Press Start

Aug 23

My name is Alan White, and I’m a relatively normal young man who lives in London and works as a freelance journalist.

I say I’m relatively normal. I have a girlfriend and a few friends, and I like most sports and films, and books, and dinner in good restaurants, and walks in the park. But I also like video games. No – I love video games. I’ve loved them since I was about nine years old, and for a time, I loved them too much.

If anyone asks me why I still love them, I tell them that I think they’re great for all sorts of reasons. They don’t just give you a story, like most other works of art: they let you control the story’s events. It’s like watching a really good movie, but you’re not an observer – you’re the star role. They’re a challenge of your reflexes, of your capacity to think logically, and of your patience. I tell them that I enjoy the satisfaction that arises from being equal to that challenge and that I love video games because, in an age when mainstream media has become more and more stupid, superficial and vacuous, they’re clever: there’s usually a little joke, or graphical effect, or puzzle that has you shaking your head at the ingenuity required for the programmer to create it. And as the recipient of this rant begins to slowly back away from me, I’ll argue that this conflation of science and imagination is going to change the way we communicate and learn over the next few decades.

At my age, this obsession makes me a nerd. Or does it? After all, the video games industry is massive. The two leading websites on video games, IGN.com and Gamespot, receive around 12 million visitors a month. And not all of them are children: in fact, they’re more likely to be adults:  The Entertainment Software Association of America says that the average gamer is 30 years old, and has been playing video games for nine years. Who says statistics aren’t interesting? People who aren’t nerds, presumably.

But there are millions of us in our 20s and early 30s who have grown up playing video games. We shot Space Invaders as children, we fought Blanka, Ken and Chun-Li as teenagers and today we’d still rather be doing that than putting up shelves, filling out our tax forms, bringing up children, eating or sleeping. I was at a dinner party recently with a few responsible adults, and we were reminiscing about our childhoods. We were all talking about our favourite movies as teenagers, and the bloke sitting opposite me reeled off a list of his favourites: “Predator, Willow…and of course Terminator 2. Good NES game too.” Polite nodding all round, but I was the only one who knew what was really going on here. Those final four words were a little fishing expedition. Would anyone bite? I would. “The last level with the T-1000 was a bastard.” His eyes lit up. Our respective girlfriends’ eyes rolled. The unofficial losers’ Masonic handshake had been completed. We didn’t talk to anyone else all night.

So we are the video game generation, but we don’t like to admit it. As grown adults, we queue for hours when the latest console is released. We don’t find it in the slightest bit strange our national newspapers review the latest game releases beside film and book reviews. This matters. What impact has it had on our society? The video games market is as large as the TV and film sectors: a whole new art form has sprung up, yet few people have bothered to analyse what it’s done to us.  I want to share my memories of the good and bad times games have given me. It’s a story about an addiction, but the addiction isn’t the whole tale. But before we get there, let’s go way back in time – right back to where it all began. [i]

*

It all starts in 1958, with a blank screen, and a pair of white dots. The dots are the creation of a tubby, gawky-looking 21-year-old called Steve Russell, who has just joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1958. He’s working at the MIT’s new artificial intelligence lab as a technician. Russell likes science fiction and model railways, and he lives in an apartment that’s crawling with insects. He’s a nerd, not that the term’s been invented yet. His lab is going to investigate whether computers can have intelligence, but this project isn’t as easy as it sounds. The computer in 1958 is somewhat different to the swanky thin notepads we use today for talking to our friends on social networking sites, watching porn and very occasionally doing work.

The computer on which Russell has spent most of his time working, for instance, is a TX-0, which has been built by Lincoln Labs. It requires fifteen tons of air-conditioning equipment to keep it cool, but is considered a huge advance on its predecessor because it doesn’t need a specially-constructed building or a staff of operators, technicians and programmers to run it. Computers have only just become advanced enough to carry out programmes like calculating ballistic tables in war time and for government purposes like carrying out a census; they aren’t for personal use. But Russell and his friends are visionaries. He belongs to MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC), a small tribe of people from various academic disciplines who are all housed in one messy shed that has previously been used to make military technology. They believe that access to computers should be unlimited and total – one of their rules is: “Always yield to the Hands-On Imperative!” This “Hands-On Impreative” is the belief that, in taking things apart and putting them back together, the truth about everything could be revealed. The TMRC are regularly stealing bits of hardware from around MIT and experimenting with them. [1] They’re about to get their hands on the best toy they could possibly imagine.

In 1961 the Digital Equipment Corporation’s PDP-1 appeared at MIT. This was a huge improvement on what had gone before, because it was only the size of a small wardrobe. It has a huge round display screen which is hooked up to a keyboard. What to do with it? First, a mathematics professor used it to design a programme which made circles bounce around, creating odd shapes. But the rest of the TMRC wanted to make something more fun: they wanted the computer to expand the user’s horizons. Russell started thinking about the science fiction stories that he loved, and had an idea for a game. The stories he read were full of epic space battles between opposing ships: could the computer make them a reality? [2]

By January 1962, Russell had created two white dots that could be controlled around the PDP’s display screen, accelerating and changing their direction according to the operator’s commands. There were smaller white dots everywhere, which represented the stars in space. The next month, the white dots had morphed into two rocket ships, and each could fire a white dot – a torpedo, which, if it connected, turned the other ship into an eruption of smaller white dots. It had taken Russell 200 hours of labour, but what he did next was indicative of the TMRC’s idealism. For a start, he didn’t have the people who knew about his invention assassinated before he dashed to the patent office. Quite the opposite: he just left it there for people to fiddle with.

One programmer changed the stars so they represented the actual constellations and their real-life brightness in relation to one another. Another added an option which allowed players to zip into “hyperspace” and reappear in a different part of the screen. Another created a “sun” in the middle of the screen with a gravitational pull: the ships were fighting in the gravity well of a star. When the human players were granted each little innovation, the gameplay itself became a great deal more sophisticated: the best players were looping around the gravitational field to take their opponents by surprise, or gambling on their hyperspace to save them from a tight spot.

Spacewar! premiered at MIT’s Science Open House Day in May 1962. People played against each other for hours, despite the cumbersome controls – two switches to rotate clockwise and counter clockwise, another to fire thrust and another for rockets. The switches wore out within a year. The makers of the PDP-1 decided to ship a version of the game with the fifty computers they sold. The video game market was born here, but it was a long way from taking off just yet. Russell and his chums never profited from their invention. They wouldn’t have wanted to – like today’s Shareware designers, they wanted information to be free. [3] Besides, computers were only really available to a few institutions, mostly academic. It took a quite different type of pioneer to kick start the video game industry.

*

 The pioneer in question was a tall, confident and gregarious student of electrical engineering at the University of Utah called Nolan Bushnell. In 1962 his university bought a PDP-1: it was one of the first to own it. Guess what everyone in the computer lab was doing with it when it first arrived. Developing programs that would advance medical research? Designing algorithms that would give us an insight into the workings of the universe? Not quite: much the same as in university computer labs today, they were buggering around on the latest (indeed, only) game: Spacewar! You may well be familiar with what Bushnell went through. He played the game between two and six ever morning, stopped sleeping and going to class. He was obsessed.

But Bushnell wasn’t a dreamer, like the game’s inventors. He was an audacious, blustering entrepreneur. When his father, a cement contractor, died, he had gone to every one of his clients and insisted on completing any unfinished projects himself. At University, he built a printing press that made the best Fake IDs a student could buy. Like the dweebs and dorks of the TMRC, he could see a huge amount of potential in Spacewar! It was just a different kind of potential.

Bushnell had worked at a fair in Salt Lake City before he took his first job. [4] What he envisaged was a fair that had games like Spacewar! for everyone to play. He set to work on his project in 1971. By now, computers were becoming increasingly powerful and increasingly easy to get hold of. Bushnell started programming a version of Spacewar! on an $8000 minicomputer, which was only slightly smaller than today’s machines. No one thought it would work, except Bushnell. And in fact, it didn’t at first: the game was far too slow. He had to build a separate circuit board to run the game, which he hooked up to a black and white TV. He put both in a Plexiglass case, along with a can to catch the coins that would inevitably be pumped in.

Soon he went into business with a local company that agreed to produce 1500 units. It didn’t sell. The game came with pages of instructions on how to control the ships and steer clear of gravity. It pulled in lots of money in the bars that were full of Stanford University students, but it just didn’t appeal in average working men’s joints. The company discontinued the product. Clearly their fault, said Bushnell. Don’t these people know how to market anything? He went into business again, this time with a fellow engineer from his old employers, called Ted Dabney. They called their new business Atari, after a Japanese word from Bushnell’s favourite game: Go. The word is a warning to one’s opponent, like ‘Check’ in chess. Bushnell was warning those investors who hadn’t believed in him. Everything was about to change.

Bushnell built an empire, and he built it with a healthy dose of bullshit. Atari moved out of his bedroom and into a 1000-square-foot space in an office building in California. Bushnell’s babysitter sat by the phone, making callers wait for the number of minutes Bushnell thought would make them think they’d reached a serious operation with a hard-to-reach CEO. In 1972 he got an engineer called Al Alcorn on board by telling him he could be a millionaire by the time he was thirty and claiming his family car was a company vehicle. Alcorn was a former high school American football player who had a natural gift for electronics and who was working in a TV repair shop. It was his addition to Bushnell’s team that made the difference, because he was the man that designed Pong. Or at least, he might have been.

*

By this stage, Atari was beginning to make money after a fashion. The company would buy pinball machines from distributors and provide them to local bars and student unions. Bushnell was still struggling to get his version of Spacewar! off the ground, and told Alcorn to start work on a version of electronic ping pong that he told him was part of a contract he’d signed with General Electric. In fact, there was no contract. Bushnell was just trying to get Alcorn familiar with the process of game design while he worked on an idea for an updated Spacewar! Alcorn’s finished invention was very simple: there were two lines on either side of the screen and a green square representing the ball. He thought hard about the mechanics of the game: the ball would fly off at different directions depending on which bit of the paddle it hit, and it would gather speed after a few hits. The game ran on a cheap black-and-white TV that he’d stuck inside a wooden cabinet, along with a load of circuit boards. The famous “pong” noise that came when the ball struck the paddle was a lucky accident; a frequency of sound that was already in the machine. The whole thing only took him a few months.

Bushnell insisted the game came with instructions. Alcorn wasn’t so sure: the massive instruction manual that came with his Spacewar! copy had been one of the reasons punters had found it too confusing. A compromise was reached: Alcorn taped a card to the cabinet, on which he wrote: “Avoid missing ball for high score.” He added a little pot for collecting quarters. Bushnell took it to a bar in Northern California that was full of college students, and left it on a barrel at the back of the room.

Two weeks later, the bar’s owner called Alcorn up: the machine was broken. It was a concern: at that very moment Bushnell was in Chicago, trying to convince some distributors to license his game. Alcorn jumped on his bike and rode to the bar. When he arrived, the bar’s owner said he’d had people waiting for the joint to open so they could play the game. He opened up the machine. The problem was clear: the pot he’d used to collect coins was so full of quarters that they’d overflowed into the rest of the machine, clogging it up. Bushnell had got the distributors interested, but he decided they had to manufacture the game themselves. Each Pong cost less than $400 to make, but they were selling them at $1300 a time. He set up an assembly line a few blocks away from his main office. The workers were a chaotic bunch of long-haired hippies and bikers they’d picked up from the local unemployment office. They smoked pot all day and stole circuit boards. The design was ripped off: only a quarter of the twelve thousand Pong machines that hit the market were manufactured by Atari. But despite all that, Atari’s revenues hit $1 million in their first year. The video game industry was born.

It’s a nice story, and like all nice stories, it leaves out a few vital components, the most important of which is this: where did Bushnell get the idea for a ping pong game?  Well, we need to go back to 1966, to the research lab of a New York-based defence contractor called Sanders Associates. In it, there’s an engineer called Ralph Baer. He’s an austere, meticulous man in his 30s who emigrated from Germany shortly after Hitler took power. He’s been a success there: he’s a division manager with a $7 million dollar payroll. He has the idea for a game that can be played on a TV, and sets a couple of his employees to work on it. Like all the designs at this time, Baer’s are for two players: the hardware just isn’t there to create artificial intelligence. And the best design he’s got is for a ping pong game.

In 1971 Baer licensed his product to an electronics company called Magnavox. Like Bushnell’s first stab at a game, the new invention was marketed terribly: the price was upped from Baer’s suggested $19/95 to $100, and the adverts gave the impression that the game would only work on Magnavox TV sets. The product didn’t sell, but it was trialled around various consumer shows, one of which, in Burlingame, was attended by Nolan Bushnell. We know, because subsequent court litigation cited his entry in the guestbook.

Magnavox took Atari to court for copyright infringement only a few months after Pong was released, in 1972. Atari didn’t have a chance: the methodical Baer had documented every part of his invention process, and had patents and notes. Bushnell couldn’t afford the £1.5 million it would take to fight this case in court. He managed to reach a settlement outside, and a great deal it was too. Atari became a licensee under a prepaid arrangement, a fixed sum of a few hundred thousand dollars, for which Magnavox also agreed to prosecute any of their competitors. In return, Atari would give Magnavox the rights to any product it came up with in the next calendar year. You’ll be stunned to hear that for one year, Atari didn’t release any new products.

Over the next few years, Bushnell would cement his place in history as the “the father of video games”. Baer kept quiet: Nolan was the client who put Magnavox on the map – he may not have made the company as much money as it could have, but without him there would have been no takings at all. Baer didn’t tell the press his story until the late 1970s, when he was getting ready to retire. In a 2009 interview, Nolan Bushnell told the Guardian that “the ping pong game was sort of a standard”, that he’d played a version of it prior to the Magnavox version, and that he “never thought Ralph’s attacks were worth anything.” [ii] What’s the truth? We’ll never know. All we know is that history is written by the victors, and Atari had certainly won. The video game industry was about to explode, and this is where my story begins.

*

It starts in a Chinese takeaway on the south coast of England in the early 1980s, and it starts with me, a boy of about five or six, having a tantrum. This is no ordinary tantrum. It’s a display of foot stamping and crying the likes of which I have never produced before. My screams rattle the pots and pans and shake the surface of the hoi sin sauce in the kitchen, and they give all the unfortunate patrons who are waiting for their food an instant migraine. Everyone shakes their heads as I am dragged out of the front door by my father. That poor man, they think. What an awful child.

What’s happened is this. My father has announced he’s going to the takeaway and, being five, I’ve pleaded to go with him. When you’re that age, pretty much anywhere is new and exciting; the only family member that gets more excited about an opportunity to leave the house is the dog. We make an order and take a seat. This place is less exciting than I hoped. It reminds me of the waiting room at the dentist’s. There’s the wonderful smell of our food being prepared and The Bill is crackling out from a small TV in the corner, but apart from that, it’s pretty dull.

In the corner is a black cabinet, about the size of a large refrigerator. I can see a strange looking red knob on the front of it, and a glow emanating from the area just above it. I wander over to it, stand on my tip toes, and peer over the front of the cabinet. What I see is rather marvellous. There is a television screen inside, and it is showing an odd collection of shapes. They’re in a rectangular formation of rows and columns, and they’re advancing towards the bottom of the screen. Beneath them, a block is shifting left and right between four larger, stationary blocks. It keeps transmitting a small white line which makes the shapes moving towards it explode. The objects that are moving towards towards the block are transmitting white lines of their own, which the block avoids by positioning itself behind the four blocks above it.

I still don’t really understand what’s going on, but watching the process is immensely satisfying. I stand there on tip toes for a couple of minutes: there’s something so precise about the way the block at the bottom tidies up the other objects on the screen while not coming into contact with them or the white lines they transmit. I turn to my father, who’s standing behind me.

“What is it?”

“It’s Space Invaders. Those things are the aliens, and you’ve got to shoot them.”

“You?”

“Yes, that’s just the demo.”

“The demo?” I take a moment to register this.

Here, let me show you.”

He fishes in his pocket, pulls out some coins, and drops them into the machine.

“Use the joystick to move left and right, and then press the button to fire.”

I can barely reach the controls, and I can only see the bottom half of the screen when I’m on tip toes, and my legs are now starting to hurt. But I’m still absolutely awestruck, or at least I am for about 20 seconds before the first alien bullet hits my turret. This is a lot harder than watching the demo.

“You’ve got two more chances,” says my father.

My next attempt is even shorter – I’m caught between two minds as to whether I should move left or right and end up remaining motionless as a bullet hits me. But my last attempt is far more successful. I’m frantically hammering on the fire button and careering left and right with little purpose, but it seems to be working. I’ve hit quite a few aliens, when suddenly they start to speed up. This breaks my concentration, and pretty soon one hits me.

“They get faster?”

“They do. Oh, food’s ready. Come on fella, let’s get home.”

“But I want another go.”

“Well you can’t have one.”

“Please? I really want another go.”

“No.”

Boom – the tears begin as surely as if he’d clipped me round the ear. It will be years before I really engage with video games. But already, the seeds are sown. That procession of little aliens has marched right the way into the back of my consciousness.

*

Apart from this, I’d had little contact with computers or video games in my early years. I was born into a middle-class family in South Devon. Despite the fact that my father worked as a techie for the Ministry of Defence, we didn’t have a computer at home. The only serious contact I’d had with any kind of leisure technology – besides the TV and radio – was with my Speak ‘n’ Spell. It was a little red box that had a keyboard on the front. When you turned it on a digitised voice would say: “Now spell [a random word]”. As you typed in the letters they appeared on an LED screen: if you typed them in correctly, it would then say “Correct”. If you didn’t, it transmitted a short burst of high voltage electricity through your fingers, or at least it should have. It got a bit boring after a while. But I was about to have another formative experience.

A few years had passed since Nolan Bushnell got the arcade industry up and running, but now there was no stopping it. Many of the best games, like Breakout, [5] were still designed by Atari, but now there were hundreds of companies attempting to muscle in on the action, of which Taito (the designers of Space Invaders) was one. It took a while for the craze to reach Britain (Space Invaders had actually been released in 1978 in the U.S – little did I know it, but there were already far more advanced games out there than the local takeaway could offer), but by the mid-1980s it was in full swing. Games like Space Invaders had little in the way of narrative. There was no way to win: like most wars, the battle kept going until you either died, gave up or ran out of money. So why did you play? The only reason was to get your initials on the high score table.

And it was really the high score table of the next game I played that entranced me. I was in a ten pin bowling alley in Torquay for a friend’s birthday party. It was always going to be something of a doomed venture. We were only seven years old at the time, and the father of the child, a furiously competitive man, felt we’d enjoy bowling. Or at least he knew he would. He was charging up to the lane and nailing strikes and spares like they were going out of fashion, while the other dads tried manfully to look interested and we kids tottered up to the lane with the ball in both hands and tried not to drop it on our feet.

We were bored. And while Competitive Dad was busy setting his umpteenth personal best of the evening, my father decided it might be fun to see what else the alley had to offer. He lead an advance party of similarly bored kids, and after a while we chanced upon a Pac Man machine. By now I had a slightly better awareness of what constituted an arcade game, but I’d still yet to have a serious session on one. Playing it was so intuitive that within five minutes we were scrapping like wild animals over whose turn it was and begging my father to get the contents of his wallet changed so we could top each other’s scores.

It’s easy to forget what a truly great game Pac Man is: the arcade game that truly defines the 1980s. After all, it’s a game about a vacuous consumer whose life never changes and who can never truly succeed in his endeavours. [6] Everyone loves Pac Man. Billy Mitchell, of Hollywood, Florida, really loves Pac Man. He loves it so much that in 1999 he played the perfect game of Pac Man – all 256 boards, every pill eaten, every fruit collected, a total score of 3,333,360 points and all without losing a life, except his social one. By 1982 we were all playing Pac Man, though perhaps not quite as enthusiastically as Billy. They even had it in the Eastern Bloc, where an East German bootleg machine called a Poly Play had a rather marvellous version called Hase und Wulf (Hare and Wolf) on it.

PacMan - done.

Things might have been quite different. The game didn’t do so well when it was released in Japan in 1979, the work of Toru Iwatani, a Namco programmer. It only took off in 1980, when it was picked up for the US by Midway: over 350,000 units were then sold. It might not even have been called Pac Man (the name comes from an onomatopoeic Japanese phrase). It was rebranded for the North American market from Puck Man, because that sounded a bit rude.

What makes it so good? You know the drill. A happy gobbling face, four ghosts and a maze. And some repetitive blippy music and special pills that make you want to touch everyone; something we wouldn’t see in real life till a few years later (hooray!). [7] But is that all there is to it? Of course not. Pac Man is a fiendishly clever game. The concept is sound, but it’s the execution that makes it perfect. It’s all about the ghosts. There are some very subtle things going on with them, without which the game wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t work if the ghosts didn’t turn corners slower than Pac Man, for a start. Or if they weren’t slower through the warp holes on either side of the maze.

Let’s think about those ghosts a bit more. Are they randomly bimbling around, hoping to bump into our happy yellow friend? Of course not. Pac Man boasts an early form of artificial intelligence. If you have a chance, go online and play the game to remind yourself. Notice how the ghosts only look in the direction they are moving, and that they can only see you if they’re looking at you. You can follow a ghost, and it won’t know where you are.

And there’s more to it than that. The ghosts have personalities – honestly. Time to reacquaint yourself. Blinky is the red one. He’s an angry, is Blinky, and his game plan is just to follow you. If you munch one of those special pills, he’s a goner, but he just doesn’t care. Pinky is of course the pink one. He works in tandem with Blinky. His plan is to get you from the opposite direction while Blinky chases you. If you’re rubbish, like me, it’s Pinky who’ll kill you the most. Inky’s the green one. He’s a bit like a Grizzly Bear. If you stare him straight in the eye, and charge at him, he’ll run away (I wouldn’t necessarily test this theory). But he’ll sneak up on you if he can. Then there’s Clyde, who’s going through puberty. He doesn’t want to be around anyone, ghosts and Pac Man included. He’ll stay out of the way if he can, which only makes him a pain if you’ve just gobbled a special pill.

And it’s this perfect balance in the speed of the characters and their behaviour that makes Pac Man such a classic, and so addictive. If they all behaved like Blinky, it would very easy. Get them on your tail, and run away gobbling the goodies. If two were like Blinky and two like Pinky, you’d be screwed – there’d be nowhere to go. But because you have just enough of a chance of getting through the maze without bumping into them, it’s the most instantly addictive game ever written.

Above all, it was the competitive element of trying to match my peers’ efforts on the high score table that really caught me. It was, of course, only after Competitive Dad stormed over and dragged us back to the misery of watching him bowl that I realised how much of an impression this had left. We’d been sitting by the lane for half an hour and occasionally having a desultory effort at sending a ball down ourselves when I realised I’d been playing the game in my head the whole time, and trying to work out how I could be the best. I could see where he was coming from.

*

Looking back through the mists of time, I can see where the seeds of my later addiction were planted. I had been born into an era which was known as the Golden Age of Arcade Games. I had only briefly encountered two games at this age, but they were both classics. They were equally enjoyable for a small child or an adult. Games in those days had none of the graphical sophistication or narrative of today’s, but the programmers were working on a brand new canvas, and the breadth of their imagination was stunning. What must it have been like for those who were older than me during those years?

Two decades later, when arcade quality games were freely available for the home market and some of them were even being made into terrible films starring Angelina Jolie, I skipped university lectures for a day and went to London to meet Stuart, a friend. He was having a Halloween party in his flat that evening, so we met up early to have a couple of drinks and get a few decorations up. Needless to say by about 3pm we’d consumed most of the booze he’d bought for the party and had both developed a severe case of the munchies: we were students, lest you forget. Rather than tidying the flat or buying some provisions, Stuart suggested we went to a nearby museum, because there was a video games exhibition on. I was terribly excited: would all the new N64 games be on display? They would, he said, but this was actually an exhibition of video game history. What a great idea: we can tape our reviews on my Dictaphone and make a little radio show – it’ll be fantastic, I said, stopping only to fill up an Evian bottle with neat vodka to avoid a hangover before the party started.

The exhibition was divided into rooms – the first containing the likes of Pong, the last containing the most modern games. We barely got out of the first room before the exhibition closed, and it wasn’t entirely down to the fact that we were too drunk to stand up. We found a whole load of games that we’d been too young to experience the first time round, and we found them every bit as playable as today’s. I know, because I found the tape of our reviews a while ago, which I thought I should reproduce here. Just on the off chance of any litigation coming my way I should point out that Stuart was drunk at the time and is slightly less conceited these days. I’m not, but there we go.

Defender

Alan: Aha! Brilliant. Right, here we go with the controls. The joystick is for altitude, you’ve then got a button for shooting, another one for smart bombs, one to accelerate, one for direction changing, and one for hyperspace. Got all tha…

Stuart: Shit it. I’m dead already.

Alan: Give me a go. I used to play this in the IT lab at school. You have to shoot the aliens.

Stuart: Of course you do. Every one of these games is a comment on Western foreign policy. Did you get that?

Alan: Shut up. Here’s the bit I love, the aliens are trying to capture the astronauts on the surface, so if you’re a real hero like me you can shoot them as they float up with them, then catch the astronaut on the nose of your plane and…

Stuart: You dropped him! Splat!

Alan: Oh dear.  Great game though.

Stuart: Very colourful. The whole thing looks like a Jackson Pollock. But moving.

Alan: It’s very good.

Stuart: Unless you suffer from epilepsy.

Alan: Quite.

7/10

Centipede:

 

Alan: A classic of the era, it says here.

Stuart: Ooh, it’s got a big ball on it!

Alan: That’s to control your icon. Shoot the sections of the centipedes as they descend. When they hit a mushroom they’ll change direction. Oh, and shoot the bouncing spiders too.

Stuart: What have the centipedes and spiders done to me?

Alan: Nothing, you’re a snake so you’re metaphorically eating them. Erm, by shooting them.

Stuart: Snakes eat centipedes and spiders?

Alan: Erm.

Stuart: This is like Space Invaders. A lot like Space Invaders. Why’s everything vomit coloured?

Alan: It says in the notes the “subtle pastel shades” helped it appeal to women.

Stuart: Women like the colour of vomit?

Alan: Erm.

6/10

Asteroids

 

Stuart: Ah yes, Asteroids. Everyone knows this.

Alan: Piece of piss. Shoot the rocks and the UFOs.

Stuart: The notes say the record amount of time someone’s lasted on this was 36 hours. What a loser. You have to respect that.

Alan: Well that’s about thirty seconds…damn. I can’t be doing with this turn left, turn right, thrust rubbish.

Stuart: I know. It’s like trying to make love to a greased-up pig.

Alan: Really?

Stuart: I’m just trying to say it’s like, you know what you should be doing, but you can’t do it.

Alan: Erm.

Stuart: Good explosions though.

Alan: Great explosions.

8/10

Missile Command:

 

Stuart: Ooh! Another big ball! Let’s see how fast we can spin it! Weee!

Alan: Ok, so you have to defend your city from the incoming missiles. That’s about it.

Stuart: A subtle satire on Cold War-era politics. Very much the Dr Strangelove of 1980s games, if Kubrick had elected to portray his vista on a digital canvas. Note that.

Alan: When The Wind Blows for the slacker generation. Or maybe Octopussy.

Stuart: Taste my pain you suckers! I fucking rule! Wow, this is incredibly addictive, you know. They should bring back the tracker ball as a means of operation. You know that’s the method of control they use for real nuclear missiles?

Alan: Watch out!

Stuart: I’m going to die! I’m…

Alan: Woah.

Stuart: Crap!

Alan: That’s a big explosion. I don’t think there are any survivors left in my city.

Stuart: No.

Alan: I feel quite depressed, watching that.

Stuart: Nuclear war would really suck, wouldn’t it?

Alan: Yes, destroyed in a huge flash of atoms by some bastard at a desk. With a tracker ball.

Stuart: Wow. It truly is the Dr Strangelove of video games.

Alan: Weren’t we supposed to be doing something this evening?

9/10

*

So there were plenty of brilliant arcade games coming out during the period that I was growing up – but being a small child I had very little experience with them. There were some huge developments taking place over in the States at this time too. When we left him, Nolan Bushnell had been the catalyst for the arcade game industry. It was an impressive achievement, but soon his chaotic attitude to the not-quite-so-minutiae of business deals began to drag him into the mire. “The jackals”, as he called them – those people who were copying his designs and ideas, were to tear into his profits by the mid-1970s, helped by the fact that he hadn’t protected his designs properly.

What did Bushnell do? He did what any entrepreneurial genius would, and found a brand new way to make money from video games: by selling straight to the consumer. So what if computers were only really used by big institutions at the moment? If he could pull this off, it would make him a millionaire. He asked an engineer to re-create Pong on a tiny chip, and by 1975 the Sears catalogue was carrying Home Pong just in time for Christmas.

Of course, the jackals soon copied this idea too, and by the next year the American market was full of various machines that offered the opportunity to play video games in the home. This was the first ever console war, and we’ll see in the next chapter exactly how it ended. The most important thing as far as I’m concerned is that by the time I was getting ready to enter school, video games had started to take over the world.



[1] They even took locksmith classes so that no door at MIT was closed to them.

[2] He particularly liked stories like Lensman and Skylark by E.E. “Doc” Smith. No, me neither.

[3]Russell ended up working for a time-share computer company in Seattle that brought in groups of kids to pound their products’ keyboards to see if they could make them crash. Only one child could crash them every time. His name? Bill Gates.

[4] Where he’d done over scores of fair-goers on the ball toss. He’d stack up the bottles they were trying to knock down so it seemed simple early in the day: what they didn’t know was that the dry Utah air would make it impossible to knock them down later. Making a dime came as naturally as breathing to Bushnell.

[5] Mostly the work of a young hippy whose programming feats blew the other Atari employees away, though they also thought he was a bit of a weirdo. A young Steve Jobs.

[6] There’s no ending. You can get to the 256th level, but the data for the item display section is stored in a single byte of data (eight binary digits or 2 to the power of eight) so  it can only display 256 distinct numbers and this causes  half of the screen to turn into a mess of random digits and symbols.

[7] This is quite an old joke, but I’m not sure how old. The comedian Marcus Brigstocke claims it’s his, I think I read it somewhere years before he was on the scene but can’t remember. It’s definitely not mine if that’s any help.



[i] Except I could have gone back even further. Like many art forms, the roots of video games are obscure. In 1958 a nuclear physicist called William A. Higginbotham created a game called Tennis for Two on an oscilloscope. Players could control a little green dot bouncing around between two lines on the tiny screen. Despite the fact that people lined up to play the game, he dismantled it, arguing it served no real purpose. Years later, he was bemused to find himself dubbed the ‘Grandfather of the Video Game’ by an adoring press. All he wanted to be remembered as was the man who founded the nuclear non-proliferation group, the Federation of American Scientists. Accordingly, I’ve confined him to a footnote in this history.

[ii] “Nolan Bushnell: Meet the BAFTA winning father of the videogames industry”, Guardian, March 18 2009. Interestingly, he claims to have played Higginbotham’s game (mentioned above) prior to the Magnavox.