What Was the First Video Game?

For some reason, I thought that Pong was the very first video game. I was really wrong, but it’s because it is the first commercially successful arcade game. There’s a clear difference between these two firsts, so I read up a little about the history of the video game to find:

What is the First Video Game ever?

In 1947, Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr. and Estle Ray Mann patented the cathode-ray tube amusement device. A basic oscilloscope-style circuit was linked to a CRT (cathode-ray tube), and a series of knobs and switches served as the device’s controlling mechanism.

The duo of television designers who were working for DuMont Laboratories was inspired by the radar displays used in World War II—during the war, the television industry almost stopped completely to focus on the war effort instead. A prototype of the device was apparently built, but this never went beyond this early stage of development as the “amusement device” was apparently only used for a demonstration.

It’s hard to see the cathode-ray tube amusement device as the first video game, as it’s not clear what was playable on it.

A few years later, for the 1950 Canadian National Exhibition, Dr. Josef Kates built Bertie the Brain, which was a video game version of tic-tac-toe. It was presented to introduce potential buyers of the additron tube, used here as a display. It was a big machine, a 13-foot-tall computer that control lights, showing X or O shapes on the screen. That’s where the definition of a video game created a complication, as Bertie did not have an electronic screen, but it runs on a computer.

In fact, the definition of a video game is primordial to declare what the first one was, as there was always some sort of video game since the creation of the computer. They were really primitive, but they existed.

According to Merriam Webster, a video game is “an electronic game in which players control images on a video screen.” Apparently, for some, the problem with Bertie the Brain is that there was no video signal transmitted to the screen—it was just bulbs that were switched on and off by a computer.

Life magazine photo of comedian Danny Kaye standing in front of Bertie the Brain at the Canadian National Exhibition in 1950. (©Life magazine)

The Prehistoric Pong

After Bertie the Brain, other games followed, most forgotten. The one that is considered as being the first to really correspond to the definition of a video game was “Tennis for Two.”

Everything began in October 1958 at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, located in Upton, Long Island. There, working for the US Department of Energy, Physicist William Higinbotham was the head of Brookhaven’s instrumentation group.

During Brookhaven’s annual visitors’ days, Higinbotham was trying to engage and educate attendees about the laboratory’s work. He met some challenges and thought of a way to captivate his audience. This inspired him to develop a simple tennis game that visitors could play.

The game functioned by using an analog computer to simulate the physics of a tennis match. Two players controlled paddles on the screen and attempted to hit a ball back and forth (it was moving graphics on an oscilloscope). Although seemingly basic by today’s standards, Tennis for Two was a hit, the attendees were finally captivated by this rudimentary simulation that predated the iconic Pong by nearly two decades.

In the decades following his tennis simulation, pioneers like Ralph Baer would shape the landscape further. Baer’s “Brown Box,” released in the 1960s, paved the way for home video game consoles, giving birth to the likes of Magnavox Odyssey and setting the stage for the industry’s expansion.

As computers became more accessible and powerful, video games evolved from simple demonstrations to complex and immersive experiences. The 1970s saw the emergence of arcade classics like Space Invaders and Asteroids, captivating players with their engaging gameplay and innovative use of technology. The home console market also saw growth, with systems like the Atari 2600 introducing gaming to living rooms around the world.

Pong and The Arcade Revolution

In the middle of this, the arcade scene became a cultural phenomenon. Some of the most widely recognized video games ever created were born there. The first commercially successful arcade game, Pong, was released in 1972, solidifying the idea that video games could be both enjoyable and lucrative.

Pong’s success paved the way for a wave of arcade innovation. Games like Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and Donkey Kong captivated players with their unique mechanics and addictive gameplay. Arcades became social hubs, drawing crowds of gamers eager to test their skills and achieve high scores. The gaming industry’s continued growth led to the establishment of video game companies, further fueling the creative spirit behind new titles.

Talking about the firsts in the domain of computer history, I wrote about the first Operating System.

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