When pondering what I thought the very first “computer game” to be, I expected some sort of primitive text adventure game might be among the contenders. I missed the mark by more than 20 years! I was considering which games would require the least processing power, but early computer games had more to worry about that just the number crunch. The graphical fidelity to render text was extremely limited and alphabetic keyboards were not typical input devices.
From what I could see, there is no absolute on the first computer game, so I will break down the early games with their significant landmarks:
1947 - Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr. and Estle Ray Mann develop a missile simulator game, the first use of a computer for entertainment.
1950 - Claude Shannon devises a chess game in his paper, demonstrating the first artificial gaming intelligence.
1958 - William Higinbotham exhibits Tennis for Two, the first multiplayer computer game, displayed on an oscilloscope.
1962 - Spacewar is created for the DEC PDP-1 mini-computer by MIT students and is the first time a computer game is designed not as a simulator for an existing game or scenario.
Computer games continued to be the preserve of students with access to university mainframe computers throughout the 1960s.
The increase in availability of mainframes in academic and business institutions, coupled with the rising populatity of computer games fuelled the growth of personal game projects undertaken by pioneering programmers. Games such as Spacewar were even ported across platforms and later distributed with the mainframes themselves.
It wasn’t until technological advances in miniaturization and cost-effective production of electronic components made the hardware accessible in the home. The first home video game console was the Magnavox Odyssey, released in 1972 which sold 330,000 units in its three year production cycle. The console used any of 30 separately-sold game cartridges to play the games on a home television set. It was this console and business model that paved the way for the entire video game industry to follow.
In the same year, the coin-operated arcade version of Pong was released by Atari to massive commercial success. I find it interesting to think that tennis inspired Tennis for Two, which inspired Pong, which by my reckoning appeared to inspire air hockey, coming full circle to a physical game again. A testament to the circular and self-referential nature of games to follow?
By the time popular titles like Space Invaders (1978) and Asteroids (1979) hit the arcades, the appeal of arcade video games was clear: they were affordable, fun and addictive entertainment. At a time when televisions were not commonplace and consoles were extremely rare, arcades were a place to meet and play games with friends.
Through the 70s, mainframe games proved to be the catwalk by which coin-operated arcade games and late-70s consoles and personal microcomputers followed. By the end of the decade, video games had become a multimillion dollar industry on an upward trajectory.