The Pioneers of Video Game Technology Are About to Become the Stuff of History

The American History Museum’s Lemelson Center will record 20 oral histories from early video game innovators

Tennis For Two
A 1959 exhibition of the first video game "Tennis For Two," designed physicist William Higinbotham at Brookhaven National Laboratory in 1958. Flickr Creative Commons/ Brookhaven National Laboratory

For decades, video games got no respect. They were seen as degenerative, brain-numbing influences that turned kids into couch potatoes.

Today, video games influence American culture as much as film and literature do. They have shaped how drone aircraft are operated in war, how ships are steered, and they even influence new medical technology. Video games have become adult, mainstream and integrated into every level of society. Which means that it is probably a good idea for the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History to start taking some notes.

The museum’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation is starting a two-year push to begin recording the earliest history of video games before it is too late. The Center will record oral histories with 20 key inventors and designers from the first few decades of video game development.

“Time is of the essence here,” says Arthur Daemmrich, director of the Lemelson Center. Some of the early pioneers in the field have already passed away, including physicist William Higinbotham, the creator of the world's first video game made purely for entertainment.

“The good news is a lot of the people from the 1960s are still alive. Ten years from now, after someone's about 80, you really run the risk that they are forgetting things and you could lose the focus you want for an in-depth oral history,” says Daemmrich.

Higinbotham's creation, Tennis for Two, was made in 1958, before computer monitors were available. He used an oscilloscope as a display. Higinbotham was born in 1910, when horse-drawn buggies still outnumbered automobiles. He died in 1994, living to witness the launch of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System but not quite long enough to see video games become accepted as a serious form of media.

When Games Went Click: The Story of Tennis for Two

Each interview will run around five hours and requires extensive research by the Lemelson Center's staff. “To be able to ask the combination of real technical questions, ask the kind of market questions, what kind of feedback they were getting?” says Daemmrich. “And the social questions, where were they getting inspiration from? What was going on in their lives? Pulling this together takes a lot of preparation.”

Recording the memories of the creators of early video games is especially important because the games themselves have a limited lifespan. Electronic devices eventually decay from normal use. Transistors stop working. Chips fail.

“Some of the early inventors of these games have kept the machines that they made them on,” says Daemmrich. Richard Garriott still has the working Apple II on which he designed Ultima. “But 50 or a hundred years from now, it's going to be hard to keep this medium. Do you keep the console and the cartridge and put them in a freezer and hope they're not falling apart? Or do you keep them working but know that they will decay and eventually break? We have paper materials from 2,000 years ago that are in great shape. We have digital materials from 30 years ago that are basically unusable,” says Daemmrich.

Among the aging lions of the video game industry, there is a sense that the time has come to create a record of the past. “I was out at the E3 [video game] convention and I met Sid Meier [the creator of Civilization and other hugely successful games]. Fabulous guy, obviously a genius. He said that he and his colleagues have been talking about a need to do this for years, so they were really enthusiastic about having Smithsonian do this.”

The oral histories will be recorded using high-quality video and audio in order to provide future filmmakers and documentarians with material.

“One of the points we made in launching the initiative is that this is a unique opportunity in terms of how we write histories of major industries," says Daemmrich. "We do have short interviews with Henry Ford and even the Wright Brothers but they're only a few minutes long at most. But these [programmers] were all competitors and we'll have a complete history of an industry told by the people who built it.”

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