Magnavox Odyssey [1971] + Pong [1972]

The most famous Magnavox Odyssey game is Table Tennis. It was the direct inspiration for Pong, and there is an infamous lawsuit decided in Magnavox’s favor to that effect, which became famously the first of decades of copyright trolling putting up a hundreds-of-millions tollbooth on the mere concept of video games at home. If we take gaming as a legitimate art form, which is the essential premise of this blog, then it’s the equivalent of copyrighting the concept of canvas. Despicable! If we are to take gaming as a legitimate art form, though… It behooves me to mention its business legacy, and move on briskly.

Table Tennis might look for all the world like Pong, (I’m not going to pretend like we can talk about one without the other,) but the way each handles is worlds apart. The elements of Table Tennis are the two pawns, the ball, and the line separating one side of the screen from the other. The pawns are controlled with both a horizontal and vertical dial, much like the horizontal and vertical alignment control dials familiar from period televisions. This direct inversion of The Outer Limits’ famous promise is telling of its conceptualization as a “TV Game,” designed by a television manufacturer. It’s a peek at TV from the technician’s perspective, or perhaps the television’s itself, all light and no content. The ball always travels at a constant horizontal rate, changing direction when it hits something solid, but its vertical position can be directly manipulated by the last player to touch it with an “English” knob, which fictionalizes it as the spin you give the ball… but that’s a lie. Spin, in real life, is applied at the moment and thereafter set. The line exists, but is, in Table Tennis, intangible and powerless. Players can cross the pawns across the line freely or eliminate it or change its location.

This marks a distinct change from the inherently hostile gameworlds we’ve seen up until now. Here, the players are in nigh-absolute control of the game. It inherits something of the designer Ralph Baer’s experience, the sheer delight of drawing light on the CRT. Basic components like the size of the squares or width of the net or speed of the ball can be customized by the player. The TV screen has become a playground. For example, the players could theoretically completely ignore intended play to create a state of equilibrium and adjust the distance between the pawns for use as a metronome, or at incredibly-close distances, granular sound synthesis. This freedom isn’t really the players’, though. They could exercise it, but they’re not encouraged to. It’s the designer’s. To freestyle with your square of light would be “play”, but it would be the play you do with a toy, not with a game. A game has rules, constraints. The Magnavox Odyssey can have a lot of rules, they’re just not enforced by hardware. Thus far, paratext like genre or history has informed how we fictionalize the mechanics of a game, now the rules themselves bare their artificiality and voluntary nature as they leap out of the screen and onto the page. Literally, you are given transparent overlays to superimpose on your screen and circumscribe yourself. Lots of the games come with further extensions like board games and cards.

The games of the Magnavox Odyssey beg to be considered as a whole, like the games of a WarioWare or other minigame compilation, seeing as they all came bundled together with the unit. They are all variations on a theme, which is to say all the other games are based on Table Tennis. It reminds me of the old “creativity test” where you have to write down as many things as you can think of to do with a paperclip. These people, who as far as they know are the innovators of the video game, sit at the dawn of the medium and are really roaring to take it for a spin and see what can be done with three squares and a line. Some games, like Cat And Mouse, want you to move on a grid. Some games, like Handball, make the line solid. Some games, like Invasion, use the “RESET” button that returns the ball when it leaves the screen instead as a “fire” button. Some games, like Fun Zoo or University Of The Solar System which are quizzes to challenge children, or Ski in which you trace a dotted line, could be adequately replaced with two tokens or better yet flashlights to shine on the board to indicate player position. Some games, especially the ones that attempt to emulate team sports with only two pawns like Baseball or Football, spiral into arcane knots that run on for pages and are approximately as complex as… let’s say Settlers Of Catan [1995].

The Magnavox Odyssey also has lightgun games, bringing us 3 for 3 on games being a medium where perhaps the most significant direct interaction you can have with the world is shooting it with a gun. It makes you question if there’s something fundamental about video games that makes them well-suited for shooting and/or violence. I think there is, but moreover that it’s not driven into existence by a rotten, violent culture. Less cynically: It’s a way of conceptualizing space and extending player agency beyond the immediate vicinity, nigh-instantaneously and in immediately apprehendable and intuitive ways, same as the ball off the pawn in either Table Tennis or Pong. And death is easy to program, a moving object becomes a non-moving object or even stops existing.

The visual impact of the two square pawns, not to mention the way they explore rules and rely heavily on external text and for the most part familiarity with external referent to function as legible, reminds me of nothing so much as The Marriage [2006], a flashpoint for discussion of the expressive potential of rules as art and a bold stride of minimalism, which almost could have been on the Odyssey save for the gendering colors. I’d like to take a closer look at the alphabetically-first Magnavox Odyssey game: Analogic.

In Analogic, the players begin at opposite corners of the board and the goal is to get to the other corner. Whoever is first wins, but motion is confined to a grid labelled with arbitrary numbers, and moreover, each player can only move to adjacent squares that would make the sum of the number they’re moving to and the sum of the number their opponent is currently on either even or odd (depending on starting position.) On top of this strategic level that could again be replicated with tokens or flashlights, the players must maintain a constant volley of the ball. Keep in mind, the players will be positioned diagonally at the start, and possibly for the entire run of the game, while the ball without constant player input automatically moves horizontally. Once again, even with the OdySim emulator I am bereft of the experience of actually being able to get hands-on and play the damn thing, not only because of the lack of a player 2, but because of the fundamental difference between a keyboard press that will move me at a constant rate and the dial that will let me zip the ball or creep along, so I’m really mostly analyzing the manual here — but I can only imagine that this experience is tense and taxing, even if you know your addition front and back. Also, the players are nominally in competition by virtue of the win condition, but in every other aspect they are inexorably, fascinatingly mutually parasitic. Not only must a connection between players constantly maintained with effort, but the very rules of movement are constructed only collaboratively. This doesn’t “mean” anything, like The Marriage is explained to… but it could, easily, with a simple twist of the mind, a recontextualization. There’s just as much here as there about the balancing act of pursuing your own goals while maintaining the fraught interpersonal bonds that keep us healthy. It goes to show there’s still gold in the 1-Bit Singular Activity Game hills, that works of art don’t truly get superseded, be it Table Tennis by Pong or Pong by Ultra Pong [1977]. Art lives in the eternal now.

Pong still largely retains the sheen of the “first video game” in popular culture, even though it’s since been outmoded many times over on that count, and part of that is the business savvy of Atari — such as pioneering video game microtransactions by charging 25 cents a taste, instead of $100 upfront (equivalent to $611 in 2019 dollars) for something almost nobody on Earth knew what was yet — turning Pong into something actually popular with the mass public, but part of it is also that, in its stripped-back constrained style, it really does look and feel like the ur-game. Even a short survey of game history up to this point (like of Galaxy Game [1971]) shows that the technology at Atari’s disposal could have been pushed much further towards representation and sophistication than they were. No, the primitivism of Pong shouldn’t be understood as economic or technological limitations, but as aesthetic ones. Pong is minimalist, honed to a sterile knife’s edge.

It was Atari’s second time up to bat with the arcade-game model, the first being Computer Space [1971], which was their take on Spacewar [1962], but changed up far more compared to the inspiration than Galaxy Game or Pong, with UFOs that moved in different patterns instead of a star or another player, and bullets curving under the influence of gravity. Their next game would have a punchier name, to match less convoluted gameplay. Pong was actually apparently designed as a telephone-game version of Table Tennis, the designer Allan Alcorn in ignorance of it, under orders to make a tennis game from Nolan Bushnell, who had seen the Table Tennis game. It kinda shows: There’s none of the delight in the novelty of drawing on a CRT monitor that bled through into the open design of Table Tennis. For the first time on this blog, the quietly confident craftsmanship of a video game that knows what video games is. The instructions are three lines long, printed on the front of the machine.

The square screen enclosing the play is mostly empty space, but all that vertical space means is that you have more ground to cover and less time to react than on a more standard horizontal-rectangle display. Points (an Atari concept inherited from Computer Space) are the point, written out far bigger than anything else, parceled out one-by-one until victory. The paddles are small, the ball is smaller, and both are fast, in contrast not just to Table Tennis but also the downright stately and methodical Spacewar. The “English” mechanic is replaced with harsh zig-zag trajectories either randomly assigned from half-court or ricocheting wildly from encounter with the minutely different parts of the paddle, so there’s no thought, nothing clever, just action. It’s a raw reflex test: you can get to any point on the screen in no time flat, but can you operate the dial with both speed and precision? It’s a closer approximation of a real white-knuckle sports experience than anything the Odyssey could provide. Such a frenzy entranced.

Magnavox Odyssey games may have pitted players 1 & 2 against each other, but given how the construct of the games only exist by a constant act of collaboration and good faith on both parts, or how it’s pitched squarely at the hypothetical nuclear family unit, it makes more sense to conceive of the relationship between the players as nominally adversarial. Pong is much more the competition, and without the constant labor of just upholding rules, players can enter a flow state of conquering the challenges (or challengers) before them. Its location in public means that this is a game anyone with sight and a hand can pick up, even complete strangers, who will then have something to relate about. The advertising shows as a demographic, instead of rosy-faced children, hip 1970s young adults, or boast that its understated cabinet is suitable for “sophisticated locations,” perhaps coyly alluding to the massive sexual tension of mingling over a game of Pong [1972] surrounded by ferns and wood paneling. (Atari’s first attempt at a wholly original title, Gotcha [1973], would be infamous for its purposefully boob-evoking controllers.) Video games wouldn’t become widely solitary affairs like their cousin the pinball machine until taken back into the home for good with the rise of the Atari 2600 and the first personal computers instead of ARPANET-connected mainframes. I’ll regrettably be skipping ahead past multiplayer games from here on out, and thus most of this 1-bit era I’m growing fond of. It’s worth noting, though, that in doing so I could arguably be missing the entire point of the medium of games, those communal or outward-looking experiences that the titles covered so far have been purpose-built for.

Like Table Tennis was on the Odyssey, Pong was taken as prototype in the arcade, both by Atari and by what was now an industry of a new class of professional video game developers. Just look at this incomplete list of Pong variations and derivatives, which doesn’t even count, like, Breakout [1976], sideways solo Pong. As much as that paints a bleak picture of an industry unwilling to explore the boundaries of what games were capable of like on the Odyssey in favor of chasing a quick buck, well, it’s a very incomplete picture of what quickly became a pretty big industry: Pong, overnight, forever changes video games from a utopian proposition into a primarily commercial one.

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