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Tuesday, November 29, 2022

November 29, 2022: Video Game Studying: Pong

[On November 29, 1972, Atari debuted Pong, one of the earliest and most influential video games. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Pong and four other groundbreaking games—I’d love the responses and nominations of gamers and noobs alike in comments!]

On two lesser-known and telling moments in the history of the first blockbuster arcade game.

While I’m sure video game historians would point to many moments and games as possible origin points for the genre, some as that hyperlinked timeline indicates from as early as the 1940s, there’s no doubt that high on any such list would be Atari’s 1972 arcade release Pong. Debuting on this date 50 years ago, Pong would quickly become a national and worldwide phenomenon, helping establish the viability of video game arcades in commercial spaces (and then eventually in spaces all their own), contributing (if in a complex way on which more in a moment) to the successful launch of the first home gaming system (the Magnavox Odyssey), spawning numerous sequels and copycat games, and generally changing the landscape of not only gaming and technology, but also entertainment, social spaces and interactions, and childhood. If that seems like an awful lot to attribute to one video game, well, that was the remarkable power of those two white paddles and that frustratingly bouncy little white ball. Indeed, I would say that only Star Wars measures up to Pong when it comes to 1970s popular culture landmarks that have influenced the next half-century of American and human life.

That overall influence is pretty well-known, but in researching this post I learned about a couple of a lesser-known and equally telling moments in Pong’s early history. For one thing, the game was the subject of a 1974 lawsuit from Magnavox (and its parent company Sanders Associates). In May 1972 Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell had attended a Magnavox event and seen a demonstration of the company’s own table tennis game, and he himself later admitted that seeing the game prompted him to ask his own employee, engineer Allan Alcorn, to make a table tennis game for Atari; as Bushnell put it, “The fact is that I absolutely did see the Odyssey game and I didn't think it was very clever.” Despite protesting innocence from any patent infringement, Bushnell and Atari decided to settle out of court with Magnavox, with the case concluding in June 1976. I can’t really weigh in on the merits of the lawsuit; the two games do look pretty similar to me, but I suppose all table tennis games, especially in that very early era of game design, would likely seem similar. What I can say, however, is that the subsequent history of video games has been defined again and again by competing games and systems, a trend very much foreshadowed by Pong’s controversial relationship to Magnavox table tennis.

The other telling moment is far less weighty than a lawsuit, but just as socially significant I’d say. In describing why and how Pong became such an arcade hit, Bushnell would later note, “It was very common to have a girl with a quarter in hand pull a guy off a bar stool and say, 'I'd like to play Pong and there's nobody to play.' It was a way you could play games, you were sitting shoulder to shoulder, you could talk, you could laugh, you could challenge each other ... As you became better friends, you could put down your beer and hug. You could put your arm around the person. You could play left-handed if you so desired. In fact, there are a lot of people who have come up to me over the years and said, 'I met my wife playing Pong,' and that's kind of a nice thing to have achieved.” This is of course another important side to the flexible and interactive qualities of video games that I highlighted in yesterday’s post—while of course many games can be played solo (not Pong, though, at least not in its first arcade iteration—it was two-player only), there is a fundamentally social element to gaming, and perhaps especially to arcade gaming. The art is often created, that is, through a communal experience, and one that, as Bushnell’s quote illustrates, links to other communal experiences like social interactions, friendship, and romantic relationships. All part of what Pong helped initiate as well!

Next game tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other video games you’d highlight and analyze?

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