Banner
    What Was The First Computer Game?
    By Hank Campbell | January 27th 2009 04:00 PM | 11 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    Do you know the name of the first computer game?   I confess I didn't and I learned programming on a Univac 1100/62 so I am a lot closer to the origination date of computer games than most people who will read this.

    I assumed it was a kind of punchcard-loaded word game, like a 1960s Leather Goddesses of Phobos only without the divine genius of Dostoyevsky that game possessed, but the history of video games is much more elaborate than that.

     So depending on how you look at it, the first computer game may be a Brookhaven tennis game that recently turned 50; as you will see, it looked pretty terrific.   Or it may be something no one outside a patent office has ever seen.

    Like all awesome things, video games began as a science experiment.  In the case of William Higinbotham (1910-1994), a physicist at Brookhaven National Lab who had worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II, he wanted to 'liven up' science for visitors during the Lab’s annual visitors’ days.  On October 18, 1958, his vision was realized and hundreds of people, not surprisingly a lot of enchanted high school students, lined up to play what they called Tennis For Two.   So at least in terms of a video game that got attention, this would seem to be first. 

    That means William Higinbotham is basically the Thomas Edison of video games, an industry bigger than Hollywood, yet very few people know his name.


    Tennis For Two.  Credit: Brookhaven National Laboratory

    So why hadn't I heard about him as a young guy?   Well, no one really had.  It was only because of a lawsuit that all but a few hard-core game historians got to know his name at all.  Magnavox, being first to market a home video game console with the introduction of the Odyssey in 1972, had decided by the early 1980s that if you had a video game with a bouncing ball, they were due a royalty.    So they ended up having to deposition Higinbotham, who did not patent Tennis For Two.

    "We knew it was fun, and saw some potential in it at the time, but it wasn't something the government was interested in. It's a good thing, too. Today all video game designers would have to license their games from the federal government!" - he told John Anderson in 1983 (1) but in a burgeoning video game industry,  a name no one had really known before was big news.  

    How did it work?   He used a vacuum tube analog computer and a 5 inch oscilloscope for a monitor.   The oscillope had a cartesian coordinate display and Higinbotham created a ciruit that plotted the deflection of the ball proportionally to the input voltages. 

    The plot of these functions simulated the trajectory of the bouncing ball - when the ball hit the ground, a relay would be thrown, reversing the polarity, and then the ball would reflect its previous path, while another relay would sense if it hit the net - the T in the middle.   Velocity, including drag from wind, was simulated with a 10 Meg Ω (Ohm) resistor.

    Take a look at it in action:


    Sure, it was a huge machine running a 5 inch screen but this is plain fun.

    So was Tennis For Two the first or not?

    Like many things lost to history, it depends on who you ask.   A game called OXO (Noughts and Crosses) was a tic-tac-toe computer game made for the EDSAC computer at Cambridge in 1952.  It was the first known (graphical) game to run on a computer even if it didn't move like Tennis For Two.

    OXO noughts and crosses tic tac toe first graphical video game
    If this looks more like a Mac to you than a 1950s Cambridge computer, that's because it is.   There don't seem to be any screenshots of the original.  Source: Wikipedia.

    So then is OXO the first video game?   Well, even that is unclear.  A patent from 1948(2) is for a 'cathode-ray tube amusement device' - basically a missile simulation game, but there are no records of it having been built.

    So it  may be that the missile game was first, or a single player tic-tac-toe, but Tennis For Two is my favorite because it had motion graphics.   What do you think? 

    NOTES:

    (1) CREATIVE COMPUTING VIDEO&ARCADE GAMES VOL. 1, NO. 1 / SPRING 1983 / PAGE 8

    (2) Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr. and Estle Ray Mann filed a United States patent application on January 25, 1947 and U.S. Patent #2 455 992 issued on December 14, 1948

    Comments

    Stellare
    I love oscilloscopes so I have to go with Tennis for Two! That is my favorite first computer game.

    Bente, who rocks hard with Guitar Hero! :-)
    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    Hank
    Me too.  I have a whole VNA setup in my closet.  Sometimes it stares at me forlornly, hoping I will hook up something so I can make its screens come to life.  The frequency is too low these days, literally and figuratively.
    "oxo" was the first

    I think what confuses people is the terminology. "Videogame", in my opinion, is a term that can only be applied to Ralph Baer's "Ping-Pong" game, back in the 60s, since that was properly played on a television set.

    Games like "OXO", "Tennis for Two" or "Spacewar!" should be called "Computer games", but not "Videogames".

    As for the missile simulation game, I'd accept it as the first "known computer game". Fact is, people always find ways to have fun and entertainment with new things, so I'm sure there were many games created at that time that no one patented, meaning they are now lost - since it's unlikely anyone who was there to see it would come out now to announce it.

    It's just a patent, sure, and we have no pictures of it, or people describing how they invented it, but it's like an archaeologist finding a dinosaur bone. He may have no idea how the creature was exactly, but he can't deny its existance.

    If you take the term "video game" literally, it has to generate a video signal, but not necessarily on a standard TV set. In that case, OXO is indeed the first video game, because it generates its visual output exactly the same way every computer and console still does today - a raster pattern displaying the contents of certain memory locations, representing a series of still images. Ralph Baer's Brown Box, or later the Odyssey would then be the first "TV game" or "TV video game".

    Of course OXO is also the first "computer game", running on the EDSAC. "Tennis for two" was a computer game as well, though an analog one.

    That's how I would define the games and their pioneering elements:
    1947, Cathode-ray tube amusement device: First electronic game
    1952, OXO: First computer and video game
    1958, Tennis for Two: First publicly displayed computer game
    1961, Spacewar!: First distributed and widely played computer game
    1971, Computer Space: First commercial computer and video game
    1972, Odyssey: First commercially sold consumer TV/video game

    Hank
    Kudos to Daniel for (astute commentary aside) having the coolest homepage I will see today:
    in soviet russia website visit you
    Awesome info! I've instructed a lot of computer classes and didn't know that I had my trivia questions all wrong! Thanks!
    I don't think you can give the missile game credit for being first since there is no real proof that it ever existed. The idea by itself isn't enough. Based on the above info I'd have to say the Tic-Tac-Toe game would get my vote but Tennis for Two is certainly notable for being the first motion graphics game. Perhaps they can be listed as an entry, 1 and 1A.

    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    I used to work for the music copyright protection society (MCPS) in England in the early eighties, and we all used to play a game called dungeons, which was totally enthralling. You simply typed questions and instructions and the game responded in words. A bit like scientific blogging. Along the way you fought trolls and found treasure. How successful you were depended upon your initiative and ingenuity. Everyone used to play, it and we all were experts in different areas. When I finally left to go to a better paid more challenging job, my workmates presented me with the most amazing map of all of their combined efforts to reveal the dungeons secrets. I still have it somewhere. It was very addictive and you could easily spot who was playing dungeons and who was programming just from the expression on their faces. Paul McCartney or Mick jagger might walk out of the lift to negotiate or collect their royalties and we wouldn't even notice. Sadly, I never played dungeons again since leaving MCPS. My sons however play computer games in most of their spare time. I'm trying to interest them in blogging instead, but sometimes I wonder which is healthier?
    My latest forum article 'Australian Researchers Discover Potential Blue Green Algae Cause & Treatment of Motor Neuron Disease (MND)&(ALS)' Parkinsons's and Alzheimer's can be found at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Hank
     You simply typed questions and instructions and the game respondeds in words. A bit like scientific blogging. Along the way you foughtfight> trolls and foundfind treasure.
    That's as accurate a description of what we do as anything else I have read.
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Living in Australia and in the Australian time zone means that I can single-handedly fill the new comments in half an hour. Time for bed, its not quite the same though without waking up in the middle of the night to watch the world cup.
    My latest forum article 'Australian Researchers Discover Potential Blue Green Algae Cause & Treatment of Motor Neuron Disease (MND)&(ALS)' Parkinsons's and Alzheimer's can be found at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine