Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun
I know you haven’t got time to stop and think about it, but the computer game up on your screen is the latest moment in a great pastime. Quite a moment, for the nation and its pastimes are into strange times.
Back before they’d even invented basketball, when there was a nation that had a national pastime called baseball, a variety of indoor games made the rounds which used pins stuck in a wooden board in various configurations that would impede the progress of a small ball rolling down the board.
As this century dawned and progressed, the national pastimes shifted with the times themselves. Vaudeville, movies, radio, television, and the space age arrived. Along the way, the game with the pins and the ball became the pinball machine.
In the 1920’s and early 30’s, the pinball machine was nothing but a small glass-covered shallow wooden box, found on store counters as an idle amusement. Sometimes it was a gambling device, a penny or two changing hands on the roll of the ball. It was nothing much.
In the 1930’s the century’s first great financial depression slowed the country down until that penny amusement became the only pastime in which many citizens could afford to indulge. By the middle 30’s, pinball games took on new forms as creative manufacturers like Harry Williams, Dave Rockola, Ray Maloney, and David Gottlieb gave the game pizzaz with the invention of flippers, lighted boards, electric bumpers, the tilt mechanism, game concepts. In fact, these pinball merchants of the 30’s were the first programmers. They added excitement to their games by giving each game a distinct personality. Among the hit games of · the era were “Baffle Ball,” “Beauty,” “Advance,” “Contact,” and “Wings.”
But most important of all, the revolution of the pinball game into a national pastime was the result of adding legs to the pinball board, then enlarging the board and adding a backboard at the end of the playing field. Once the pinball machine stood on its own, and because of its popularity, it moved from a game on the counter next to the cash register, to inhabit its own space, pinball parlors and arcades giving the pinball machines their own setting.
By the 1950’s the success of pinball was so great among the populace that it gained an evil reputation as a gambling device and corrupter of morals of younger children. Comic books experienced the same disapproval during the 50’s. The pinball parlor as the pool hall of juvenile delinquents persisted as a social attitude well into the 1960’s, often backed up by political legislation banning the game and turning its players into criminals.
At about the same time our Victorian forefathers were stroking their moustaches and enjoying a few innings of baseball, two other dreams were in the air. One was the concept of transmitting pictures from one location to another by some electromechanical means, the other was of making a trip to the moon.
Well they figured out the picture transmission first. In fact, in 1907 a Russian named Boris Rosing had come up with the basic concept of TV. In 1928, a British scientist named John Logie Baird transmitted TV pictures from London to New York. By 1936 commercial TV service had begun in England and the United States. Since then came the development of color television and the audio tape recorder in the 1940’s, but subsequent refinement of electronic technology have created today’s television system which has, if nothing else, succeeded in fulfilling the Victorian dream of transmitting pictures to a distance.
The process of getting to the moon began for real in the late 1940’s with the invention of the transistor. During the second world war, men had demonstrated they could build rockets that fired and transported payloads reliably enough to be used to destroy distant areas. Death, like pictures, at a distance. But the breakthrough was the transistor, the replacement for the vacuum tube in the control circuits of all electronic designs, be they rocket guidance or TV set.
Where the tube is an analog device, the transistor is digital, and in its digitation it is the heart of the computer. The computer was what got the rocket to the moon. The transistor was further compacted into the integrated circuit which led to a miniaturization of function that produced a sophistication in function.
And so we get to watch television pictures sent back from the rocket that went to the moon by computer.
We also get an interesting little moment in 1972 when a new kind of game was introduced. It was called “Pong” and it was sort of a pinball game that was played on a TV screen. Often these Pong games were played on TV screens that were mounted face-up under plexiglass on tables situated at the end of the bar. But despite their black and white one action simplicity, Pong introduced the idea of the TV set as a game board.
Eventually, pinball machines went solid state, replacing their miles of mechanical wiring with TV screens and a computer program. What inventing TV, getting to the moon, computer know-how, and the dust bowl farmer playing the pins in a ramshackle country store in Kansas have created!
Since any TV set is a good game board, Pong was introduced not only as a quarter-eating game for public locations, but also as a computer game to be taken home and played on your own TV set. The idea of the home computer (often disguised as a video game system) has become an accepted consumer item a long with video tape recorders and cable TV.
And so we arrive at the current moment. It’s sort of like what happened to records in the 50’s and 60’s. The better they got the record player working, the more involved we got with the records we played. They’ve got the video computer working just fine, and all the experimentation and development of the 1970’s has led us into the 80’s with a real focus on the game programs. In the 10 years since “Pong” was introduced, the hardware has been put in place, and the creative process has shifted to the potential of the games themselves—the software that is written to give the computers a life of their own.
Recently a large Madison Avenue advertising agency released the distressing news that their yearly survey of young TV viewers showed that they were watching about a half hour less television every day than they were last year.
What these ad men fail to realize, is that many young people are still watching the TV screen, but they’re on a different wave length.
The TV set has many potentials other than passing out the garbage dished up by the established TV broadcasters. One potential is paying for programs rather than having to watch commercials. Another is as a home computer screen. Another, as a display device for rented video tapes.
And, perhaps best of all, the TV screen is where you go when you want to play video games. It lights up in blazing computer colors, and as you man the controls to take on the invaders, it gives you a sense of participation that no broadcast TV can currently offer.