From Turin to Atari. The Origin of Video Games

What supposedly began as a curious experiment, video games have come a long way. Over the past half-century, we have seen the rise of all sorts of games. Ranging from detailed storylines, intense on-screen action, to multiplayer chaos, the graphics of our games today are on par with the CGI films from a decade ago. Moreover, the gaming industry brought in twenty-three billion dollars of revenue last year. But what are the origins of what we now call video games? To find the answers, we first need to travel back in time.

How it all began


When people think of the origin of video games, their minds tend to wander to the classic arcade game PONG. But the game and the corresponding arcade era was the end stage of pioneering video games, not the beginning. To find the first piece of video game code ever written, we have to start three years after World War Two.


Game of Chess, anyone?


In 1948, David Champernowne and Alan Turing, who is now widely considered to be the father of AI, wrote a theoretical chess simulation called Turochamp. This was the first game code ever written. Unfortunately, the code was far too complicated to run on the machines of their time.


Jump forward to the 1950s, and we see the first 'real' video games.  Of course, the computers back then were more or less just oversized calculators that took up an entire room. Pioneers of computer code wrangled with quite a unique problem; if you wanted to demonstrate a computer's usefulness to someone who didn't even know what a computer was, how would you do it in an attractive and engaging way? The answer was with tech demos.


Meet Bertie the Brain


Created in 1950 by Toronto-based Dr Josef Kates, Bertie the Brain was one of the first of such demo games. It was basically tic-tac-toe with light bulbs as a display. Then, two years later, Alexander Douglas, British Professor of Computer Sciences at Cambridge University, took Kates' idea and pushed it a step further. Douglas used a video display instead of light bulbs.


Although this was a step forward, both games featured few interactive moving graphics, so some historians do not view them as the first two video games at all. Instead, most experts now agree that the first real video game and the first-ever simply for entertainment purposes was Tennis for Two in 1958.


Anyone for tennis?


Created by a man who had also worked on the US Nuclear Bomb team, Tennis for Two featured moving graphics on an oscilloscope. American physicist William Higinbotham designed the game to be shown at a public exhibition, and according to his own admission, Higinbotham discovered how to make the game while reading the instruction manual for a Donner Model 30 computer, an analogue computer used by the US government at that time.


Higinbotham learned that while the computer could calculate basic missile trajectories, it could also compute the path of a bouncing ball, including wind resistance. He decided to use these abilities to form the foundation of his game. Tennis for Two was actually the very first interactive computer game and it became a smash hit during the three-day exhibition at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, where Higinbotham was head. High school students were especially enthralled.


Although this was an iconic moment in videogame history, it was yet to break out as a media. As the years passed there was still no such thing as a video game industry. Almost all games had been developed on a single machine for a specific purpose. A software game that could run on multiple machines had still yet to be realised. All that changed in 1961 when MIT acquired the DEC PDP 1 computer, which used a vector display system.


While it had no CPU, the transistors still managed to reach five megahertz processing speed. This is about 500 times slower than the clock speed in a modern smartphone but was very powerful for 1961. Because of the computer's small size and speed, students and employees of MIT loved writing non-academic programs whenever it wasn't being used.


The start of the Space War


In 1962, three MIT employees, Martin Grades, Steve Russell, and Wayne Whittington created the game Space War on the PDP 1. The two-player game involved a dog fight between two spaceships set against the backdrop of a starfield. Interestingly, one of the aims of the game's design was to use up all of the computer's resources and utilise every part of the machine. So, in essence, the creators were striving towards the maximum performance of 1961 technology.


Space War was copied to other mini-computers in other American universities, making it the first video game that could be played outside a single research institute. Despite this, the game wasn't widespread as the PDP 1 cost $120,000 or almost a million dollars in today's currency.


Enter Atari


Following the spread of Space War, further computer games were developed by programmers at other universities. The 1970s saw an uptake in the number of video games being created, but there were

still no commercial games, yet alone a smash hit title to start a gaming revolution. That is, until 1972.


Inspired by the MIT game, businessmen and electrical engineers Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney decided to create a coin-operated version of the game. This version was called Computer Space, and it

was both the first arcade video game, as well as the first commercially available video game.


Computer Space was a moderate success and relatively profitable, but the pair thought that they could do better. They started work on another game and decided to found their own company called Atari Incorporated.


Ataris first employee, Allan Alcorn, was given the project of making a simple ping pong game as training. Bushnell saw the progress and thought that Alcorn's game was pretty fun already. So much so that

Atari should just release it as it was.


What started out as a training project for a new employee, quickly became the first-ever video game smash hit, and will go down forever in history. PONG was unleashed in 1972 and it was immensely successful selling in over eight thousand cabinet arcades across America.


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