NOT the world’s first video game

The ‘world’s first’ stories have been shared online for years, they’re usually no more than just a picture with the claim that what it depicts is the first of it’s kind.
They rarely add any more information, even the most basic bit of background is left out and the questions from followers are ignored.
There are even social media accounts that post nothing but these claims, often not caring about if they are factual, only gathering as many followers and retweets as possible before they start posting sponsored messages or sell the account.
Don’t retweet or follow them.

This is one of those pictures, it claims to show the world’s first video game.
It doesn’t.

This photo shows a recreation of the 1958 game ‘tennis for two‘ on the Telefunken RA 742 analogue computer from 1970, a demonstration that you can see here;

The game ‘Tennis for two’ is indeed old and yes it was created in 1958 by physicist William Higinbotham who used an oscilloscope connected to the electronic analogue computer Donner Model 30.
But this is what it looked like at the time;

Using an modern re-enactment on an 1970s computer to illustrate an 1950s game without mentioning it is a bit iffy, but even so, ‘Tennis for two’ is not even the world’s first video game.
The game can claim a few firsts, for instance it may be the first game purely designed for fun, not as a demonstration, research, etc.

As with everything, it all depends a bit on your definition of video game and to make things even trickier, the definition seems to have changed over the decades and continues to evolve.
The definition I’m using defines a video game as a game that is played with a computer and involves manipulating images on a video display with the purpose of entertainment.

In 1940 at the 1939 New York World’s Fair the Nimatron was presented, it allowed visitors to play the game of Nim on a computer but it didn’t use a screen and thus doesn’t fit some definitions of video games.

In 1949 cinema visitors in Britain watched Donald Watts Davies plays noughts and crosses on a machine that thinks for itself, it even used a display but this too was just a glorified set of lightbulbs but in a way it still is a computer game and Mr. Davies’ later inventions are considered key to the invention of the internet.

Bertie the Brain allowed people to play tic-tac-toe and was especially built for the 1950 Canadian National Exhibition by Dr. Josef Kates.
Although it did use a screen, it wasn’t really an electronic display, but it too used lightbulbs and thus, technically, it wasn’t really a video

In 1951, at the festival of Britain, members of the public could play a game of NIM on the Nimrod computer but this version also didn’t involve a screen.

It was 1952 when several games were created that not only used computers, involved direct manipulation by their players but that also used a proper electronic display in stead of lights switching on and off.
These finally fit the definition of video game.
So one of these was probably the first video game ever, that we know about anyway:

In the spring of 1952 Christopher Strachey, pal of Alan Turing, managed to get a game of draughts that he started work on in the previous year, to work on the Manchester Mark 1 computer at the Victoria University of Manchester.
Although the exact date is of it first running is unknown and it may have worked as a test as early as the beginning of 1951, there is no doubt about it existing and working by the 9th of July 1952 at the latest.
But Strachey gets my vote for being the inventor of the video game and his draughts the first ever (known) video game.

Around the same time Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) student Oliver Aberth created a game that involved bouncing a ball into a hole on the Whirlwind I computer, this happened somewhere between early 1952 and February 1953, probably later as a demonstration in early 1953 only mentioned the bouncing ball, not it being a game.
There is also only anecdotal evidence for it.

Near the end of 1952 Alexander S. Douglas managed to get a game of Noughts and crosses (later named OXO) to work on the EDSAC computer at the university of Cambridge.

Also at the end of 1952 Arthur Samuel managed to program the game draughts (AKA checkers) for the IBM 701 and chess followed soon afterwards.

If any of these games qualify depends a bit on how strict you’re sticking to the definition of video game but it is still clear that neither Pong, Computer Space or Tennis for Two can be called the first video game.
By the time they arrived on the scene people had been gaming for decades.

Sources;

  • Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age, by Jack Copeland.
  • The Dawn of Digital Light, by Alvy Ray Smith
  • Alan Turing Decoded: The Man They Called Prof, by Dermot Turing
  • They Create Worlds, by Alexander Smith
  • Programming ENTER: Christopher Strachey’s Draughts Program, by David Link
  • Vaxman

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Disclaimer;
Picture(s) found online, used for (re-)educational purposes only.
I do not own the copyrights to these images, I only share them here for educational purposes to try and make sure the real story behind it becomes known and people will stop spreading false information.
If the copyright owner objects to the sharing here, kindly contact me and I shall alter the article.
If you’re interested in using any of the images here get in touch with the copyright owners mentioned in the article.
Feel free to contact me with questions.


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