Ranked #97 on Video Game Canon’s Version 2.0

Why were early game developers so fixated on bouncing a ball back and forth?

It’s hard to pinpoint the very first video game, but it most likely belongs to A.S. Douglas and OXO. This electronic version of Tic-Tac-Toe was created by Douglas in 1952 to support his doctoral thesis, Interactions Between Human and Computer. But after that, the only question early gamemakers wanted to ask was, “Tennis, anyone?”

William Higinbotham was probably unfamiliar with OXO when he unleashed Tennis For Two on the world on October 18, 1958. Presented to the public during an open house at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, the game harnessed the pulses of an oscilloscope to give players the illusion of a playing field with a net in the center and a ball bouncing back and forth. Unlike Douglas, Higinbotham was trying to wow a crowd with the possibilities of science and add a little pizazz to the BNL’s normally staid event:

“The instruction book that came with the computer described how to plot trajectories and bouncing shapes, for research. I thought, ‘Hell, this would make a good game.’ It took me four hours to design one and a technician a couple of weeks to put it together. Everybody stood in line to play. The other exhibits were pretty static, obviously. The game seemed to me sort of an obvious thing.”

After the open house, Higinbotham’s invention was dismantled, and his status as a game development pioneer was forgotten… until the early 70s when he was dragged into the legal battle between Table Tennis and Pong.

VGC Essays are original essays discussing each title from the Video Game Canon and their place in gaming history, as well as to better appreciate how players interacted with video games in the past. This time, we’re looking at Pong.

Ralph Baer was given a National Medal of Technology by President George W. Bush in 2004 for “his groundbreaking and pioneering creation, development and commercialization of interactive video games.” And it all started with Table Tennis. More specifically, it started with Baer’s “Brown Box,” the first video game console… which he dreamed up while waiting for a bus.

Work on the “Brown Box” began in 1967 as part of Baer’s duties at Sanders Associates, a defense contractor in New Hampshire. The project began on a lark, and Baer hoped to license the patent to television manufacturers and other computer technicians to help their products stand out in the marketplace. After a deal with Magnavox, the “Brown Box” would be given a new name (the Odyssey) and introduced console gaming (and Table Tennis) to the world in 1972.

One of those technicians was Nolan Bushnell, who partnered with Ted Dabney to develop Computer Space, the first commercially-released video game, in 1971. Computer Space was based on the similarly-named Spacewar!, a space combat simulation designed by members of a computer enthusiast club at MIT in the early 60s. Bushnell and Dabney pitched Computer Space to bars and pizza parlors, as many early video games were, as additional entertainment for their customers. But the game’s complicated control scheme frustrated players used to darts or pool, and it was quickly forgotten.

Their frustration was short-lived, and after founding Atari in 1972, the pair struck gold with Pong. Bushnell had seen a prototype of Table Tennis at an industry event, and he brought the idea to the company’s first employee, Al Alcorn, as a programming test. Rather than recreate Baer’s game (Table Tennis allowed players to move the paddles anywhere and didn’t keep score), Alcorn locked the paddles to the edge of the screen, added a scoreboard, and created the bleeps and bloops that all early video games would eventually emulate.

Alcorn’s other additions (adding “english” to the paddles, speeding up play after several volleys, and keeping the paddles from reaching the upper and lower edge of the screen) helped convince Bushnell to serve up Pong to the public:

“The project took, from a standing start, about three months to have this done. I used parts I had left over from Ampex and a few other parts that we could buy. From the original goal’s perspective, I saw it as a failure. But Nolan never told me it was just a throwaway. He just wanted to start me on a simple project that I could finish in order to get the hang of the process. In his mind, a real product was never the intended outcome. I on the other hand thought that we were designing a real product. [As] fate would have it, circumstances transformed my project into the commercial product called Pong.”

The similarities between Pong and Table Tennis angered executives at Sanders and Magnavox, but other knockoffs quickly found their way to the marketplace. Lawsuits were filed to counter this stream of imitators, and Bushnell quickly settled, but not before his previous experience with Table Tennis was exposed. In a last ditch effort, some defendants even coaxed William Higinbotham into the courtroom to demonstrate Tennis For Two as “prior art” in their defense.

Sanders and Magnavox triumphed in trial after trial, and their patent for a “Television Gaming and Training Apparatus” would eventually secure royalty payments from companies as diverse as Mattel, Activision, Nintendo, and Sega until its expiration in the early 90s.

We’ll probably never be able to answer the “Why Tennis?” question, but William Higinbotham’s idle desire to create something fun, and Ralph Baer’s bus stop daydreams, helped kickstart a multibillion dollar industry and made video game fans of us all. “Why Tennis?” isn’t the real question… it’s “Why Not?” And that’s the attitude you can see in all the game developers that came after, and it’s why Nolan Bushnell and Al Alcorn created Pong.

Pong endures not just because of its status as the first blockbuster video game, but also because it’s a pretty good game. Its simplistic graphics and playstyle were a necessity due to the equipment available at the time, but bouncing a simple ball back and forth is still surprisingly addictive in 2017.

And even though Pong recently celebrated its 45th birthday, it’s still possible to find a working arcade cabinet out there in the world. You’ll need to travel to a museum instead of an arcade, but an original (and playable) Pong machine is currently available as part of the “eGameRevolution” exhibit at The Strong Museum in Rochester, NY. Closer to home, players interested in revisiting gaming’s earliest days can do so with the dozens of “TV Controllers” and microconsoles that include Pong, including the Atari Flashback line.

Publisher: Atari
Developer: Atari
Release Date: November 29, 1972

Alcorn, Allan – Engineering and Technology History Wiki – First-Hand: The Development of Pong: Early Days of Atari and the Video Game Industry – 2015

Baer, Ralph – Genesis: How the Home Video Games Industry Began

Brookhaven National Laboratory – The First Video Game?

Edwards, Benj – Technologizer – Computer Space and the Dawn of the Arcade Video Game – 2011

Lovece, Frank – Video Review (June 1983) – The Honest-to-Goodness History of Home Video Games – 1983

United States Patent and Trademark Office – The National Medal of Technology and Innovation – Recipients – 2004