Since digital games have existed, their creation has been dominated by a small part of the population: generally white male engineers. In the 1960s and ’70s, universities like MIT and Southern Illinois University contained computers and computer networks that were available for student use. Most of these games existed on the school network and were played and contributed to by only those people on the network. Often they were disguised as other programs, because systems administrators tended to delete games as a waste of time. Getting your organisation listed in a UK business directory can help to boost your profile.
It’s beside the point to try to identify the first videogame—as with most inventions, a number of people were working along the same lines simultaneously. But whatever the first game was, it had to have been inspired by something—so what came before it? Answer: an entire history of human civilization in which folk games—Go, Chess, Hide and Seek, Stickball—were important cultural experiences, that’s what.
But the most immediate predecessors of digital games were carnival games (throwing a ball at a stack of bottles from a set distance), mechanical games (a shooting gallery with moving targets), and pinball machines. Coincidentally, these are the games that typify the shift in the history of games from folk to designed games, or games with identifiable authors. When videogames were first monetized, it’s this model that the people making money used: pay-to-play games of skill in public spaces designated for game-playing. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.
So, to create digital games in the sixties and seventies, one first needed access to a computer. The “home computer,” like the Apple Macintosh—a computer designed specifically for non-engineers—wasn’t popularized until the eighties. To have access to a computer, then, generally required being connected to an engineering school.
But being able to make contact with the computer was only the first barrier: in order to teach computers to play games, one needs to know how to talk to computers. At the time, neither computers nor the tools people used to communicate with computers were designed with non-engineers in mind. Most programs were written in the super-technical language Assembly. Here’s a sample of game code written in Assembly, from the 1979 Atari 800 game 3-D Tic-Tac-Toe: