A brief history of video games

Video gaming is now the stuff of big budget mainstream culture, but it wasn’t always like that. Almost sixty years before the 2006 PS3 launch prompted riots, there was…


US patent 2455992 was filed by Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr and Estle Ray Mann for something ponderously described as a “cathode ray tube amusement device”. The ambitious blueprints described a controlled CRT beam pretending to be a missile. Because computer graphics had not actually been invented yet, the target coordinates were coded but a printed transparency was used to designate these for the player.

The project was never marketed or sold to the public.

And you thought the Steel Battalion controller was overcomplicated.


Alexander Douglas’s OXO appeared, and promptly disappeared because its native platform (the 500 kHz EDSAC behemoth) was a one of a kind prototype at Oxford University, making the game not only the first failed game, but the first failed platform exclusive title.

Fifty years later, it was the inspiration for Free Radical Design’s Haze (maybe).


Willian Higginbotham’s Tennis For Two, played on an oscilloscope vector display, was brought out on Visitor’s Day in Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York. Nobody was especially impressed, and the whole thing was dismantled two years later.

Then, more than 50 years later, Tennis for Two was rebuilt at huge expense as part of a Museum of Electronic Games & Art exhibition.


MIT students Martin Graetz, Steve “Slug” Russell, and Wayne Wiitanen, representing the Hingham Institute (which they made-up) released Spacewar!, a 2-person shooter on the DEC PDP-1 computer.

The DEC PDP-1. Yours to take home for just US$120,000. Accounting for inflation, that’s almost US$1 million in modern munnies. Or you could save cash and use a Java-based emulator in your browser instead,


Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney wrote a Spacewar! clone, parked it in a fancy plastic cabinet and sold it to the world as the first ever commercially available coin-operated game, Computer Space (preceded only by Galaxy Game, which was not commercially available and so it doesn’t count).

Aside from a cameo appearance in Robert Fleischer’s Soylent Green, the game didn’t enjoy much success and was scrapped altogether shortly thereafter.

Popular with the ladies. In the ads, anyway. The game wasn’t actually popular with anybody, later attributed to its difficulty.


Undaunted by the commercial failure of their last science project and determined to make it big with these video game things, Bushnell and Dabney founded Atari, and released PONG in November.

“Honey, the graphics are so realistic!”


Taito Corporation deployed Space Invaders. By 1982, it had grossed over US$2 billion worldwide, which was then more than four times what the first Star Wars movie made in the same time period.

Big in Japan, and pretty much everywhere else.

1979 to the late 1980s

Centipede, Galaga, Xevious, Tetris, Asteroids, Dig Dug, Pac-Man, Zork, Galaxian, King’s Quest, Maniac Mansion, Super Mario Bros, loads of PONG clones, Ralph Baer’s Brown Box (later licensed to Magnavox and renamed the Odyssey), the Sony MSX HitBit-75P, the ColecoVision and the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, the Nintendo Entertainment System, the NEC PC-Engine / TurboGrafx-16, the Sega Master System, the Commodore 64 and Amiga, variously numbered incarnations of Atari’s Video Computer System, the IBM PC, and a few others you’ve probably never heard of either.

The Emerson Arcadia-2001. The original hipster console.

The 1990s

Much as before, but with slightly better graphics. In 1994, Sony’s Playstation arrived on the scene, popularising optical (CD) console formats and entirely obliterating contemporary kingpins like the Sega Saturn and Dreamcast, and the Nintendo 64, while PC gaming sat on top of the heap in market shares. Remember that?

It’s also a good excuse to use a Jurassic Park reference.

The 2000s

The Sony PlayStation 2 and 3, the Microsoft Xbox and Xbox 360, and the Nintendo Wii jostle for total market domination, while PC gaming chugs resolutely along and gives the finger to everyone who deigns to play shooters with a game pad. Nobody really comes out on top, but vociferous supporters of each platform like to pretend there’s some sort of hugely significant war going on anyway.

An argument on YouTube about this year’s console exclusives gets serious.

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A brief history of video games

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