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The first video game just turned 50 years old

There are a lot of questions about what the first video game is, which really dig into the idea of what constitutes a video game. But there’s no question about what the first mass-produced, commercially sold video game was, and this month it turned 50 years old.

Computer Space was the brainchild of Nolan Bushnell, an entrepreneur and electrical engineer. The game played similarly to the later Asteroids - the player was in control of a small rocket, which could shoot a single bullet at a time, and was under attack by two flying saucers that would move erratically while shooting towards the player. The rocket was controlled with 4 buttons - two for rotating the rocket left or right, one for shooting, and one to propel the rocket in whichever direction it was facing.

Because this was 1971 and even the most basic computers were still prohibitively large and expensive, Computer Space actually didn’t run on one at all. Instead, Bushnell used a video control circuit designed by his colleague Ted Dabney, along with a staggering number of diodes, transistors, and off-the-shelf logic chips, as well as a standard black-and-white television. The hardware was relatively primitive even for the time, but that made it feasible to mass produce.

The game came in a big, curvy fiberglass cabinet, finished in a glossy, glittery finish. Although future games were put into boxier particleboard cabinets, the Computer Space cabinet had the same layout that would become standard, with waist-height controls and an eye-level display.

Computer Space was not a huge sales success, but Bushnell and Dabney would go on to found Atari and develop Pong, which indeed was an absolute hit. Today, few Computer Space cabinets still exist in working order, but its importance in establishing a market for video games is absolutely notable, and marked the beginning of the largest entertainment industry in history.

Samuel McConnell is a games enthusiast who has been playing games in one form or another since 1991. He was born in northern Maine but quickly transplanted to Wichita.