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‘No one had seen anything like it’: how video game Pong changed the world

Pong: a game so simple a bundle of lab-grown brain cells could play it. This might sound like a low blow, but it’s true – last month, Australia-based startup Cortical Labs challenged its creation DishBrain, a biological computer chip that uses a combination of living neurons and silicon, to play the early console classic.

The game – a 2D version of table tennis where players control a rectangle “paddle”, moving it up and down to rally a ball – ran in the background, wired up to the DishBrain. Electrical stimulations were fed into the cells to represent the placement of the paddle and feedback was pinged when the ball was hit or missed. The scientists then measured the DishBrain’s response, observing that it expended more or less energy depending on the position of the ball.

“After a 20-minute session, [the DishBrain was] playing much better than then when they started and much better than chance,” Dr Brett Kagan, Cortical’s chief scientific officer, says. While it wasn’t operating at the level of a human or even a motivated mouse, it did demonstrate a consistent learning path and some form of information processing optimisation. “It was so exciting,” Kagan says gleefully. “We honestly did not expect to see the extent of the results.”

Rewind 50 years and the world was strikingly different; computers were the size of coffee shops and pinball ruled the arcades. Following his success with early arcade game Computer Space, Atari founder Nolan Bushnell tricked 24-year-old computer engineer Al Alcorn into creating Pong. “He wanted me to get some practice designing video games,” Alcorn, who at the time had no experience making video games, remembers.

Bushnell started small, briefing Alcorn to create the “very simplest game” possible. Pretending that he had commissioned Alcorn to create the game for General Electric, Bushnell inspired the young engineer to aim big. After picking up a Hitachi black-and-white TV for $75, Alcorn wired the game, amplified the TV’s built-in tones to create sound effects and housed it in a cabinet, creating an all-in-one system.

It was an ideal icebreaker. Many people have told me over the years that it was how they met their partners

Nolan Bushnell

“[Bushnell] understood the economics of pinball machines and coin-operated games,” Alcorn says. “And he said, ‘Gee, if I could put a quarter on Pong, I could make money doing that’.” The key was making it work without the need for anything too expensive. “The breakthrough was figuring out how to do this without using a computer,” Alcorn explains. The prototype was slotted into local drinking hole Andy Capp’s Tavern, and Pong was officially switched on – a new form of playable, payable game.

It quickly struck gold. Alcorn was called out to fix the first machine within a matter of days. It was too popular: quarters were blocking the mechanism. To fix things, the coin holder – a coffee cup – was replaced with a larger milk carton, allowing more revenue to be collected. At first, the duo struggled to entice enough buyers to ensure Pong was a success. “It was never a marketing problem,” Bushnell says. “It was always a supply issue. We had very little money and no factory so solving those issues was our biggest challenge.” Soon, though, sales picked up, and Pong was officially released by Atari in November 1972.

Success, off the bat: (l-r) Nolan Bushnell, Fred Marincic and Al Alcorn.
Success, off the bat: (l-r) Nolan Bushnell, Fred Marincic and Al Alcorn. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Unlike pinball, with its seedy connections to the mob and salacious designs, Pong was free from controversy. It wasn’t only a game that could be enjoyed by anyone, but also, for the first time, a game that could be enjoyed by people together. “I think its success was because it was so simple and easy to understand. There was no one-player version. Anybody could play it,” Alcorn says. Bushnell agrees: “It was an ideal icebreaker. Many people have told me that it was how they met their partners.”

Its beauty stemmed from its clarity, easy enough to be explained in a heaving bar after a few beers. “It was the first time anyone had seen anything like it and they knew instantly how to play it,” Bushnell says. After some deliberation, a sticker was stuck on to the cabinet explaining the rules, just in case it was required. To retro game enthusiasts, they now read like holy commandments: “Insert quarter. Serves automatically. Avoid missing ball for high score,” Alcorn reels off automatically. “I want it on my tombstone,” he laughs.

For the bars that bought into Pong, the game became a money-spinner. A single machine could rake in upwards of $40 a day. Just a few years after the arcade game’s emergence, a plug-and-play version titled Home Pong was released, made possible thanks to a cutting-edge, large-scale integration chip. Suddenly the TV wasn’t a passive object dictating information to an onlooker, but an interactive platform. “Marshall McLuhan would say that television was a cold medium,” Alcorn says. “Pong made it a hot medium … the TV set now just sat there unless you did something.”

Console yourself … Atari’s Pong Home Edition.
Console yourself … Atari’s Pong Home Edition. Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters

Striking while the silicon was sizzling, Atari produced a slew of sequels aiming to one-up imitations; Pong Doubles and Quadrapong took the format to the next level with four-player versions. More eclectic and eccentric spin-offs aimed for new audiences; Snoopy Pong (later Puppy Pong, to avoid legal issues) livened things up with the addition of the famed cartoon beagle, while a free-to-play version was designed for GP waiting rooms and new versions were created for Bushnell’s Chuck E Cheese empire.

By the end of the 70s, with technology advancing and attention-spans fading, Pong was overtaken by new titles with more up-to-date gameplay and graphics. Popular culture, though, has refused to give up the game. Since the 80s, Pong has entered new paradigms. In the visual arts, it’s moved from a mere amusement to a muse, featuring in shows dedicated to its retro-futuristic minimalism and hypnotic looping quality. In 1999, artist Pierre Huyghe created the Atari Light, an interactive ceiling that allowed visitors to play Pong against each other, and which he later took to the Venice Biennale. Pong itself was exhibited at the Barbican’s Game On exhibition in 2002, and a decade on, the game was acquired by MoMA, immortalising its place in art.

Advancing in a similar direction, acclaimed American artist Tom Friedman used a projection of Pong for a 2017 installation. “It represents the beginning of digital technology,” he says. “It’s so basic and aesthetically, for me, it was the perfect ready-made minimalist video. I represented it in my video projection as a static game, before the complexity of competition.” Bushnell shares this interest in its aesthetics; he recently released the Arcade OG Series with artist Zai Ortiz, a set of NFTs depicting the original cabinets.

This simplicity and innocence of Pong has also seen it used in psychology. The inspiration for Adam Curtis’s series All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, computer engineer Loren Carpenter’s thought experiment in 1991 saw Pong set up on a huge screen, with a seated audience split in two. Each seat had a paddle underneath it, but no instructions. Recalling Bushnell’s idea that knowing how to play Pong is almost akin to a priori knowledge, the crowd soon realised, in a state of ecstasy and excitement, that they could collectively contribute to moving one of two giant on-screen paddles by moving their own individual real-world paddle. While Carpenter saw the experiment as showcasing individual freedom, Curtis thought otherwise, telling the Guardian: “It was a video game, which made it fun, but it still made me wonder whether power had really gone away in these self-organising systems, or if it was just a rebranding.”

At the same time as entering these new worlds, Pong has recently enjoyed a revival in gaming. Two years ago, Bath-based developer Chequered Ink revived Pong, making it into an role-playing game titled Pong Quest. The quirky title sees the player control an anthropomorphic version of the paddle, imbued with what director Dan Johnston calls “unique character traits”. Again, the game’s simplicity sparked interest: “Any person of any language, culture or age can understand it,” says Johnston. While Pong may feel outdated in many ways, its basic, repetitive nature is shared with the mobile hits of our recent past, from Flappy Bird to Wordle. Pong Quest proves that even the paddle itself has reached iconic status, becoming a character in its own right.

While Pong required computational genius to make in 1972, it is now also used to teach kids how to code. “Implementing it yourself is a rite of passage,” says David J Malan, the instructor of Harvard’s free CS50 Computer Science course. “It focuses you entirely on game mechanics.” Fellow instructor Colton Ogden, agrees: “Students get satisfaction from being able to get something simple and complete like Pong up and running.”

This thrill remains. In just 50 years, Pong has survived the hyper-evolution of technology, popping-up in new contexts and, now, actual, living neuronal cultures. While Cortical Labs plan to introduce its DishBrain to new, more complex games, Pong will continue to have its admirers, ready to be reprogrammed, reinvented and replayed.