Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device [1947]

Apologies for the shuffled chronology here, but it is a war game and I was inspired.

When Philo T. Farnsworth first demonstrated his all-electronic CRT television to anyone outside of the laboratory where it was invented, he said “here’s something the bankers can understand” and turned it on to produce an image of a dollar bill. When Thomas T. Goldsmith was trying to come up with a way for the user to directly interface with the CRT for trifling amusement rather than a practical use-case, he made a game where you shoot down planes. These are eerie portents of the future — no, scratch that, full-on curses invoked that the respective mediums have not yet recovered from.

Stan Kenton Orchestra (composer Bob Graettinger) – Thermopylae [1947]

Television and video games are, to my mind, siblings. They’re cursed and compromised mediums, and art within it has to come to terms with the attendant formal inertia. They were born in the same wave of technological innovation. A console is functionally an extra TV channel. Artworks in both mediums often pointedly aspire to cinema, a tendency long-present but especially pronounced in the 21st century. This is in obvious compensation to the stench of disposable disrepute that dogs them. Both mediums are restlessly oriented towards the future, perhaps owing to their history of technological advance, and thus have a largely tenuous, fraught relationship with its own past, where nostalgia has had to balance against shame over how primitive, corny earlier works. So even as it tries to excite the audience about the next thing, it’s constantly repeating itself in ways both small and large. Both have murky, obscure, protracted technical origins in laboratories decades before being ready for consumers, and then they ascend to being a dominant — arguably the dominant — mass medium of their time.

World War 2 put a serious damper on the entrance of television into mass popularity, but at the same time, the US government pumped a lot of money into the research and development of television technology for military purposes. The whole American television industry, which had never yet lived up to its own decades of hype and been able to profit by manufacturing and selling a real product to consumers in any substantial quantity, pivoted instead to the lucrative prospect of war grants. We all know about radar, but there were also dreams of infrared night-vision & sniper lasers, and of TV-guided precision missiles. This latter endeavor directly led to the creation of the image orthicon, which would become the very linchpin that made commercial television practical from 1945 to 1968, the “Immy” for which the Emmys are still named.

So when Goldsmith in the DuMont laboratory 2 years out from the war was trying to think of a fictional context for his Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device [1947], it cannot really be considered surprising that his mind leapt to a combination between radar and the TV-guided missile. In CRT Amusement Device, the player adjusts a lobbing arc drawn across a radar-style circular screen from the bottom-left up and to the right, and they also get to brighten the beam at any point of their choosing within that arc. All interface is via dials. A transparent overlay is physically placed on the screen: images of planes that are targets for the player to hit. To make this task a challenge, there’s a timer, entirely separate from the rest of the equipment. Despite being so simple, this immediately raises a number of questions. Firstly, is this a video game?

That’s a tricky question, because here in 2022, we’re still not totally sure what video games are. The progenitors of television knew their goal exactly and set out to make it happen. It’s a bit strong to say that video games were conversely invented by accident, but it was a slow process of conceptual evolution that never really stopped. Roughly speaking, the world saw Pong [1972], came up with a phrase for “things like Pong”, and then that phrase gradually stretched to include everything on this blog and much more. That’s exactly what’s interesting about these early, pre-commercial years: people are working out what video games are and what they’re for for the first time with no preconceptions, and little-to-no knowledge of any predecessors in the field whatsoever. CRT Amusement Device, in my book, is definitely conceptually in-line with Pong: not only does it look and play a bit like Tennis For Two [1958] (also from DuMont’s lab,) it manages with its “overlay” technology to bear an even stronger resemblance to the Magnavox Odyssey [1971] that inspired Pong, enough to eventually surface as a trump card against the legal claim on originating and rent-gathering on the Television Game concept.

There’s a documentary on YouTube called “The First Video Game” that I sincerely recommend as an inventory and exploration of extremely early video games. However, I must respectfully disagree with its prescriptive approach, in particular its final criteria:

I quibble with points 1, 2, 4, and 5, which means I reach different conclusions.

  1. To point 2: Games like The Oregon Trail [1971] were originally developed for teletype machines with a printed display, did not change their very nature by transferring to monitor display, and there have been experimental audio-only games as well. The presence of the word video in “video game” is historical accident, not a determinant. “Computer games” or “digital games” would probably be more accurate, although one objection to CRT Amusement Device not covered in this list is that it’s not running on a digital computer but an electronic series of wave generators and variable resistors, without even so much as a transistor, semiconductor, or memory. This is a fair point, but I don’t think the underlying technicalities of construction makes a lot of difference to the end experience.
  2. To point 5: Many games rely on external knowledge or input beyond the bounds of its visual display. Any game that requires mapping, or for you to read the manual, or, as in the case of the Magnavox Odyssey and CRT Amusement Device, for the player to impose external constraints on their own technologically-unlimited behavior. I think this item is principally intended to exclude electro-mechanical games like pinball machines and shooting galleries, which is fair because they rely on real-world unsimulated physics, even though the story of those games, their creators, and their social position so seamlessy leads into the story of arcade video games in the 1970s.
  3. To point 4: There are video games not principally intended for entertainment.
  4. Most interestingly, to point 1: What counts as a “practical implementation” in a medium that is largely digital? Sources are unclear if any CRT Amusement Device prototype ever physically existed or not, but either way that object doesn’t exist now. What we’re left with is the patent documentation, which are instructions sufficient to build our own replica if inclined. As covered in the post on Hamurabi [1968/1973], the “type-in” game was a common distribution method throughout the 70s where you would print the source code to the game on paper for the end-user to manually re-inscribe on their own machines like a monk. Indeed, any video game that isn’t a hardwired unit really is fundamentally distributed as instructions for building itself.

This is the whole problem with defining things that are out there in the world, they’re so easy to problematize with annoying exceptions and objections drawn from the ranks of things we would common-sensically include in the category. I could and maybe might quibble with point 3 some more, like when I get to the “kinetic novel,” which are perhaps culturally video games despite being non-interactive. For now though, let’s accept that a video game must respond to input from the player.

When I wrote about the Magnavox Odyssey two whole years ago, I compared it to shining a flashlight on a board game. A recent article by Doc Burford, on the art of how to be making your players give a fuck [2022], reminded me of this. Early on, it makes a point that a flashlight is interactive electronics: You press a button and the light turns on or off. So point 3 alone is clearly insufficient for thinking about video games. Marshall McLuhan made a similar point about lightbulbs in general in Understanding Media [1964], that they were a medium without content and with an effect. But you can assemble the lightbulbs into letters or make them flash in morse code, and now you have a whole semantic grammar as well as those original effects, and that’s how McLuhan approaches into television. They sharply diverge from there. McLuhan tells us about that the medium is the message, above whatever its semantic content happens to be. Bruford tells us that without content, we don’t really have a medium at all. A television with no content isn’t television, it’s a white noise generating appliance. (Arguably, much or all of the content on television does not move beyond this status.) Likewise, an interaction with a computer or other electronic device does not become a potential art medium until the player gives a fuck in their minds about the lights being on or off, usually by how that interweaves with other lights and your choice of on or off in a legible pattern. He specifically exempts Tetris [1984] from this, but surely for all its abstraction, Tetris is a language and you give a fuck how it’s arranged.

CRT Amusement Device is barely more than a flashlight itself, or more accurately, an oscilloscope. Drawing an arc on the screen isn’t a game. Drawing an arc on the screen that gets brighter at a particular point in the arc isn’t a game. It’s maybe a toy, or a tool if you can find a good use for an arc on the screen. It’s the imagination that makes it a game. Games didn’t have much in the way of storytelling before 1980, but they almost always had a premise. The timer just gives it friction. The earliest computer game I know of is actually Nimatron [1940], a Nim-playing computer. But I’m not interested in video games that just replicate older forms of games here, I’m specifically interested in games like this, games that explore original concepts for computer space. And this is the earliest attempt at that that I know of.

In the patent documentation itself, the player is simply hitting targets, and airplanes are just a sole example of what those targets might be. This is in contrast to the Magnavox Odyssey’s passionate desperation to make its lights represent as many different things as they could think of, in many different play-styles. While the gameplay of CRT Amusement Device could be easily reskinned to not be airplanes, it wasn’t, and it’s not flexible like that. It’s always target practice. It’s always a World War 2 fantasy of radar and the guided missile, even if you pretended it was the spray from a hose, or needles into Bloons [2007].

Shooting targets has always had an insistent central prominence in video games, regardless of actual popularity and commercial success. It’s got a gravitational pull. When the video games industry was called up before the United States congress for its own “vast wasteland” moment, it wasn’t for low quality, it was for the worry that they were training the youth to be violent like at war but at home. Video games were born of war. Trajectories, competition, elimination, drilling over and over again to improve performance and self-discipline. That’s not every video game, but it’s never far away.

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