The History of Early Computer and Video Games

In the Dark Ages Before MMORPG, There was "SpaceWar!"

Atari 2600 Games & System
Atari 2600 Games & System. Morguefile

It would be something of a misnomer to attribute the creation and development of video games to any singular moment or event. Rather, the process can be best described as an ongoing evolution, a long and winding journey of advancements with numerous inventors all playing pivotal roles.

  • In 1952, A.S. Douglas wrote his Ph.D. thesis at the University of Cambridge on Human-Computer interaction. As part of the project, Douglas created the first graphics-based computer game: a version of Tic-Tac-Toe. The game was programmed on an EDSAC vacuum-tube computer, which relied on a cathode ray tube display.
  • In 1958, William Higinbotham created the first true video game. His game, titled "Tennis for Two," was devised and played on a Brookhaven National Laboratory oscilloscope. Using an MIT PDP-1 mainframe computer, Steve Russell designed "SpaceWar!"—the first game specifically made for computer play in 1962.
  • In 1967, Ralph Baer wrote "Chase," the first video game played on a television set. (Baer, who was then part of military electronics firm Sanders Associates, first conceived of his idea in 1951 while working for Loral, a television company.)
  • In 1971, Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney created the first arcade game. It was called "Computer Space" and was based on Steve Russell's earlier game of "Spacewar!" A year later, the arcade game "Pong" was created by Bushnell, with help from Al Alcorn. Bushnell and Dabney would go on to become the founders of Atari Computers that same year. In 1975, Atari re-released "Pong" as a home video game.

Larry Kerecman, one of the first video arcade game operators, wrote: 

"The brilliance of these machines was that Nolan Bushnell and company took what was computer programming (in 'Space War') and translated it into a simpler version of the game (no gravity) using hard-wired logic circuits. The printed circuit boards that comprise electronics of these games use integrated circuits called small-scale integrated circuits. They consist of discrete logic chips and gates or gates, 4-line to 16-line decoders, etc. straight out of the Texas Instruments catalog. The shape of the rocket ship and flying saucer even are visible in a pattern of diodes on the PC board."
  • In 1972, Magnavox released the first commercial home video game console, The Odyssey, which came pre-programmed with a dozen games. The machine had originally been designed by Baer while he was still at Sanders Associates in 1966. Baer managed to gain his legal rights to the machine after Sanders Associates rejected it.
  • In 1976, Fairchild released the first programmable home game console, the Fairchild Video Entertainment System. Later renamed Channel F, the system was one of the first to use a newly invented microchip by Robert Noyce of the Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation. Thanks to this chip, video games were no longer limited by the number of TTL switches.
  • On June 17, 1980, Atari's "Asteroids" and "Lunar Lander" became the first two video games to be registered with the United States Copyright Office.
  • In 1989, Nintendo introduced the popular Game Boy system, a portable handheld video console created by game designer Gumpei Yokoi. He was also known for creating Virtual Boy, Famicom (and NES) as well as the "Metroid" series.
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Bellis, Mary. "The History of Early Computer and Video Games." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Bellis, Mary. (2021, February 16). The History of Early Computer and Video Games. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "The History of Early Computer and Video Games." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 28, 2023).