The history of computer games began in the 1940s and 1950s when simple games and simulations were developed in an academic environment. Computer games were not popular for a long time, and only in the 1970s and 1980s, when arcade machines, game consoles, and home computers became available to the general public, did computer games become part of pop culture.

The emergence of commercial computer games was preceded by an established industry of recreational arcade machines like pinball, mechanical games that required you to drop a coin into a slot in the receiver to run. These machines were produced since the 19th century, using more and more complex mechanisms and, from the 1930s, electricity; jukeboxes were also developed in parallel. A remarkable and unusually complicated for its time arcade machine was the Nimatron, an electromechanical computer for playing them, designed by the physicist Edward Condon and exhibited at the 1939-1940 World’s Fair in New York. In 1947 Thomas Goldsmith and Estle Mann’s “Electron-Ray Tube Entertainment Device” was patented – it is considered the first device specifically designed for gaming that displayed images on a screen, i.e., a “video game” .

In the early 1950s, specialized computers like Nimrod were created, again to play them, and Bertie the Brain and OXO to play tic-tac-toe. Tennis for Two, developed by physicist William Higinbotham, simulated the game of tennis with a graphical interface, using an analog computer and an oscilloscope as a means of real-time output. Between 1948 and 1950, Alan Turing and David Champernone developed the Turochamp chess game algorithm, but the computers at the time were not powerful enough to implement this algorithm. The British journalist Tristan Donovan in his book Replay: The History of Video Games, described the 1950s as “the decade of false starts,” one-off devices made in single copies for exhibitions and disassembled later – the creators of these devices dismissed the idea of computer games as a waste of time.

The game Spacewar!

By the 1960s, the evolution of computing, from vacuum tubes to transistors and from transistors to integrated circuits, had made computers much more powerful and accessible than before. In 1961, a group of students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC) used the latest computer at the time, the DEC PDP-1, to create one of the first computer games, the space simulator Spacewar! The creators of the game eagerly shared the code of the game with other users of the PDP-1 computers at other universities and laboratories; DEC itself used the game to demonstrate the computer’s capabilities to potential customers. The PDP-1 was a very expensive computer – $120,000 – and the number of computers sold was limited to a few dozen.

Computer games for mainframes

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, various games continued to be created in the U.S. university and academic environments, as curricula, as exercises in programming, and simply for the amusement of students. Their number and complexity grew as computers (mainframes) became more accessible, with the development of programming languages and the first computer networks (ARPAnet) that allowed users to interact with each other and share programs. The PLATO e-learning system, especially since the PLATO IV generation launched in 1972, became especially suitable for such projects, with its own versions of Spacewar! and chess, multiplayer strategic 4X games such as Empire and Star Trek (1972); adaptations of Dungeons & Dragons tabletop role-playing games such as dnd[en] (1974) and pedit5 (1975). Oregon Trail (1971), written for the HP 2100 mainframe, anticipated survival simulations; Maze War (1973) and Spasm (1974) was the first three-dimensional computer games. Colossal Cave Adventure (1975), a text-based game for the PDP-10 mainframe that combined a spelunker simulator with Dungeons & Dragons fantasy elements, paved the way for quests and interactive fiction. Whereas the first PC role-playing games, such as dnd and pedit5, were relatively primitive, their successors became increasingly complex – games such as Moria (1975), Oubliette (1977), and Avatar (1979) now used first-person perspective, complicated, multi-level dungeons and multiple settings for character customization.

Game consoles.

“Brown Box” – Ralph Behr’s prototype for a TV game console – and its commercial version, the Magnavox Odyssey console

In 1966, Ralph Behr, an American engineer who worked for Sanders Associates[en], a contractor for the U.S. Department of Defense, took the initiative to start working on a television game device he called Channel LP. Although Sanders Associates’ initial attempts to find a partner among major TV manufacturers failed, in 1971, Behr and his associates were able to secure a contract with Magnavox; the prototype device, then known as the Brown Box, was turned into a commercial product – the first Magnavox Odyssey home game console.

The Magnavox Odyssey was first introduced to the public on May 24, 1972, and released to the American market in August 1972[7]; the console contained 13 games, including soccer and tennis simulators, and was sold along with various accessories for them, including paper money and screen covers. Despite its high cost, it gained enormous popularity – by 1975, more than 350,000 units had been sold.

Arcade machines

From the second half of the 1960s, the arcade machine industry underwent a renaissance which was connected with the appearance of complicated electromechanical games; for example, the Periscope[en] (1966), produced by the Japanese company Sega, became very popular both in Japan and in the United States, producing many imitations. This increasing technological sophistication and the growing public interest in arcade machines paved the way for the arrival of the electronic arcade machine in the 1970s. The first digital arcade machine based on Spacewar! was the Galaxy Game, created in 1971 at Stanford University based on the PDP-11 computer. Nolan Bushnell’s Computer Space automaton was already the first mass-produced product, although it was not a success. Nutting Associates could not even sell all 1,500 units produced – for ordinary bars where pinball and jukeboxes were installed; the space simulator seemed too complicated. Bushnell, not disappointed in the idea, founded his own arcade company, Atari, in 1972.

About the author