Tuesday, 18 October 2011

A History Of Computer Games, Part One

Thomas Watson, President of IBM 1943 - “The world will probably eventually need five computers”.

To understand the history of computer games, their roots and origins, I feel that it's particularly important to firstly recognize and understand the history of computers. Computer games are purely a form of entertainment, whether its an FPS or a simulation game, the keyword is 'game', it's existence is simply to give the user some form of enjoyment and release from the daily grind of reality.

For this blog though, I'm going to try my best to avoid the subject of game, and instead focus solely on computers. Why were they invented? Who invented them? How have they evolved and developed? And finally and probably most importantly for the intention of this string of blogs, at what point did somebody decide that there should be a computer with only one intended use, playing games?

From just a few hours of research, I've began to get a real sense of the scale and diversity of the computer's history, and the impact the computer has now had on our lives. It seems computers are now literally in everything (i.e. the microchip), and come in an almost infinite amount of forms. Yet the strangest thing is we somehow take all of this for granted.

From day numero uno, to this day, whatever computers appear to be doing, all they're actually doing is maths, very quickly. This is our first clue then as to where computers come from.

For me, computers really appeared as early as the Victorian era, as so much of what we now call civilization has come from. The Industrial Revolution! The Machine Age! It couldn't have been done without men. Men called 'computers'. Men who did maths with a pencil. The major problem was that these 'computers', men, made mistakes. Possibly the first major step then, towards what we today would define as a 'computer', was to get rid of human error. The men with pencil's needed to be replaced with something more reliable. A mechanical brain? Ironically, what it took to come up with the goods, was a man with a pencil! Charles Babbage.

Charles Babbage was known to everyone who mattered in Victorian London. He was Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, basically, he was a complete number junkie, obsessed with order, maths and tabulation. What he came up with was a machine. It was what his Victorian audience would of called a miracle, but what we today might call a computer. What he built to fuel his thirst for order was what he called his Difference Engine.

At the time Babbage publicised his ideas for the Difference Engine, the idea that a machine could be instructed seemed a radical concept. Babbage only built a demonstration piece, but, to his Victorian audience it seemed that what they were watching was a machine capable of thought, they found it hard to keep up! Babbage was well ahead of his time it seemed. But what was the potential of his ideas? Sadly it was never realized, Babbage made a few 'errors' himself and his Difference Engine was never made. At one point Babbage's ground breaking machine was ridiculed and dismissed. In the end it was even claimed that it would never have come to anything anyway. But, in 1991, engineers at the Science Museum did build the cog wheels 'computer', and it did work!

I wont go into explaining how it worked right now, it worked using what Babbage called the 'unerring certainty of mechanism', but it did do its job, it eliminated human error and was capable of astonishing calculations. It is so sad that it was never built, and amazing to think how different things could have been if the Difference Engine had been made.

Charles Babbage recognized the need for even more powerful machines despite the lack of people who now took him seriously, and, before he passed away he did come up with what he called the Analytical Engine, something that worked in almost exactly the same way as a modern electronic computer, this thing even had integrated memory! But sadly, like his Difference Engine's the device remained on paper.

For me then, Babbage's machines were truly the first computers, possibly not what we're familiar with today, but machines capable of immense calculations without error. What if they had of been made in the 19th century though? The Empire would have been even more efficient, Britain even more powerful, the first World War probably wouldn't of started in the first place!

It wasn't until the middle of the next century, 80 years later, that the need for a mechanical computer surfaced once again. During World War 2, Alan Churing was the man needed to crack the Lorenz Cipher, an almost impenetrable code used by the German high command and Hitler himself. What Churing invented to crack the code was Colossus, the worlds first electronic computer.

Colossus' life though is shrouded in mystery, it is believed that the machines and their plans were destroyed in the 1960's, and bound by the official secrets act, officially, Colossus didn't exist at all. Another tragic story of 'what ifs?'.

Today, Alan Churing is generally considered to be the father of the modern computer. But where am I heading? How have we reached the point of what we today consider a 'home computer'? And where are all the games?

After WWII, Britain was in a prime position to exploit the technology of Colossus, but due to the secrecy surrounding it (it never existed), we were almost completely written out of the whole history of computing. Then the whole industry was developed by our rather less secretive friends, the Americans!

The idea that a home computer would become an everyday machine used by civilians seemed like a huge no no due to the sheer size of computers, until 1958, and the birth of the silicone chip. Yet from all of my research from my point of views it seems like it wasn't until the mid 80's that computers weren't just tools used by the government and that they weren't going to be machines just used to do serious maths.

But what about games? It could be debated forever. It is considered that the first 'true' video game was invented by a physicist in 1958, a table-tennis like game played on an oscilloscope. I don’t agree. For me personally, Atari are the inventors of the video games as we know them today with the Atari 2600. The first commercially available home video game, not an experiment or a prototype, but an electronic computer designed solely to be a games console, for no other purpose than simple pleasure for the average being.

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