Classic Computer Magazine Archive A.N.A.L.O.G. ISSUE 59 / APRIL 1988 / PAGE 71


The history
of video gaming

Part 1:
In the beginning...

by Arnie Katz and Joyce Worley

    As with many other great inventions, from baseball to television, the origination of video games is shrouded in mystery and controversy. Several people made enormous contributions to the development of interactive electronic entertainment, and each could be viewed—with some justice—as the "Father of Video Gaming."
    Some trace the idea back to Steve Russell. While a graduate student at M.I.T. in 1962, he created the first computer game, Spacewar. A circle of talented computer scientists seized upon this simple space combat program as a vehicle for increasing their programming knowledge and expertise. Their successive revisions ultimately produced the ancestor of all those flying and shooting epics in which a single defending craft challenges the rest of the universe.
    One of the minor members of the M.I.T. group was Nolan Bushnell. More a visionary than a researcher, he perceived the potential market for such games and tried to develop a coin-op electronic game machine for arcades.
    After failing with a commercial version of Spacewar called Computer Space, Bushnell tried to interest Bally in a host of different designs, but the Chicago-based company rejected all of them as too complex. Bally execs felt that computerized games should be as immediately understandable as the pinball machines which had always dominated the amusement centers.
    At this point in the story, the third and final claimant to the title made his presence felt. The Magnavox division of North American Philips had hired Sanders Associates to find another way to utilize the 62 million television sets then in American homes.
    Ralph Baer found the answer: games. Working with Bill Harrison and Bill Busch, Baer developed the prototype of a console which presented video games in color with FM sound on a TV set, as early as 1967.
    In 1971, the Magnavox Odyssey, the first home video game unit, burst forth to a surprisingly lukewarm public reception. Three problems turned the Odyssey into a dud:
    (1)  The manufacturer never adequately explained the concept to consumers. Many passed up the Odyssey under the mistaken belief that it only worked with the same company's brand of TV sets.
    (2) The Odyssey received very little promotional and ad support.
    (3) Magnavox was late switching to solid-state technology, which made the hardware look clumsy and work in a not-always-reliable way.
    The Odyssey was unbelievably crude by today's standards. It used interchangeable game programs, an idea many years ahead of its time, but each contest required the player to slap a playfield overlay on the screen. The Odyssey's memory was so small it couldn't draw both the playfield boundaries and the moving objects. Each of the controllers was the size of a clock radio.
    Nolan Bushnell put aside his personal idea of what a video game should be and began to seek a concept simple enough to appeal to coin-op fanciers. He had reportedly seen the laboratory video game experiments conducted by the Sanders Associates, and decided to pin his hopes on a contest in which two players control "paddles" and bat a "ball" back and forth, as in tennis.
    With much advice from sympathetic bystanders, Bushnell assembled a prototype of Pong and got a friendly tavern-keeper in Sunnyvale, California to put it in his establishment. Skeptics had warned that delicate electronics would not stand up to the punishment a coin-op generally suffers, and Bushnell was understandably dismayed when the bar owner called the very next day to report that the Pong machine had malfunctioned.
    Bushnell rushed to the bar and found that there was, indeed, a problem. It was one he could live with. It turned out that play was so heavy that the coin receptacle had overflowed and had temporarily jammed the machine.
    What did Nolan Bushnell do after he counted the money?
    Did Magnavox turn the Odyssey into landfill?
    Learn the answers to these and other questions in "The history of video games, Part 2," which will describe the dizzying rollercoaster that was the First Golden Age of Video Gaming.
Video gamers timeline:
The early years
    1962 — Steve Russell designed Spacewar, the first computer video game.
    1966 — Ralph Baer begins development of the first unit for playing games through a TV set.
    1968 — Two commercial versions of Spacewar, Computer Space and Galaxy Game fail to make a dent in the coin-op arcade market.
    1972 — Magnavox introduces Ralph Baer's first video game, the Odyssey.
    1972 — Nolan Bushnell tests the first coin-op, Pong.