Read time: 5 minutes
If you stop to think about the history of gaming at all, you most likely consider the classics from the 70's, 80's, and 90's. Video games like Pong, Frogger, Donkey Kong, and Super Mario come to mind.
But to answer the question, 'What was the first video game?,’ you have to go back even further than Pong.
The actual history of video games stretches back to the 50's and involves a nuclear physicist, a top secret government research facility, and a forgotten experiment.
The very first video gamers had no idea that they were enjoying an entertainment medium that would explode in popularity over the next 60 years.
The year was 1958, and they were arriving at a government facility in upstate New York called Brookhaven National Laboratory. Brookhaven was holding its annual exhibition to give the public and students a peek inside goings on at the lab.
On that October day, a nuclear physicist, Dr. William 'Willy' Higinbotham, had prepared something special for Brookhaven's guests.
In the past, he had noticed that visitors didn't connect well with the static displays shown at the fair. Willy wanted to create something more compelling for the lab's visitors to interact with.
Along with his colleague, Dave Potter, Willy devised an idea to create an interactive experience for their visitors. Their brainchild was a simple tennis game played on an oscilloscope; a device that looks like any radar screen you've seen in a movie featuring submarines.
The game, dubbed Tennis For Two, featured a ball bouncing around the screen.
It seemed like magic.
While playing the game, the small, hand-held controls made a mechanical clicking sound. You could see the mechanical parts clicking back and forth as you pressed the button and spun the dial to knock the little ball of light back over the net to your opponent.
Tennis for Two was the hit of the exhibition and a revolutionary step in video games history. It set the stage for later games like Pong that launched the video game craze of the 1980's.
Despite its historical importance, after the exhibition was over, the game was dismantled and largely forgotten for years to come.
Was Tennis for Two really the first game?
There is some debate over what constitutes the first video game. Many believe that it was Tennis for Two, but there are some who say other games beat TfT to the punch.
One of these challengers to the throne is the 'Cathode-Ray Amusement Device.’ It was patented in 1948 and used electronic signals to shoot 'targets.'
Other's say that Alan Turing's 1948 chess simulation 'Turochamp' counts as the first video game.
Finally, some claim that the 1952 game 'OXO' was the first video game.
These three technologies were undoubtedly important steps for modern video games; however, they were not the world’s first video games for several important reasons
The Cathode-Ray Amusement Device wasn't a video game because it ran on analog hardware. It also sounds like a villain's nickname for a torture device—not that that has anything to do with its status as a video game.
Alan Turing's 'Turochamp' doesn't count because it was a theoretical game that he never actually built to run. The code was written for this chess simulation, but computers of the day couldn't run the program.
As a side note, Alan Turing's life and works are hugely important, tragic, and endlessly fascinating. If you are interested check out the book The Enigma.
Finally, OXO was a simple game of tic-tac-toe that ran on computers with memory. The code was able to play a perfect match of tic-tac-toe, and the player entered their moves via a rotary telephone controller.
Games like OXO, and there were a several at the time, have the second-best argument for winning the title of world's first video game. OXO was a computer program that users interacted with via a controller and display. Its ability to compete in a game was impressive but the screen consisted of lightbulbs and its purpose was for research, not entertainment.
OXO was much more akin to Minesweepers than Mario. It should be considered a computer game as opposed to a video game as it lacked a dynamic display which a user interacted with in real time.
In creating Tennis for Two, Willy built a game that preempted the interactive style of video game that would launch the video game craze of the 70's and 80's and, ultimately, the games we play today.