Gaming is often presented as an exciting and youthful medium, throwing up thrilling and intriguing new ways of achieving electronic escapism. For years it was treated with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation by the wider media – it’s only in the last few years that gaming has been considered as an integral component of popular culture.
While the gaming industry has only really come of age in the last few decades, the way in which the media treats gaming generally belies its origins way back in the technological developments of the 1950s.
The origins of gaming lie in that thrilling era of computing pioneers working on house-sized computers. While the question of what constitutes the first ever video game remains contested, Tennis for Two seems to be a strong candidate. Developed by the American physicist William Higinbotham in 1958, Tennis for Two provided players with a simulation of a tennis match.
The game was played on an analogue computer, with an oscilloscope for the display. The visuals consisted of only three elements: a long horizontal line representing the tennis court, a shorter vertical line representing the net, and a small moving dot that was supposed to be the tennis ball.
This wasn’t the first time a computer had been used to play a game – the Nimrod computer was built in 1951 to play the strategy game Nim. However, this had been in order to demonstrate the computer’s processing power, while Tennis for Two had been specifically built to be played for fun. As well as this, the Nimrod’s display was far more basic, consisting of a set of lights that would turn on and off, as opposed to Higinbotham’s game which could display moving objects smoothly.
The game grew out of Higinbotham’s worry that the science community were failing to demonstrate the relevance of their work to wider society. It was also born out of his curious nature, with the original concept coming from the instruction booklet that accompanied his analogue computer.
The booklet explained how to use the computer to plot the trajectory of bouncing objects. It was then that Higinbotham had his groundbreaking idea: “Hell, this would make a good game.”
The game was built in three weeks, in time to be presented at a science exhibition at the Brookhaven National Laboratory. It was a big hit, especially among high school students who attended the exhibition – a forecast of the place gaming would come to inhabit in the lives of teenagers and young people worldwide, it seems.
Surprisingly enough, earlier in his career Higinbotham had worked on the electronics side of the Manhattan Project. He soon regretted his involvement, and promised to only use his computing powers for good in future.
A short while after the end of the Second World War, the Federation of American Scientists was founded, its objective being to prevent nuclear war, with Higinbotham acting as the organisation’s first chairman. Perhaps Higinbotham’s desire to use science to amuse others was indeed born out of some guilt from his part in developing the first nuclear weapon. Whether or not you count Tennis for Two as the original video game, it certainly had more of an impact than any of its rivals.
The game’s influence can be seen in later pioneering games, most notably Pong. The computing journalist David Ahl went as far as to describe Higinbotham as “The Grandfather of Video Games”. At a time when technological advancements were being used to outdo Soviet efforts, Tennis for Two demonstrated that new technology could be used for entertainment’s purposes. It brought people together, and set in place the idea that computers could be used for fun.
Ultimately, it seems as if Higinbotham’s neat idea was an important step towards gaming as we know it today.