Hitting the Books: An analog computer ushered in the video game era

Once upon a time there was an early hominid. And possibly, at some point, this Early Hominid threw a rock at a mastodon he was hunting, or at a saber-tooth tiger, or at another Early Hominid, and missed; instead the rock hit a hollow tree, and it made a funny sound. “Ha, ha!” said Early Hominid, forgetting about the mastodon. And so he picked up another rock and threw it at the tree. This time he missed. And he tried again, and again, until he was out of rocks. 

Maybe he had a friend. Maybe he said to his friend, “Hey, man, try to hit that tree with this rock. No, no, you have to throw it. Like this.” Maybe he said, “I bet I can hit it more times than you.” And maybe he said, “No, no, that’s too close, you have to stand over here, behind the sloth bones, that’s the rule. If you step over the bones it doesn’t count.”  

Maybe the friend said, “Hey, how about if I hit it more times than you, I get the good part of your sloth meat.” 

“No, no,” said the first one. “Just throw it.” 

That was a game. 

A few hundred thousand years later or so, a physicist named William Higinbotham made another one. Higinbotham, who had worked as a member on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos and later became a leading advocate against nuclear weapons, was working at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island in 1958 when he designed something for the lab’s annual open house just for fun. With an analog computer, an oscilloscope, and electromagnetic relays (essentially, switches) he created what many game historians consider to be the first video game. It was called Tennis for Two, and it consisted of a small green blip (the ball) on a five-inch screen that you hit back and forth using a knob and a button. It was the hit of the open house. He didn’t bother to patent it, and never made another. 

That same year, a twenty-one-year-old man named Steve Russell was beginning work with John McCarthy and Marvin Minsky at MIT’s new artificial intelligence lab. Russell joined an MIT group called the Tech Model Railroad Club, which had been founded in the ’40s by a group of students who were interested in the workings of the automated operation of model trains, but would now rapidly become a workshop for the world’s first hackers. The Signals and Power Subcommittee, who created the circuits that made the trains run, is credited with popularizing the term “hack,” and establishing many of the ethical principles of hacker culture. Their dictionary of new terms, for instance, is often credited with authorship of the rallying cry “Information wants to be free.” 

In 1962, using the lab’s new $120,000 PDP-1 computer (an upgrade from the three-million-dollar TX-0 they had been using before), Russell, in collaboration with his colleagues Martin Graetz and Wayne Wiitanen, made a game. They called it Spacewar! The game was a battle between two spaceships, maneuvering in the gravity well of a star. Both ships are controlled by human players. When it was complete, Russell left it in the lab for anyone to play—or to improve. Spacewar! became not only one of the first video games but also the first game with mods—that is, player-made modifications. One colleague from the lab hacked the game to encode the night sky, making the stars and constellations’ placement and brightness more accurate; another added a sun with a gravitational pull. A third added hyperspace, giving players the ability to escape into a fourth dimension and reappear in another part of the game. Russell added a scoring system. The game was the first video game to be played at multiple computer installations. It tore through the small programming community of the ’60s. 

Russell’s game, and others like it, were still the province of academics and researchers; it required access to a $120,000 computer to play Spacewar! Which is to say, this new thing—the video game, such as it was—was not really available to the masses to play. A young University of Utah graduate named Nolan Bushnell gets the lion’s share of responsibility for changing that.

At the time, the University of Utah, along with Stanford and MIT, was one of the three top schools for the new field of computer science, and also one of the few to purchase a PDP-1. Bushnell found Spacewar! in the computer lab and became addicted. Up to this point, these games had been created to show what computers could do, or as experiments, or just for fun. Bushnell was interested in a fourth option. An entrepreneur by nature, he had worked the mid- way at a local amusement park near Salt Lake City, and he thought immediately of how much money a game like this could make at the right venue. That thought, a few steps down the road, would turn into the birth of the video game industry.

Almost a decade after Russell first finished Spacewar!, the technology to create that industry had just about arrived. Now living in Northern California, Bushnell had programmed a game called Computer Space, a knockoff of Spacewar! (And so began the proud tradition in video game design of taking a beloved game and changing it slightly to make a new game.) He designed it for a four-thousand- dollar Data General computer, but he realized that playing a computer game on a computer wasn’t going to work when his initial efforts to market Computer Space flopped. So he built a circuit board meant solely for playing Computer Space, hooked it up to a TV he bought at Goodwill, and put the whole thing in a Plexiglas case, attached to a can for collecting quarters. A local arcade company contracted to produce fifteen hundred coin-operated Computer Space arcade games and distribute them on their pinball route, and with that, Bushnell had invented a new industry. Still, the game flopped again. This time, Bushnell decided to start his own company, with a partner, an engineer named Ted Dabney. They wanted to call the company Syzygy, but the name was taken, so they went with their backup, from the Japanese word used in the game Go that means more or less the same as “check” in chess: Atari.

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