The concept of playing games is not new or unusual. Games span back beyond recorded ancient history, and even the idea of computer games is not remotely new, their creation inhibited only by technology and its slow advances. Despite attempts to create computer powered game for many years, it was not until 1951 that the vision actually came true. Before this, in the late 1940’s, Alan Turing (after who the Turing Award was named) and David Champernowne actually wrote a program sequence for playing chess but at the time there was no computer powerful enough to run it. From here onwards however, computing technology developed swiftly and beyond recognition, and the computer game was born. Slowly computers became more and more consumer orientated.
The search for the history of computer games in this period was a tough one. It’s very much down to personal opinion what counts as the ‘first’ computer game. To some it is determined by the creation of the exclusive game-playing system like the 1972 Odyssey, others believe it goes as far back as 1947 with the Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device which originally had many uses such as military radars and television. In the past I have researched computer history myself in terms of the ‘generations’ of computer game consoles, and that actually only spans as far back at 1972. Looking at the actual conception of video games from the 1950’s is very new to me.
The Cathode Ray Tube amusement device had a game that involved shooting a target, and was controlled using knobs and a button. At such an early stage, graphics couldn’t be designed and so a clear plastic overlay was used to show a visual image of the target being aimed for. One could say this was the conception of the arcade device. Having mentioned playing chess already, which bores the crap out of me, I’m going to jump on to the 1951 NIMROD– the first specifically designed game-playing device;
Dem graphics. Nim was a mathematical strategy game that had been in existence since ancient times in pocket-size physical form, but for some reason it made sense to program it on a one ton, room-sized machine. At a similar time, Ralph Baer came up with the concept of games being played on a television set.
In 1952, games of noughts and crosses and checkers were developed by different individuals for different computer systems in which you play against the computer. The checkers game was described as running at a ‘reasonable speed’. Doesn’t sound very fast to me.
Until 1958 there were no further major developments in gaming technology, although computing technology continued to improve radically. At this time the game Tennis for Two emerged, using an oscilloscope as a display, meaning it was the first game that went beyond simply using a panel of lights as a display- the ‘ball’ actually moved on the screen and was affected by gravity;
The game was controlled using handheld boxes with a knob and button, acting as the first handheld controllers. The entire console for this single game was a little larger than your average modern PC tower x2.
In ’59 a more advanced version of noughts and crosses was launched, alongside a game called Mouse in a Maze, where the player would create maze walls and place cheese for the mouse to find using a light pen.
The Sixties were a massive hit to the games industry with the launch of Spacewar! in 1962, which really sparked interest in the potential of video games. Spacewar! was programmed on the DEC PDP-1 and had a randomly generated background star graphic. Two players had to control missile-firing ships and destroy eachother, all the while avoiding a hazardous star at the centre of the screen. Spacewar! marks the beginning of development of the consumer-friendly gaming industry that is so popular today.
Ralph Baer, whose previous idea of playing games on a TV had fallen through, resurfaced in 1966 with vigour. He intended on creating the world’s first home video console, known as the ‘Brown Box’. He created a video games idea book with game ideas he thought feasible and started work on the console itself alongside Bill Harrison. The game Corndog was the first game ever to display on a standard TV set. The Brown Box went on in 1971 to be licensed to Magnavox, renamed as the famous first gen 1972 Magnavox Odyssey, where my first computer games research began. I finally know what I’m talking about again. Game on.