A Brief Overview of Early Video Game History

The history of video games goes back further than you may think. How much do you know about the first video games? Here is a brief overview of early video game history.

In 1948, Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr., and Estle R. Mann patented the “Cathode-Ray Tube Amusement Device,” making this the earliest documented interactive electronic game. The device simulated an artillery shell arcing towards targets on a CRT screen, which was controlled by the player by adjusting knobs to change the trajectory of a CRT beam spot on the display in order to reach plastic targets overlaid on the screen. Despite its relevance to the early history of video games, it had no effect on the future video game industry and is not generally considered a candidate for the title of first video game.

During the 1950s, various computer games were created in the context of academic programming research and for demonstrations of computing power. Spacewar! is a space combat video game developed in 1962 by Steve Russell in collaboration with Martin Graetz, Wayne Wiitanen, Bob Saunders, Steve Piner, and others. It was written for the newly installed Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-1 minicomputers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, making it the first video game to be played on multiple computer installations.

The first multiplayer game ever made is Tennis for Two. Designed by American physicist William Higinbotham in 1958, Tennis for Two was a sports video game that simulates a game of tennis. It was displayed twice at the Brookhaven National Laboratory’s annual open house. Tennis for Two was played on an oscilloscope with two aluminum controllers. The visuals showed a side view of a tennis court. Players could adjust the angle of their shots with their controllers and try to hit the ball over the net by pressing a button. This game was not marketed to the public beyond the laboratory’s visitor day, so it was largely forgotten until the 1970s when Higinbotham testified in court during a lawsuit over video game patents.

Though there was no direct kinship between them, Tennis for Two was a predecessor of Pong, one of the most widely recognized video games as well as one of the first. Atari released the arcade game Pong in 1972 and this electronic table tennis game became an instant hit in bars, restaurants, laundromats, and other places around the United States (and eventually internationally) where people played coin-operated games like pinball or electro-mechanical driving games. Pong brought video games to the public consciousness in a widespread way for the first time, which is why many people think of it as the first video game.

And yet Pong itself was preceded by another product—the Magnavox Odyssey—that can stake a claim as displaying the first Ping Pong video game. Certainly it was the first home video game system—that fact is beyond dispute—though it was based on analog, not digital circuitry. Magnavox released the Odyssey in 1972 (shortly before the release of the arcade version of Pong) after six years of work by Ralph Baer, its creator. Baer had first conceived the idea of using a television to play a game in 1966 and he soon developed a series of prototypes to control spots on a screen. His invention transformed the television set into a gaming device.

By most accounts, the first official video game competition on record took place at Stanford University on October 19, 1972. The gaming tournament was held at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory using a variant of Spacewar! on a combined PDP-6/PDP-10 that supported five players.

Video games have come a long way over the past 70 years, from dots on a screen to immersive virtual worlds. What began as a playful demonstration of technology’s functionality developed into one of the most influential forms of leisure activity.

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