From smartphone apps like Candy Crush to ultra-competitive e-sports with prize pools of millions of euros, playing video games has become a very common activity in recent decades. According to IIDEA, the trade association of the gaming industry in Italy, in our country alone there are at least 16.7 million people who play games regularly. In 2020, the industry became so profitable for the first time that it surpassed both cinema and sports in terms of revenue.
According to experts and lovers of the genre, none of this would have been possible if it hadn’t been for Ponga game produced by the American video game company Atari that came out exactly fifty years ago, on November 29, 1972.
Pong is a classic and very simple game: on a black screen, a white square (which would be a ball) bounces between two bars, which the players can only move vertically, up or down. You can play alone against the computer or two against each other. The mechanism is that of ping pong and the goal is to block the ball and send it back to the other racket. You can add some spin to your shot by hitting the ball with the angle of the bar. The ball can bounce off the top and bottom sides of the screen, but the first one who can’t catch it loses. Gradually, the game becomes more complex: the ball goes faster, the bar becomes smaller. A normal game between inexperienced players lasts no more than three minutes.
The Atari engineer who programmed it, 24-year-old Al Alcorn, had no experience in video game design and the company’s founder, Nolan Bushnell, challenged him to create “the simplest game possible”. So, Alcorn bought a $75 black-and-white TV on which he installed the game, amplified the TV’s built-in tones to create sound effects, and placed the result inside a booth to be played standing up. The idea of monetizing the video game by asking for a quarter to start it was Bushnell’s, and it made the company’s fortune.
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Accustomed as we are to video games with highly advanced graphics and complex stories, Pong it might seem like a small thing, but at the time it was a real innovation: it was not the first video game ever, but it was the first to be accessible to the masses.
The first large wooden cabin on which it was possible to play was installed in a room in Sunnyvale, California. According to the story that has since been released, the owner called Alcorn after a week to come and fix the cab since too many quarters from the people who had tried it were jamming the mechanism. Demand soon exceeded supply: «there was a supply problem. We had very little money and no factories, so producing enough cabins in the beginning was our biggest challenge,” Bushnell recently told the Guardian.
By November 1972, however, Pong it was ready to be officially marketed and was immediately a great success: soon many bars, bowling alleys and amusement arcades that until then had hosted mechanical entertainment systems such as pinball machines began to buy a cabin. It was a social phenomenon, which allowed for the first time so many people to play against each other. “It was the perfect way to break the ice. A lot of people have told me that’s how they met their partners,” Bushnell says.
From a technical point of view, Pong it was also the first game to take advantage of a technology that was already very present in people’s homes: televisions. In 1975, Atari began selling a version of the game that could be played on a home TV via a $79 battery-operated console. It consisted of a box with a speaker, knobs to allow both players to control the bars, a game start button and a switch to turn the console on and off. The whole was connected to a separate electrical panel, to be connected to the antenna terminal of the television. In this way, television ceased to be a passive object from which information could only be received and became the interactive platform that for many it still is today.
Atari’s consoles were for a long time the most popular on the market until they were supplanted by the Japanese Nintendo. The US company, however, had already made history. “I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that [Pong, ndr] it’s the title that really started the entire video game industry,” said Trip Hawkins, the founder of Electronic Arts, which makes games like FIFA, Battlefield e The Sims. «Although after a while arcade games [quelli a gettoni posti all’interno di un cabinato] they stopped being new and cool, and video games started being a nerd thing.’
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Even today, the tributes to Pong in pop culture and contemporary art they abound. In 2006, an American Express commercial showed tennis player Andy Roddick engaging in a match of tennis against the video game’s white bar. In 1999, artist Pierre Huyghe created the Atari Light, an interactive art installation that allowed viewers to play Pong on a ceiling, lying on the ground or standing: the work was enormously successful and was later also exhibited at the Venice Biennale. One of the original cabins is still on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. And a month ago, an Australian startup taught DishBrain – a biological computer chip made of a combination of neurons and silicon – to play Pong with success.
David J Malan and Colton Ogden, instructors at Harvard’s free computer science course, told the Guardian that Pong it is still used today to teach beginners to code. “Implementing it is a rite of passage. (…) Students derive satisfaction from being able to make something as simple and complete as work Pong alone”.