What Was the First Video Game?
The first video games were developed in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, while the first video games with physics were invented in the late 1950’s.
The first computerized video games without physics include a version of tic-tac-toe called Bertie the Brain (1950) and Alan Turing’s Chess game Turochamp (1952), the first games with physics are the “Pong-like” Tennis for Two (1958), and MIT’s space-shooter Spacewar! (1959 – 1962).
Other notable mentions include a non-computerized electronic game from 1947, the physics demonstration from MIT Bouncing Ball (1950 – 1951), Christopher Strachey’s Checkers (1951), Ferranti International’s NIMROD computer which played the ancient math game NIM (1951), and Cambridge’s OXO (tic-tac-toe, 1952). See an excellent list of the early history of video games here.
Given the above we can say:
- The first electronic video game was the Cathode-ray Tube Amusement Device (1947).
- The first computerized video game was Bertie the Brain (1950).
- The first foray into computer gaming physics, although not really a game, was Bouncing Ball (1950 – 1951).
- The first complex video game rule-set was Turochamp (1952).
- The first video game created for entertainment with physics was Tennis for Two (1958).
- The first video game, with physics, that resembles a modern video game was Spacewar! (1959 – 1962).
A Brief History of Video Games starting with Tennis for Two. There isn’t much of a focus on gaming in the 50’s on the internet. People like to begin the story at Tennis for Two (the first proper video game with physics), but people are missing a solid ten years of development. This video is otherwise excellent.
A Quick History of Computerized Video Games – From the First Ping to the First Pong
Bertie the Brain was predated conceptually by Alan Turing’s partially unrealized chess simulation Turochamp. Turing began work on Turochamp in 1947, but didn’t test it until 1952 due to its complexity.
Both games are notably followed in October 1958 by physicist William Higginbotham’s Table Tennis. Table Tennis is an early version of Pong, with physics (its inventor was a physicist), and is arguably the first proper precursor to modern video games created strictly “for entertainment”.
Despite early attempts at gaming, a full decade of work on games like Spacewar! (Starting in 1959), and an entire decade of technology advances over the 60’s, would be required before video games would be playable by the public in the arcades of the early 70’s.
- Check out the first Virtual Reality (VR) device the Sensorama. VR began in 1966; its history can give you an idea of how video game technology evolved in different directions.
- You can check out our page on the first arcade games here.
The History of Video Games – 1947 – Early 1950’s – October 8, 2012.
TIP: If you consider a video game to be computerized, then we have to look past the first electronic arcade game that used an analog computer and CRT screen build in 1947 (although we do cover it below).
Turing’s Theoretical Video Game – Turochamp
Alan Turing, the father of computer science and AI, can be said to have built the first computer game shortly before his death in 1954 at the age of 41. Turing and partner D. G. Champernowne worked on a version of Chess in the late 40’s. By 1952, they were ready to implement the game. The game was tested, and worked, but it was never released due to CPU constraints at the time.
Alan Turing did more than just invent video games.
If you can imagine, Turing built a complicated machine that worked in theory but was a little beyond it’s time technology-wise. Given the fact that the game didn’t make it to production first, it can’t be considered “the first video game”.
The Cathode-ray Tube Amusement Device – The First Interactive Electronic Game
“The cathode-ray tube amusement device” is the earliest known electronic game. It can technically be considered a “video game” by today’s standards, but only very loosely since it’s not computerized and instead uses as CRT (cathode ray tube) screen and analog electronics. Today we would most likely not consider the device a “proper video game”.
Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device (1947). This technical video doesn’t show gameplay, but rather gives insight into the cathode-ray.
Bertie the Brain – The First Proper Video Game
Firsts are very hard to pin down in the history of computing and gaming, but generally, we can consider 1950’s Bertie the Brain (a version of tic-tac-toe) to be the first video game. A giant screen with tic-tac-toe as featured below would only loosely be considered a video game, but it (unlike CRT based cathode-ray game was computerized).
Bertie the Brain was built by Dr. Josef Kates for the 1950 Canadian National Exhibition to showcase his “additron tube”, a miniature version of the vacuum tube (although the industry ended up favoring “the transistor” instead).
In the picture from LIFE magazine (featured for educational purposes and commentary only), you can see Danny Kaye (of the “Road to” movies) playing a tic-tac-toe match versus Bertie the Brain in 1950.
Bertie the Brain Top # 5 Facts.
The Almost First Video Game – Bouncing Ball
A “video game” (if you call a simulation of a bouncing ball a game) that worked as a precursor of Pong (in that it had a ball that bounced) was almost the first video game due to when it was started development in the late 40’s, but it was ultimately released a year after Bertie the Brain.
In 1950, Charly Adama created the Bouncing Ball video game program for MIT’s new Whirlwind Computer, the first computer to display “real-time” video signals. The game had been worked on since the late 40’s but was demonstrated a year after Bertie the Brain in April of 1951.
TIP: Due to Bouncing Ball being programmed in the late 40’s it can, by some measures, be considered “the first video game”. However, as a “zero player game”, like Conway’s Game of Life, it is more a demonstration of basic computer physics than a “game”.
Bouncing Ball Simulation (1950).
Jay Forrester on the Whirlwind Computer.
The First True Video Game – Tennis For Two
Tennis for Two was one of the first video games developed for entertainment (as opposed to pushing the boundaries of technology in the labs). It displays on a screen, uses a controller to control an on-screen object, uses physics, and was invented for entertainment purposes.
For the above reasons, some (including Brookhaven) consider Tennis for Two to be the first “true” video game, or at least, a good starting point for video game history discussions.
The Birth of Modern Video Game Physics
Video game physics start with the bizarre precursor to all games Bouncing Ball, but zero player simulations aside Tennis for Two represents the birth of video game physics.
The American physicist William Higginbotham designed Tennis for Two by in October of 1958. He came up with the idea for a Brookhaven National Laboratory Expo after learning that the Donner Model 30 analog computer could simulate trajectories with wind resistance.
Although MIT’s Bouncing Ball had basic physics, advanced physics allowed for what one could consider “the first true video game”.
First Video Game? (BrookhavenLab) A look at Tennis for Two, and it’s role in the history of early gaming.
FACT: Brookhaven considered Tennis for Two the first video game. I don’t refute the claim as much as adding an asterisk of appreciation for the decade of development that came before it.
Spacewar! and Beyond!
The next year MIT uses the same advances in video game physics to create Spacewar! (the game that the first arcade machines are based on).
Since Spacewar! is the first example of a modern video game, and is arguably the most important of all the games mentioned above, we will cover that on other pages.
To learn more about gaming from Spacewar! to Pong check out our article on the first arcade video games.
Spacewar & Computer Space (History of Video Games pt 1) S3E07 | The Irate Gamer. Spacewar! is important, but so is it’s cousin Computer Space. All this and more covered in this video and on our other “gaming firsts” pages.
FACT: Spacewar! inspired Nolan Bushnell, who would go on to form Atari, to create the first arcade game. The first arcade game wasn’t Pong, it was a version of MIT’s Spacewar!