As an avid retro-gamer, I’ve always been particularly interested in the history of video games (and hot chicks… but that’s not my point here… so, what was my point then?… ah, yes…). Even more specifically, a subject that always intrigued me was “Which was the first video game ever created?”… So, as the only man capable of playing Street Fighter with my arms tied on my back and throwing Ryu’s fireball using my armpit and nose (you get the picture?… probably not, you have to see it to understand it…), I started a deep investigation on these subject (and making this post the first one in a series of posts that will cover in detail all video gaming history).

The question was: Which was the first video game ever created?

The answer: Well, as many other things in life, there is no easy answer to that question. It depends on your own definition of the term “video game”. For example: When you talk about “the first video game”, do you mean the first commercial video game, or the first console game, or maybe the first digitally programmed game? Because of that, I made a short list of video games that in one way or another were the pioneers of the video gaming industry. Note that the first video games were not created with the idea of getting any profit from them (there was no Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft, Sega, Atari, or any other around). In fact, the sole idea of a “video game” or an electronic device which only purpose was “playing games and having fun” was impossible to conceive by more than 99% of the population back in those days. But thanks to this small group of innovators who took the first steps into the video gaming revolution, we are able to enjoy many hours of fun and entertainment (not to mention the creation of millions of jobs during the past 4 or 5 decades). Without further ado, here the “first video game nominees”:

1940s: Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device

This is considered (and has been documented) as the first electronic game device ever created, It was created by Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr. and Estle Ray Mann. The game was developed in the 1940s and submitted for an US Patent in January 1947. The patent was granted December 1948, which also makes it the first electronic game device to ever receive a patent (US Patent 2,455,992). As described in the patent, it was an analog circuit device which uses various knobs to control a dot that appears in the cathode ray tube display. The video game was inspired by how missiles were displayed by radars in the World War II, and the object of the game was simply controlling a “missile” in order to hit a target. In the 1940s it was insanely difficult (for not saying impossible) to show graphics in a CRT display. Because of this, only the actual “missile” actually appeared on the display. The target and any other graphics appeared on screen overlays manually placed over the display screen. It is rumored that this game was the inspiration of the Atari hit video game “Missile Command”.

1951: NIMROD

NIMROD was the name of a digital computer device from the 1950s. It was created by the engineers of an UK-based company called Ferranti , with the purpose of being displayed at the 1951 Festival of Britain (and later it was also displayed in Berlin).

NIM is a two-player mathematical game of strategy, which is believed to come originally from the ancient China. The rules of NIM are simple: There are a certain number of “heaps” (groups of objects), each containing a certain number of objects (a common starting array of NIM is 3 heaps containing 3, 4, and 5 objects respectively). Each player take turns removing objects from heaps, as long as all removed objects in a turn are from a single heap and the amount of removed objects is not 0. The player to take the last object of the last heap lose, however there is a variation of the game where the player to take the last object of the last heap is the winner.

NIMROD used a lights panel as a display and was designed and created with the sole purpose of playing the game of NIM, which makes it the first digital computer device to be specifically created for playing a game (although the main idea was to show and illustrate how a digital computer works, rather than to entertain and have fun with it). Because it doesn’t have raster video equipment as a display (TV set, monitor, etc.) it is not considered by many people as a real “video game” (an electronic game, yes… a video game, no…). But once again, it really depends on the definition given to a “video game”.

1952: OXO (“Noughts and Crosses”)

This was a digital version of “Tic-Tac-Toe”, programmed for an EDSAC (Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator) computer. It was created by Alexander S. Douglas from the University of Cambridge, and once again it was not created for entertainment, it was part of his PhD Thesis on “Human/Computer Interaction”.

The rules of the game are those of a regular Tic-Tac-Toe game, player against the computer (no 2-player option). The input method was a rotary dial (similar to the ones in old telephones). The output was displayed in a 35×16-pixel cathode-ray tube display. This game was never very popular since the EDSAC computer was only available at the University of Cambridge, so it was not possible to install it and play it anywhere else (until many years later when an EDSAC emulator was made available, and by then many other great video games where available as well…).

Here is a video of OXO in action:

1958: Tennis for Two

“Tennis for Two” was created by William Higinbotham, a physicist from the Brookhaven National Laboratory. This game was designed as a way of entertainment, so laboratory visitors had something funny to do while they were waiting on “visitors day” (at last!… a video game that was made “just for fun”…) . The game was pretty well designed for its time: the ball was affected by several factors like gravity, wind speed, position and angle of contact, etc.; there was a net that you needed to avoid, and many other things. The video game hardware included two “joysticks” (two controllers with a rotational knob and a push button each) connected to an analog computer, and an oscilloscope for output display.

Many people consider “Tennis for Two” the first video game ever made. But once again, many others differ from that idea stating that “it was a computer game, not a video game” or “the output display was an oscilloscope, not a video display… so it does not qualify as a video game”. But you know… you can’t please everyone…

It is also rumored that “Tennis for Two” was the inspiration for Atari’s mega hit “Pong”, but this rumor has always been strongly denied… obviously.

Here is a video of two guys playing the original “Tennis for Two”:

1961: Spacewar!

“Spacewar!” video game was created by Stephen Russell, with the contributions of J. Martin Graetz, Peter Samson, Alan Kotok, Wayne Witanen and Dan Edwards from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. During the decade of the 60s, MIT was “the place to be” if you wanted to do computer research and development. So this group of innovative guys took advantage of a brand-new computer that would be arriving campus very soon (a DEC PDP-1) and started thinking about what kind of demonstration programs would be developed. When they found out that a “Precision CRT Display” would be installed to the computer, they all agreed that “some sort of visual/interactive game” would be the demo-ware of choice for the PDP-1. And after some discussion, it was soon decided to be a spaceship fighting game of some sort. After that decision, all other ideas started coming out pretty fast: like game rules, basic design, programming ideas, and so on.

So after about 200 man/hours of work, the first version of the game was finally finished. The game consisted of two spaceships (nicknamed “pencil” and “wedge”) shooting missiles at each other with a star at the center of the screen (which “pulls” both spaceships with its gravitational force). Each spaceship was controlled by a set of console switches (for rotation, speed, missiles, and “hyperspace”). A limited amount of fuel and weapons was available for each spaceship, and the hyperspace function was like a “last resort”, in
case everything else fails (it could either “save you or break you”).

The computer game was an instant hit between MIT computing enthusiasts, and soon they started making their own changes to the game program (like real star charts for background, star/no star option, angular momentum option, disable background, etc.). The program was ported to many other computer platforms (since it required a video display, a hard to find option in 1960s computers, it was mostly ported to newer/cheaper DEC systems like the PDP-10 and PDP-11).

The following video shows a game of Spacewar! in action:

Spacewar! Is not only considered by many as the first real video game (notice that this one has a video display), but it also have a proven trajectory of being the true antecessor of the first arcade game, as well as being the inspiration of many other video games, consoles, and even video gaming companies (can you say “Atari”?…). But that’s another story, arcade games and console video games are written in a different page of the history of video games (so stay tuned for future articles on these subjects).

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So there they are, the “First Video Game” nominees. Which one do you think is the first video game?… If you ask me, I think all these games were pioneers of its time, and should be credited as a whole as the beginners of the video gaming revolution. More than looking for which one was the first video game, what is really important is that they were made, period. Like Stephen Russell, creator of Spacewar! said: “If I hadn’t done it,
someone would’ve done something equally exciting if not better in the next six months. I just happened to get there first
”.

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