Worldly Wednesdays: The First Real-Time Games

This post is part of an ongoing series annotating my book They Create Worlds: The Story of the People and Companies That Shaped the Video Game Industry, Vol. I. It covers material found in chapter 3 on pages 38-42. It is not necessary to have read the book to comprehend and appreciate the post.

So here we are again talking about firsts. Despite two out the first three annotations in this series dealing with the first this or that, who did something first is not really a preoccupation of mine or of the book. It can be fun to research firsts, and people certainly have fun learning about them if the amount of media devoted to firsts on a given topic is any guide, but at the end of the day being first does not say much about the world. As my post on the Father of Video Games should make clear, I am far more concerned with who inspired whom than in who might have done something first in a vacuum. That said, the first three chapters of the book are about the earliest video game experiments, so its only logical that the annotations pertaining to those chapters examine some of these firsts in a little more detail.

The point of this post, however, is not really to get to the bottom of who we should call the “father of real-time games,” but rather to illuminate how my book is a product of not just my own research, but of a wonderful collaboration among professional enthusiasts and amateur historians exploring video game history. Most of these individuals that I interact with are members of the Gaming Alexandria and Video Game History Foundation Discord communities, which I would encourage anyone interested in this history to join even if they are not active researchers or content creators. The GA discord is free to everyone, while the VGHF Discord does require a small donation to gain access. I assure you, the work Frank Cifaldi, Kelsey Lewin, and their team is doing to preserve video game history is worthy of your support. Anyway, on with the show.

The question of who created the first real-time video game, that is a video game in which the display updates quickly and continuously in response to user input to give the impression of seamless action, is of some consequence, for some people would argue that real-time action is what truly separates video games from earlier, pen-and-paper, board, and card games. One could make the argument that Bertie the Brain or the British Nimrod computer are just quaint adaptations of existing manual games and not harbingers of a new medium. Readers of my first annotation will already know I reject that notion, but even I admit that without real-time action, the video game medium would not have flourished. While there have been plenty of successful turn-based games, the history evolves in very different directions if Space Invaders is a strategy board game or Tetris is just a static puzzle like the pentominoes game that inspired it. So while not a critical question in video game history, it is an interesting one.

Pentominoes: an okay brain teaser, but not much of a video game.

So what was the first real-time video game? Well, for decades the answer to that question would have been Tennis for Two, the 1958 game by Willy Higinbotham of the Brookhaven National Laboratory in which two players engage in a tennis match. Its funny that such an early milestone would be a tennis game when Odyssey Ping-Pong and Pong jointly launched the video game revolution just over a decade later, but it is truly a coincidence. Higinbotham only displayed his game at two rounds of Brookhaven visitor days in 1958-59, and no one associated with Sanders Associates, Magnavox, or Atari came anywhere near those exhibitions. Indeed, the game looks and plays completely differently, with a side rather than a top view and no paddles or rackets visible on the screen. Instead, the graphics consist merely of a horizontal line representing the court, a shorter vertical line representing the net, and the arc of the ball. Rather than a dial to move a paddle up and down, the players spin dials to select the angle of their return and press a button to cause the ball arc to change trajectory. All of this action does happen instantaneously in response to input, so it qualifies as a real-time game.

Tennis for Two earned its pride of place in video game history because even though none of the pioneers saw the demonstration, a budding young electronics enthusiast named David Ahl did. Ahl’s career is covered extensively in the book, so I won’t go into all that here, but one of his many pioneering feats was founding Creative Computing, the first magazine dedicated solely to the personal, hobbyist use of computers. Ahl was a high school student in Malverne, New York, in 1958, a Long Island community just 50 miles away from Brookhaven. One of the perks of a scholarship he received was a trip to one of those Brookhaven visitor days, where he played Tennis for Two. In 1982, as interest in the history of video games was starting to percolate for the first time, Ahl sent one of his writers, John Anderson, to Brookhaven to interview Higinbotham based on that memory, and in the October 1982 issue of Creative Computing, Anderson boldly proclaimed Higinbotham the “Grandfather of Video Games” (take that Bushnell and Baer!). Thanks to this publicity, Higinbotham’s game was featured in nearly every video game history book to follow, even if it was usually treated as a footnote (quite literally in the case of Steven Kent’s Ultimate History of Video Games).

A recreation of Tennis for Two, which for decades was thought to be the first real-time game.

Tennis for Two remained the gold standard in early real-time gaming for over thirty years, at least for the general public. In truth, an even earlier real-time game had already been rediscovered in the 1970s during the Magnavox video game patent lawsuits. These legal contests pitted the Magnavox Corporation and its new parent company, Philips, against any and all individuals and companies that attempted to create a coin-operated or home console video game without paying a licensing fee. The Magnavox claim of primacy in the video game space hinged on the work of Ralph Baer in the 1960s to create a video game system at Sanders Associates. Baer and his team filed several patents relating to their video game technology and then granted Magnavox the sole right to exploit the technology. Anyone else who wanted to play in the new video sandbox was required to pay Magnavox for the privilege.

Contrary to popular belief, the Magnavox patents did not really make a defensible claim to the sole right to exploit video games generally, but they did advance a claim that Baer’s fellow engineer Bill Rusch had invented a system in which a player-controlled dot and a machine-controlled dot rendered on a CRT collide and one of them changes vectors. Therefore, any video game that accomplished this same feat was infringing on said patent. The best defense against this claim was to show that other inventors had done this before Rusch, thus invalidating the patents due to the existence of “prior art.” Lawyers and legal interns working for companies like Atari, Midway, and Williams poured through old patent filings and technical journals to unearth earlier examples of real-time graphics with collision detection.

One game discovered through this process was a pool game developed in 1954 at the University of Michigan to demonstrate the capabilities of a computer called MIDSAC. MIDSAC pool featured graphics for balls and a cue stick rendered on a CRT, though the table had to be drawn on to the monitor with a grease pencil. Once a player took a shot with the cue stick, the balls would bounce off each other and the sides of the table in real-time while exhibiting realistic ball physics. One of the student creators of the game, William Brown, was called to testify in the first Magnavox patent trial in 1977 and described the creation of the game in some detail. Ultimately, it was not found to be prior art, presumably because it did not render its images through use of a video signal.

The documents from this case remained buried in legal archives until Ralph Baer unearthed a trove of materials from the case that had, if memory serves me, been sitting in a storage locker owned by one of the law firms involved with the case. Baer shared these files with a few places, and in 2011 scanned copies were posted on the website of the Franklin Pierce Center for Intellectual Property of the University of New Hampshire School of Law. They remained relatively unremarked upon until 2013, when they were publicized by Keith Smith (no relation).

At the time, Keith was deep into working on a new edition of his still-yet-unpublished opus All in Color for a Quarter, which tells the history of the coin-operated video game industry from its inception to about 1985. Astute readers of my book will notice references to this work throughout, and I can safely say my own book would be sorely lacking without his research. By tracking down rare trade publications and interviewing obscure pioneers, Keith has crafted the most comprehensive examination of this subject ever attempted and has done much to correct a legion of misconceptions regarding the birth of the video game industry. I only hope all of you get to read it some day as well.

In 2013, Keith wrote a blog post in which he commented on all the early video games identified by the parties in the lawsuit, many of which were unknown at that time. This is the first significant mention of MIDSAC Pool that I am aware of in historical scholarship. Two years later, Keith tracked down Brown’s trial testimony, which for the first time gave us an idea of how the game actually worked. Some time after that, when the Chicago Tribune launched a complete digitized archive online, I unearthed an article reporting on the actual demonstration in 1954. I also discovered some pictures of the game that had been sitting in an online photo archive maintained by the University of Michigan. Tennis for Two, while still an interesting real-time game, was no longer first.

MIDSAC Pool, which for a few short years was though to be the first real-time video game.

After Tennis for Two‘s thirty-one year reign, MIDSAC Pool only held its title for four years. As I was writing my own book, I was forced to think more deeply about how to define a video game and what early programming experiments I should identify as such. I was hardly the only person on the Gaming Alexandria Discord thinking about these subjects, and in September 2019, a few of us had a discussion on all the early video games we knew about. During the course of this discussion, my friend Dale, who goes by QuarterPast, asked about Bouncing Ball. The Bouncing Ball program was known to me, as it featured prominently in the account of the creation of Spacewar! written by Martin Graetz in 1981 for Creative Computing. In the article, Graetz described how when a person ran this program on the Whirlwind computer at Lincoln Labs “a dot appeared at the top of the screen, fell to the bottom and bounced (with a “thok” from the console speaker). It bounced off the sides and floor of the displayed box, gradually losing momentum until it hit the floor and rolled off the screen through a hole in the bottom line.” Graetz reckoned it was the first computer program that displayed a moving object on a CRT, but he dismissed it as merely a demo. So did I. Dale did not.

In our September 2019 conversation, Dale asked me straight out what I thought of Bouncing Ball, and when I once again dismissed it as a demo, he pointed me to a 2013 book by a gentleman named Jon Peddie called The History of Visual Magic in Computers: How Beautiful Images are Made in CAD, 3D, VR and AR. Nestled in this unassuming textbook was a remarkable claim I had never seen before: “Charles W. Adams, assistant professor of digital computers at MIT, and John T. (Jack) Gilmore Jr., one of the first systems programmers in the Mathematics Group at Whirlwind, were intimate with Whirlwind. They generated the first animated computer graphic by creating a program that would generate a bouncing ball on MIT’s Whirlwind’s CRT in 1949. Adams expanded the program so the operator had to adjust the display’s controls such that the bouncing ball would find a hole in the floor and drop in. This was the first interactive computer graphics game.”

This was stunning. Out of nowhere, a new candidate had emerged for not just the earliest real-time game, but also the earliest digital computer game, beating Bertie the Brain by one year! At the time, I remained unconvinced that this was a true game, as there was no evidence of authorial intent to create an entertainment program in this floor-adjusting mechanic. I was also incredibly suspicious of the year, as other sources intimated that the Bouncing Ball was created in 1951, and Whirlwind itself was still incomplete and barely operational in 1949. Still, this claim needed to be run down.

A search on the Internet turned up another person making a similar claim about Bouncing Ball as game, celebrated computer graphics pioneer Alvy Ray Smith. In a 2016 article for the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, Smith wrote a piece called “The Dawn of Digital Light” on early computer graphics in which he examined Bouncing Ball and revealed that “anecdotally, Adams and his colleague Jack Gilmore modified the bouncing dot (“ball”) animation into a sort of game, perhaps in late 1950. The players (or player) would interactively alter the frequency of the bounces with the winner being the first to make the ‘ball’ go through a hole in the floor—a gap somewhere along the horizontal axis. The published code doesn’t show that this was a cycling program that awaited the next player’s move—in other words, that it was truly interactive. It appears instead to have been a program that was restarted each time with a different three initial conditions.” This statement appeared to provide the proof of authorial intent needed to satisfy my definition of a video game, but the use of the word “anecdotally” gave me pause. Was there proof that this game variant existed or wasn’t there? Smith did cite a source for this claim, a 2008 book called The Engineering Design Revolution: The People, Companies and Computer Systems That Changed Forever the Practice of Engineering by D.E. Weisburg, but it provided no further insight. All it contained was an uncited assertion that “Adams wrote a short program that displayed a bouncing ball on the display. This was done by solving three simultaneous differential equations. A little later, probably in late 1950, Adams and Gilmore wrote the first computer game. It consisted of trying to get the ball to go through a hole in the floor by changing the frequency of the calculations.”

Finally, after a little more searching I found the source of all these anecdotes: the panel proceedings of the 1989 SIGGRAPH Conference. In a panel entitled “Retrospectives: The Early Years in Computer Graphics at MIT, Lincoln Lab and Harvard,” Norman Taylor, who was actually at MIT at the time of the events in question, told of how Adams and Gilmore created the Bouncing Ball in 1949 and that “a little later Adams and Gilmore decided to make the first computer game, and this was also in ’49. This is a more interesting display. You see that the bouncing ball finds a hole in the floor and the trick was to set the frequency such that you hit the hole in the floor. This kept a lot of people interested for quite a while and it was clear that man-machine interaction was here to stay. Anyone could turn the frequency-knobs.” He even provided a slide of the bouncing ball in action! This seemed to lay the debate to rest: Bouncing Ball really was a game. One lingering question remained, however: was it really created in 1949?

A reproduction of a slide from Taylor’s 1989 SIGGRAPH presentation showing Bouncing Ball in action, complete with the hole in the floor.

At this point Dale and fellow GA researcher and author Ethan Johnson dug even deeper into this question. Turns out that MIT has a lot of old Whirlwind documentation up on its Dome online archive. Searching through this material, Ethan discovered a project report from February 1951 announcing that a student named Oliver Aberth has created a new bouncing ball program. This not only locks in a date, but also gives us a creator, and its not Adams or Gilmore!

So why is the program always associated with Adams? Well, even if Adams was not involved in its creation, he sure ran with it, making the program a standard part of the courses he taught on computer applications. These classes were probably the first exposure many MIT students had to the program, and they presumably naturally assumed the course instructor wrote it. Sadly, Aberth died mere months before this discovery, so we could not obtain more information from this newly discovered pioneer.

So now we know when the program was created, but did it feature at its inception the all important hole in the floor that turned it into a game? Probably not. The program is described in detail in the programming manual for the computer released in July 1951, complete with a drawing, and there is no indication of a hole in the floor. Dale examined the code of the program and theorized the hole was added later due to a bug that would eventually cause the ball to fall through the floor and no longer bounce. By providing a hole, the ball can gracefully exit the stage before the bug takes hold.

So when was the hole added? Sadly, we cannot say for sure. The only evidence that we have right now is a series of MIT course descriptions that feature the game. Adams was using the program in his classes by early 1952, but the hole is not explicitly mentioned in descriptions until February 1953. Based on the limited documentary evidence, Ethan speculates that the game variant was created sometime between late 1951 and the last third of 1952. Even if it did not come into existence until the first documentary proof in 1953, however, it beats MIDSAC Pool, so its undoubtedly the first game with real-time graphics.

A drawing of Bouncing Ball from the July 1951 programming manual. Notice the lack of a hole.

Ethan, Dale, and I had these conversations in early October 2019. My book was released in late November 2019. Thankfully, while my manuscript had been turned in months ago by this point, we were still in the final stages of proofing it, so I was able to sneak these new discoveries into chapter 3. Because of the last minute nature of this addition, there is a small error where the creators of the game variant are just identified as “Adams and Gilmore” rather than by their first and last names. This is because they had previously been referenced earlier as the creators of Bouncing Ball before we discovered Aberth, and when I took that reference out it did not occur to me that they were no longer properly introduced in the text. Still, I am pleased we were able to get this info into the book at such a late date. The goal of the book is to be comprehensive while offering new insights into the history of video games, and being the first published video game history book to reveal the earliest real-time game application fit both of those goals.

They Create Worlds: The Story of the People and Companies That Shaped the Video Game Industry, Vol. I 1971-1982 is available in print or electronically direct from the publisher, CRC Press, as well as through Amazon and other major online retailers.

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