All Your Base Are Belong To Us - Prelude - First Blips on the Screen

On a freakin’ cold, windy fall Friday, the 7:39 a.m. commuter train rolled through Queens, frozen wheels squeaking and moaning. I passed indistinguishable tall apartment complexes with ratty balconies like
something out of Gears of War. As the city morphed into the equally indistinguishable suburban sprawl of Long Island, bleary- eyed reverse commuters checked their BlackBerries, ready for the week to end.

But forget their sour faces. I was going to visit the Brookhaven National Laboratory, where Dr. William Higinbotham made the first videogame—more than fifty years ago. Higinbotham’s Wikipedia entry doesn’t reveal much about the origin of his game, Tennis for Two. Mainly, it tells readers that his son, William Higinbotham Jr., thinks his father didn’t want to be remembered primarily for creating a game. The party line was that he really wanted to be remembered for his work in nuclear nonproliferation. Fair enough. But that begs the question, Why did Higinbotham take time to make a game at all? No one forced him to design relays and transistors in such a way that he could hook them up to a big $200,000 Systron Donner 3300 computer, which his instrumentation department had used mainly for multifarious mathematical calculations. Not the government, not the lab, not his department. No, Higinbotham did it himself with the aid of lab technician Bob Dvorak. They took three weeks to make it work and two more days to work out the bugs. So what was it about the scientist that made him want to entertain others by making a game on a five- inch screen?

Higinbotham most likely did not know that at least two attempts at videogames had already been made. In 1948, Greenville, South Carolina, physicist and TV pioneer Thomas T. Goldsmith teamed up with Estle Ray Mann to patent and make a very rudimentary experiment that shot missiles—well, light rays that mimicked missiles—across an oscilloscope’s screen. The Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device used eight vacuum tubes and a radarlike display. But Goldsmith was more interested in the Washington, DC, TV station he owned and in producing the classic Captain Video TV series, so nothing ever came of the patent. Four years later, Cambridge PhD candidate Alexander S. Douglas became enamored with a giant, seemingly unwieldy computer created for the university. With its hundreds of vacuum tubes emitting fi refly- like light within a dingy laboratory, the Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator looked like something out of the 1931 movie Frankenstein. Douglas was entranced with the computer and added a tic- tac- toe game called Noughts and Crosses to his thesis about how humans interact with computers. It was the first computer game to use primitive graphics and can still be downloaded from the Web today.

Yet neither of these games made the step forward that’s needed to create a satisfying communal gaming experience: the ability to hang out, play together, and maybe even understand your friends better from that play.

Two hours later, I found myself sitting in the Energy Department shuttle from the Ronkonkoma train station to the forested 5,300- acre property of the Brookhaven National Laboratory. Around me, a half dozen young scientists, all bearded, all bespectacled, listened to the youngest’s idea for a new medical imaging technique. As the scientists chattered, the shuttle turned onto the grounds themselves. Dozens of wild turkeys lurked on the grass, their blue snoods ugly as they gobbled.

Brookhaven is full of old one- story wooden buildings and drafty barracks from its days as an army encampment in the 1940s. But around the campus, there are a few new buildings of soaring, undulating
glass, twenty- first- century designs that look like they were informed by architect I. M. Pei. Inside one such building, public relations people tied helium- filled balloons to metal folding chairs and railings as old and young employees and visitors gathered around to look at a greasy old Magnavox Odyssey, the original PlayStation with the Gran Turismo racing simulation, a Wii with Wii Sports Bowling, and a few other mementos from videogame history. But an essential jewel was found where a smaller crowd of curious employees gathered. There it was on a folding table, a few more helium balloons heralding its birthday. It was merely an ancient oscilloscope, its graphics board on display within a Plexiglas box. The instrumentation people had cheated a little to re- create the device. Gone was the six- foot- high Donner analog computer. Instead, Tennis for Two was attached to a Dell desktop hidden by a tablecloth. They had linked this re- creation to a fancy big screen, high definition TV—as if you needed such a thing to enhance its old- fangled graphics.

The visuals were rudimentary, merely a green dot on the screen and a small block in the middle to represent a net. There was a welded stainless steel box to take into my hands, upon which was a single button to press and from which heavy wires led to the signal box. The primitive thing appeared otherworldly on the fi fty- inch Samsung screen. That was when my nerd heart started beating, my mouth grew dry, and I found it somewhat difficult to take air. It was as if Tennis for Two were a living, breathing celebrity, an old- time star slightly Botoxed up to make it appear new again. And that green color was seductive. Green symbolizes everything videogames are made of, the life- and- death struggle, the yin and yang of heroism and evil, for green in various cultures means hope, rebirth, death, and envy. The color meant immortality in ancient Egypt (Osiris, the god of the afterlife, had skin tinged with green). It is the suit color of Shigeru Miyamoto’s Link from The Legend of Zelda, the color of the camouflage gear of Metal Gear’s ultra- macho Solid Snake. Green is perfect for games.

In videos presented online, Tennis for Two seemed to have a bright green tinge, but perhaps because of the streaming sunlight in the new Brookhaven building, the bouncing ball now had a rich jade hue, the color of a shining emerald. Each time the ball made its way to my side of the scope, I pressed the plastic button on the
old- fashioned controller and the magnets in relays clicked loudly. I was able to angle the shots by twisting a plastic knob that aimed the blip on the screen.

Just before a few members of the press arrived, Higinbotham Junior, slightly wary but affable, stood before the game with Charlie Dvorak, the son of the lab technician who had actually made the machine full of circuits, capacitors, relays, and a mishmash of wires. Both were around fifty years old, and both had a look of pride and occasional glee as they played Tennis for Two. As they volleyed the dot, it left handsome trails on the screen and the relays clicked and clacked. Dvorak asked, “Can you imagine if your father patented this with my father? Things would be a lot different. We’d be on easy street. We’d be millionaires living in Montana somewhere.”

Higinbotham Junior was dressed in a striped gray flannel suit with a striped tie. He, too, had worked at Brookhaven in various positions for more than eleven years. But he was somewhat of a rebel, who never went to college. In the economic downturn of 2001, Brookhaven let him go. He now worked at a Staples store on Long Island. Still playing, and without looking at Dvorak, he was pragmatic. “Nah. The government would have owned the patent. Even if he had the patent, my father would still be at Brookhaven. He would still be working here. Money wouldn’t have changed his life’s goal and that was working here and with the Federation of Scientists.”

At lunch, Higinbotham Junior passed over a multipage document listing his father’s achievements. Nowhere on it was the game. Sitting back in his seat, he said, “My dad liked the game a lot. But in a way he cheated. He saw in the oscilloscope instructions that you could manipulate the dot on the screen. In his mind it became a tennis ball. It took just a few hours to go from point A to point B, to an interactive game.” Then he said it again. “The thing is, he didn’t want to be remembered just for the game.”

Whatever he wanted his legacy to be, it didn’t stop Dr. Higinbotham from engineering version 2.0 of the game on a larger, seventeen- inch screen, one that added play on the moon and on Jupiter, including a fairly precise modeling of the gravitational pull of those celestial bodies.

Excerpted from All Your Base Are Belong To Us: How Fifty Years of Video Games Conquered Pop Culture by Harold Goldberg. Copyright © 2011 by Harold Goldberg. Published in the United States by Three Rivers Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

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