Pong turns 50: English professor reflects on 50 years of video game history

The game was simple: Move your paddle up and down to bounce the little digital “ball” to the other side of the screen, where your partner’s paddle was waiting. If you missed, the ball disappeared offscreen. It was easy, novel, and sparked the genesis of a billion-dollar gaming industry.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of Pong, the first widely-available commercial video game to hit the market. Developed by Atari, Inc., Pong was a huge hit. UWM English professor Michael Newman recalls how the first Pong arcade game was placed in a tavern in Sunnyvale, California. Legend has it that the game stopped working because it was jammed too full of quarters.

“That suggests something about the popularity or the appeal (of Pong),” Newman said. “There were other coin-operated amusements in public places … like coin pinball machines. But now video games used the advanced electronics technology of the TV screen. Soon enough, there were a lot of articles in magazines and newspapers about this leap forward in amusement.”

Newman studies the history of television, and tangentially, because they can be played on TV screens, the history of video games. He’s the author of Atari Age: The Emergence of Video Games in America (2018), and he’s a fan of the Ms. Pac-Man arcade game.

As Pong marks a milestone anniversary, Newman had some insights into the past 50 years of gaming history.

1. Pong was not the first

Despite its popularity and its place in history, Pong was not actually the first video game on the market.

There’s not much point to asking which was actually the first, Newman said.

“There were many and they came out at different times,” he said. “Some were computer programs; some were not. The same folks  who made Pong, Atari Inc., had come out with a video game a year earlier called Computer Space that wasn’t very successful.”

Though Pong wasn’t the first, Newman added, it was the first game widely available for people to play. You could find it in public places like taverns, arcades, or bowling alleys, or play it at home on a version that could plug into a TV set.

2. Simple sells

One of the reasons that Pong was so popular, Newman speculates, was its simplicity. As its name suggests, Pong was just the game of ping pong played on a screen.

Some of the most popular video games of all time are the simplest ones, he noted. Games like Tetris or Angry Birds have a nearly universal appeal because they’re easy to play.

“The most recent really, really successful game – though it doesn’t seem like a video game, maybe – is Wordle, the word game that people are talking about. It’s intuitive; everyone knows five-letter words,” Newman said. “And it’s easy to share your success or failure with other people, so there’s a social dimension to it.

“I think that for games to become really, really popular, it helps if they’re obvious, simple, and fun.”

3. Pong’s success set the stage

Pong wasn’t the first video game on the market, but it was the most popular and it turned into a huge moneymaker for Atari. The company was acquired by Warner Communications, Inc., and turned into a household name.

In a few years, Atari released its first console that could accept video game cartridges. While there were rivals, Newman said, that console defined the first generation of at-home gameplay. The next decade saw a sort of race as games grew more sophisticated – adding color graphics or adding new control features for the players.

Eventually, Nintendo ousted Atari as having the most popular console, but it couldn’t have captured the market without Atari paving the way.

4. Suspicion started early

Early on, Newman said, video games like Pong were viewed as a positive. Instead of staring passively at their television screens, people could play games on them and engage in a more interactive pastime. But, as games grew in popularity, people’s fears grew along with them. By the 1980s, some began to worry that video games might have a negative impact on America’s youth – from being exposed to violent games to becoming addicted to gaming.

“There are worries about people spending their lunch money stuffing quarters into (gaming) cabinets,” Newman said. “The sense of a new medium or new technology being threatening, especially to young people, is just a constant in the history of new media. Every new thing is going to be feared if it becomes popular.”

Today, video games are everywhere, from arcades to our consoles to our phones. When you’re playing your next round of “Call of Duty” or making matches in Candy Crush, take a moment to appreciate how this all grew from that simple bouncing ball in Pong.