A Look at the History of Video Games (20th century – 1983)

Last year at my local comic book store, I purchased a book that had caught my eye. It was titled The Comic Book Story of Video Games. I was intrigued…could this book really explain the origins of one of the biggest and hottest industries out there, and do it in such a visual manner?

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The inside cover of The Comic Book Story of Video Games

It claimed it did, and I enjoyed reading it. I learned quite a bit then I had before, such as that Nintendo had started as a playing card company since the late 1800s, and (perhaps not surprisingly) the origin of video games can be traced back to the early beginnings of computer science in the late 19th and early 20thcenturies. While armies used computer science in various ways during combat training and espionage, it wasn’t until the 1950s that the beginnings of what we would recognize as a ‘video game’ finally began to emerge.

Professors of computer science and computer enthusiasts entered a race to see who could develop the best computer the fastest. The idea was conceived that instead of just using computers for collecting data, crunching numbers, or training the military, why not create computer games you could play with for leisurely purposes?

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Noughts and Crosses (1952)

The concept began simply; scientists worked to create a computer that had a program that focused on human-computer interaction, rather than simply using the computer to collect data. In 1952, a British professor named A S Douglas developed OXO (or Noughts and Crosses), a very basic form of tic-tac-toe. Although playable, it was not available to the general public, and the world would have to wait until over a decade later to finally get their hands on a computer game of some kind.

Other early prototypes were developed too, like 1957’s Table For Two (designed by William Higinbotham), and various others throughout the 1950s’ and 60s’, but the first one that paved the way to arcade gaming (and gaming as we currently know it) is Computer Space, released in 1971.

The game itself is simple by today’s standards; you can watch a 5-minute clip of it here (be warned; there’s a lot of static and beeping that may annoy your ears a bit). You control a rocket that is supposed to target a pair of flying saucers that are also attacking you; you can aim by turning your ship to shoot back.

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The Computer Space console

A fun fact I learned was that this was the very first video game to be featured in a movie – in this case, the 1971 post-apocalyptic film Soylent Green, as a futuristic entertainment device enjoyed by the wealthy as a diversion.

Computer Space was not a success, as the average person didn’t understand the mechanics of the game, and grew frustrated with it. Nolan Bushnell, one of the co-creators of Computer Space, felt that the company that helped publish the game did not market the game well enough and formed Atari, Inc. with Computer Space‘s other creator Ted Dabney in 1972.

The first game that was released from Atari Inc. is one of the most iconic games in video game history, and helped bring in a golden era for arcade games that lasted through the rest of the 1970s and into the early ’80s.

That game, of course, was Pong.

Originally created as a secret project, with table tennis being the main source of inspiration, Pong was the brainchild of Atari engineer Allan Alcorn. Having never created a video game himself, he was given the project by Bushnell, and was asked to create a simple game, with the only criteria being to have two moving paddles for the players to use, a moving dot to serve as the ball, lines to separate the two sections, and digits to keep score.

Once the project was completed, the prototype impressed Bushnell and Dabney – so much so that they decided to install it in a local bar to test its marketability. It turned out to be a quick hit, and as the days grew into weeks, the demand to play this intriguing console became stronger and stronger.

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A Pong console

Bushnell was called soon afterward when Pong began experiencing technical difficulties – upon closer inspection, it turned out that the reason for the malfunction was that the coin mechanism for the game had been overflowing with quarters.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The success of Pong meant that demand for the game was very high, and soon orders began coming in. By the end of 1974, more than 8,000 units were already sold and only continued to grow as time marched on. Imitators entered the market, in an attempt to capture the magic that the original Pong had created. The production of many of these ‘Pong Clones‘ that entered the market, alongside the original Pong games, are led to what would be the First Video Game Crash of 1977.

In that same year, Atari began production and releasing the Atari 2600 (or the Atari Video Computer System). Although the Atari 2600 was not the first home video game console (the first being the Magnavox Odyssey, released in 1972), it helped popularize the idea that video games could be played from the home instead of just the arcade or bar.

The console’s features were enticing to consumers, such as colorful graphics, richer sounds, and better quality games.

Some of these games included titles that have since entered the forefront of popular culture and remain beloved even over forty years later, such as Space Invaders (1978), Missile Command (1980), and Pac-Man (1982), among many, many others.

The Atari 2600 was, arguably, responsible for launching the years dubbed as The Golden Years of Arcade Games, which began with its release around 1978. It was, ironically, also responsible for what led up to the infamous Video Game Crash of 1983.

Many different factors led to the crash, but the tipping points were the home release of Pac-Man and the game adaptation of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. Players who initially purchased these games soon found that these overhyped games were far from the great experiences Atari had promised them, and word soon spread of their poor quality. Production soon exceeded demand, and Atari began losing money quickly after producing more of these games that nobody was buying.

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The ill-fated E.T. The Extraterrestrial game

Attempting to rebound itself, Atari attempted to also release the Atari 5200 console, which turned out to be a dismal failure; the 5200 failed to break over a million units, compared to its predecessor with its 30 million units sold.

Companies continued to try to cash in on Atari’s initial success as well, and more and more games flooded the market, which confused and overwhelmed the common consumer. There was very little variety in the way of games and consoles released, and many of them were in poor quality and incredibly bugged. Consumers had difficulty telling bad video games apart from the good ones and were often lied to about the product they were purchasing in order to make a profit.

These factors, and more, led to the Crash, which effectively killed the video game market and dropped overall revenue an effective 97%. Many arcades were closed and most retailers dropped consoles or reduced their prices, and demands for them significantly decreased.

It wasn’t until 1985 that the industry began to pick up the pieces and get back on its feet…and it was with the help of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), with one of the releases starring a red-garmented mustachioed plumber that finally helped start turning things around…

That marks the beginning of the video game industry, with some of its ups and downs. Of course, there are many, many more games than the ones mentioned here, and so much more history than I was able to share here. There have been books, documentaries, and reflections that mark this period in this beloved industry.

If you have any fun facts, feedback, or resources about this period in time, I would love to hear about them! It’s always fascinating to learn more about video games in all of its aspects, and I think learning about its beginnings is just as important as keeping up with all the latest news and developments.

Thank you, and the next time this series is revisited, we’ll be taking a look at the point where Super Mario Bros. enters the scene and changes the landscape for video games through the 80s into the early 90s.

Click the image to purchase the book on Amazon 🙂

The Comic Book Story of Video Games: The Incredible History of the Electronic Gaming Revolution


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