How Computers Work: Part 6

While there are many, many ways in which computers have been used to make the world a better place to live, the 1970s was witness to the scientifically verifiable best possible use of this emerging electronic technology. No, I’m not talking about the perfection of the Andy Gibb robot duplicate (which ranked 5th over all), but rather the birth of video games.

Up until this point in time, playing games generally involved social interaction and physical activity. In retrospect, it’s hard to believe that people even bothered with this type of behavior. But this was a time in the history of America when people really were not too concerned with their own health or the general state of the planet. As evidence, many people smoked cigarettes and the Bee Gee’s music was allowed to propagate with little or no government intervention. We didn’t realize back then that the best way to preserve our bodies and minimize physical injury was to sit inside and dedicate large periods of time alone sitting in front of some type of computer controlled output device.

The first commercially successful video game system was named Pong. This simulation was an exact electronic replication of the game of tennis. The only minor components of the sport removed included: rackets, nets, gravity, wind resistance, the third dimension, and of course, Arthur Ashe. And the ball was square instead of spherical. Despite these limitations, the game of Pong was a tremendous success. This goes to show how a well-run marketing department can make or break the release of a new product. The lead computer programmer for the company described the game as, “two sticks that can move up and down bouncing a ball back and forth.” The packaging of the product in stores proclaimed the game of Pong to be, “Virtual reality fourth dimension alien space tennis with real lasers.”

The next major video game system to capture the hearts and minds of the American public was the Atari 2600. Unlike the game of Pong, this setup allowed for different game cartridges to be inserted into the main unit. When people grew tired of their existing game collection, they could just drive out to the nearest retail store and buy a few more.

This system also had the advantage of separating the hardware and the software components of the video game system. Which meant that any Tom, Dick, and Harry could get together in their garage and start making their own video game titles. When this phenomena occurs the results can revolutionize the world. But usually it meant they came out with a few very mediocre titles. While several impressive game titles ran on the Atari 2600, countless forgettable counterparts would sit next to them on the shelves of the store. Unfortunately, consumers had a hard time determining which of these games were worth buying as they all claimed to be some slight variation of “alien space tennis.”

The Atari 2600 era largely ended with the introduction of the Commodore 64. While not exclusively a video game system, this system included a keyboard and optional floppy disk drive. This meant that anyone who owned a Commodore 64 could write their own programs and distribute them on a floppy disk. Potential computer nerds didn’t even need to work from their garage anymore-code could be written from the comfort of their own living rooms without creating a big mess of wires, circuit boards, and duct tape. In addition to rampant unchecked piracy, this system also led to some of the most well designed video games the world has ever seen. I’ll always lovingly remember my Commodore 64, despite the fact that my mom threw it out when I was away in college.

The video game industry has been continually improving their systems to keep up with the demands of consumers. While these “consumers” do not have a centralized leader or clear command structure, intelligence reports indicate they demand games that are colorful, make interesting noises, and inspire them to remain motionless for indefinite periods of time even when it is nice enough to go outside and play. The computational resources needed to operate these games is quite impressive. One recent study reported that if all the processing power from all the computers running video games could be harnessed at once, the resulting system would be powerful enough to master the game of chess, sequence all the DNA of the human race, or locate Jimmy Hoffa. Since that isn’t going to ever happen you might as well go to the store and buy “Ultimate Alien Space Tennis 7.”