Geek Trivia: On a first-game basis

What was the world's first coin-operated video arcade game?

Somebody, somewhere is going to publish an article (and probably already has) proclaiming November 29 as the "birthday" of arcade video games—and that person is going to be wrong.

It's an easy mistake to make: The first arcade game that almost anyone remembers is PONG, the icon of video-game infancy first released by Atari on Nov. 29, 1972. As the first certifiable "hit" in the industry, PONG popularized the genre of arcade video gaming. But if somebody tells you PONG was first, feel free to disagree.

First, let's be clear, PONG was a knockoff. The game's creator, Nolan Bushnell, based PONG on a similar video ping-pong game developed for one of the earliest home gaming systems, the Magnavox Odyssey.

Bushnell played this console unit in 1972 and decided that an arcade version could be the first major product of his budding new company, Atari. So, contrary to popular belief, console gaming spawned major arcade gaming—not the other way around.

Engineer Ralph Baer, the man who more or less invented the first home video-game console in 1966, designed and patented the Odyssey precursor to PONG. Baer sold his "Brown Box" console to Magnavox, and it became the Odyssey. He would go on to develop the first video-game light gun for the classic game Shooting Gallery and earn some additional consumer tech love for creating the electronic sound-and-color-matching game Simon.

While PONG has undoubtedly earned a place in the video-game record books for its role in mainstreaming arcade culture, the first coin-operated commercially sold video game was another Nolan Bushnell creation: Computer Space. Derived from the popular mainframe-based video game Spacewar!, Computer Space was the brainchild of Bushnell and partner Ted Dabney; the pair designed it as a product for Nutting Associates, an early mechanical arcade amusement manufacturer.

Computer Space was the first commercially available arcade video game. However, it wasn't particularly successful, which is partly why Bushnell had to start his own company to make and distribute PONG.

So, Computer Space was the world's first coin-operated arcade video game, right? Nope: Computer Space was the world's first commercially available coin-operated arcade video game. The world's first coin-operated arcade video game was never on the market—because only one ever existed.


What was the world's first coin-operated video arcade game, an obscure one-off prototype that beat both the all-but-forgotten Computer Space and the legendary PONG?

Stanford University alumni, take pride, because the world's first coin-operated video game—Galaxy Game—made its first appearance in Tresidder Memorial Union at your alma mater in September 1971. It debuted just two months before the release of the Nolan Bushnell-developed Computer Space—and more than a year before PONG first set fire the arcade revolution.

Just like Computer Space, Galaxy Game was a port of Spacewar!, which had been floating between various academic and technical institutions running DEC PDP-1 computers—notably MIT and Stanford. Spacewar! was something of an open source app, with several developers tweaking it while passing it around the fledgling hacker culture. The world's only working model of the original DEC PDP-1 is on display at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA—and it's running a copy of Spacewar!

The common elements of Spacewar!, Computer Space, and Galaxy Game greatly resemble one of Atari's better-known games, Asteroids—a line-art spaceship must avoid obstacles and destroy enemies using basic thruster controls and a missile cannon. Several other Spacewar! clones and ports would pop up under different names throughout the 1970s, making it the ancestor of many original arcade titles.

As for Galaxy Game, Bill Pitts and Hugh Tuck programmed and built the only copy, basing it on a DEC PDP-11/20 at the cost of about $20,000 (which is probably why it never made it to production). It's worth noting that the first coin-operated video game took dimes or quarters; Galaxy Game offered a single gameplay for 10 cents or three games for 25 cents.

While Galaxy Game never really tried to be a major commercial product, Computer Space certainly made a go of it, even finagling some possibly inadvertent product placement in major films. You can see Computer Space stand-ups in Soylent Green, Jaws, and Woody Allen's Sleeper.

By most accounts, the gameplay was simply too complex for the broader audience of the time, while PONG's intuitive gameplay caught on quickly. That's what earned it a place in the public consciousness, but it takes a little more than that to get top billing in Geek Trivia.

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble comes from the November 15 edition of Geek Trivia, "May the Farce be with you." TechRepublic member Parrish S. Knight scolded me for failing a basic Star Wars spelling test.

"1) Stormtrooper is one word, not two. 2) Please, please, please: It's wookiee, not wookie. I can't stand it when people misspell this word."

You're correct, dear reader: I let the quick and easy path of the spell checker seduce me and didn't think to correct for Star Wars parlance. Thanks for keeping me sharp, and keep those quibbles coming.

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.