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Videogames finally get their day


Playing into the spotlight: National Video Games Day is not just about playing videogames, but celebrating an industry whose day has finally come. — Reuters

Playing into the spotlight: National Video Games Day is not just about playing videogames, but celebrating an industry whose day has finally come. — Reuters

Grab your joysticks, Monday is National Video Games Day. 

And, yes, it's a big deal. 

Last year the videogame industry generated US$23.5bil (RM96.30bil) domestically – that's more than the US$11bil (RM45.07bil) movie and US$7bil (RM28.68bil) music industries combined in the United States. 

Worldwide the videogame industry is estimated to generate nearly US$100bil (RM409.70bil) this year. 

And this global phenomenon all started with ... 

Tic-Tac-Toe. 

In 1952, A.S. Douglas programmed the Tic-Tac-Toe game OXO (aka Noughts and Crosses) on an Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator, or EDSAC – basically, a large, expensive, and, by today's standards, quite primitive computer – as part of his PhD dissertation at the University of Cambridge. The rudimentary game was displayed on a small, oval dot matrix CRT monitor with a player using a telephone's rotary dial to select movements against the computer opponent. 

Then in 1958 in Upton, New York, a Brookhaven National Laboratories physicist named Willy Higinbotham invented Tennis for Two, a two-player tennis-like game displayed on an oscilloscope. 

OXO and Tennis for Two were warm-ups to the first major breakthrough for videogames: Spacewar

Programmed in 1961 by MIT student Steve Russell – along with help from classmates – Spacewar was a two-player contest played on an expensive car-sized lab computer. Largely considered the first videogame, Spacewar featured duelling spaceships that could rotate left and right, thrust forward, and fire torpedoes, and later hyperspace to another spot on the screen – a button combination still in use by current games. There was also a sun that exerted real-time gravity to affect the ships. 

As Spacewar grew in popularity beyond MIT, a college student in Utah named Nolan Bushnell was so impressed by the game that he later programmed his own knock-off, Computer Space, in the 1960s. Computer Space eventually became the first coin-operated videogame in 1971, and while it flopped, the game's commercial failure spurred Bushnell to start his own company a year later: Atari. 

The entrepreneur would have much better success with Atari's first arcade game, Pong; the first test unit, placed in a dive bar in Sunnyvale, California, in September, 1972, actually broke because it was filled with too many quarters. 

As with Computer Space, Bushnell's idea for Pong wasn't original. Months before Pong was released, he saw a demonstration of a table tennis game on the first home videogame system, the Magnavox Odyssey, which was designed by Ralph Baer – whom many consider to be the true "father of videogames" – in the late 1960s. 

Atari and Home Pong, a consumer version of its arcade hit, would later compete against the Magnavox Odyssey. The Odyssey lost that battle, as did the Odyssey 2 videogame console against the Atari 2600 several years later. 

Exhaustively covered by the informative and entertaining The Ultimate History of Video Games by Steven L. Kent, the early years of the videogame industry is an enthralling soap opera of double and even triple-dealing; cocaine and prostitutes; lawsuits; the brilliant rise of startups to billion-dollar titans and their spectacular fall into ignominy and financial ruin. And more lawsuits. 

It's a wonder how the industry survived – it almost didn't – let alone that it grew into such dominance and popularity. 

In that respect, Sept 12 and the National Video Games Day before then are not just about playing videogames, but celebrating an industry whose day has finally come. — The Blade/Tribune News Service

   

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