Video Game History: Weird Steps on the Way to Smartphones

I had a history professor in college who once asked us when WWII started, which seemed obvious, but was actually much more complex. At what point, he was really asking, did the events that led up to that cataclysm start? Some people said Pearl Harbor, others the invasion of Poland, still others, getting into it, said the election of Hitler, the ruinous Treaty of Versailles, or even the start of WWI. I didn’t have a girlfriend, so I answered the unification of Germany in 1871. This earned me: no applause. But the lesson was there: history is usually not a moment, but a series and a process and video game history is no different.

This is no less true in video games than it is in war. It’s easy to say that one day a giant ape threw a barrel at an Italian man and history was made, and this history led to you being able to play an incredible variety of games at home or on your smartphone. But then someone will come up with Pac-Man, and someone else with Pong, or even an original shooting game. The truth is, video game history, or at least the idea, started a long time ago, way back in the mists of time, when apes and Italians still got along. Here are some of the weirder and less-known steps along the way.

Weird Games at The World’s Fair

There is a counting game called “nim” that I have never heard of and neither have you, I bet. It involved picking up matchsticks in such a way that makes no sense. The basic instructions contain this phrase: “Convert them mentally in multiples of 4, 2 and 1. Then, CANCEL pairs of equal multiples, and add what is left.” People were probably enormously happy when WWII broke out and they could do something else. It was popular, though; popular enough that at the 1940s World Fair in New York, a scientist names Edward Condon set up a computerized version of it, which could play against real humans, and was impeccably named the “Nimatron.” This was well-suited to early computers, as it used basic counting and proto-logic skills to beat weak-minded people at a 90% clip.

Historical Interlude – The Mechanical Turk

Before it was a way to crowdsource information, the Mechanical Turk was a “chess playing automaton” favored at carnivals, sideshows, and even high-class amusement for people in the 18th-century looking for spiritual diversions. It was a machine that could play and beat people at chess, with a mechanical man moving the pieces. It was, unfortunately, a hoax, and can’t actually be on our list. However, it did inspire Charles Babbage to consider that maybe machines could think, which was the birth of the computer age.

Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Devices: The First Real Video Games?

Of course, neither the Turk nor the Nimatron actually had video, so we maybe can’t call them video games. That began to change in 1947, when Thomas Goldsmith and Estle A. Mann patented a “cathode ray tube amusement device,” using technology from the war – specifically, radar screens. The figured that they could use light and a screen overlay to “shoot” at targets. The player would use knobs to adjust the trajectory of “missiles” to hit targets. It’s sort of like Duck Hunt, only using actually machinery that once was in a war.

The game never went anywhere, so people dispute whether or not it was the first. The important thing is that the technology spread, and other games were created, including Tennis for Two, which, if you look closely, was probably the inspiration for Pong, the game that made video games a permanent part of our culture.

Los Alamos and the First Poker Game

It’s been said that war is the great creator of technology, as people struggle to make the best instruments, and then when peace comes, they have to find another use for them. We saw that with the Cathode Ray Amusement Device, but another example comes more obliquely. Los Alamos, the birthplace of the atomic bomb, and the site of many tests throughout the terrifying dawn of the nuclear age, where man unleashed weapons of apocalyptic terror and we realized that we could destroy ourselves, was apparently a boring enough place that scientists were forced to invent video blackjack.

Computer programmers, fascinated by what they could do, created the first blackjack program, as well as a “crude game of pool.” This makes sense. The military needed to use computers to create simulations of war and of technology, and so were at the forefront of crafting intelligence. These were early attempts to harness the power of computers.

So don’t ever let anyone tell you that games are a worthless diversion. They helped us understand what computers could do, and led to newer innovations, which led to your smartphone and mobile devices. If anyone says that your games are too violent, tell them that war is the crucible in which games are formed, and vice-versa. When they are trying to figure out if that means anything, you can make your escape. They’ll be left picking up matchsticks.

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