A History of Videogames: The Games That Started it All


In a fitting celebratory 50th Post on Gamesland, I will now present to you the first in a series of posts detailing how games came into existence. I’ll be answering all your big questions, such as: how many times has the market nearly crashed? and approximately how many games were released for each console?  I’ll also be answering some not so big questions, such as:What started the mobile craze? and what was the console that sold the least amount of units? But for now, we head back to 1958, to discuss what was, arguably, the first videogame ever released.

Tennis For Two was developed by a nuclear physicist named William Higinbotham, back when computers were the size of rooms and televisions had only just been introduced to the consumer, in 1955, only half of the United States had a televison set.William Higinbotham works for the Brookhaven National Laboratory, so when lots of visitors hear all about this new “electronic tennis game”, of course they would all line up for it. It’s kind of like going to a gaming convention and having to wait in line to play with the Oculus Rift. To play it, you had a controller connected to an oscilloscope (a screen), which was in turn connected to an analogue computer, which was the size of a room. The oscilloscope itself was only 5 inches (12.7 cm) in diameter (it was circular in design). For comparison, the Nintendo DSi XL had screen sizes of 4.2 inches (11 cm). The controller was just a knob and a button, but you could argue that the functionality of that controller is present in current consoles. Every controller has an analogue stick (a “knob”, although the stick can move in all directions) and buttons. The game was eventually improved in 1959, because all good games need a sequel, and had a bigger screen between 10 and 17 inches (25.4 cm and 43.18 cm), the size of your average ruler. It also had more modes, one where you could play on the moon (with low gravity) and one on Jupiter (with high gravity). William Higinbotham never saught a patent for his invention, stating that even if he did, as a government employee, he would obtain no money anyway.

analogue computer


Your average analogue computer

So, because William Higinbotham never saught a patent for his game, nothing happened for three years. In 1962, MIT computer programmer Steve Russell, along with Martin Graetz, Wayne Wiitanen, Peter Samson, Dan Edwards, Alan Kotok, Steve Piner and Robert A. Saunders created something remarkable on the university’s DEC PDP-1, an early computer, although this one was much smaller than the analogue computers that Tennis for Two was programmed on. This creation was Spacewar!, a two-player game which captivated every Doctor Who fan’s imagination, except it didn’t because that wouldn’t be broadcasted for another year. In Spacewar! you control a spaceship trying to escape a blackhole, but at the same time, you’re dodging missiles sent from your opposing’s players ship, while trying to shoot them back. Forget Mario Party, this is the real frienship-ruining game. You lost by either going into the black hole first, or blown up by a missile from your friend, but the other ship eventually goes into the black hole anyway, making it a lose-lose situation, unless it leads to another universe.



A DEC PDP-1. Slightly smaller than the analogue computer.

Steve Russell never saught a patent either, but he did go on to make the videogame industry huge, if indirectly. Steve Russell transferred to Stanford University, where he introduced computer game programming and Spacewar! to an engineering student named … Nolan Bushnell. 

Yes, we just ended the first episode on a cliffhanger. Have to keep you guys some way, right?

Further Reading

An article by the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Tennis for Two

Small article on Spacewar! and it’s inventor, Steve Russell

Play Spacewar! online

The next “episode” will “air” on January 26th.

Have a certain gaming history era you’d like us to do? Leave one in the comments, and I’ll make sure to do it!



3 thoughts on “A History of Videogames: The Games That Started it All

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