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You can do just about anything in a modern video game. You can command a space navy, build glittering cities, or solve astounding mysteries and puzzles. Inspiring, fun, and thought-provoking games come out every day. The only limit on what you can do in video games is the creator’s imagination. And now, we can take games with us everywhere, because we have supercomputers in our pockets.

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Creative Commons | By Alec Perkins

It’s pretty incredible to think about how far games and other tech have come. Remember the movie WarGames, with Matthew Broderick?

The future Ferris Bueller is playing a state-of-the-art arcade game, and he’s a computer whiz. It’s so advanced that he accidentally takes control of the U.S. military’s nuclear arsenal and nearly starts World War III.

It’s a silly idea—especially when you look at the computer and the arcade game console he’s working with. Yet that story isn’t totally off-base. In fact, as you’ll soon find out, the first video game was invented by a nuclear physicist who worked in a U.S. national laboratory.

Early Computer Games

More than a few contenders could be considered as the first computer game. The difference between a computer game and a video game? It’s what you see—or what you don’t. Computer games don’t necessarily have animated video. They could have text or flashing lights.

One early computer game was called Bertie the Brain, a computer that knew how to play tic tac toe. This doesn’t sound impressive now, but for Toronto in 1950, it was amazing. Bertie was set up in the Canadian National Exhibition and wowed thousands of visitors. The game challenged the “human brain” to beat the “computer brain.”

It’s likely that those Canadian gamers wound up in a draw, like all games of tic tac toe. Maybe they even won a few games they should have lost—computers weren’t too smart back then. That’s changed—now, computers crush grandmasters of the world’s most complex strategy game.

William Higinbotham Invents the First Video Game

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Creative Commons | By Brookhaven National Laboratory

The first computer game using video was invented by William Higinbotham, a physicist who worked at the Brookhaven National Laboratory. The lab was hosting an open house and Higinbotham wanted to show visitors a fun way that people could use technology.

The game that Higinbotham created, Tennis for Two, was the first to show real animation. Visitors loved it—it was by far the most popular exhibit at the open house.

Higinbotham didn’t think he’d done anything that remarkable. In fact, the lab eventually took the game apart and used the Tennis for Two computer for parts in other projects. Yet Higinbotham had, on a whim, invented a new form of media.

Ralph Baer Invents the Game Console

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Creative Commons | By George Hotelling

Video games continued to be a novelty for the rest of the 1950s and 1960s. It was only in the late ‘60s that anyone began to seriously think about video gaming.

Engineer Ralph Baer was intrigued by televisions. TV had become ubiquitous by the end of the ‘60s, and Baer thought that they could be used for more than just passive entertainment. Baer and a few colleagues started playing around with TV controls. Eventually, he came up with what he called the Brown Box—the prototype of the first video game console. It was the first video game system to allow for multiple players, and you could play more than one game on it.

Baer had something big on his hands. He licensed the Brown Box to Magnavox, the electronics company. Magnavox created the Odyssey, the first commercially available video game console, from Baer’s designs. Now, Baer is known as the father of video gaming.

The Odyssey had a few games that weren’t so different from board games. It shipped with dice, cards, and other tabletop gaming tools so that players could simulate baseball and football games. The most predictive Odyssey game was based on sports. The Odyssey shipped a game called Table Tennis—which was the inspiration for Pong, the first blockbuster video game.

Pong was the first game to capture the American public’s imagination. It was one of the first popular arcade games. In the 1970s, Pong machines were the first to sidle up alongside pinball machines in arcades and bars. Pong was also the foundation of Atari’s console empire. The game shipped as a one-game console and gave the company experience designing and selling home game systems.

Atari’s lead in the console market eventually went away, but the company’s impact on gaming can’t be overstated. About half of all U.S. households have a gaming console, and about half of all gamers play on game consoles. All that started with Atari, inspired by Ralph Baer’s innovative console.

“Could I project how far this thing was going to go? The answer’s obviously no. Nobody realized, even at that time, that we were on this geometric curve … that would go straight up to heaven,” Baer said. “It was unforeseeable; it was fantastic. I’m glad it happened. And if I hadn’t had started it, someone else would have.”

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