The History of Gaming

From Dungeons and Dragons to Snakes and Ladders to the Commodore 64 and the Atari 2600. Games have come a long way baby…

Ever since an Egyptian threw the first knucklebone and made his first move on the Senat board, games have played a huge role in man’s leisure activities. Whether it’s a humble game of noughts and crosses to help while away the time on a family road trip or a fullscale multiplayer LAN game played out across computers around the nation – gaming is here to stay. But where did it all begin?

The Egyptians have the honour of inventing the earliest board games – in the 4th Century BC a favourite Egyptian past time was kicking back and playing a game of Senat. The Egyptians believed that a successful player was under the protection of the major gods of the national pantheon: Ra, Thoth and and sometimes even the lord of the Underworld, Osiris. The boards were often placed in the grave alongside other useful objects used in the journey through the afterlife and the game is even referred to in the Book of the Dead.

The Egyptians weren’t the only ones to develop a passion for gaming early on… The popular Japanese game Go found its beginnings in 2000 BC in China, whilst dice games made their debut as early as 700 BC. Games such as Backgammon and Chess were played as early as the fouth century – although card games didn’t make an appearance til the 1300s. However it took more than 500 years for games like Bridge, Cribbage, Poker and Solitaire to gain a foothold in popular culture.

While games of Snakes and Ladders and Ludo may have been staple fair for our great grandparents, it wasn’t till 1900 that the seeds were sewn for one of the world’s most popular board games, Monopoly. The Landlord’s Game, first invented by Elizabeth Magi was an early precursor of the beloved Parker Brothers game that is now played the world over…

By the 1970s Dungeons and Dragons made its first foray into the hearts and minds of teenage geeks across America, before spreading its way across the globe to become a worldwide phenomenon. But the real news in gaming came a decade earlier when video gaming (although not quite as we know it) was born….

In 1962, inspired by the writings of EE (Doc) Smith, MIT’s Steve Russell lead a team of programmers to invent the world’s first video game, Spacewar.

If I hadn’t done it, someone would’ve done something equally exciting if not better in the next six months. I just happened to get there first.”
Steve Russell.

Russell wrote Spacewar on the PDP-1, an early DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) interactive mini computer which used a cathode ray tube type display and keyboard input. The two player game saw players controlling separate rockets, the aim: to blast the other player out of the sky before you got sucked into a vortex.

Game emulater link

Within a year, the game could be found on most research computers around the US.

At this time in history, computers were still incredibly large and incredibly expensive, so the challenge was on… how to bring this new form of entertainment to the people? In 1968 Ralph H Baer came to the party with his early invention the Television Gaming and Training Apparatus.

Meanwhile back on the Russell ranch… (figuratively speaking) Russell left MIT and transferred to Stanford University where he formed a friendship with an engineering student Nolan Bushnell who was to become one of the most influential movers in the early game business. In 1971 Bushnell created a new computer game called Computer Space, it is the first of many coin operated arcade games to be placed in bars and taverns around the country. Unfortunately Bushnell’s idea proves too complicated for the mass market and the game is a failure. Undeterred Bushnell goes on to invent further games (including Pong )and start Atari Computers.

In 1972 Magnavox release the first home game console – The Odyssey – created by none other than Ralph H Baer. The console comes equipped with 12 games on board including Ping Pong. Baer’s name as the founder of gaming is solidified.

Soon after Bushnell releases Pong as an arcade game. He markets and releases the game himself after a number of manufacturers drop the project into the ‘too hard basket’. The first test console of the coin operated arcade game is set up at Bushnell’s local bar – Andy Capps. Within two weeks the test unit breaks down from overuse. Pong is a success.

Cut to 1975 and the first home version of old school classic, Pong, is released and the home console battle begins in earnest. Urged on by the success of Atari’s Pong, a number of new players jump into the market putting added stress on the already pushed to the limit fledgling American circuitry industry. Coleco’s Home Entertainment System, The Telstar debuts over the Father’s Day weekend and thanks to a shortage in available circuitry (no other companies get their circuitry completed in time) the Telstar smashes sales that weekend.

1976 sees the release of the first cartridge based console system, The Channel F. The console allows players to insert cartridges into the console and change games – an early forerunner of today’s systems…

Meanwhile Bushnell sells up his shares in Atari to Warner Communications and starts a new business – The Pizza Time Theatre – an idea he thought up whilst waiting in line at a pizzeria. The restaurant features robotics, games and… pizza…

1977 and the Atari 2600 is released… need we say more…

We now enter what has become known as the golden age of video games. From 1978 – 1981 the rise of arcade gaming creates a number of new movers and shakers in the industry. A new player comes to town – a Japanese company named Nintendo…

However perhaps the most important moment in gaming history arrives in 1978 when Midway import Taito’s game Space Invaders. The game is the first to introduce the notion of a ‘high score’. Suddenly players are battling it out against each other not just a machine… Space Invaders becomes the video game of the summer causing coin shortages around the country…

Tired of getting no credit for their efforts and spurred on by the success of the games on the Atari 2600, a number of programmers from Atari go rogue and decide to set up their own game company. Unlike Atari, the new born (Activision) company’s focus is software and programmers will receive credit for their efforts. The split turns nasty with Atari taking action against the fledgling company. The battle winds up in court and is not settled until 1982.

By Cec Busby

Next week check out part two of the History of Gaming – The Console Wars