‘Rise of the Videogames’ documentary shows how old-school hackers changed the world

November 22, 2007

nolan.jpgFROM JASON’S CABLE BOX — The debut of Discovery Channel’s five-hour Rise of the Videogame documentary had me hooked Wednesday, giving me a brand new respect for my old Atari 2600 and its peers.

It seems that I inadvertently blogged about clips from the miniseries earlier this month before it aired — at least in the U.S. It was originally a BBC production, from what I can tell, and the clips that made it to YouTube appear to have Dutch subtitles. I didn’t mind seeing it twice. It’s scheduled to repeat regularly through Christmas.

The documentary intercuts Cold War and war games footage with modern game sequences, pop culture commentary, and interviews of the fathers of the video game industry.

One shot even shows Spacewar! inventor Steve “Slug” Russell bragging to the camera, “Something that I sometimes say is that I unleashed the curse of video games upon the world.”

The shows producers hypothesize that video games are a natural extension of America’s obsession with the space race and its fears about mutual assured destruction. It was Army analyst Willy Higginbotham who started the craze by tweaking his oscilloscope — a refrigerator-sized cathode tube contraption used by programmers to calibrate hardware.

Hacking his military hardware to relieve boredom, Higginbotham programmed the machine so that two people could play a crude game of “Tennis For Two” in glowing green waveforms.

His ideas and methods spread everywhere there were computers — which in the 1950s and 1960s was mainly restricted to military and research applications. In universities across the nation, researchers passed along line code instructions for hijacking primitive computational machinery. They taught the machines to play games.

But it was inventor Ralph Baer who saw the commercial possibilities of games in the home and invented the Magnavox Odyssey in 1968. In Rise of the Videogame, he tells the camera about his 1960s vision of making 40 million U.S. television sets do more than just receive two or three channels

The Odyssey was the world’s first console system when it was released to the masses in 1972 and featured 28 games and a light gun. Nintendo was born as an Odyssey distributor, but Atari quickly killed the platform.

Nolan Bushnell (pictured above) got his start hawking a clone of Russell’s Spacewar!. In 1972, he teamed with Ted Dabney to create Atari (a term from the Japanese board game Go, Atari is kind of like check in chess). Two years later, the duo combined to put Pong in homes rather than just in arcades.

Ironically, Bushnell made far more money in the late 1970s and early 80s as founder of Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theater.

For the rest of the story and speculation on the future of video game technology, tune in to Discovery. It’s well worth five hours of your time.

Quick facts

Video games in the U.S. are a $7.1 billion per year industry.

More than 40 percent of gamers are women.

For every arcade game released in the U.S., nine are released in Japan.

Pokemon Red, Blue, and Green is the best-selling video game of all time (that wasn’t bundled with a console), with about 40 million copies worldwide. Super Mario Brothers, which came with the original NES, sold about the same number of copies.

Nintendo’s iconic plumber (and sometime carpenter), Mario, has appeared in more than 200 games.

The Sims is the best-selling PC game of all-time, with 16 million copies.