As an avid retro gamer, I’ve been interested in the history of video games for quite some time now. To be more specific, a topic I’m very passionate about is “What was the first video game ever made?”… So I started extensive research on this topic (and made this article the first in a series of articles), which covered in detail the history of video games).
The question was, what was the first video game ever made?
The Answer: Like many things in life, there is no easy answer to that question. It depends on your definition of the term ‘video game.’ For example, when you say “the first video game,” do you mean the first video game made commercially, the first console game, or maybe the first digitally programmed game? That’s why I made a list of 4-5 video games that were somehow the novices of the video game industry. You will notice that the first video games were not made with the idea of making a profit (in those decades, there was no Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft, Sega, Atari, or any other video game company). Any idea of a “video game” or an electronic device made just for “playing games and having fun” was beyond the imagination of more than 99% of the population at the time. But thanks to this small group of geniuses who took the first steps in the video gaming revolution, today, we can enjoy many hours of fun and entertainment (aside from creating millions of jobs over the past 4 or 5 decades). Without further ado, I present here the “first video game nominees”:
1940s: Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device
This is considered (with official documentation) to be the first electronic gaming device ever made. It was created by Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr. and Estle Ray Mann. The game was assembled in the 1940s and filed for a US patent in January 1947. The patent was granted in December 1948, making it the first electronic game device to be patented (U.S. Patent 2,455,992). As described in the patent, it was an analog circuit device with a series of buttons used to move a dot that appeared on the cathode ray tube image. This game is inspired by how missiles appeared in WWII radars, and the game aimed to pilot a “missile” to hit a target. In the 1940s, it was extremely difficult (not to say impossible) to display images in a Cathode Ray Tube screen. Because of this, only the actual “rocket” appeared on display. The target and other photos were displayed on-screen overlays manually placed on the display screen. Many say that Atari’s famous video game “Missile Command” was created after this gaming device.
NIMROD was the name of a digital computing device from the 1950s. The creators of this computer were the engineers of a UK-based company called Ferranti, with the idea of showing the device at the Festival of Britain in 1951 (and later it was also shown in Berlin).
NIM is a two-player numerical strategy game, which originated from ancient China. The rules of NIM are simple: there is a certain number of groups (or “heaps”), and each group contains a certain number of objects (a general NIM starting string is three heaps containing 3, 4, and 5 things, respectively). Each player takes turns removing items from the heaps, but all removed items must be from a single heap, and at least one thing is removed. The player who takes the last thing from the previous pile loses, but there is a variant where the player who takes the final item of the previous heap wins.
Using a light panel as a display, NIMROD was planned and created with the unique purpose of playing the game NIM, making it the first digital computing device made specifically for playing a game (however, the main idea was to display and illustrate how a digital computer works, rather than entertaining and having fun with it). Since it does not have a “grid of video equipment” as a display (a TV, monitor, etc.), it is not considered by many people to be a real “video game” (an electronic game, yes… a video game), no. ..). But again, it depends on your point of view when you talk about a “video game.”
1952: OXO (“Zeros and Crosses”)
This digital version of “Tic-Tac-Toe” is made for an EDSAC (Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator) computer. It was designed by Alexander S. Douglas of the University of Cambridge, and again it wasn’t made for entertainment; it was part of his thesis on “Human-Computer Interactions.”
The game rules are those of a normal Tic-Tac-Toe game, player against the computer (no two-player option was available). The input method was a rotary dial (like in old phones). The output was displayed in a 35×16-pixel cathode ray tube display. This game was never very popular because the EDSAC computer was only available at the University of Cambridge, so there was no way to install it and play it elsewhere (until many years later, when an EDSAC emulator became available, and against that time there were many other excellent video games available anywhere…).
1958: Tennis for Two
“Tennis for Two” was created by William Higinbotham, a physicist who works at Brookhaven National Laboratory. This game was created as a form of entertainment so that lab visitors had something funny to do during their wait for “visitor day” (finally!…a video game made “just for fun”…). The game was designed quite well for its time: the ball behavior was modified by various factors such as gravity, wind speed, position and contact angle, etc.; you had to avoid the net like in real tennis, and many other things. The video game hardware included two “joysticks.”
“Tennis for Two” is considered by many to be the first video game ever created. But again, many others differ from that idea by stating that “it was a computer game, not a video game” or “the output screen was an oscilloscope, not a “grid” video screen…so it doesn’t qualify as a video game”. But hey… you can’t please everyone…
It is also rumored that “Tennis for Two” was the inspiration for Atari’s mega-hit “Pong,” but this rumor has always been strongly denied… for obvious reasons.
1961: Space War!
“Space War!” video game was created by Stephen Russell, with the help of J. Martin Graetz, Peter Samson, Alan Kotok, Wayne Wirtanen, and Dan Edwards of MIT. In the 1960s, MIT was “the right choice” if you wanted to do computer research and development. So this half-dozen innovative guys took advantage of a brand new computer that had been ordered and was expected to arrive on campus very soon (a DEC PDP-1) and started thinking about what kind of hardware testing programs would be made. When they found out that a “Precision CRT Display” would be installed on the system, they immediately decided that “a kind of visual/interactive game” would be the demonstration software of choice for the PDP-1. And after some discussion, it was soon decided to become a space battle game or something like that. After this decision
So after about 200 man/hours of work, the first version of the game was finally ready to be tested. The competition consisted of two spaceships (called “pencil” and “wedge” by players) firing rockets at each other with a star in the center of the screen (which “pulls” both spaceships due to gravity). A set of control switches was used to control each spaceship (for rotation, speed, missiles, and “hyperspace”). Each spacecraft has a limited amount of fuel and weapons, and the hyperspace option was like a “panic button” in case there is no other way out (it can “save you or break you”).
The computer game was an instant success among MIT students and programmers. They soon started changing the game program (such as real star maps for background, star/no star option, background disable alternative, angular momentum option, etc. .). The game code was ported to many other computer platforms (since the game required a video screen, a hard-to-find chance in 1960s systems, it was mostly ported to newer/cheaper DEC systems such as the PDP-10 and PDP-11).
Space War! It is not only considered by many to be the first “real” video game (as this game does have a video screen), but it has also been proven to be the true predecessor of the original arcade game, as well as being the inspiration of many other video games, consoles, and even video game companies (can you say “Atari”?.). But that’s another story; both arcade and console video games were written on a different page of video game history (so stay tuned for future articles on these topics).
Here they are, the nominees for the “First Video Game.” Which do you think is the first video game ever made?… I think all these games were revolutionary for the time, and as a whole, should be seen as the novices of the video game revolution. Instead of looking for which one was the first video game, it matters that they were made, period. As “Spacewar!” creator Stephen Rusell once said, “If I hadn’t done it, someone would have done something equally exciting or even better in the next six months. I happened to be the first one there”.