Thursday, 24 November 2011

a history of computer games, part one: 1950s - 1970s

While the 1950s are the years when computer really began to accelerate, the origins of computers go back even further than that.  Some of the most well-known examples of early computers are the ones that were developed and used in the Second World War.  During the early 20th century, World War II was a huge driving force between the development of technology and huge steps forward were made, but it was still at least a decade before the first games began to emerge.

Before that could happen, there were several more steps that technology had to take.  The first was the ability to store programs.  Previously, programming would have had to be entered manually into the machine. The ability to store programs not only made the process of using computers much faster, it allowed easier editing and refining of programs.

The mid 1950s saw the construction of the mitt tx-0, an experimental computer built at the Lincoln Laboratory.  It was notable because it was created for use by students, whereas previously computers had been used exclusively by businesses for number crunching, and to eliminate human error in calculations. This sudden availability of computers outside of the business world was the second big step; the majority of games for the next few decades would not be made by specialist companies, but by individual hobbyists or small groups with a shared enthusiasm for computing. Therefore, it’s no coincidence that the pioneers of the first games almost all had some connection to universities where the machines were available.

There are quite a few contenders for the title of ‘first’ computer game. Certainly most well-known early computer game is Pong; its primitive two-dimensional interface is immediately recognisable, and could be considered  iconic for early video games. Pong was the first game that was produced commercially, and would have initially been playable on an arcade-style machine in public places.

However, as early as a decade beforehand, games were already beginning to emerge. What prevented these games from becoming mainstream at the time was the size and cost of the hardware needed to run them. The predecessor of Pong, ‘Tennis for Two’ was exhibited for about half a year at the Brookhaven National Laboratory before being dissembled for the parts. The game ‘Spacewar!’ was made by a small group in 1961, a full eleven years before Pong came out, but even though it was popular with the computer communities who played it on pre-existing systems such as university computers, it would have been prohibitively expensive to make it available to the public.

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