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Shall We Play a Game? [Part 8 of 10]

[Editor’s Note: The following is Jeffrey Webb’s noteworthy college thesis from 2015, written during his time at the American Military University in Charles Town, West Virginia, to be reprinted here in its entirety, in ten parts, with the author’s permission, for your reading enjoyment. Footnotes have been extracted from this presentation of Jeffrey Webb’s writings, to enhance this casual reading experience, but we’ll gladly share footnotes with anyone who is interested in seeing the sources and such.]


Written by Jeffrey Webb

Chapter 8: Video Games Take the Stage

A modern player of console games like Call of Duty or Medal of Honor has the military to thank for his or her hobby. The family tree of modern console and PC games can trace its lineage directly back to the US military’s interest in computer technology following the Second World War. The 1983 film WarGames depicts a fictionalized version of what was happening at RAND and in military think tanks during the postwar period— computer-assisted war gaming to develop strategies for atomic warfare and, as with the case of Vietnam, limited warfare. The military provided the first computers and bored civilian scientists provided the first video games. Those games evolved from simple crude pastimes to simulations in their own right— so much so that their ability to simulate reality caught the attention of the US military as early as 1980.

The development of Pac-man or Space Invaders seems to have little bearing on military matters until one considers some of the implications of modern video games. A simple Google search run on a game console’s internet browser uses more computing power than was used in the Apollo program. Rumors have circulated about both Saddam Hussein and the US Air Force purchasing large numbers of Sony video game consoles to harness their processing power for military applications. More directly, the US military has used computer games as recruiting and training tools and with the advent of unmanned combat vehicles the ability to harness the kind of telepresence used to play a first-person video game has become a useful military skill.

The video game is sometimes said to have begun with Willy Higginbotham, a scientist with Brookhaven National Laboratory, a facility of the Atomic Energy Commission. In 1958 Higginbotham was looking to create something that would engage visitors to Brookhaven during an open house, and created Tennis for Two. This was the world’s first recorded video game, and it was played on a modified oscilloscope with a pair of controllers that used standard switch components to allow two players to bat a tiny ball of light back and forth across the oscilloscope. The game was no more than a curiosity and was not seen to have any sort of commercial viability, so Higginbotham and his oscilloscope game made only a small mark in the history of the video game. Still, Higginbotham was a civilian working for a government-funded atomic energy lab. The next video game would appear in a similar manner— a military-funded computer being used by bored researchers to create a pastime.

Higginbotham’s use of an oscilloscope was more than just repurposing lab equipment. Computers in the 1950s and early 1960s typically used output methods that did not involve a screen or monitor as we know it today. Lights and printouts were much more common forms of output, a format that did not lend itself to the creation of the recognized final form video games would take. Only the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the University of Utah and the Stanford had monitor-equipped computers in the early 1960s. Computers were also devices found in the hands of the government and military or those educational facilities that were doing research on government/military projects. It was the TX-O, an early transistor computer, which grabbed the attention of the Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC) at MIT in the early 1960s.  They system had a keyboard for input, a monitor for output, and was mostly underutilized by the rest of the student body.

The TX-O was a computer designed for military purposes. At a time when most computers, like MIT’s massive IBM 709, used vacuum tubes the transistorized TX-O was sleek by comparison. The 709, called the “Hulking Giant” by members of the TMRC, was a punch-card driven machine, while the TX-O used paper tape in a more elegant storage solution. The TX-O, while smaller than the 709, still required 15 tons of air conditioning equipment to prevent heat issues. What it did have that the 709 did not was a monitor readout. The members of the TMRC promptly took as much time as they could learning the ins and outs of the TX-O and became skillful programmers. Once armed with experience in programming the TX-O, the TMRC was armed for their first encounter with the new computer on the block— the Digital Equipment Programmable Data Proecessor-1, or PDP-1.

The PDP-1 had been donated to MIT by the Pentagon, and was the size of a trio of modern refrigerators. In 1962 a TMRC member named Steve Russell came up with the idea to create an interactive game on the new PDP-1 as it had a monitor display like the beloved TX-O. Six months and 200 hours of work later his labor of love was ready to play— Spacewar. Spacewar consisted of a pair of small spacecraft rendered on the screen, eventually with a star in the center of the playfield added by TMRC member Dan Edwards. The star had its own gravity, causing the ships to fall toward it unless the player applied thrust. Torpedoes could be fired from the vessels in an attempt to destroy the opponent. Another TMRC programmer, Pete Sampson, added the “Expensive Planetarium” program to display an accurate star field as the background of the game. This game was not unlike the familiar 1979 Atari game Asteroids, and became wildly popular at MIT. Eventually, Spacewar shipped as a free diagnostic program with PDP computers sold by Digital Equipment. Steve Russell never made any money from his invention, thinking no one would ever purchase a $120,000 PDP-1 to play a game, and never completed his MIT degree.

The story of video games and the military then moves to a defense contractor called Sanders Associates in New Hampshire. The lead engineer of the Equipment Design Division in 1966 was Ralph Baer (1922-2014). Like many men his age, Baer had served in the Army in World War II. Familiar with military electronics applications and having gone to school on the GI Bill, Baer worked on military projects for his first fifteen years at Sanders Associates. Baer was a meticulous note taker, and was able to recall the moment of August 1966 when he came up with the idea of playing games on a television. Having the resources of a division manager at his disposal, he started a small, unannounced team to work on his idea without seeking project approval at Sanders. This had the result of the presentation prototype being coldly received by the Sanders board who saw the endeavor as a waste of company time and resources. The project was only saved from cancellation by the attention garnered by the prototype light rifle which amused his immediate boss.

As the project continued to take shape, the device that emerged was a two-player game driven by hard-wired program code. There was no processor in the modern sense, and the graphics were extremely primitive. Colored Mylar overlays were used to add visual appeal. Two-player versions of ping-pong and hockey were developed, and Baer was ready to find a market for the device. The issue was Sanders’ position as a military contractor with no civilian distribution system. Baer tried the cable industry to no avail. He attempted to gather the interest of the television manufacturing industry, and managed to find a buyer in Magnavox after General Electric, Sylvania, Zenith and RCA had all given the device a pass.

The Magnavox device that resulted was, in Baer’s opinion, over-engineered. The final result sold for five times Baer’s suggested retail price of $19.95. The advertising was flawed in such a way that it became a common perception among consumers that the device would only work on Magnavox televisions. A combination of the seemingly ill prospects for his invention and a downturn in the military contracting business that put Sanders Associates on dubious footing caused Baer to fall into a state of depression. Baer credited the arrival of the first $100,000 royalty check from the Magnavox license as curing his depression and bringing him back into his love of engineering. In 1972 the Magnavox Odyssey made history by being the first home video game console to market, selling 300,000 units by 1975.

A symbiotic relationship between the military and video games began when the first games were created on systems designed for military research or at military research facilities. The circle closed when the Military approached a video game company about creating a training aid, and the influence of the military upon the game industry and vice versa has not since stopped. Baer’s Odyssey bore a striking resemblance to one of the hot consumer products of the 1970s, Pong, created by engineer Al Alcorn for Atari. The dispute between Atari and Magnavox over this similarity forms a connection between the Odyssey, created by a military contractor, and Atari’s creation of the first military video game at the behest of the US Army. Atari’s contribution to the narrative begins with its founder, Nolan Bushnell.

Nolan Bushnell was a young entrepreneur who had worked as an attendant at an arcade with the kind of electromechanical midway games that were popular before the advent of video games. These games were the forerunner of the video arcade game, relying on mechanical devices for scoring and animation much like contemporary pinball machines.  Bushnell later found employment at Ampex Corporation as a design engineer. Ampex was primarily engaged in the creation of video editing and recording technologies, but had created the first dedicated instrumentation recorder for the US Navy in 1950, the Model 500. While at Ampex, Bushnell had the idea that video games could be made inexpensively enough to turn a profit. He created a workshop in his daughter’s bedroom and designed a version of Steve Russell’s Spacewar for the purpose. The issue Bushnell was running into was that the Texas Instruments microcomputer he was attempting to create the game on lacked the processing power to do what the massive PDP-1 had done at MIT. A computer like a PDP-1 would be altogether too expensive to make the endeavor profitable: at $120,000 for a PDP-1, the game would have to have been played 480,000 times discounting floor space and electricity before it could begin to turn a profit for an operator. Bushnell had to find another way to make his idea attractive to amusement operators. He decided to avail himself of the Ampex practice of allowing employees to take a modest amount of electronic components home for hobby projects and created a dedicated cabinet that did one thing only— play Spacewar.

The dedicated Spacewar cabinet lacked the sharp graphics of the PDP-1 version, but had all the play elements of the original game. Bushnell saved further money by utilizing a used black and white TV as a monitor for his prototype. The familiar coin acceptors so ubiquitous on the arcade cabinets of later years simply did not exist at the time, and Bushnell had to create his own way of allowing his prototype to detect and store coinage. Once the prototype was ready, Bushnell showed it to potential partners and found a backer in Nutting Associates. The first video arcade game, released as Computer Space, hit the amusement market in 1971. It performed poorly due to being far too complex for a casual passerby to get the hang of quickly. With Nutting Associates in financial trouble and Computer Space never finding its audience, Bushnell decided to strike out on his own.

Bushnell was a fan of Go, and when his first choice for a company name turned out to have been taken by another business, he opted to name his company “Atari”— the Go equivalent of the chess term “check.” Bushnell hired engineer Al Alcorn and informed him that he would be working on a project to test his skill – create a simple video ping-pong game. Alcorn did so, and succeeded with such skill that Bushnell turned Pong into Atari’s first smash-hit coin-operated video arcade game. Bushnell claimed he had never seen the Magnavox Odyssey before assigning the Pong concept to Alcorn, but a lawsuit proceeding included Ralph Baer producing a guest book from a consumer electronics show demonstration of Odyssey that contained Bushnell’s signature. The lawsuit was settled for $700,000, with Atari becoming a licensee of Magnavox under a contract that had no royalties – once the $700,000 was paid by Atari, they were free to use Maganvox’s concept and technologies in perpetuity. This gave Atari a large advantage over the competitors that continually appeared as the lucrative nature of video games became apparent.

Atari quickly became the largest name in coin-operated video games and began to look in the direction of consumer products like home versions of Pong. When dedicated-use Pong consoles began to sell poorly, Atari designed and released the Video Computer System (VCS), also known as the 2600, in 1977. The VCS was similar in concept to Baer’s Odyssey, but used Read Only Memory (ROM) cartridges to store additional games, making it capable of playing games that had not yet been written at product launch.  The VCS could create color displays and had no need for screen overlays.  The system had both analog paddle/driving controllers and a joystick for control options.  The VCS was poised to redefine the home entertainment electronics market, though it would take the release of Space Invaders to see Atari’s home video game popularity surge.  While Atari was invading the home space, it continued to dominate the coin-op market.

A steady stream of popular arcade games were coming from Atari’s coin-op division including Lunar Lander, Asteroids and Battlezone. These games stood apart from the other games of the period for their vector-generated graphical displays. The standard video game uses a raster display, the same type of display used in tube television sets. Vector graphics were generated in a different manner, and consisted of initially monochrome lines and dots that had a very sharp, clear quality to them. While this was visually striking in games like Asteroids and Lunar Lander, it was even more so in Battlezone as it allowed the game’s creator to fashion a fist-person perspective in three dimensions into the game’s display.

Ed Rotberg had designed the Battlezone game to stand out. The cabinet itself differed significantly from the other video game cabinets of the day, including two joysticks that moved only upward and downward to simulate the track controls of a tank. The cabinet included a visor into which the player placed his or her face, through which the 3-dimensional nature of the display was made to seem more realistic. The player looked out across a vast plain dotted with pyramid-like spires and blocky rocks. A volcano spewed objects into the air in the background. Because the vector graphic generator allowed for smooth scaling of objects, foreground objects seemed to get smaller or larger as the player maneuvered their tank.

The first-person realism of Battlezone caught the attention of a group of retired US Army officers who felt the time was right to harness this new technology as a military training aid. Rotberg, however, was not enthusiastic about adapting his video game for military use, noting that-

“I didn’t think it was a business that we should be getting into. You’ve got to remember what things were like in the late 1970s, and where those of us who were in the business came from— our cultural background. There were any number of jobs to be had by professional programmers in military industries or in military-related industries. Those of us who found our way to video games… it was sort of a counter-culture thing.”

Rotberg was promised by Atari management that he would never be asked to do any more military-related projects if he would undertake the military version of Battlezone. He reluctantly agreed.

The modifications necessary to Battlezone to make it a viable military training aid were not simple ones. The game’s physics had to model reality, which meant including ballistics data for the 25mm cannon on the Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle the simulator was attempting to emulate. The wireframe models had to be changed from the generic sci-fi tank enemies of Battlezone to US and Soviet vehicles— the trainer was meant to teach target identification as well as gunnery. Additionally, a new control yoke had to be developed based on the Bradley IFV’s gunner controls. Rotberg spent three months of hectic design and programming during which he saw his wife very little. The finished product was exhibited to but never used by the military. Even so, it marked the beginning of cooperation between the entertainment video game industry and the military. Nor was the development of the Bradley training game a total loss for Atari.  The special control yoke developed for the Bradley trainer was used in the arcade smash hit Star Wars, and its follow ups The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

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