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The first computers were developed for military use, and quickly found their way into research and academic institutions, and eventually businesses. It was decades before computers were small enough and affordable enough to be available to regular people. With such a grounding in serious use, you might think that computer games were a relatively late development. But games have been a part of computers since almost the very beginning.
Gaming before computers
The history of computer gaming begins before the history of computers.
At the end of the late 19th and beginning of the early 20th century, one of the most popular exhibitions at fairs and lecture halls was the Mechanical Turk. This was mechanized robot that could actually play chess with an audience member.
It turns out these chess-playing automatons were actually a clever trick. They were mechanical puppets, not robots, run by a chess playing human operator. Similar contraptions seemed to play tic-tac-toe, checkers, or other games.
At this time in history, the technology didn’t exist to create actual mechanical game opponents. Still, in the imagination of the public, such a thing was possible. It was only a matter of tie before it became a reality.
Gaming before games
During War World II, an early analog computer was used to run flight simulators, feeding data into the mock-up cockpit for display on the instruments. While this was used for training purposes, there are certainly elements of what became computer games, so one might think of this as a proto-game.
Interestingly — as described below — most of the early games were, in some ways, realizations of the promise made by the Mechanical Turk. That is, they were human-to-human games played against a computerized opponent. It wasn’t until a second generation of computer enthusiasts starting designing games that truly new games were invented, games where the computer acted more like referee or game host than like opponent.
These early flight simulators tended in that direction — the pilot wasn’t playing against the computer, but was simply working within an environment it created.
The first real computer games
After the War, there was a flurry of computer research activity in the 1950s. Partly out of a sense of fun, partly to display possibilities, and partly as legitimate research into artificial intelligence and machine learning, early computer scientists started building simple games.
It’s hard to know when and where the very first computer game was developed, but one of the earliest was a computer that could play tic-tac-toe. Several other games, in the spirit of the Mechanical Turk, were developed through the 1950s. There was a program that could play Nim, a simple math-based 2-player game involving the strategic removal of beads from a board. There was a checkers game, demonstrated on national television. There were even a few chess programs, but none that could beat even a moderately decent player.
All these games taught their creators, and the world, about the nature of computing and the limits of deterministic intelligence.
There were also war games, with the computer taking the role of the Soviet Union against the United States. These were more like the flight simulators than like modern games, though. Since the “Soviet” opponent was incapable of novel thinking, any scenario that developed had to have been pre-programmed.
Eventually, the possibilities for computers as a game medium began to be recognized. In 1958 one of the first two-player games, recognizable as such, was developed. It was called Tennis for Two, and was similar to the later game Pong. It was played by two people using knob-like controllers and used an oscilloscope as a display. It was a humble start, but it clearly prefigured the rise of video games a few decades later.
Through the 1960s and 70s, computer gaming developed in essentially two fronts — parallel tracks that in some ways continued into the first few generations of widespread popular game consumption.
On the one hand there were graphics and physics-based games, with Tennis for Two being the first major example.
In the early 1960s a graphics based game called Spacewar! became the most widely distributed game when the manufacturers of the computer it was designed for included it in every machine they sold.
This inspired other programmers to design similar games. In the 1970s another space-based graphical game, Computer Space became the first commercially released game, and the first arcade video game. Compared to coin-operated mechanical games present in arcades at the time, it turned out to be a bit too difficult — but it was a start.
The other style of game that developed was text-based story-telling games. Many of these were related to the table-top Dungeons and Dragons style of game play, with a player interacting primarily with text, and having an opportunity to stop and think at each decision point. The hugely popular Oregon Trail began this way as well, on a mainframe in the early 1970s.
Computer Games vs. Video Games
When computers finally made it into mass public adoption, one of the only things many people could find to do with them was play games. They weren’t quite powerful enough — or reliable enough — for professional work.
The two strains of game design — graphics and physics-based vs. text and decision based — became each the dominant mode of game play on video game consoles and desktop computers, respectively.
While there has been a huge amount of crossover and blurring of lines, there are still elements of this divide today.