1958. Twenty-five years ago. A landmark year for video and computer games.
"Are you kidding?" you say. "Ahl, you're off your rocker. Nolan Bushnell didn't invent Pong until 1973. Now that was a landmark year."
True enough, but bear with me. In 1953 a team of scientists at Bell Labs devised a brand new solid state electronics device, the transistor. Development of this revolutionary device proceeded apace until 1958 when -- voila! --a deposited film transistor was made. Why voila?
Because now not only could a transistor be deposited on a hunk of silicon but, on the same piece of silicon, diodes, resistors, and even other transistors could be deposited as well. Thus was born the integrated circuit.
The integrated circuit (IC) is one fantastic device. Every year since its invention, the packing density of components on that same tiny piece of silicon has doubled. Today, a hunk of silicon about 1/4" square, holds tens of thousands of transistors and other components.
In 1974 a small company by the name of Intel put an entire computer -- a small one -- on a single integrated circuit. Today, integrated circuits are the basis of virtually every computer (of any size), TV set, hifi system, video game, and electronic hand-held game as well as scores of other products. Affordable games would not exist were it not for the IC.
Another much less heralded event took place, in 1958. Brookhaven National Laboratories, a major atomic energy research facility on Long Island, was a favored site for tours. Students with Science Congress projects, Boy Scouts, and all kinds of dignitaries visited the Labs. It was very impressive in an abstract sort of way.
William Higinbotham, a scientist at the Labs, decided to remove some of the abstraction. So he devised a tennis game using a computer and a circular CRT display. A blip--the ball--bounced over a net. The angle of the ball was set with a knob while pressing a button sent it back over the net. By today's standards, it wasn't much of a game. But hundreds of students saw it and went away with the idea that in addition to doing thousands of statistical calculations in a remarkably short time, computers could also be fun.
Soon, games began cropping up at university computer centers. An underground cult began playing tennis, Spacewar, and other games on large computers in the off-hours.
The word spread--computers can be fun. Professors at Dartmouth, the first large-scale (read, widely available) university timesharing system, were frustrated trying to rid the system of student games. So they responded by writing games with an educational content. Potshot, a game by Art Luehrmann, a physics professor, taught the principles of projectile motion, and boy was it fun!
More games followed at colleges and schools everywhere. In 1971, while education product line manager at Digital Equipment Corp. , I put out a call for games to educational institutions throughout North America. I was overwhelmed with the response. I selected the best games and put them together in a book, 101 Basic Computer Games. After putting the book together on my own time, I convinced reluctant managers at DEC to publish it. They were convinced it wouldn't sell. It, plus it's sequel, More Basic Computer Games have sold over half a million copies proving that people are intrigued by computer games. These two books, now published by Creative Computing Press, remain best sellers to this day.
In the preface to the third edition of Basic Computer Games (1978) I remarked that I believed that the surface of computer games had just been scratched. The personal computer (microcomputer) was then only two years old. I speculated that the most intriguing and interesting games would not be simulations of board games or sports or card games. Rather, they would be games that used the unique capabilities of the computer. I hammered away at this theme in presentations and radio and TV interviews. Most people listened politely, but were skeptical (after all, Chess is the ultimate game) or could not visualize what I had in mind ("what do you mean, 'using logic and timing to defeat animated patterns of alien creatures?' ").
Oh, that I could have shown them Galaxian, Pac-Man, Bezerk or Defender. But they weren't here a few years ago. At least not physically. However, they were in the back of someone's mind. And probably had been for 25 years and maybe much longer. We just had to wait for technology to catch up with man's incredible brain.
A few years ago, the host on a well-respected network radio show asked me where we will be--computer-wise, technology-wise, game-wise--in. 100 years. "Good grief," said I, "'one hundred years ago smart people were saying that airships would be used to replace oxcarts for hauling dung. Forecasting is a dangerous and uncertain business. One hundred years is impossible to forecast. Twenty-five isn't much easier."
But maybe we can go out on a limb looking ten years ahead. Programs will use the principles of artificial intelligence. They will converse with you in English and will seem nearly sentient. The action and challenge of a game will automatically adjust to individual player capability. Realistic action (movie quality) will be incorporated into games via video discs, computer animation or a combination of both. Multi-player games with opponents around the world will be commonplace. There will be games to appeal to a wide variety of tastes.
In the future, as in the past, games will be fun, challenging and mind expanding.
David H. Ahl