The original video game
November 29, 2022
Back in the 1970’s life was much simpler. There were no personal computers; no cell phones; no video games. To entertain ourselves, we would tune in to the local radio station and listen to the hits of the day; we might go for a drive – if our parents let us use the car; we’d call our friends on the phone and, perhaps, meet at the local pizza parlor; or we might hang out at the local arcade and drop quarters in a pinball machine.
It was on November 29, 1972, when the first hint of the coming electronic age poked its head up out of the ether with the introduction of the earliest of all electronic games: PONG by Atari.
I could attempt to explain to anyone born after 1970 what Pong was, but will let the Infallible Wikipedia do the heavy lifting for me:
“Pong is a two-dimensional sports game that simulates table tennis. The player controls an in-game paddle by moving it vertically across the left or right side of the screen. They can compete against another player controlling a second paddle on the opposing side. Players use the paddles to hit a ball back and forth. The goal is for each player to reach eleven points before the opponent; points are earned when one fails to return the ball to the other.”
Okay, I know, I know. All you Gen-Xers, Millennials, and Gen-Z types are saying: “Really? That’s what you thought was fun back in the 1970’s, Boomer?”
Yes. Yes we did.
The Infallible Wikipedia continues: “The Pong arcade games manufactured by Atari were a great success. The prototype was well received by Andy Capp’s Tavern patrons; people came to the bar solely to play the game. Following its release, Pong consistently earned four times more revenue than other coin-operated machines. (Nolan) Bushnell estimated that the game earned US$35–40 per day (i.e. 140–160 plays daily per console at $0.25 per play), which he described as nothing he’d ever seen before in the coin-operated entertainment industry at the time. The game’s earning power resulted in an increase in the number of orders Atari received. This provided Atari with a steady source of income; the company sold the machines at three times the cost of production. By 1973, the company had filled 2,500 orders, and, at the end of 1974, sold more than 8,000 units.”
I cannot say for sure when Pong first entered my consciousness. My arcade hopping days were a few years later and I can assure you that my mother would not have let me near one anyway. But I did have something which exposed me to the early games: older brothers.
It was likely my eldest brother – nine years my senior – was all agog over Pong. From the earliest days of electronics, he was in to it. Really in to it. No doubt he went to arcades and played Pong, looking to extend a win streak or earn a high score, responsible for giving Nolan Bushnell a bunch of quarters.
When, probably at Christmas 1975, the first home Pong gaming console was released, my brother brought it to the house where we grew up and everyone got a chance to try their hand at the game. All that Christmas there were whoops of joy and cries of dismay as games were won and lost. While I no doubt played Pong, I was never that in to it. I really didn’t get the attraction of moving a little line up and down one side of a screen trying to ‘hit’ a little blinking thing.
By the early 1980’s, the arcade version of Pong became a relic of the past as newer, more involved electronic games like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong took their place. (I wrote about them here: https://barbaradevore.com/2017/10/10/pac-man-fever/)
Similarly, the dedicated ‘at home’ gaming consoles eventually were able to feature multiple games in the form of interchangeable cartridges.
Atari stayed at the top of the heap for a few more years with the introduction of a dedicated gaming console. The Infallible Wikipedia shares:
“The Atari 2600, initially branded as the Atari Video Computer System (Atari VCS) from its release until November 1982, is a home video game console developed and produced by Atari, Inc. Released in September 1977, it popularized microprocessor-based hardware and games stored on swappable ROM cartridges, a format first used with the Fairchild Channel F in 1976. The VCS was bundled with two joystick controllers, a conjoined pair of paddle controllers, and a game cartridge—initially Combat and later Pac-Man.
(snip) The Atari VCS launched in 1977 with nine simple, low-resolution games in 2 KB cartridges. The system’s first killer app was the home conversion of Taito’s arcade game Space Invaders in 1980.”
My brother, however, did not go with the Atari but invested in the Commodore VIC 20 which was an early home computer system which had a whole bunch of compatible games for it. I have a distinct memory of being at my brother’s home in Ballard in the early 1980’s and we are all huddled around the TV in their small sitting area, watching as my brother and the hubby battle it out over some game.
I imagine it’s difficult to imagine the thrill of those early games when compared to the sophistication of today’s technology. Yet, it had the power to make us all sit up and notice and be in awe of things we’d never seen before.
As is my custom, I do try to ferret out how I might have been involved with whatever my Tuesday Newsday topic might be. Which led me to my small collection of diary’s from the early to mid-1970’s. I was rewarded with this gem from December 31, 1973:
The “Upper Valley (DeMolay) New Year’s Eve dance was tonight. It was slow at first. I danced some. Once with Alan, and twice with his friend. Then towards the end Sally and Julie and myself were dancing with Tony, Cory A., and some other guy. It was a fun dance. We went to Pizza Pete’s afterwards but I didn’t eat anything. I played electronic Ping-Pong with Lee L., Kev, Mike K., and beat them. I played Tony and lost.”
Oh, us crazy Boomers. Such wild things! Did we know how to have fun or what!?
Of course, the links: