Video games have captivated the world since the 1970s. The genre evolved rapidly from simple pixel characters to graphic visual imagery that seems almost real.
Roli Hofer

Where fox and hound hunt

In the early days of video gaming the games were just too abstract, but it was fun to play them even 50 years ago. A brief look back.

Marc Bodmer

Marc Bodmer

Marc Bodmer is a lawyer by training and a games consultant. He is the independent gaming expert of the Pro Helvetia cultural foundation, and organises workshops on video games.

Some of us may still remember the dark grey computer screen (there was no black back then) on which two white lines were visible at the edges of the screen, on left and right. In between the two lines, a white dot moved back and forth – the aim was to hit it back, or rather fend it off, using the ‘rackets’ at the sides. In 1972, Nolan Bushnell’s ‘Pong’ ushered in the commercial age of the video game, but the story of the defining medium of our time began a good decade earlier.

In 1961, three young researchers and fans of rudimentary science fiction stories teeming with space warriors, monsters and alien planets got together at the Hingham Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Most likely due to this shared passion, they used the name ‘Spacewar!’ for a simple demonstration programme created for the Hingham Institute’s then revolutionary PDP-1 computer.

If we disregard these isolated, experimental trials conducted in electrical engineering research laboratories, such as ‘Spacewar!’ and, even earlier than that, ‘Tennis for Two’, developed at Brookhaven National Laboratory in 1958 by William Higginbotham, German-born Ralph Baer is the father of the video game from a legal point of view. Baer fought a court battle over the definition of a video game, which described a device that used raster video technology to display the game – that is, a TV set or TV monitor – and not, as in earlier attempts, an oscilloscope that was connected to a computer. In 1966 Baer developed ‘Fox & Hounds’. The game consisted in imagining that one dot was a fox, and the other a hunting dog. The objective was for the dog to chase the fox until he caught it by simply touching the other point. It was the first ‘video game’ ever to be played on a television screen.

Pong, a milestone in the history of the video game, conquered the world in 1972.

The original ‘Magnavox Odyssey’ console, based on Baer’s patent, was launched in 1972. A year earlier, however, Nolan Bushnell had brought out ‘Computer Space’, a reference to his beloved ‘Spacewar!’, which provided competition for the pinball machines in amusement arcades. But the game was too complex for the arcade clientele, and so Bushnell, who went on to found video games manufacturer Atari, added the much easier ‘Pong’, a kind of table tennis in black and white. Pong proved to be a huge bestseller, and Bushnell sold the game throughout the USA. It was also the first sports video game – a category that now occupies a lot of space within the gaming world.

In 1972 the first console, the Magnavox Odyssey, was launched.

The industry really took off a few years later, with the advent of ‘Space Invaders’ (1978) and ‘Pac-Man’ (1981) and the first appearance of a moustachioed carpenter in jump ’n’ run game ‘Donkey Kong’ (1980). The then nameless ‘Jumpman’ later evolved into the legendary Super Mario, who also went on to change jobs, with his ‘promotion’ to plumber who has to spend his whole life rescuing Princess Peach. This period of the late 1970s and early 1980s is dubbed the golden age of video games. Amusement arcades filled with customised giant boxes, which were built to house the monitors and operating controls, shot up around the globe like mushrooms out of the urban soil.

With the improvements in graphics – in terms of computer technology, the little coloured pixel man is lightyears on from the white dot – the games then started to appeal to a wider audience. Killjoys will say that with the loss of the abstraction component, a large part of the imagination that was required, when playing Baer’s ‘Fox & Hounds’, to visualise a fox hunt on your TV screen at home is lost. But that was a small price to pay for the basis of the world’s fastest-growing medium.

Super Mario made his first big appearance in ‘Donkey Kong’.

Further posts