While there is no way to know for certain, it is likely that after 30 plus years, video games remain high on the list of parental frustrations. They are commonly referred to as excessively violent and pointless wastes of time, but even the most cursory exploration of gaming's evolution reveals a history that is complex, controversial, and more than unexpected.
We tend to think of computer and video games as common elements of our modern society, but before there was Xbox, Nintendo, or even Atari, there was Nim. Created by Westinghouse for the 1940 World's Fair, Nim was a rudimentary computer game in which one would play against the machine, by picking up matchsticks. The receiver of the last matchstick would be the loser. Certainly a crude game by today's standards, but the machine won 90% of the games, and ignited great enthusiasm for electronic gaming.
Five years after the debut of Nim, computer technology advanced substantially and again entered the public's consciousness, with construction of the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, or ENIAC. The first computer that could serve more than a single purpose, the ENIAC was a government funded program that was designed for, among other things, calculating statistics. Despite being government funded, however, it sparked the imagination of many scientists, including Alan Turing, who created a chess program for it in 1950.
Throughout the 1940s and 50s, a number of different computer games were developed independently by programmers and scientists. Yet, the computer remained very much a utilitarian and largely governmental tool that just happened to possess the ability to run game programs. By 1964, however, all of that was about to change.
Becoming User Friendly
By then, computer systems had become much more common on college campuses than in previous decades. This inspired Dartmouth College computer scientist John Kemeny to begin working on a coding language that he called Beginner's All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, or BASIC. As a user friendly coding language, BASIC allowed students and laypeople to create their own gaming software without the aid of giant computers, like the ENIAC, thus opening the door for the widespread applications of video game software.
The increasing affordability of parts and the release of user-friendly coding languages like BASIC made the once impossible idea of having a home computer seem reasonably achievable. Inspired by this growing access, toy inventor Ralph Baer constructed a very basic console for home use in 1967 that was called the Brown Box. Resembling a chunky version of later consoles, Baer's Brown Box connected to the television and allowed users to play games like ping-pong without having to know a thing about computers. The following year, Maganavox released the Odyssey onto the consumer market using Baer's design for the home gaming system.
Atari and Modern Gaming
In the four years that followed the Odyssey, options for computer gaming were relatively small and largely used for educational purposes. In 1972, however, two California software developers created a stand-alone, arcade style, electronic ping-pong game named Pong. Marketed by newly formed gaming company Atari, Pong was an immediate success, and the home version followed in 1975, beginning the era of modern video gaming.
Like Baer's Brown Box, the home console version of pong was essentially a large box with two knobs that controlled the virtual paddle in a diagonal or horizontal direction. This, however, was enough to inspire a more elaborate console design with wider applications, and eventually led to the release of the Atari 2600 in September of 1977.
While it is technically considered the 'second generation' of gaming (Brown Box and arcade gaming being the first), the Atari 2600 was the first console made available to consumers capable of running more than one game, had a more diverse color palate, and a smaller joystick. Coupled with the porting over of familiar arcade games like Space Invaders, these characteristics made the console a huge hit, inspiring a number of similar competing products like Colecovision and Intellivision.
The Golden Era of Gaming
Entering into the 1980s, Atari remained the star of the increasingly popular home gaming industry, though it did continue to face slight competition from other companies. Among those competitors was the relatively small Japanese company Nintendo. With the North American release of their arcade game Donkey Kong, Nintendo had gained some popularity, particularly with the games main character, Jumpman. If the name 'Jumpman' doesn't ring any bells, it's probably because he is now more commonly known as 'Super Mario'.
Despite the popularity of some games and of arcade gaming, by 1985 the North American video game industry was foundering. Seeing an opportunity, Nintendo released their own home gaming console, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), to American markets, forever altering the concept of home entertainment.
With better-developed processing and graphics, the NES was in an entirely separate class than consoles released less than a decade earlier. With Atari seriously struggling after a handful of bad business decisions, and many other companies having folded, the path was wide open for Nintendo, and by the end of the decade they had substantially expanded the number and quality of their games.
Fast forward thirty years, and video games are as common as anything else in society. More than just entertainment, they are now used for educational, therapeutic, and strategic purposes, with capabilities that far exceed anything conceived of when Nim first appeared at the 1940 World's Fair.
After the debut of Nim in the 1940s, video games spent more than two decades as a secondary function of super computers like the ENIAC. With the release of BASIC coding in the 1960s, however, the possibilities greatly expanded, and led to the release of Ralph Baer's Brown Box at the end of the decade. Baer's model inspired younger developers at companies like Atari and Nintendo, who found great success in the 70s and 80s, and paved the way for 21st century video gaming.
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