A Response to Ahoy’s “The First Video Game”

 

Youtube content creator Ahoy (Stuart Brown) recently created a video on a subject near and dear to my heart, tackling the subject of the extremely early games and what could be considered a first in the medium. The video was fantastic, much better I feel than his other historical gruntwork video on Polybius from two years ago, but I wanted to respond to this work in both my own voice and that of others in the ludohistorical community. This video has prompted a lot of great discussion and I felt it would be best to conglomerate the information into one post.

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I’ve brought together four of the pre-eminent independent experts who have closely examined the early days of gaming in the 1950s and 60s to share their thoughts. Alex Smith of They Create Worlds, Norbert Landsteiner of Now Go Bang!, Quarter Past, and Devin Monnens of Desert Hat.

 

Definition

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The majority of the video is spent wrangling up a definition for the term “video game”. Stuart approaches this by dividing the word into it’s two basic components and attempting to extrapolate a meaning which provides good on each aspect individually. Therefore, his description of the term self-admittedly excludes major aspects of the gaming industry like games played on LCDs or created using non-hollistic displays. “Video” for him means something very specific and is necessary to fit into the story of the larger industry.

There are many reasons to question this definition. It classifies programs which function nearly the exact same way by how their signals are processed rather than the underlying program. To put a fine point on it, all of the guests to this post suppose the same hypothetical: “Is Colossal Cave Adventure a video game only when it’s displayed on a video screen as opposed to a teletype as it was originally created?”

Stuart took the time in the video to map out all computers capable of running singular displays in the 1950s, but was this a necessary component for consideration of the question? Indeed the majority of game programs through the 1960s and early 70s – games like The Sumerian Game, Hunt the Wumpus, Star Trek – could only be displayed through the use of teletypes unless one had the supreme luxury of a screen. Ultimately though, how different are they in function from video games? They can largely be displayed on video monitors, text only displays, or you could even technically run a modern video game through a printer one frame at a time. Does the changing of the display alter the very nature of the program?

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As devil’s advocate, QuarterPast brings up the point that a video signal is abstracted, something which can be interpreted by different displays like a CRT or a modern LED display. This component is not truly a part of the video game as a software program though. In the early days, everything was integrated, but the fact that games like Draughts can be emulated proves – as much as anything – that the specific hardware components used to make the display possible are in themselves not vitally necessary to achieve the same effect using different hardware.

The limiting of the definition is entirely understandable. Stuart makes it clear that he draws the line at games which require necessary analog components in order to complete the game experience, so that a certain amount of fidelity isn’t what’s necessary to define a video game. However, Alex Smith has proposed a different limitation which he states on his blog, that of digital logic circuits. Without these explicitly electronic components, anything that falls outside of the computer age would not be able to house a hardware or software program to run a complicated game.

There is a problem with Alex’s original definition though, which he acknowledges. The question becomes why a solid-state game that is not quite a computer would still not be a video game, like say Computer Quiz by Nutting Associates. After all, it has circuitry and is able to assist in the displaying of a game state. It moves an analog component to create it’s image – in this case a film strip – just like a teletype. The game is able to track elements such as score and progress. So do circuits alone make the difference?

After a bit of discussion, Alex and I came upon a different way of conceptualizing of Stuart’s requirement for a video display. Namely, rather than needing a certain sort of signal, a display for a video game must be arbitrary. This means the display as a whole has to have a direct relation to the program underlying it and is able to achieve a number of different states rather than just “on” or “off”. In the early tic-tac-toe games for instance, while an individual state of a square only has a boolean value, the board as a whole has hundreds of different possible outcomes which are ultimately not pre-determined. The individual state of a screen in Computer Quiz only has two possible variables: Light on or light off, and therefore can not be said to be using a display in the same way as video games.

This way of looking at the problem still has it’s potential follies. Devin Monnens for instance brings up the concern that sound games cannot be classified as video games despite working under the same logical systems. Also while the early solid-state games could not be said to have the potential to be video games, where does that leave programmable pinball machines once they were sophisticated enough to have robust software-driven displays? In all what we’re trying to get across is that the distinction of a specific CRT signal is not as important as the generation of a game state by a computer, which is where our notions of criteria most differ from Stuart.

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Following this, the term “game” needs to be elaborated on. This simple word does cause a lot of consternation when it comes to the nitpicking of exclusivity into the realm of the “video game”, and Stuart decides to boil the answer of verification down to intent. Was this product intended to “entertain” or not? He ascribes authorship as a vital component for consideration, while also providing observation as a means of verification.

Not to get too post-modern in the ideas of conception, but how much can we trust authors when it comes to exacting definitions? After all, many of these early games were often described in terms as to not make it seem like enjoyment was the function. Both OXO and Draughts for instance were adaptations of existing games which served a broader purpose of teaching a computer to follow instructions. If asked about their creations at that time, both creators would have likely said “No” to the question of “Was this made for fun?”

There’s also the use of “entertaining” as descriptive of the most important function of a video game. This comes down to the idea that “fun” is the principle state a video game has to elicit, rather than attempting to impart a message. Now “entertain” is a broad term, but it almost by necessity rules out deliberately saddening experiences or educational content. Would a film not be a film if it was educational? Is the true purpose of Oregon Trail or Math Blaster instructing or engaging?

The way that scholars in the field of video game studies talk about the “gaminess” of games nowadays is through the notion of intrinsic and extrinsic goals. The goals of the programs Stuart presents as counterfactuals – like Spreadsheets – do not exist in this context: They are tools explicitly, with no guiding principles. While something like Sim City can be considered a “software tool” when compared to directly objective-focused games, even in the sandbox mode it contains systems which support or hinder different outcomes. The possibility space derives it’s own rewards whereas a DVD menu does not.

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For some, the notion of a video game being a unique medium requires it to exhibit functions which cannot be said of any other form of expression as well. Norbert Landsteiner emphasizes the role of reactive and interactive displays in this role as well as the idea that the player must have a means to consistently interact with game objects in a real-time space. A true video game under this purview is something that cannot be recreated as a board game to the same effect. In a technical definition, a video game features what is called a single-event loop which allows for continuous player input rather than dividing it into stages of interaction and passive input.

To be clear, I don’t personally agree with this model, but I understand where Norbert is coming from in wanting to distinguish the new medium as a means for something wholly unique without explicit ties to earlier forms of game-playing. He postulates upon how, “[A] number of early arcade video games were recreations or ‘reboots’ of earlier electro-mechanical games. Have these games changed essentially, by the means of conveying the display?” To this end, “Means of user input for uninterrupted real-time interaction” by his definition, is a distinguishing factor.

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The whole basis for the video is a debate, and while Stuart’s definition is robust, I personally don’t think it really takes into account what the similarities are between forms of electronic entertainment as much as it divides differences. Every assembled guest has some bit of umbrage with the way he explains it, even with the same goals in mind of excluding things like the Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device and earlier fast-paced electro-mechanical machines. To my definition, I would remove points 2 through 5 and replace them with modified criteria.

  • Contain electronic logic circuits.
  • Feature a display controlled by electronic logic circuits which relate to the game state of the program and can be defined arbitrarily.
  • Be able to alter the state of the program and it’s display by means of interaction.
  • Be driven by goals – intrinsic or extrinsic – which constitute a state change in the program.
  • Have goals which can be accomplished by using means inherently discernible by the machine’s main output.

 

Research

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Stuart did a remarkable job in his research for one who is largely outside of the historical community. In not having that access to other scholars though, he did make a few notable omissions and errors. One thing we remarked on was that even though the Michigan MIDAC computer was noted in Stuart’s outline of computers with screens, he completely omitted the games that ran on it and it’s sister the MIDSAC computer, in 1954. MIDSAC Pool is easily identified as the first fully real-time video game, yet somehow Stuart missed it.

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General errors in the work are minimal. For instance Stuart implies Nolan Bushnell went to Stanford University as a student, but he only visited. Norbert Landsteiner did not like the classification of the PDP-1 as a minicomputer, as that market segment didn’t actually exist at the time of it’s introduction. He says the Nintendo v Magnavox suit happened in 1985 pre-empting the launch of the NES, but that was not true as the suit was first filed in 1986. Stating Galaxy Game as a contender for first coin-operated game disregards Alex Smith’s recent discoveries regarding Galaxy Game as well.

Also, stating Ralph Baer did not get acknowledged for his accomplishments prior to his own book disregards mid 1970s profiles about him and books like Video Invaders which cover his story. Stuart does appear to have a bias for gaming magazines as the largest base for the history of games over time, rather than as isolated resources which largely lack in-depth research.

The biggest trip up was something Stuart did make an honorable mention of, yet just scratched the surface of something larger. Stuart managed to discover a reference to the Whirlwind Bouncing Ball demonstration modified into a game variant. His paper trail ended at the reference to it in a 1990 talk by Whirlwind alumn Jack Gilmore and he considered it merely anecdotal.

However, just about two weeks prior to the publishing of the video, Alex Smith discovered an even earlier source pointing at the Bouncing Ball demo as having been altered into a game with specifics. Norman Taylor, one of the long-time Whirlwind Project members, gave an account in 1989 to the SIGGRAPH conference about his work on the computer as well as his claim that Jack Gilmore was responsible for altering Bouncing Ball from a simulation into a game which he claims as the first computer game ever created.

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Note the hole in the floor on the right image.

He lays out how the game worked: A user would use knobs on the computer to modify the physical properties of the ball bounce. The goal would be for it to land in a hole in the floor based on the other bounces it took. The documentary Making Electrons Count which Stuart displayed actually shows this game being played! It may seem like a pretty limited or aimless amusement, but it can be easily called a game.

What probably threw Stuart off – and did for us as well – were the claimed dates of this program. The Whirlwind took several years to come together and was first revealed publicly in 1951. The alleged game was said to have been written a year or two prior by one Charles Adams. Believing 1949 seems like a stretch, based on a half remembered guess, plus he gets other dates wrong like when Edward Murrow displayed the machine on national television. Isn’t there a way to verify this?

As it turns out, MIT has a public collection of declassified Project Whirlwind documents – over 1,700 in all – on their Dome Archive website. A quick search turned up something entirely new. We not only know now when the Bouncing Ball program was made, but also can ascribe new authorship. The February 2, 1951 project report describes the new program on Page 2 by a part time student: Oliver Aberth.

This doesn’t settle the matter of course. We knew the program existed, but in its initial conception it was not a game. Likely in many ways it was an enhanced visual representation of programs already functioning on the system. Whirlwind’s purpose after all was to track the trajectory of airborne objects, so displaying curves was a must. However, we do have evidence of its potential to be a game shortly after its creation.

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The program was included in the Programmers Manual for Whirlwind written in July 1951, on page 85. The description mentions that the program as it exists has variables – which makes sense – and opens up the possibility for a game as described in 1989 and shown in 1953. There needs to be a hole in the floor for there to be an objective though.

To find this version of the program and it’s origin, we’re going to have to work backwards. The first unequivocal mention of this game variant appears in the weekly log of February 27, 1953. The programs full function is described and it’s venue is also mentioned: Class 6.537. Subsequent reports describe the students trying – and mostly failing – to complete this exercise within the allotted time provided. What was class 6.537 though?

There were a series of classes running in 1952, which can be seen on page 17 of the First Quarter report for the year. These three classes were an evolution of a program which existed as far back as 1950 to get those interested to have practical time creating programs – or “problems” – on the computer, but it appears that this set of classes were the first to have a real curriculum. Class 6.537 has mention of the students creating their own personal programs for the computer, but it appears the matter of the Bouncing Ball as an exercise actually originated with the third listed class.

Class 6.539, “Digital Computers and Their Applications”, was a Summer course running from the end of July to the beginning of August. It was a condensing of the other two classes into a no-credit course run by Mr. Charles Adams. In the report for Fall 1952, on the PDFs ninth page, there’s a description of the classes’ activities within the course. The second practical problem that the students are to solve is described as, “the solution by elementary numerical means of the differential equations of motion of a ball bouncing on a horizontal surface.”

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To be a game, it must have the hole!

The language is a bit obtuse here. Primarily our question is to whether the “solution” hinted at in this passage indicates that the Bouncing Ball “problem” was solvable, E.G. having a hole in the floor of the computer screen. Based on the later description from 1953, describing specifically what the aim of this exercise was, I would say that the Bouncing Ball program had by then achieved its game state.

So that gives us a rough range of Summer 1952, right in the same timeframe as Strachey’s experiments across the Atlantic which Stuart pegs as no later than July 1952. However, it is notable that the course was first described earlier in the year, possibly with the program already created. The closest indicator from the itinerary appears to be, “Use of examples selected from typical engineering scientific and business problems and from real-time control applications.” This is far from certain, but it lines up with what we know of Bouncing Ball as a program already used for demonstration, and would therefore take pride of place.

It’s fair to say based on all this that the Bouncing Ball game variant probably existed somewhere between the latter half of 1951 and the latter third of 1952. I hope it at least proves strongly enough that there’s not “no evidence” for this game. The evidence exists, and more may yet still exist, possibly buried in the personal engineering logbooks that MIT has not made generally available as of this time.

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Might it be that Charles Adams’ notebook holds the answers? While Taylor claims Jack Gilmore was responsible for the game variant, he does still prescribe the original program to Charles Adams. This is probably because of the fact that Adams taught the class where this game was first demonstrated publicly, and may have instructed on the program’s modification for his intended purpose. Aberth was only on the project for a few months and was completely forgotten for his contribution. Adams made the program known and probably played some part in it becoming a game, so it’s potentially still fair to call him an author.

What this would mean – if the facts line up – would be that Bouncing Ball would be the first video game by Stuart’s definition. I still count the likes of Bertie the Brain as legitimate but it would predate even MIDSAC Pool as a real-time, objective-based program. Bouncing Ball also did have a direct influence on the likes of the Spacewar! crew as opening the gate for visual demonstration, as well as being foundational in computer graphics generally.

Quarter Past calls into question some of this conclusion however, as well as provided a useful timeline of mentions of the program within the Dome archives. He questions whether Aberth’s implementation of the original program was really his own or adapted from existing work which was not documented in the weekly logs. He has found little mention of any ‘knobs’ able to control elements on the system, as most mentions appear to be regarding that the students directly reprogramming demonstrations such as on PDF page 32 (though this would not explain the function as present in the documentary).

Even examining the Programmer’s Manual, Quarter Past has been unable to determine what variables are meant to be changed to allow the ball to go in the hole. It could be velocity, bounciness, or trajectory but again the documentary doesn’t appear to corroborate those ideas by itself. Finally, might it be possible that Charles Adams was the sole architect of this program and it’s transformation? There are still mysteries yet to be solved.

Quarter Past was also able to point out to me that the Whirlwind hosted other games. The evidence goes beyond the timeframe if we’re searching for a “first”, but they are interesting as previously unknown demonstrations for the computer. Nim is actually mentioned in conjunction with class 6.537 at one point (page 8), though the class apparently had to default to using the non-graphical typewriters to play it. An interceptor game is noted in August 1952 (page 13) as means of training target recognition, and an apparently ill-fated version of the classic Battleship was attempted as well (PDF page 14).

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At the very end of the video, Stuart tackles etymology for the term “video game” largely based off of Keith Smith’s research (who, by the way, helped us much with these general early formulations). Stuart’s conclusion that Nolan Bushnell was both the originator and popularizer of the phrase goes against Keith’s assumption, but it’s one I agree with (even as Bushnell himself doesn’t remember coming up with the term).

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There is a wrinkle to add to this though. The first media print source objectively using the term actually doesn’t refer to Atari: it refers to the Odyssey. A December 27, 1972 newspaper article from the Pensacola News Journal in Florida refers to the Odyssey as the center piece of a “video game room” in it’s second buzz sentence. To me that’s pretty unambiguous. Was this somehow an independent and simultaneous birth of the term? Did Bushnell or Pong somehow influence this article? Did they both draw it from a shared source?

There really are surprises around every corner for this early history. I am still quite impressed at how good a job Stuart did in his examination. He’s proven himself truly dedicated and therefore has inspired a lot of truly thoughtful conversation. I hope that he reaches out to me sometime as well as I think we could learn a lot from each other’s resources.

Conclusions

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I thought to close out that it would be interesting to talk about Stuart’s conclusions and purpose behind this project. He ends with some great deadpan about how it ultimately doesn’t really matter what the first creation was, but anyone who follows that train of thought must confront why people are interested in the question in the first place.

Stuart comes at why Strachey’s game matters from the lens of influencing further developments in artificial intelligence research. Even AI guru Joseph McCarthy was indirectly helped by Strachey’s practical implementation of Draughts. Alex Smith and Devin Monnens too take the angle of “chains of influence” being the primary driver behind interesting stories in video games. Knowing how it all fits together, and if it doesn’t fit together it’s a loose thread.

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My own thesis on what makes these early games interesting to learn about is what they say about the environment of the time. What drives people to be inspired or to push limits? How hard was it to form or create an idea in its basic stages and then to iterate on it? For me, Strachey’s particular story says a lot about his solitary, ingenious mind. He had latent creativity he wanted to express in a new way and so he made it happen through sheer willpower.

For others, taking it back to the beginning let’s them see a world of discovery which feels less realized in our own time. Finding out computers could do games, then they could produce graphics, then they could be designed, then they could tell stories is in itself a narrative. It’s what a society sees rather than an individual and therefore puts the historiography in context. You feel the moment to moment shifts as an observer.

All of these are legitimate reasons to be interested in history. The perspective though definitely drives how you explain it. My work primarily focuses on development stories as the main driver of the evolution of the medium and cares more about the inception of ideas rather then how they become refined. Larger factors of specific victories or failures are for me a flavor and not the dish.

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Another part of Stuart’s conclusion is how he seems to really be striving  for video games as a matter of his own British pride. Now to be clear, I am in no way suggesting that Stuart deliberately altered his definition or candidates to promote his nation’s claim to the prize. He came to his outline honestly and the line about Britain was ultimately pretty throw away.

There’s no doubt Britain had a number of the first games because they were simply ahead of computer technology past the United States. Even taking my definition into account, Bertie the Brain as a Canadian game takes the top spot in this race, so I’ve got no horse in it. As a matter of determining claims to the invention though, Stuart should have probably followed his own logic in prescribing traceable steps in the evolution.

For a number of economic reasons, Britain did not remain the computing powerhouse past the 1950s, in a parallel to the later technology giant of Japan. Therefore, nobody who created video games as a medium were following the technological lead of the early British creators. The leading light became the work pioneered by Ted Dabney and Ralph Baer in how to make their display technology function on CRTs. The later British creators would later take their cues from this base, therefore it’s hard to claim any matter of origination with no influence persisting. This isn’t to say video games are American either. They were a product of technological communities which advanced many fields and spanned many regions.


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Whatever someone gets from the video, Stuart’s work remains engaging and constantly improving as informative pieces. The aesthetics of this video alone deserve an essay (and a tutorial!). It’s been really gratifying to sit down and have a long think about this subject as well as share some new research ahead of my own video series. Hopefully we’ll have more to talk about soon!

Thanks much to the group of panelists for their insight and revisions.

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