Monday, 20 November 2017

Tennis for Two, probably the first real Video Game.

So what was the first ever Video Game? Well that depends upon exactly how you define the term Video Games but there is a very big case to say that the first game was something called Tennis For Two which was made in October 1958 by the Physicist William Higinbotham. It was a very simple tennis game which a lot of people have proberbly never heard of. Every time I ask someone what they think the first game is I often hear Pong but that didnt come about until the 1970s, other will claim Space War which although it came before Pong was a full 3 years after Tennis for Two.





So the creator of Tennis for Two Higinbotham was born on October the 25th in 1910, the point where he becomes more intresting to gamers would proberbly be after he had graduated from Williams College (in 1932), and then went on to graduate school in physics at Cornell University. It was at Cornell as a graduate student he worked as an electronics technician. In 1941, he joined the MIT Radiation Lab, where he worked on cathode ray tube displays for radar systems. In 1943 he moved to Los Alamos to work on electronics for a timing system for the atomic bomb.

It was in 1948 he joined Brookhaven National Laboratory’s instrumentation group and he served as head of that group from 1951 to 1968. It was during this time that Brookhaven held annual visitors’ days, during which thousands of people would come to tour the lab. Higinbotham was responsible for creating an exhibit to show off the instrumentation division’s work. Higinbotham had felt that most of the exhibits were pretty dull and he thought that he could provide something which would better capture visitors’ attention.I have to admit that I love the fact that this guy was smart enough to be working on things such as radar and atomic bomb timing systems and yet didnt basically go sod people either there smart enough to want to come see and understand this stuff or there not, he actually stopped to think about how he could grab ahold of peoples attention in a new and intresting way. For me this is an excample of an idea of what I think should be at the very center of  both every lesson a teacher provides and every game idea a stuido comes up with ''how can I engage with my audience, how can I grab them and pull them in.''

In order to do this he created an interactive demonstration, what he created was the video game Tennis for Two . He later recalled in a magazine interview that he had thought “it might liven up the place to have a game that people could play, and which would convey the message that our scientific endeavors have relevance for society.”

The instrumentation group had a small analog computer that could display various curves, one of the things he realised he could do with this was to display what would appear like the path of a bouncing ball, on an oscilloscope. Apparently it took Higinbotham only a couple of hours to dream up the idea of a tennis game, and only a few days (with help) to actually put everything togther and get it up and working. Higinbotham made some drawings showing what he wanted, and blueprints were drawn up from these. Technician Robert Dvorak spent about two weeks building the device and after a little debugging,Tennis for Two was ready for its debut.

Players could turn a knob to adjust the angle of the ball, and push a button to hit the ball towards the other player. As long as they pressed the button when the ball was in their court, players couldn’t actually miss the ball, but if they hit it at the wrong time or hit it at the wrong angle, the ball wouldn’t make it over the net. Balls that hit the ground would bounce like a real tennis ball. When the ball went off the court or into the net, players hit a reset button to start the next round.

OK so Tennis for Two might not have been the most sophisticated games but look at the fact that the guy didnt have anything to copy when coming up with this idea well other than the actual sports game called tennis. It also had none of the fancy graphics video games have today, no soundtrack or achievments but it was a start and at the time it must have seemed like absolutly magic. The cathode ray tube display simply showed a side view of a tennis court represented by just two lines, one representing the ground and  one representing the net. The ball was just a dot that bounced back and forth.The game didnt even keep score, that was totally up to the players to do. The game circuitry was fairly simple, using mostly resistors, capacitors and relays, though it did use transistors for the fast switching needed when the ball was in play.

I know that there are proberbly people who hearing all of this would think that Tennis for Two sounds super lame butVisitors loved it. It quickly became the most popular exhibit, with people standing in long lines just to get a chance to play it.

The first version, used in the 1958 visitor’s day, had an oscilloscope with a tiny display, only five inches in diameter. The next year, Higinbotham improved it by putting in a larger display screen. He also added something to the game, he added the ability for the game to simulate stronger or weaker gravity, so visitors could play tennis on the moon, Earth or Jupiter. I guess if you wanted to you could say that this was the first ever expansion pass or DLC.

After two years, Tennis for Two was retired. The oscilloscope and computer were taken for other uses, and Higinbotham designed a new visitor’s day display that showed cosmic rays passing through a spark chamber.


So did Higinbotham make millions from this game, did it ever go into homes or set the world alight? The truth is that Higinbotham had already patented 20 inventions, and he didn’t actually think that his tennis game was particularly innovative. Sure he had seen that the Brookhaven visitors liked the game, but he had no idea how popular video games would later become. Even had he had the foresight to patent the game, since he worked at a government lab, the federal government would have owned the patent, so he wouldn’t have made any money from it. “It never occurred to me that I was doing anything very exciting. The long line of people I though was not because this was so great but because all the rest of the things were so dull,” he once said.

Higinbotham only became well known as the inventor of the video game after an article appeared in Creative Computing magazine in 1982, yet I would argue that he is a very important figure in the history of Video Games. He also helped found the Federation of American Scientists and served as its first chairman and executive secretary. Higinbotham died in November 1994 and unfortunatly I think there are a great many gamers who have never even heard his name. That is why I choose to talk about him today in Novermber and to say Thank you Mr Higinbotham, thank you for your contribution to one of the hobbies closest to my heart may you rest in peace.

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