Thursday, March 7, 2013

Computers Were Invented to Play Pong

History looks back on itself and subdivides into neat categories based on common attributes of the time. The Bronze Age, The Dark Ages, The Industrial Revolution. Some have proposed the name of the current age we are in as the Computer Era or the Information Age. However, I take a more simplistic approach. We live in the Period of Pong. To explain this, let me go over what Pong is, how Pong has influenced the development of computers, and how all real computer games are merely a variation of Pong.

Pong was invented in 1972, not by Atari, but by Magnavox. Atari ripped off the idea and mass marketed it as one of the first arcade games. It is sometimes described as a tennis game, but looking at the antiquated graphics of the early 70s, it merely has two bars that alternate hitting a square ball. At the time it was a technological breakthrough and the arcade games were making more money than anything previous. A home version came out in 1975 and the world has not looked back. Pong is such a simple game that any programmer could make their own version in about a day and my Mom swears that she is certain the keepers of the Mainframe at the university were just playing Pong most of the day. In its simplest terms, Pong is a game where each player uses a limited motion object (the paddle) to project a faster, more tactile object (the ball) at an opposing player.

But we know that computers were invented before Pong. Long before Pong in some cases. Herman Hollerith had a mechanical computer that was employed for the mundane task of counting the census. Alan Turing postulated the framework for a programmable computer and his concepts were used to crack the Axis codes in World War II. Unfortunately, after the war, they found no use for the computer and destroyed them. ENIAC was born shortly thereafter. Over the next 25 years, computers progressed at a snails pace. Transistors were introduced and then microchips, but by 1970 there wasn’t any real talk of computers being ubiquitous. And why would they? The average person didn’t need to count the census or break German codes. We put a man on the moon with the sliderule. The scientific calculator hadn’t been invented.

Then Pong came. All of the sudden there was a need for computers in every arcade, convenience store, school, and home. This was something people could relate to. This was a task that people needed a computer for. A tennis court is too big to have in your bedroom, and besides, it is really tiring to play tennis all day long. But Pong demanded that the computer equipment become available to the masses. Both the personal computer and the game console were born. The late 70s and 80s saw an explosion of games: Space Invaders, Pac Man, Galaga, Centipede. When properly analyzed, they all come back to the tried and true concept of Pong: one object makes another object go towards an opponent.

As people whetted their appetite with Pong, they wanted more. Computing power increased to meet the demand. The Atari 2600 was a 1 MHz machine. Nintendo a 2 MHz machine. The Sega Genesis an 8 MHz machine. The Nintendo 64 a 96 MHz machine, and the Playstation 3 a 3.2 GHz machine. Home computers followed the same exponential growth. From the lowly 8086 to the Pentium 4, computing power increased and the chance to play ever better versions of Pong increased. It is to the point now, where the best computers are specifically designed for gamers, in other words Pong Players.

In recent years, computers have become ubiquitous. Laptops, GPS, smartphones are all computers. So does the idea that Computers were Invented to Play Pong still hold true? Isn’t there some other higher purpose? The quick answer is OF COURSE! This can be seen from the most popular game of all time. Angry Birds. In two years it has been downloaded more than 500 million times. To give you an idea of how much that is, the computer operating system that is installed on the most computers is Windows XP. It is on 500 million. And every computer needs an operating system. And is Angry Birds some revolutionary game? No, simply an object (the slingshot) projecting another object (the bird) at an opponent (the pigs and their buildings). The exact same formula that started the computer revolution in 1972.

Now some may say that there are other types of games. Shoot-em-up. Same outline as Pong. Mario Bros. Same outline as Pong. Driving/Flight simulators. Same outline as Pong. All of these computer games can trace their lineage back to Pong. Sure they may substitute a gun, turtle or car for the paddle or ball. Even the most advanced game system, the Xbox Kinect which has a full motion camera so that you don’t even have a controller comes packaged with Pong (its called Rally Ball). Of course, if you want to buy the Sports pack, you get Table Tennis (Pong), Soccer (Pong with Feet), and Beach Volleyball (Pong with all parts of your body).

There is one genre of games that do not fit the Pong category. These are puzzle games. Solitaire, Sudoku, Mahjong, Chess. But lets be honest with ourselves, the only reason you are playing these on the computer is because your too lazy to deal a deck of cards.

In conclusion, computers would never have reached their full potential without Pong. It was the game that started the computer revolution. The dawn of the Information Age.

Oh, what’s that? ... No, that can’t be right. Are you telling me the first computer game was SpaceWar! It came out in 1961. Forget everything I just wrote, we are living in the World of SpaceWar.

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