Updated: Feb 24, 2021
So, what was the first-ever video game? Ask most people and they will probably answer ‘Pong.’ I would have too before researching this article.
And I/they would be wrong. Although 1972’s Pong was arguably the first commercially successful video game, it was not the first videogame full stop, and perhaps not even close to being it.
So, what was the first-ever video game then? Answering this is less straightforward than it may seem, since before we can answer that, we must first answer another question, that being “What is a video game?” This may seem like a stupid question - after all, most of us can tell whether or not something is a video game just by looking at it - and for about 99% of games, we would be correct.
However, for the remaining 1% this becomes a little trickier. These fringe cases might be considered video games by some, but not by others, and it would depend entirely upon how they define a video game. Unfortunately for us, some of the contenders for the title of the ‘first-ever video game’ fall into this 1% grey area.
Before we can answer "What is a video game?", we would need to define what a video game is. For example;
Would a videogame that never left the drawing board count as a video game?
Would a program that was not designed for entertainment value but as an experiment count as one?
Must a game possess or run on a display screen to count as a video game, or does an oscilloscope count too? What about a dot matrix of lights in lieu of a screen, would this count as a video game too?
Must a videogame have a commercial or freeware release to count as a ‘proper’ video game, or would those that were limited to the world of academia count too?
Depending on people’s answers to the above questions their definition of "What is a video game" may vary quite a bit. This, in turn, would drastically change how old they consider the first-ever video game to be.
For example, if blueprints/patents etc. count then the answer might be 1947’s ‘Cathode-Ray Tube Amusement Device’.
Video by Old Classic Retro Gaming
If a display consisting of lightbulbs counts then the answer might be 1950’s Bertie the Brain.
Video by Videogames History
If it would need to possess some sort of screen - with that screen displaying everything needed to play the game (i.e. no overlays) - then the answer is probably 1958’s Tennis for Two.
Video by Dan C
If it would need to possess a ‘proper’ display then the answer is most likely 1962’s Space War.
Video by Mark VandeWettering
And if it would need to have had a commercial release to count then 1971’s Computer Space would hold the title. In which case, not only was Pong not the first-ever video game, it wasn’t even Atari’s first-ever video game (Although technically Atari was called Syzygy co. at the time.)
Video by Old Classic Retro Gaming
I will leave it to you to decide which definition you agree with. To help you decide, the links above show videos of the ‘games’ in action - with the exception of the Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device. There is no video footage of this, partly due to its age, and partly due to it never making it past the patent/prototype stage. It is unclear if a physical prototype was actually made, or if it only ever existed on paper. The video does show how it worked, however.
The video below by Ahoy summarises this excellently.
Video by Ahoy
It's all-Academic Anyway…
Most of the earliest (what some people would call) video games came from academia.
Early computer scientists created digital versions of Noughts and Crosses, Tic-Tac-Toe etc. Although they could be played for entertainment value, they were intended for research purposes, and would only be found in the most advanced computer labs of the time.
The first video game aimed solely at entertainment was ‘Tennis for Two’. It was designed by Physicist William Higinbotham as a display to entertain visitors to Brookhaven National Laboratory. Since it was in a science lab, it was only fitting that it was played on lab equipment, specifically an oscilloscope. It may have looked primitive, but remember this was in 1958, fourteen years before Pong! Click here to find out more.
Another early video game that emerged from academia was Spacewar! Spacewar! was created in 1962 at MIT. It is notable as being the first video game to be installed on multiple computers, mostly in US college academic departments.
It was also the first game to receive updates, with later versions adding multiple features and gameplay mechanics.
Yes, you read that correctly, gamepads predate Pong by about a decade. Shame it then took over 30 years for anyone to implement a TWO sticks control scheme…
Computer Space hit the arcades in 1971, and could *probably* lay claim to the first commercially released arcade video game. Granted, it was nowhere near as commercially successful as Pong, selling under two thousand units as opposed to Pong’s tens of thousands, but for what was probably the first-ever video arcade game it was an impressive start.
That concludes our look at the earliest days of video gaming. In the next article, we will look at how Pong led gaming out of the science lab and into bars, arcades and people's homes. See you all there.
NB - if you would like to learn the reasoning behind creating this series, its aims, objectives and what it aims to cover please take a look at the introductory article.
Did you learn something today? Were you aware video games could trace their history so far back? (I wasn't before researching this.) What criteria must a video game meet in your eyes to qualify as a video game? Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.
Iain is a 40+ author and gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 36 years ago. His specialities include obscure cult classics, retro games, mods and fan remakes. He hates all sports games and is allergic to online multiplayer. Since he is British, his body is about 60% tea. He can be reached via Twitter at https://twitter.com/IainBaker17, and contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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By Brookhaven National Laboratory - Screenshot, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27864450