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Who invented video games?

Who invented video games, play video games
Who invented video games, play video games

When you think of computer games, you probably picture complex worlds and captivating storylines. You might first think of popular titles like The Sims, The Witcher, or Red Dead Redemption. However, these iconic games would never have existed if it were not for the very first computer games.

The computer games we know today result from continuous technological development and the creators’ hard work. This form of entertainment has become an integral part of our culture, influencing music, film, and literature. Let’s have a closer look at the origins of this phenomenon. Join us on a journey to the beginnings of computer gaming.

A brief history of computer games

Decades ago, computers were so large they filled entire rooms. However, their computing power could not even match that of your smartphone today. In those circumstances, the first computer games were born.

In the 1950s and 1960s, computers were primarily used for scientific and military purposes. During this time, pioneers began experimenting with a new use for these machines: entertainment.

The first computer game

Which game claims the title of the first computer game? Answering this question is tricky, primarily due to the definition of the equipment used for the games: whether it could be called a computer or not.

Cathode-Ray Tube Amusement Device

Just after World War II, in 1948, as the world was entering the Cold War era, Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr. and Eastle Ray Mann obtained a patent for the Cathode-Ray Tube Amusement Device: a simple rocket simulator, sometimes considered the first computer game.

The American military, with the expertise of German engineers and technicians, was intensively developing rocket technology amid growing tensions with the USSR. The game created by Goldsmith and Mann simulated the flight of a rocket. The users controlled the speed and direction of flight using dials.

The production of the Cathode-Ray Tube Amusement Device was extremely costly. This prevented its commercialisation and release beyond laboratory walls.

Noughts and Crosses

One of the earliest games on the computer screens was the classic game of noughts and crosses, or as it is more commonly known, tic-tac-toe. In 1952, Sandy Douglas developed an OXO game on the EDSAC computer. For him, this was not a form of entertainment, but a research tool.

Douglas had developed a scientific theory and then created a computer program to illustrate it. OXO allowed human interaction with a computer: something that seems obvious today, but was an exciting novelty at the time.

The OXO project never went beyond the walls of the Mathematical Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. Around the same time, Christopher Strachey developed an electronic version of draughts (checkers), transferring it to the Ferranti Mark 1 platform.

Today, we might think about whether OXO truly deserves to be classified as a computer game. Its display remained static, lacking dynamic graphics. Some researchers argue that this early project did not meet the criteria of games as we understand them today.

Tennis for Two

The title of the first computer game is often attributed to Tennis for Two, created by William Higinbotham in 1958. Higinbotham, working at Brookhaven National Laboratory, wanted to showcase something appealing during the lab’s annual Open House. Using an oscilloscope (a device for displaying and analysing electrical waves) and a simple analogue computer, he crafted a game that simulated tennis.

Players controlled the angle of the ball’s strike with dials and launched it using a button. Despite its simplicity, Tennis for Two gained immense popularity, drawing crowds of curious visitors eager to play the game on the oscilloscope’s screen.

Tennis for Two was not created with profit in mind. It was an experiment meant to demonstrate the capabilities of technology at the time.

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The second, third, and upcoming computer games

The video game industry began to evolve dynamically, with creators pioneering in specific solutions. The 1960s and 1970s were rich in innovative titles that shaped digital entertainment.


In 1961, the world of computer games experienced a true revolution thanks to Steve Russell and his game Spacewar!. On the PDP-1 computer, Russell introduced a new level of entertainment. At the same time, he forever wrote his name in history as a pioneer in the rapidly developing industry. His contribution was recognised in March 2013 when he received an accolade at the Game Developers Choice Awards.

Spacewar! quickly gained recognition among students. Digital Equipment Corporation, the creators of the PDP-1, recognised the game’s potential and started adding copies of it to every computer they sold. Unfortunately, the limited number of computers produced (only 50 units) and their high price (120 thousand dollars per unit) meant that the game did not gain wider popularity. Russell did not profit from its production.

Spacewar! was a space shooter. Two players controlled spaceships. The goal was to destroy each other. The gameplay required skill in manoeuvring the ships and firing missiles. Over time, the game evolved. A starry background was added, the gravity model was improved, a “hyperspace” function and a scoring system were introduced.

Peter Samson, a colleague of Russell’s, created even a detailed computer planetarium for Spacewar! called Expensive Planetarium. Based on data from the American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac, he coded the sky visible over Cambridge, adding realism to the game.

Spacewar! is considered by some researchers to be the first true video game. It generated a video signal, something missing from earlier games like OXO or Tennis for Two. The production served as inspiration for the popular title Asteroids by Atari.

Computer Space

Released in 1971 by Nutting Associates, Computer Space was the first video game to hit the commercial market. The groundbreaking game was the brainchild of Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, who drew inspiration from the game Spacewar!.

In Computer Space, players controlled small spacecraft with the mission to shoot down an opponent’s object. The gameplay was a challenge for early gamers. It included two rotation keys, a thrust button, a fire button, and a hyperspace button. To win the 99-second battle against the opponent, players had to quickly master all these functions.

Nolan Bushnell first encountered Spacewar! in his teens, and believed that the game could achieve commercial success. He presented his project to Bill Nutting, the founder of Nutting Associates, who decided to implement this ambitious plan. The Computer Space arcade machines were a true work of art for their time, as they featured a metallic finish and a thirteen-inch screen.

However, Computer Space did not achieve financial success. Its complex controls were a significant obstacle. The game mechanics proved too difficult for bar patrons, who were the common users of these machines.


Pong, a table tennis simulation game released in 1972 by Atari, quickly became popular. Users loved it for its simplicity, two-dimensional graphics, and a touch of competition, making it the first game to achieve commercial success.

Created by Allan Alcorn as part of a training project assigned by Nolan Bushnell, co-founder of Atari, Pong was inspired by the electronic table tennis game from the Magnavox Odyssey video game consoles. This fact later led to a legal suit against Atari.

Players moved vertically positioned paddles at the edges of the screen to bounce a ball back and forth to score points. The game ended when one of the players reached 21 points. Each paddle was divided into segments, which determined the angle at which the ball was bounced off.

In 1975, during the Christmas season, Atari released a console version of Pong, which also brought significant profits to the company. The game has been re-released on various platforms over the years. Its impact on culture is so significant that it has become a part of exhibitions dedicated to games, as well as references and parodies in TV shows and other productions.

Video games gain popularity

The success of Pong, released by Atari, marked the beginning of a new era in arcade video games. In 1974, Atari introduced Tank, a tank combat simulator recognised for its innovative gameplay. The following year saw the release of Shark Jaws, a game notable for its use of character animations.

The competition in the arcade game market intensified when the Japanese company Taito produced Gun Fight in 1975. This was the first game to use microprocessors. The development of arcade games was rapidly progressing. In 1976, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak created Breakout, which later became the blueprint for the game Arkanoid.

In 1978, Tomohiro Nishikado, a Japanese developer, brought Space Invaders to the market. This game achieved unprecedented popularity and defined the shooting game genre. Responding to its popularity, Galaxian, the first computer game with a colour display, was released in 1979. That same year, Asteroids, inspired by Spacewar!, made its debut, contributing to its popularity.

Another breakthrough came with the 1980 release of Pac-Man by Toru Iwatani of Namco. This game achieved immense commercial success and made its titular character the first pop culture icon in the gaming industry’s history.

In 1983, Dragon’s Lair, created by Don Bluth, surprised players with its modern graphics resembling an interactive animated film. That same year, Shigeru Miyamoto produced Mario Bros., officially introducing the character of Mario, who had previously appeared in Donkey Kong in 1981.

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Video games on PCs

In the 1970s, arcade and console games were triumphing, while games on personal computers were just in their beginner phase. The first computers were mainly available at universities and were too expensive for the average user.

The genre of text-based games was born on personal computers in 1972. Early titles, including Adventure (1976) by Will Crowther and Zork (1977) by students from Massachusetts, gained popularity after being converted to one of the first microcomputers, the Apple II in 1980. These early works initiated a trend in games based on narrative and interactive storytelling.

In 1979, the first narrative games appeared. Richard Garriott’s Akalabeth introduced a pseudo-three-dimensional first-person perspective. The following year, Adventure began the genre of graphic adventure games, and Mystery House by Ken and Roberta Williams introduced graphical displays while retaining text commands.

The 1980s brought a technological breakthrough in gaming with the introduction of the ZX Spectrum in 1982. This device enabled the display of colourful graphics and the playback of sound, leading to the creation of iconic platform games such as Matthew Smith’s Manic Miner in 1983. The competitive and immensely popular Commodore 64 soon followed, featuring notable titles like Defender of the Crown (1986) and Sid Meier’s Pirates! (1987).

In 1981, the IBM PC was introduced, initially used solely as a business device. However, it gradually gained popularity as a gaming platform. One of the classic adventure games to debut on the IBM PC was King’s Quest (1984) by Roberta Williams.

The evolution of games on PCs brought both technological and cultural progress. The first commercial titles offered new possibilities for creators. They laid a foundation for the further development of the video game industry.

The first 3D computer game

A significant leap from 2D to 3D in gaming was achieved with the release of Battlezone in November 1980. Initially available only in arcades, its console version for the Atari 2600 was released later in 1983.

In Battlezone, players took control of a tank, and operated it using joysticks. The primary objective was to shoot other tanks, as they became faster and more dangerous with each level.

The battle unfolded on the screen and off it. Players had to use radar to track the position of unseen enemies. This added a strategic dimension to the game. Battlezone demonstrated how games could use virtual space to create immersive experiences for players.

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