What is the First Video Game?

Posted on December 5th, 2005 by

In their basic level, video games are comprised of math to drive the display of every image and interaction. This is true from today’s 3D polygon-rich games as well as ones as simple as a ball bouncing off a paddle.

As someone who has grown up with the rise & fall of the “video game arcade” heyday in the early 80’s, I’ve been hooked on video games of all varieties since I was tapping away on my first computer, a Commodore 64k. I remember many of the “classic games” coming out, including Pacman, Donkey Kong, etc. And of course the eventual widespread of availability of consoles from Atari, Nintendo, Sega, Sony, etc.

But before any of that was a long history of electronics and computer science which set the groundwork in which the game Pong in the 70’s (and later Pacman, etc. in the 80’s) could be created, bringing games to the masses.

Most people may think of Pong as the first video game, since it was the first to reach a mainstream audience. However, older games such as Tennis For Two and were built even earlier for use on far less available (or in many cases, custom-built) hardware…

Does an electronic interaction device such as Tennis for Two qualify as a video game and make it eligible as a contender for “the first video game”? Or does something need to be available for sale? I would think that most patents are filed for proof of concept prototypes, thereby invalidating Baer’s claim to Pong being “the first video game” since it was one of the first to market. What do you think?



  1. max says:

    I find it interesting that you think “available for sale” is a relevant issue (which makes sense from a social history standpoint), whereas being more of a techie, I immediately focused on the question of special-purpose analog electronics versus general-purpose programmable digital computer. By that standard, the “first video game” would be Spacewar on the PDP-1.

  2. mweier says:

    I think it actually all comes back to the definition of “video game” — I had allowed the (biased) Pong site author to twist my thinking by accident.

    I would tend to agree with you that Space War predates Pong by fulfilling the requirement of playing a user-interactive game on a raster monitor (albeit with the additional hardware of a PDP-1, an at-the-time incredibly expensive setup). By comparison, Pong required only a monitor (no computer) and thus, according to that Pong site’s biases, qualifies as the first video game. The corrollary that its self-sufficiency caused its mass-availability should not impact its classification.

    I think it’s interesting that the Pong site seemed to posit that a video game can’t rely on 3rd party hardware. Otherwise every game arcade, and console would be invalid by that definition, since they rely on JAMMA, Atari, Commodore, whatever.

  3. bart says:

    The earliest known interactive electronic game was created by Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr. and Estle Ray Mann on a cathode ray tube in 1947. The game was a missile simulator inspired by radar displays from World War II. It used analogue circuitry, not digital, to drive the CRT, and used an overlay for the targets since graphics could not be drawn at the time.
    On the 5th of May, 1951, the NIMROD computer was presented at the Festival of Britain. Using a panel of lights for its display, it was designed exclusively to play the game of ‘NIM’, this was the first instance of a digital computer designed specifically to play a game. NIM is a simple game, where you start with a number of piles of tokens – traditionally matches. Each player in turn takes one or more tokens from any one pile, and the game continues until the last token is taken from the last remaining pile. The simplest way of playing the game is when the winner is the one who takes the last item. There is also a ‘Reverse’ game, where the loser in the one forced to take the last token. NIMROD could play either version of the game.

  4. kris says:

    The Evolution of Video Game Systems:
    used to be an arcade nut. I spent most of my time in the local video games hot spots to play the latest fighting, shooting, and racing games. I would also frequent the video game stores at the mall with my friends. We would compete against each other in popular arcade games like Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat. Video games were a teenager’s favorite pastime back in the early 90’s. I must have spent a fortune in quarters in those video games machine.
    It’s almost the same when I would tell customers how much they had spent on video rentals so far. I always find this quite amusing. The customers’ first reaction would usually be a wince; then they would snicker at the ridiculousness of it all, but finally most of them went home ticked off. I think some of them wanted to have their money back. That’s just the way people are. What they don’t know won’t hurt them. Well, most of the time anyway. Nevertheless, when it comes to arcade and video games systems, millions of people were hooked long ago. The only significance nowadays is that modern video games systems for homes have become more advanced and sophisticated.
    Arcades nowadays are not as popular as it was during my time. Most kid’s these days are investing in video games system of their own. Systems like Game Cube, Playstation 2, and Xbox are very popular. Why would kids go to local arcades and to spend their money on video games, when they can simply receive a system of their own during their birthday or at Christmas? Modern personal video games are not very expensive and most kids can own portable versions like the Gameboy Advance Sp. The advancement in gaming makes personal video games more fun and exciting.
    Video games during my childhood and teenage years seem prehistoric when compared to contemporary video games systems. The first system I owned when I was in elementary school was an Atari. Then later down the road, video games systems evolved into Nintendo. These games are obsolete in comparison to modern systems, but they represent the evolution of video games into their present status. This evolution will only continue and you can expect more exciting developments to video games systems. Hop online and discover the latest games, models, and accessories.

  5. mweier says:

    good points on the rise (& fall) of arcades as home gaming improved (and ultimately exceeded the quality of arcade machines).

    For the nostalgic amongst us, there are ways to get the best of both worlds through emulation & building your own custom input device (ie. Arcade control panel).

    For those who are interested, I’ve done this already (once) with a simple vertical monitor single-player unit and hope to find time to build a second in-home arcade machine soon which will support multiple console emulators, spinner (for games like Arkanoid), and 2player simultaneous play (e.g. Mortal Kombat & Street Fighter referenced by Kris).

    To read up on my progress & related topics, here’s my blog on the unit I built.

    For lots more resources (especially if you’re interested in building your own) visit http://www.ArcadeControls.com

  6. Zaik says:

    Great Points