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Most people, when pressed for the name of the first video game, usually throw out the name of the oldest arcade game they’ve ever played (or had been nostalgically told about by an older friend or relative). Pong, Pac Man, and Asteroids are all early games that come to mind–all relics of the 1970s and 1980s. To find the first video game, however, you need to dig deeper–all the way back to the 1950s.
In 1958 William Higinbothan, an American physicist in the employ of the Brookhaven National Laboratory, created Tennis for Two in order to entertain and amuse visitors. He intended the simple game to serve as a way to capture the interest of the public and create interest in the more scientific endeavors undertaken at Brookhaven.
Higinbothan was inspired to create the game while reading the manual for a small analog computer; the manual included instructions on how one could use it to generate curves on an oscilloscope screen simulating missile trajectories and bouncing balls. Bouncing balls sounded a lot like the game of tennis, people loved tennis, and anything that could combine the research and equipment at Brookhaven with something the public enjoyed and understood seemed like a natural pick for a public display. Higinbothan set to work rigging a series of analog computers and transistor circuits together to feed images into the oscilloscope. The game was simple, there was a net, a ball that bounced over the net, and a large aluminum controller that allowed visitors to hit the ball over the net. Tennis for Two was an enormous success–the entire experience was completely new to visitors at Brookhaven and people would line up by the hundreds to play the game.
Like all firsts, the first-video-game status of Tennis for Two has been subject to quite a bit of debate over the years. As early as the 1940s there was a device called the Cathode-Ray Tube Amusement device, patented by Thomas T. Goldsmith. Although it was in fact a game and loosely resembled early video games, it required physical overlays to be placed on the screen and did not render its own graphics–not the first video game but certainly a sort of prototypical ancestor to it. Seven years before Tennis for Two, the Nimrod Computer was built for Britain’s Exhibition of Science. The Nimrod computer was built not as a game but as a demonstration of computing power–it simply used the centuries-old logic game Nim to show off–perhaps one of the earliest examples of a demo kit but definitely not the first video game as it didn’t even have a screen-based display. The first game of any sort to use a digital graphical display appeared a year later in 1952. Dubbed Noughts and Crosses (or Tic-Tac-Toe as Americans call the game) it again was designed for demonstration/research purposes and not to be played simply as a game. Noughts and Crosses creator A.S. Douglas designed the game in order to study human-computer interactions in a research setting.
Later on, in the 1970s and 1980s, there were a series of lawsuits that established that a “video game” was an apparatus that displayed a game via the manipulation of video display signals of raster-based equipment such as a television set or a computer monitor. By this definition nearly everything prior to 1970 would not be considered a video game. None the less, Tennis for Two was a computer game, designed simply for entertainment, that included a control interface custom designed for play, and it rendered its own graphics. It was a rudimentary and enjoyable Pong nearly a quarter of a century before Pong would be a household name.