definition to a general concept defining a new class of interactive entertainment. Technically, for a product to be a video game, there must be a video signal transmitted to a cathode ray tube (CRT) that creates a rasterized image on a screen.This definition precluded early computer games that outputted results to a printer or teletype rather than a display, any game rendered on a vector-scan monitor, any game played on a modern high definition display, and most handheld game systems.
From a technical standpoint, these were more properly called “electronic games” or “computer games.”
Today, however, the term “video game” has completely shed its purely technical definition and encompasses a wider range of technology. While still rather ill-defined, the term “video game” now generally encompasses any game played on hardware built with electronic logic circuits that incorporates an element of interactivity and outputs the results of the player’s actions to a display. Going by this broader definition, the first video games appeared in the early 1950s and were tied largely to research projects at universities and large corporations.
Origins of electronic computer games
The first electronic digital computers, Colossus and ENIAC, were built during World War II to aid the Allied war effort against the Axis powers. Shortly after the war, the promulgation of the first stored program architectures at the University of Manchester (Manchester Mark 1), Cambridge University (EDSAC), the University of Pennsylvania (EDVAC), and Princeton University (IAS machine) allowed computers to be easily reprogrammed to undertake a variety of tasks, which facilitated commercializing computers in the early 1950s by companies like Remington Rand, Ferranti, and IBM. This in turn promoted the adoption of computers by universities, government organizations, and large corporations as the decade progressed. It was in this environment that the first video games were born.
The computer games of the 1950s can generally be divided into three categories: training and instructional programs, research programs in fields such as artificial intelligence, and demonstration programs intended to impress or entertain the public. Because these games were largely developed on unique hardware in a time when porting between systems was difficult and were often dismantled or discarded after serving their limited purposes, they did not generally influence further developments in the industry. For the same reason, it is impossible to be certain who developed the first computer game or who originally modeled many of the games or play mechanics introduced during the decade, as there are likely several games from this period that were never publicized and are thus unknown today.
The earliest known chess computer program was developed by Alan Turing and David Champernowne called Turochamp, which was completed in 1950 but not actually implemented by them on a computer. The earliest known idea for a fully electronic game is a “Cathode-Ray Tube Amusement Device” in US patent #2,455,992.
The earliest known[by whom?] electronic computer games actually implemented were two custom built machines called Bertie the Brain and Nimrod, which played tic-tac-toe and the game of Nim, respectively. Bertie the Brain, designed and built by Josef Kates at Rogers Majestic, was displayed at the Canadian National Exhibition in 1950, while Nimrod, conceived by John Bennett at Ferranti and built by Raymond Stuart-Williams, was displayed at the Festival of Britain and the Berlin Industrial Show in 1951. Neither game incorporated a cathode ray tube (CRT) display. Before these, automated games like the simple chess simulator El Ajedrecista (1914) and Nimrod’s predecessor Nimatron (1940) had been created as electro-mechanical devices.
Both of these programs used a relatively static display to track the current state of the game board. The first known game incorporating graphics that updated in real time was a billiards game programmed by William Brown and Ted Lewis specifically for a demonstration of the MIDSAC computer at the University of Michigan in 1954.
Perhaps the first game created solely for entertainment rather than to demonstrate the power of some technology, train personnel, or aid in research was Tennis for Two, designed by William Higinbotham and built by Robert Dvorak at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in 1958. Designed to entertain the general public at Brookhaven’s annual series of open houses, the game was deployed on an analog computer with graphics displayed on an oscilloscope and was dismantled in 1959. Higinbotham never considered adapting the successful game into a commercial product, which would have been impractical with the technology of the time. Ultimately, the widespread adoption of computers to play games would have to wait for the machines to spread from serious academics to their students on U.S. college campuses.
The mainframe computers of the 1950s were generally batch processing machines of limited speed and memory. This made them generally unsuited for games. Furthermore, they were costly and relatively scarce commodities, so computer time was a precious resource that could not be wasted on frivolous pursuits like entertainment. At the Lincoln Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), however, a team led by Jay Forrester developed a computer called Whirlwind in the early 1950s that processed commands in real time and incorporated a faster and more reliable form of random access memory (RAM) based around magnetic cores. Based on this work, two employees at the lab named Ken Olsen and Wes Clark developed a prototype real time computer called the TX-0 that incorporated the recently invented transistor, which ultimately allowed the size and cost of computers to be significantly reduced. Olsen subsequently established the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) with Harlan Anderson in 1957 and developed a commercial update of the TX-0 called the PDP-1.
Lincoln Laboratory donated the TX-0 to MIT in 1958. As the computer operated in real time and thus allowed for interactive programming, MIT allowed students to program the computer to conduct their own research, perhaps the first time that university students were allowed to directly access a computer for their own work. Further, the university decided to allow students to set the computer to tasks outside the bounds of classwork or faculty research during periods of time no one was signed up to do official work. This resulted in a community of undergraduate students led by Bob Saunders, Peter Samson, and Alan Kotok, many of them affiliated with the Tech Model Railroad Club, conducting their own experiments on the computer. In 1961, MIT received one of the first PDP-1 computers, which incorporated a relatively sophisticated point-plotting monitor. MIT provided a similar level of access to the computer for students as it did for the TX-0, resulting in the creation of the first (relatively) widespread, and thus influential, computer game, Spacewar!
Conceived by Steve Russell, Martin Graetz, and Wayne Wiitanen in 1961 and programmed primarily by Russell, Saunders, Graetz, Samson, and Dan Edwards in the first half of 1962, Spacewar! was inspired by the science fiction stories of E. E. Smith and depicted a duel between two spaceships, each controlled by a player using a custom built control box. Immensely popular among students at MIT, Spacewar! spread to the West Coast later in the year when Russell took a job at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL), where it enjoyed similar success. The program subsequently migrated to other locations around the country through the efforts of both former MIT students and DEC itself, more so after cathode ray tube (CRT) terminals started becoming more common at the end of the 1960s.
As computing resources continued to expand over the remainder of the decade through the adoption of time sharing and the development of simpler high-level programming languages like BASIC, an increasing number of college students began programming and sharing simple sports, puzzle, card, logic, and board games as the decade progressed. These creations remained trapped in computer labs for the remainder of the decade, however, because even though some adherents of Spacewar! had begun to sense the commercial possibilities of computer games, they could only run on hardware costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. As computers and their components continued to fall in price, however, the dream of a commercial video game finally became attainable at the start of the 1970s.
The commercialization of video games
By 1970, the introduction of medium scale integration (MSI) transistor–transistor logic (TTL) circuits combining multiple transistors on a single microchip had resulted in another significant reduction in the cost of computing and ushered in a new wave of minicomputers costing under $10,000. While still far too costly for the home, these advances lowered the cost of computing enough that it could be seriously considered for the coin-operated games industry, which at the time was experiencing its own technological renaissance as large electro-mechanical target shooting and driving games like Sega Enterprises‘s Periscope (1967) and Chicago Coin‘s Speedway (1969) pioneered the adoption of elaborate visual displays and electronic sound effects in the amusement arcade. Consequently, when a recent engineering graduate from Utah with experience running coin-operated equipment named Nolan Bushnell first saw Spacewar! at SAIL in late 1969 or early 1970, he resolved to build a coin-operated version for public consumption. Enlisting the aid of an older and more experienced engineer named Ted Dabney, Bushnell built a variant of the game called Computer Space in which a single player-controlled spaceship dueled two hardware-controlled flying saucers. Released in late November or early December 1971 through Nutting Associates, the game failed to have much impact in the coin-operated marketplace.
Meanwhile, Ralph Baer, an engineer with a degree in television engineering working for defense contractor Sanders Associates, had been working since 1966 on a video game system that could be plugged into a standard television set. Working primarily with technician Bill Harrison, who built most of the actual hardware, Baer developed a series of prototype systems between 1966 and 1969 based around diode–transistor logic (DTL) circuits that sent a video signal to a television set to generate spots on the screen that could be controlled by the players. Originally able to generate only two spots, the system was modified in November 1967 at the suggestion of engineer Bill Rusch to generate a third spot for use in a table tennis game in which each player controlled a single spot that served as a paddle and volleyed the third spot, which acted as a ball. In 1971, Sanders concluded a licensing agreement with television company Magnavox to release the system, which reached the market in September 1972 as the Magnavox Odyssey. The system launched with a dozen games included in the box, four more sold with a separate light gun, and six games sold separately, most of which were chase, racing, target shooting, or sports games. These games were activated using plug-in circuit cards that defined how the spots generated by the hardware would behave. Due to the limited abilities of the system, which could only render three spots and a line, most of the graphic and gameplay elements were actually defined by plastic overlays attached to the TV set along with accessories like boards, cards, and dice. Like Computer Space the Odyssey only performed modestly and failed to jump start a new industry. However, the system did directly influence the birth of a vibrant video arcade game industry after Ralph Baer’s design ingenuity intersected Nolan Bushnell’s entrepreneurial ambition.
Edited by Pat Moauro