LECTURE on LOW BIT GAMES

William Linn, May 4th 98, Linz Harbour

(excerpt - draft version)

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history of video games, introduction
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I'd like to begin to talk about the history of video games and survey some people who were the pioneers of the industry and then make some commentary about what we have found in our research that may be interesting to any of you. After that, I think we can open things up for discussion and get back to gaming.

I am continually amused and yet bewildered at how many people are disillusioned about the origins of the video gaming phenomenon. The majority of people believe PONG to be the FIRST video game and credit Nolan Bushnell as the FATHER of the video game and date the origins of video games to the 1970's. While PONG may have been the first widely POPULAR video arcade game and Nolan Bushnell may be a visionary entrepreneur, PONG was NOT the first video game and Bushnell (who co-founded Atari) was not the inventor and the year was NOT 1972. Depending on who's opinion you trust, there are at least four people who are exhalted as the inventor of the video game. So what I have to say may contradict something you've read. But I am at least certain of the dates. My definition of the "video game" is something that represents screen-based competition.

This all began nearly 15 years prior to Pong in a Long Island, New York laboratory by a man named Willy Higenbotham. The year was 1958 and the place was the Brookhaven National Laboratory, a government supported nuclear research facility. Although this lab has always focused on the more peaceful uses of atomic energy, in the Cold War the areas residents were concerned that they would one day be blown out of their potato fields by a massive atomic explosion. To assure the community that there was no danger to them or their crops, the laboratory would have an annual Visitors day and host frequent tours of the facility. There was an exhibit area set up for visitors to peruse.

In 1958, Higinbotham was very keen on spicing up the exhibit and so after learning through his research on radar missle tracking that a small analogue computer with a few capacitors and potentiometers could display a bouncing ball on an oscilloscope, Higinbotham employed the help of David Potter to create a simple game which visitor's could play called "Tennis for Two." The oscilloscope displayed a side view of a tennis match in stunning black and white. There was in fact a physical net which was part of the game and the court which were displayed in rapid succession along with the position of the ball. Using two controller boxes, the visitors could hit the ball over the net by turning a knob to adjust the angle of the paddle and pushing a button to strike the ball. The ball moved in a dotted line and behaved in almost as if it were real. A simple transistor simulated wind drag and if the ball hit the net, it even bounced back. Visitors to the lab waited in line for more than two hours for a chance to play this the first video game. And so despite the ability of Higinbotham to understand the game's allure, he modified it the following year adding a 17" television, a knob to adjust the force of the ball and different gravity settings which could simulate what it was like to play tennis on another planet or the moon. So there you have it, this is the first video game, this was the first arcade of sorts and the very first players of video games were not some kind of special sort, they were potato farmers and Higentbotham's creation was made in order to help people feel more comfortable about the laboratory in which he worked. The "Table for Two" game seemed at the time like pure magic.
Reports indicate that this game took Higinbotham and Potter only two hours to conceive of how to build the game and nearly two weeks to build it. The funny thing is that this game was actually more sophisticated than the original PONG, since it offered a gravitational simulation of the ball's path, and an actual knob to adjust how hard the ball was hit. After the second year of exhibition, "Table for Two" was removed from the visitor exhibition room and the first video game vanished without a trace and his invention had been forgotten for nearly 25 years. It was not until a debate sprang up about who invented the video game that a magazine editor had recalled taking a field trip in 1958 to the Brookhaven National Laboratory. Ever since this story which was published in a 1982 computer magazine, Higinbotham has been considered the "father of the video game". And although he held 20 patents at the time of his death in 1995, he never bothered to patent his game invention since it was in his words "so obvious" If indeed Higinbotham would have applied for a patent, the U.S. government would have owned it and anyone making a new game would need a federal license to sell it. To think what this could have done for technology?! Shortly before his death, when asked what was his favorite video amusement, Higenbotham said "I play very seldom. Pinball is more my game."

Along about 4 years later in 1961 an MIT student named Steve Russell was thinking about something more very similar. Although Russell himself claims the previous existance of at least two interactive computer programs which used switches to change an onscreen display, they were according to Russell not designed as games. Steve Russell was a member of an on-campus club called the TMRC the Tech Model Railroad Club which appealed to those who liked to build systems and see how things worked. However, this was not the typical college club. These types of kids were very nerdy, carried slide rulers and arguably did more to start the computer revolution than any Silicon Valley engineering team. This club had their own humourous language to describe their campus life including the word "hack" which meant a practical joke or impressive feat. Steve Russell was essentially a hacker.

In 1960, MIT had primarily two main machines the IBM 709 which TMRC members called the "hulking giant" and whose vaccuum tubes filled entire rooms at the college the other was the TX-0 one of the first computers to use transistors. The TX-0 was much smaller than the IBM 709, however it still required 15 tons of air conditioning equipment for cooling.

For the gaming world, the biggest change to occur was the way computers displayed information. MIT's two computers communicated by printing out punch cards or ticker tapes and throughout the 60's there were really only 2 other universities other than MIT which had monitor interfaces. This was signficant, for if it were not for the monitors, Steve Russell and the Tech Model Railroad Club could just as soon spend their time on some other strange project, much less a game that could be displayed on the monitor.

But fortunately in 1961, Digital Equipment donated a new computer to MIT called the PDP-1 (the programmed data processor -1). This machine was much smaller (about the size of a large automobile) and sold for a modest $120,000. The TMRC quickly adopted this machine as their computer of choice.

Russell was a big fan of B-grade sci-fi pulp and was inspired to make his first hack in outerspace. Upon telling the other members of the group his plans, there was an enormous amount of excitement. The only problem was that in addition to being brilliant, Russell's nickname was "Slug" - kind of like a slacker by todays standards. In other words he was difficult to motivate. And so one TMRC member went directly to Digital Equipment to ask for a sine-cosine routine that would enable Russell to get started. It took him nearly 6-months to create a program to run two space ships which players controlled with switches. The game was a crude version of a duel in outerspace with one spaceship shaped like a wedge and the other a needle, they battled around a center dot which represented the sun.
The game was called Space War and except for the timing, was essentially Asteroids. You could rotate clockwise and counter clockwise, fire your rocket which gave you thrust and fire your torpedoes. Interestingly, there was even a hyperspace button exactly like Asteroids which Russell later removed from the final version. Many of the other TMRC members revised Spacewar so that by the time of its completion, the game included an accurate simulation of the stars in the background and an accurate gravitational field around the sun. The more adept players learned how to accelerate into the sun's gravitational field and use this acceleration to loop around and attack the opponent. For even more realism, Russell made the path of the torpedoes less predictable but again later abandoned the approach after seeing players' reactions. Here we have the first beta-testing lab.

When the game was finished, it caused a sensation all across the campus. Russell admits having dismissed the idea of making money on it however concluding after three days that it was simply too expensive. Meanwhile, Digital Equipment began using the program as a start up test program for the PDP computers. So in effect, the PDP buyers got the game for free. I guess this would be the first shareware game sensation.

Steve Russell never graduated from college. He never made any attempt to profit from it. He was a hacker and created the game for the challenge it represented. An interesting side note is that Russell, who years later wound up in Seattle working for a timeshare computer company, would bring in kids after school and have them pound on keyboards to see if they could make the computers crash. Russell explained that there was only one kid who could crash the computers no matter what they did. The kid's name was Bill Gates.

There was still another person before Nolan Bushnell by the name of
Ralph Baer. Baer worked for a military defense contractor called Sanders Associates in New Hampshire. He was born in Germany eleven years before Hitler took power in 1933 and was mostly self-educated. Because he was Jewish, he was kicked out of school at age 14 and two years later moved with his family to the states, where he studied radio and television servicing. After having spent more than 10 years with Sanders Associates working on military projects, Baer began working on transistor technology and early microprocessing. And in1966 he had a new idea for televisions. He wanted to do something different with the TV set and set upon himself to explore the concept of games. So Baer decided to create a console that would enable people to play electronic games on their home TV sets.

And since he was responsible for managing a 500-person division; with an 8 million dollar payroll, it was possible to put a couple of people on the project without anyone higher up even knowing about it. So Baer went on to oversee the development of a crude system which was essentially became the first home video console. He hired a man named Bill Harrison who was well-versed in transistor ciruit engineering and later added Bill Rusch who added a much needed perspective on fun and games. After stumbling through a few concepts including a lever which players pumped furiously to change the color of a box on the TV from red to blue, the idea was that you were putting out a fire on the house. The next was a game where two players chased each other in a maze.

And in June 1967, Rusch suggested a new game in which a hardwired circuit projected a spot flying across the TV screen which could be "caught" by two players paddles. And when the modification was made for the paddles to reject the spot, the game changed from a game of catch to a game of tennis. This game was essentially had three distinct controls, vertical for moving the paddles horizontally; horizontal control for moving the paddles from left to right -so you could move up close to the net for example and finally the "English control" which allowed the player to put a spin on the ball. Eventually in 1971, since his employer was struggling financially, Baer was forced to find another buyer for his invention and sold his machine to Magnavox who accepted his games but ignored his vision and packaged the unit with everything from playing cards to dice and even a toy rifle. Transparency overlays. The price was set at $100 and in early 1972, Magnavox began exhibiting the console at trade shows. One in particular caught was in Burlingame California and it was here that a young engineer named Nolan Bushnell saw the Odyssey system and ONE of those games caught his eye.

As a student at the University of Utah in 1962, Bushnell became addicted to Steve Russel's Spacewar game and liked it so much that in 1970 he converted is daughter's bedroom into a workshop which he could create an arcade version of the game. He experimented with using computers but ended up deciding to make the game with cruder graphics using more primitive technology. Bushnell sold the idea in 1971 to Bill Nutting, of Nutting Associates where Bushnell was hired to oversee the creation of the game. Since microchips were so very expensive, the game was designed using only 40 transistors and 40 diodes. This allowed for a much more crude graphical representation. The game was released as a stand-up arcade game in 1971, but it was a complete failure.

Whatever happened to Atari?
The former home game division of Atari which later merged with a disk drive maker in 1996. Atari Games, the other half of the original company is alive and well and part of the Williams family. Atari games recently released the successful San Francisco Rush and Area 51

So to kind of sum up the order of things:

The first computer game was created in 1958 by a nuclear physicist.

The second computer game was Space War created by Steve Wallace in 1961 while a student at MIT.

The third video game was the Magnavox Odyssey in released in 1972 although designed by Ralph Baer from 1966-67. Baer was granted the first patent for a video gaming device.

The third video game was Computer Space in 1971 designed by Nolan Bushnell and released by Nutting Associates.

The fourth video game was PONG, released in the winter of 1972 by Atari, Nolan Bushnell's new company. It was designed by Al Acorn, Bob Brown and Harold Lee. In the first video game lawsuit, Nolan Bushnell admitted to witnessing Magnavox's Odyssey in 1972 and so historians soon realized that Atari's PONG was no more than strategic copyright infringements against Magnavox.

other video game firsts:
Tank, 1974 by Atari was the first video game to use ROM chips to store graphic data. ROM chips allowed the games on-screen characters more realistic detail rather than simple blocks like Pong or collections of dots as in Computer Space.

Gunfight, 1975 was the first video game to utilize a microprocessor. It was a two-player cowboy game with two rifles pointing at a screen. designed by the Japanese and was in fact the first Japanese title to be licensed for release in America.

Football, 1978 was the first Sports game and introduced a "scrolling technology" in which the field extended beyond the monitor and scrolled according to joystick commands. This technique prompted Atari to get a patent, which toward the end of Atari Corporation became one of the largest sources of income for the company. .

Breakout 1976 was the closest cousin to Pong. In addition to the ball and paddle approach, Breakout included one very important addition, the concept of destruction. This game was created by Atari's 40th employee, a young man named Steve Jobs who was aided by videogame enthusiast Steve Wozniak. Ironically it was Steve who took all the credit and Woz who did all the work. The two later went on to form Apple Computer using parts "borrowed" from Atari to build their first prototype.


Space Invaders 1978 was the first blockbuster video game designed by a Japanese programmer. Space Invaders paved the way for this video game was the first to reach outside of arcades and bars an reach a mass audience in places as varied as laundraumats, gas stations and ice cream parlors. Space Invaders was a landmark game and was perhaps the most popular Atari cartridge when the 2600 was released in 1978.

Lunar Lander, 1979 and Asteroids 1979 (first and second vector based video game) Lunar Lander used principles of Newtonian laws to illustrate game play in vectors. Vector graphic display technology was first conceived for the Apollo space program in an attempt to create a simulation of the moon landing. This vector display technology was designed by Howard Delman. One of the subsequent releases called Battlezone, which offered a 3-d vector grid, so impressed the military, that they commissioned Atari to modify and upgrade the game as a simulator for tank training.

Asteroids, 1979 Here the vector display system had the simplicity of Pong and the game play was very similar to that of Space War. This game in fact outgrossed Space Invaders and established videogames as a lasting entertainment media. At the height of it's popularity in 1980, a newsweek article pointed out that the game's audience included large numbers of the middle class workforce who relieved stress by playing Asteroids on their lunch break.

Pac Man, 1980 (first pop culture personality to arise out of video games) Pac Man was licensed by Bally/Midway who made the crossover from pinball machines to video games. The Japanese company Namco created the game which was so popular at one time in Japan that it caused a Yen shortage. In the states, the Pac-Man character had it's own TV show and hit record.

Centipede, 1981 (first woman designed game) Dona Baily was the first female video game designer and this was the first game to attract more female fans than male. It's ingenious game play made it a huge success. The game was co-designed by Ed Logg, the designer of Asteroids.

Tron, 1982 was a first in several ways. It was designed in conjunction with the release of the Disney film. The game became critical to the plot of the movie and influenced the look of the computer graphics. While Tron the movie marked a beginning of computer animation in film, the game itself actually out-grossed the film. (CLICK FOR PIC) This 1983 sequel Discs of Tron was originally planned to be a part of the first game. Due to time and technological constraints, Discs of Tron was released a year later following the original's success. The idea of "sequels" was a concept developed from games like this, Defender and Pac Man.

Adventure (first video game easter egg to credit author) Atari refused to credit its game designers by name. I can recall a friend my most devoted video game compatriot Mike Kelly and an interesting story about this particular game called Adventure. We were both very captivated by the game and its unique environment. In the course of gaming, we were always looking for ways to mess up the character or do strange moves in order to prove some kind of unique style. This was due to a large extent on the fact that we were good gamers and people looked up to us. We liked to find little secrets. Well in this Atari game Adventure, which was a series of rooms with hidden treasures and villians we discovered a trick using the joystick in a particular labyrinth room. We were very puzzled by this and continued to try and figure out what we had done. Essentially, we were able to unlock another entire secret room which was totally unlike the rest of the game. I remember receiving a call from Mike who told me I was to come over immediately, that he had discovered what this room was all about. After this hidden room level was completed, the character was magnetically freed from your control and scrolling text revealed the words "This game was created by Warren Robinette" in rainbow letters. It then went on to describe that if you had discovered this room, to let him know for a "special prize". Some months later in the mail, Mike received a very stupid little plaque that described he was the third person to discover this secret room. It had the appearance of having come from the designer of the game himself. I've since found out that this game Adventure marked a first in the history of video games. It marked the first video game cheat. Nowadays in every game, there are code bibles which include special cheat commands for unlimited firepower, etc.

So now I can explain to my mom how those early days of gaming were important, Mike and I were a part of history.


Since this talk is about the history of the origins of the video game and not the entire history of video games, I'll have to reserve the rest for perhaps another time. The period I've covered is probably the most significant, although it only takes us to the age of Atari which frankly left Pong in the dust and within literally months, there were dozens more games and dozens more companies and dozens more consoles which were really the beginnings of the video game industry which by 1995 had reached 4 billion dollars. It's interesting however to note that around 1983 the industry found itself in a rut, with devlopers focusing on graphics over gameplay and trying to integrate new technologies like laser-disk video, holograms, and even goggles (SHOW ATARI GOGGLES)

In closing I'd just like to point out that there are three books on the topic of video game history although I've read none of them. Two of them are just being released and one is available on the internet. If anyone's interested, let me know.

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Dr. Mark J. P. Wolf "Abstracting Reality: Art, Communication and Cognition in the Digital Age" (currently at press) professor of communication at Concordia University in Wisconsin.

Stephen L. Kent "Electronic Nation" journalist, columnist for the L.A. Times, Seattle Post, calls himself a video game historian (forthcoming)

Leonard Herman "Phoenix: the Rise and Fall of Video Games" a freelance writer and computer programmer, get on web now. He lives in New Jersey. (available now)
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So thank you all for the opportunity to be here. Especially thanks to Just, David, Alois, Tim, Tina and Andy for their hospitality. Keep the low-tech spirit alive and support our cause by purchasing times up and bolt merchandise in the back of the room and remember a pong by any other name is still a game with two paddles and a ball. If we can now, let's open things up for discussion.

related links: Time's Up - Obsolete - Time's Up - Sonic Pong - Time's Up