Computer games have become an integral part of modern life. The industry generates direct revenues of almost $138 billion, and probably several trillion more across the gaming ecosystem which includes manufacturing, software development, content creation, music, movies, and merchandising and other related industries.
However, computer games are a fairly recent phenomenon, and are more or less tied to the technological development of modern computing. There was a time not too long ago when computer games were nothing more than a pipe dream. However, everything changed on a fateful day in 1952.
The first ever computer game
Sandy Douglas, then a doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge, possibly created the first ever interactive graphic-based computer game in 1952. The game, called OXO, was programmed on the university Mathematical Laboratory's Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator (EDSAC) mainframe computer. The game was designed to simulate the children paper-and-pencil game tic-tac-toe.
OXO was designed by Dr Douglas on this gigantic EDSAC mainframe computer. Copyright Computer Laboratory, University of Cambridge. Reproduced by permission.
For some reason though, Douglas' accomplishment is frequently overlooked. Instead, credit is usually given to two other games designed in 1958 by nuclear physicist Dr William Higginbotham, and in 1962 by Stephen Russell.
Dr. Higginbotham's program, called Tennis for Two, is an electronic tennis game played by two players using separate controllers. The game was displayed at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on 18 October, 1958 using the screen of a small oscilloscope.
Russell, meanwhile, introduced Spacewar! in 1962 with the help of fellow Massachusetts Institute of Technology alumni Martin Graetz and Wayne Wiitanen. The game, programmed on a Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-1 minicomputer, featured two ‘spaceships' engaged in a dogfight inside a star's gravity well. One is tempted to wonder whether Russell's time spent mentoring Microsoft co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen in the summer of 1968 is behind the revisionism attempt.
The first game console
Ralph Baer is considered by many as the inventor of the video game concept. While the earlier games were designed as educational tools, Baer's multi-program video game system called “The Brown Box” was meant for recreational use. The architecture is similar to modern games: controllers were attached to the Brown Box, which in turn, was connected to a television. However, despite two licensing deals, the console never took off.
The first commercial game
The first ever computer game designed exclusively for commercial use was Pong. Developed based on Baer's idea, Pong features a white ball and two white rectangles on a black background mimicking a ping-pong game. Despite its simple gameplay, the unique scoring, level, difficulty, and reward systems made Pong an instant hit. The arcade version of Pong was found in shopping malls, fairs, cinemas, restaurants – they were everywhere. Pong was practically the coolest thing around back then (outside of sports, sex, money and career, that is). People lined up for hours just for a chance to spend a few minutes playing the game.
It would take a few more years before computer games and home consoles become available to the masses, but the fate of video games was already set by then.