In 1972, Nolan Bushnell wanted to start a company producing video games. He had previously developed a game called Computer Space. The game was considered too complicated for the time and failed. Truth. Far from disheartened, Bushnell started the company and called it Atari after discovering the meaning of the term from the classic Chinese board game, Go. (The term itself referred to a checkmate-like move in the game).
Bushnell was a stereotypical nerd. He was peculiarly curious about arcade games; he worked at a theme park; and he studied electrical engineering – not at MIT, but at the University of Utah. One day he met Allan Alcorn, a man with zero experience in making video games. He says to him, “I want to make a game for General Electric.” Bushnell gives Alcorn a Magnavox Odyssey game to re-engineer. Alcorn, a football player with television repair skills, oblivious to the idea that Bushnell could be taking the piss, re-writes the game and in the process adds a few tiny details that would make gaming history.
Alcorn modified the paddle to be built in 8 segments, each of them delivering a different angle of return, and prevented the in-game paddles to reach the very top of the screen. Although this was more due to a defect in the electronics, Alcorn chose to leave it unfixed, feeling it added a challenge. With a prototype in mind, he presented it to Bushnell who, quietly surprised, suggested some additional sounds. Alcorn managed to improvise the sounds and presented it again. Bushnell was all like, “fARghk, hey. This is really good, Al”. He liked it so much that he thought to himself, “I’m going to sell this for real.”
Alcorn, a football player with television repair skills, oblivious to the idea that Bushnell could be taking the piss, re-writes the game and in the process adds a few tiny details that would make gaming history.
In the form of a coin-operated ‘arcade’ game, the prototype was demoed to the gaming public. Signs were positive and then, calamity! *Horror film scream* The prototype suffered a technical issue. “Today of all days”, thought Bushnell. Alcorn rushed in like a sound tech at a Taylor Swift gig and then looked back to Bushnell with a smile. Turned out the machine stopped working because it was chock full of quarters. Nerds rule!
The success of Pong: The Arcade Game led Bushnell to then launch a smaller, portable version of the game for the average American nuclear family, which was then licensed to thousands of companies who made their own copies of the game, adding innovations such as better sounds, other games and most importantly of all – colour. And that’s how you get filthy rich and live the American Dream, kids.
The meteoric rise of Atari would only be matched in scale by its meteoric fall. In 1978, Bushnell was forced out of his own company. In 1984, Atari itself crashed (to be fair, every other game developer was getting gutted at the time) and was sold into three separate parts – the gaming division closed in 2003.
But all of that stuff you just read is the boring part.
If Pong were to be recorded by an archivist in the distant future (whether in the 22nd century or the 41st millennium), they might miss its cultural significance. They would probably describe it as a primitive electronic game with no meaningful purpose, erroneously missing the integral context where Pong spawned an entire industry and saved several, culturally-pivotal gaming companies like Nintendo from extinction. That, and the far more interesting human story.
When America fell under the spell of Pong, every bar in every country had a dusty, conspicuously yellow console in the corner, tantalising patrons with its coin slot. And that’s not even an overestimate. In the Christmas of 1975, you could even buy one for your house at Sears, if you were one of the lucky 150,000 who beat the rush, Black Friday sale styles.
The ubiquity of Pong’s simple game play made it iconic, era-defining. So what if Bushnell thought it too was boring… maybe he should’ve tried a more complicated game and called it Computer Space. No, wait. In its own dingy, green-light way, for a short, blip in history, it became bigger than tennis.
There was the song by punk band Frank Black titled “Whatever Happened To Pong?”:
The American Express commercial with Andy Roddick vs the long white bar:
The contemporary art installation on a ceiling by Pierre Huyghe at the Venice Biennale:
The clock designed by Dutch studio Buro Vormkrijgers:
And the modified Pong console irreverently called PainStation (until a legal agreement with Sony irreverently said that name was not cool) that induced pain via electric shock.
And then, in an instant, the world moved on from Pong.