It all began at the University of Utah. Nolan Bushnell was an undergraduate who used to play space games on the computer in the engineering laboratory. He invented Pong, a television table tennis game. Electronic bats pushed a ball back and forth across a black and white TV screen. You could play another person, or more importantly play against the computer. The game went on the market in 1973, and by the end of the year pubs, bars and cafes around the world resounded with the irritating “blip-blip” of the game. Bushnell sold the idea for 13 million dollars, and went on to found Atari, the leading video-game manufacturer. Today the descendants of Pong earn more than 13 million dollars a day.
The idea was developed in Japan, and the video games explosion came in 1978 when Taito inc. launched Space Invaders. It was quickly followed by a host of spin-offs, Defender, Asteroids, Galaxian, Centipede, Pac-Man and Donkey-Kong. By 1981 the video games industry was earning twice as much money worldwide as the entire movie industry. There were reports of coin shortages in several countries because the machines had swallowed all the loose change. Then came the reports of video game-related crime, as teenagers stole to support an addiction to the games that could cost £20 a day. The games were banned in the Philippines. West Germany restricted them to the over-18s, France to the over 16s. A move to ban them in Britain was defeated in Parliament. Several American towns restricted the number of machines. In one city, truancy became such a problem that kids were required to show a perfect school attendance record before being admitted to video arcades.
But video games have a natural tendency to become obsolete. It costs a lot of money to master a game, and takes several weeks of determined effort. However, once a game has been mastered you can play all day for 20p, because you will be able to gain free games every time you play. Then, of course, the game becomes boring, and you have to abandon Space Invaders or Missile Command, and move on to Asteroids, or Pac-Man. Then the whole cycle begins again. By 1983 there were too many machines in too many places, and Arcade owners found a new game would take huge sums of money for a few weeks. At the end of that time, the regular customers would have mastered it, and it would be abandoned to gather dust in the corner. It was said that the 5-year-old boom was over. The home versions of the games had become more sophisticated, and the arcades began to close. While the manufacturers are still spending millions of pounds on research – and one game can cost one million pounds to develop – the boom could begin all over again when a new, more exciting, more complex game arrives on the scene.