Pong is 50 years old today. Take a moment and swirl that around in your head like a pop culture sommelier. Let it settle.
Pong, one of the earliest video games, an experience so singular and identifiable that it is still a touchstone in this industry, is half a century old.
It couldn’t be more simple by today’s standards. An approximation of table tennis constructed out of large, white, square pixels. Two rectangles stood in for the paddles. A dotted line down the centre of the screen was the net, and a small moving square emulated the ball. Large numbers, constructed from the same rectangles as the paddles, created the scoreboard at the top of the screen. The paddles moved up and down to block the ball and send it back across the net. Getting the ball past your opponent scored you a point. The first player to hit eleven points was declared the winner.
Pong was originally a kind of warm-up exercise given to designer Allan Alcorn by Atari co-founders Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney. There’s some conjecture around where the inspiration for the game came from, but the broadly accepted story is that Alcorn based Pong on one of a clutch of games on the Magnavox Odyssey. Bushnell and Dabney were so impressed with the quality of Alcorn’s build that they decided to release it on November 29, 1972. It became the first commercially successful video game in history, embedding itself in the public consciousness forever.
In the years since its release, there have been sequels and knock-offs aplenty, but none of have ever come close to the level of success enjoyed by the original. We’re talking about a game so popular that it had its own console. These days, the Pong IP is owned by Bandai Namco, which absorbed Atari Japan. Today, Pong hardware sits on display in museums as prestigious as the Smithsonian, all down to the scale of its lasting cultural impact.
Happy birthday, Pong. You’re a good game.