The Past and Future of Video Games

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The edict came down from the Front Office one day in 1958; this research institute will hold a Visitors’ Day for employee families and the surrounding community — each Department will be responsible for producing a display or demonstration.

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For Willie Higinbotham of the Instrumentation Division, it seemed this meant he should produce something with flashing lights and beeping sounds as one might find in a penny arcade. And so he set to work on a game he called Tennis for Two.  Today video games are a thriving business with annual revenues estimated to be over $100 billion and growing.

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One can major in the topic in college and take courses in animation in high school. The search is on to find the parent of such a successful offspring, but the number of sires who can make a plausible claim is large and ever expanding.

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The Case

Dr. Higinbotham can make as good a case as any, in fact he ended up in court over just such a claim. He had begun his career at MIT’s Radiation Lab, and much later won distinction as an ardent nuclear arms reduction advocate. But it was during his years at Brookhaven National Lab that this famous video gaming work was done, mostly in spare time and with excessed equipment.

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His contribution was certainly quite remarkable at the time when there were simply no personal computers and no digital CRT displays. The ‘brain’ of Tennis for Two was a small analog computer.

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He used four of the computer’s operational amplifiers to generate the ball’s motion while the computer’s remaining six amplifiers sensed when the ball hit the ground or net and switched controls to the person in whose court the ball was located.

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In order to generate the court, net and ball on screen, it was necessary to time-share these functions; in itself a then-novel technique.

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For a display, he used a 5 inch oscilloscope; in later versions a larger screen was used. The game even took into consideration the physics of gravity and elasticity in real time.

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The Tennis for Two apparatus, including oscilloscope, two controllers and analog computer.

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Higinbotham’s work was infused with an engineering discipline that made his case particularly compelling. He kept a registered Laboratory notebook, his designs were well documented and they survive to this day. Higinbotham passed away in 1994.

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The developers of Pong and subsequent games gave credit to the inspiration afforded by Tennis for Two and other precursors, but not too much — there was far too much money at stake.

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The Case Unravels

Several things worked against Higinbotham getting the credit that might have been his due. Perhaps foremost, he never applied for a patent and if he had, the patent would have gone to the US Government which owned the Laboratory, not him. Second, Tennis for Two was not, strictly speaking, either ‘video’ or ‘game’. It was not video in that it didn’t use raster-scan imaging that we ascribe to the term today. And it wasn’t a game because there was no scoreboard, so ruled a judge reviewing the case.

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But the device was ingenious, entertaining and in the minds of many, paved the way for the later developments that we now know so well. It continues to instruct the engineers of today in the need for discipline, imagination and resourcefulness. Further, it provides a cautionary tale that we should step back and examine our work for unintended applicabilities, because if there are some and we don’t exploit them, surely someone else will.

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The future of the video game industry is not hard to discern. Games will continue to be more sophisticated, realistic and immersive. They will no longer just be side effects of mainstream technology developments. They are now pushing the state-of-the-art as hard as any other market, perhaps most prominently in graphics. The line between entertainment and real-life will continue to blur — one need only look over the shoulder of the military while it is simulating a battlefield or deploying drones. We are all in the game.