Artifactual Playground

In 1958, the American physicist William Higinbotham created what is one of the first instances of what we would today call a modern “video game”. The game, named Tennis For Two, was built at the Brookhaven National Laboratory for their yearly open-house presentations of the lab’s activities. The game was built using an oscilloscope and a programmable analog computer, the Donner Model 30. It simulated a simple tennis match between two players, with a sideways perspective of the net and a ball bouncing back and forth, controlled by two player-manipulated inputs.

William Higinbotham, Tennis For Two, Brookhaven National Laboratory, 1958

Although it would take a few more years, namely 1962 and the game “Spacewar”, before we could see the emergence of a true modern form of “gameplay”, “Tennis for Two” nevertheless contains enough basic elements of interactive play to connect it to more contemporary descendants, for example the iconic Nintendo hit, “Wii Tennis”. While there are a few missing details here and there, such as avatars, scoring and the various forms invented to interact with the machine, fundamentally there is very little that has changed since “Tennis for Two”. It contains all the modern tropes of animated algorithmic representation, namely a highly kinetic visual form that emerges in real-time from within the game via its gameplay. From this perspective, it is one of the forebears for “arcade” style games. The game is fast and dynamic, and only by interacting with the system does the image emerge.

But perhaps most importantly, “Tennis for Two” is significant in that it is not only a representation of playable interactive visual forms, but that these forms represent something greater than their graphical output: the game is in fact a physics simulator of a ball moving through space and interacting with objects in its path. Watch how the ball bounces against the net and then try to imagine what it would take to program such a movement, even today; then remember that Higinbotham was working back in 1958. For its time, this is a sophisticated simulator of physical interactions:

“The ‘brain’ of Tennis for Two was a small analog computer. The computer’s instruction book described how to generate various curves on the cathode-ray tube of an oscilloscope, using resistors, capacitors and relays. Among the examples given in the book were the trajectories of a bullet, missile, and bouncing ball, all of which were subject to gravity and wind resistance. While reading the instruction book, the bouncing ball reminded Higinbotham of a tennis game and the idea of Tennis for Two was born.”
—Brookhaven National Laboratory, The First Video Game?, p.2.

In other words, Tennis for Two was not only the first “Pong” game, but also the first physics game, à la Box2D and its shameless re-branding in the infinitely more popular form, Angry Birds. And like Angry Birds’ relation to Box2d, the underpinnings for the game “Tennis for Two” were already inscribed in the routines of the machine itself, the Donner Model 30. These routines were then re-contextualized using what we would today call “joysticks” and voilà: a modern arcade game.

Given the historical context, there is nothing surprising in this idea of a computer simulating a physical phenomenon such as a bullet or a missile. In the 1950′s, computers were still emerging from World War II era cybernetic formulations of “telelogical” or “self-regulating” machines, precipitated in large part by the acceleration of faster and faster flying weapons that required new techniques for shooting them out of the sky (cf. V-2 Countermeasures). The history of interactivity is traversed by this question of simulation, i.e. by the idea of adaptive mathematical and physical models that could allow machines to regulate themselves in real-time, based on constantly evolving conditions. So while it might be considered a historical curiosity that post-war cybernetic machines would produce the modern video game, it is unsurprising that such a game would be constructed out of a physical simulator of bouncing balls or flying bullets and missiles.


This post first appeared on Douglas Edric Stanley’s blog. For more interesting observations keep reading there.