There are currently 3.24 billion video gamers in the world. In the United States, the top-selling video game for 2021 was Call of Duty: Vanguard. And video gaming will be a USD 268.8 billion industry by 2025. So, Find the Firsts asks: What was the very first video game ever played?
We’ll answer the who, what, when, where, how, and why of the first video game created. Let’s begin!
- The inventor of the first video game also worked on the Manhattan Project.
- Scientists used an oscilloscope similar to the one pictured above as the console for the first video game.
- At its debut, hundreds of people lined up for an opportunity to play the electronic game.
- A computer’s instruction manual sparked the idea of the first video game.
- Honorable mention goes to OXO, Spacewar!, Computer Space, and Pong.
The who, when, and where
The creator of the first video game was William Higinbotham. He was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on October 25, 1910. He obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Physics from Williams College in Massachusetts in 1932 and then went to graduate school at Cornell University. In 1941, Higinbotham joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Radiation Lab, where he developed cathode ray tube (CRT) displays for radar devices, which were to have military applications.
In 1943, Higinbotham moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico, to work on a classified military assignment: the Manhattan Project. He created electronics for a timing system for the first atomic bomb and, in 1945, witnessed its test detonation in Alamogordo, New Mexico.
The distress of seeing the nuclear bomb’s application during World War II motivated Higinbotham to establish the Federation of Atomic Scientists. A vocal advocate of nuclear non-proliferation, he diligently educated the government and the public about adopting atomic energy for peaceful objectives and employing safeguards on weapons of mass destruction. The group later became the Federation of American Scientists. In 1948, Higinbotham joined the instrumentation group of the Brookhaven National Laboratory, headquartered in Upton, NY. On October 18, 1958, it was here that Higinbotham introduced the first video game to the public.
The what and why
It took Higinbotham mere hours to create the video game Tennis for Two, intended purely for entertainment. He wrote:
The Brookhaven National Laboratory has an annual visitors’ day, and at this event, the electronic tennis game made its debut. Hundreds of people lined up for an opportunity to play the game. Two people played the electronic game with separate controllers connected to an analog computer, and an oscilloscope (similar to the one pictured at the outset) served as the screen. The ball was a bright, moving dot that left trails as it bounced to opposite sides of the screen.
Higinbotham read the instruction manual for a Donner Model 30 analog computer which explained how to generate curves on the oscilloscope’s CRT screen and cited missiles and bouncing balls as examples. That sparked the idea of an electronic tennis game.
Four of the computer’s amplifiers created the ball’s motion. The computer’s remaining six amplifiers detected when the ball hit the net or the ground and switched the control to the person in whose court the ball landed.
The computer had three outputs: the ball, the net, and the court. Higinbotham used newly produced transistors to build a fast-switching circuit to display these alternating outputs on the screen at a “fast” speed of 36 Hertz. That display rate allowed the human eye to see the three objects as one image instead of three separate images. The original oscilloscope’s display was only five inches in diameter.
While Tennis for Two received wide acceptance as the first video game, several others made a notable impression.
- OXO – OXO was the computerized version of tic-tac-toe. The game’s input was a five-hole punched strip of paper, and the computer displayed the output on a CRT screen. Alexander Shafto Douglas, a graduate student at the University of Cambridge, created the game in 1952 for his Ph.D. thesis on human-computer interaction. Though this computer game wasn’t fully electronic, it was a pioneer for video games.
- Spacewar! – Created in 1962 by MIT computer scientist Steve Russell in collaboration with others, Spacewar! was the first digital computer game. The game was still popular after a decade after its introduction and was the first entry of the computer game genre at the U.S. Library of Congress.
- Computer Space – Based on Spacewar!, Syzygy Engineering created Computer Space in 1971. It was the first video arcade game and commercially available video game.
- Pong – Syzygy Engineering renamed itself Atari and produced the first commercially successful video game, Pong. The popularity of Pong led to video gaming as a business.
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