Where Did Computer Games Originate?

In the 1980s, computer games were generally regarded as the preserve of socially awkward teenage boys. Yet these days gaming has entered the mainstream to such an extent that even the Queen has declared herself to be a fan of the Nintendo Wii. The internet further democratised gameplay by placing millions of app-based smartphone games in our pockets. Google’s Play Store alone contains 40 headline categories of computer games, ranging from Educational and Console Classics to Non-stop Action and even Zombie Survival games.

Gaming may be ubiquitous nowadays, but it wasn’t always so on-trend. As recently as the early Noughties, playing a computer game involved installing it on a specific device, having paid up-front for a single licence. Today’s freemium model encourages people to dabble with gaming in a way those shop-bought C-drive titles never could. And you don’t have to go back far to discover a time prior to computer gaming – an age before PlayStations, Pac-Man, and even Pong.

Origin of the species

During the impoverished post-war era, computing was effectively non-existent. However, scientists were already imagining a world where machines might become widely used for leisure purposes. The 1947 Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device allowed users to manipulate a cathode ray beam while looking through one of several cardboard screen overlays. In the same year, Alan Turing devised a rudimentary electronic chess program, though the absence of a screen rather hindered its gaming credentials.

In the early 1950s, a number of companies debuted electronic versions of noughts and crosses, again without recourse to a screen. Even so, these demonstrations hinted that computers might one day offer entertainment rather than merely processing or calculations. Speaking of which, 1952’s OXO game was played on a calculator – the first recorded use of a calculator being used for something other than numeracy (or displaying rude words).

A moving tale

By 1958, these concepts had coalesced into the first-known example of a computer being used to display moving graphics for leisure and entertainment purposes. As a primitive version of Pong, played using handheld controllers with a switch-and-dial interface, Tennis For Two preceded the Atari 2600 by twenty years. But in one of the modern world’s biggest what-if moments, the device was promptly dismantled, never to be seen again.

It could be argued that what happened with Tennis For Two represents computer gaming’s Ground Zero. However, another potential point of origin was a 1962 program called Spacewar. Saved onto punch tape (the tape storage mechanism of its day), programmers could load it onto different devices. The game’s premise involved two spaceships conducting a dogfight under Newtonian physics laws, with attributes like limited fuel and finite weapons providing challenges similar to modern shoot-em-up titles. And in another recognisably modern twist, Spacewar’s popularity grew through word-of-mouth recommendations within the American computing industry.

Serious play

Once Spacewar had demonstrated a certain degree of computer gaming enthusiasm, the die was cast. Programmers began developing bespoke games through the 1960s and selling them through computing catalogues. Within a decade of Spacewar, similar titles began appearing in arcade machines, like 1971’s Galaxy Game. Pong followed a year later, and the concept of computer games gradually evolved from arcade machines to early home consoles, through 1980s’ desktop computers to 1990s’ 32-bit consoles. The internet and app stores did the rest. But next time you decide to download a puzzle or adventure game onto your phone, spare a thought for the pioneers who helped to bring computer games into existence. Without them, board games might still represent the only pinnacle of home gaming.