50 years ago today, things would change forever in interactive entertainment – not just for the coin-op amusement industry, but for video games as a whole. While a day in September is for some reason marked as “National Video Game Day,” it really should be today – October 15th – that carries such a mantle.
That is because it was on this day back in 1971 where Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney introduced their coin-operated video arcade machine Computer Space to the public and the amusement industry at the MOA Show (later known as the AMOA Show and today called Amusement Expo). This was the first time that a video game would be presented to the amusement industry, with the first game intended for mass production.
Even today the cabinet for this stands out; Fiberglass is generally used for kiddie rides these days, rarely for arcade cabinets. But it was a cool “futuristic” look that even found its way onto the big screen with the movie Soylent Green.
Prior to this introduction, there was an arcade industry, generally just known as “coin-op” or “coin-op amusement.” Instead of video games, electromechanical machines (EM Games) and pinball made up the bulk of what was called an arcade. Such machines were popular, selling thousands of units, but Bushnell & Dabney wanted to show that the Computer Age would change everything and they certainly did.
That all said, Computer Space wasn’t considered to be a smash hit, since the controls were a little too complex for a public that hadn’t experienced anything like a video game before. But that fault would lead Bushnell and Dabney to create a simpler concept, which they did with PONG, which did become the smash hit that the industry really needed. Still, if it wasn’t for Computer Space, it’s hard to say where video games would have ended up.
Now it should be noted that there was a video arcade machine produced right before Computer Space did – Galaxy Game – but at $20,000~ or so, it was more of an independent one-off, not made with the intention of hitting mass production. As such, Galaxy Game was only enjoyed by students at Standford University; Computer Space was made to reach the masses with a kind of technology that many had never even considered, allowing them to control what was happening on the screen, instead of passively observing it all.
For a complete history of Computer Space, there are two sources I would recommend for reading: the first is a blog post over at Technologizer from 2011 that provides a great summarized history of what took place; The second you’ll have to buy a book for, and that is Atari Inc. -Business Is Fun by Curt Vendel and Marty Goldberg. The latter spends many pages getting into how Computer Space went from idea to purchasable product, so if you’re really interested in that history, I would recommend it.
As an aside, I did try to see if Nolan Bushnell was available for an interview to mark this occasion, but that didn’t happen for today; I still would like to interview him though, and get his thoughts on this and some other things.
So, happy anniversary to Computer Space, and by that extension, video arcade games and video games!