The History of Computer and Video Games

Instructor: David White
Through this lesson, you will learn about the origins of computer and video gaming as far back as the 1940s, and trace the industry's history from the emergence of Pong, to the wild success of Atari and Nintendo.

Early Gaming

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.

The ENIAC was so large that it took up an entire room.

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.

A prototype of the Brown Box on display at the Smithsonian Institute.
brown box

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.

The Atari 2600, originally marketed as the Video Computer System.

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.

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