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The birth of the videogame

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The revolution began in Andy Capp’s bar in Sunnyvale, Calif., during the last week of November 1972, when customers discovered a peculiar new contraption with a television screen and a coin slot that would soon become worn from overuse. But the TV didn’t show the sports game of the night: It displayed the game of the future, the videogame, in the now-unimaginably rudimentary form of two straight-line ”paddles” that players could move up and down to hit a white-dot ”ball” back and forth. The revolution had a cause, and its name was Pong.

In 1970, electrical engineer Nolan Bushnell had introduced the first commercial coin-operated videogame, Computer Space, based on a game a student had created at MIT. After a failed attempt to sell Pong to pinball giant Bally, Bushnell founded his own company, Atari (roughly translated as ”checkmate” from the Japanese game Go), with just $500.

”There was initially a lot of confusion,” says Bushnell, 54. ”People didn’t perceive a television set as anything other than something filled by a broadcast [signal].”

America quickly caught on to the simple, addictive game — and seemed to relish the idea of using a TV screen interactively, rather than passively watching it. ”Pong was the technological equivalent of rocks and sticks,” says Joystick Nation author J.C. Herz. ”It was so primitive, but we had so much fun playing it.”

Bushnell then brought videogames to the rec-room TV, first with a home version of Pong, then with a pioneering console that played plug-in cartridges, the Atari 2600 — a new approach so successful that Warner Communications bought Atari from Bushnell for $28 million in 1976. But increasingly fierce competition and a lack of tech development led Atari to lose $1 billion in 1983 and 1984.

Nonetheless, the seed of Bushnell’s ideas has matured into today’s $4 billion digital-game business. ”Nolan Bushnell was a visionary,” says Herz. ”He had a real talent for coming up with ideas that were years ahead of their time.” (Bushnell went on to found the arcade-theme restaurant chain Chuck E. Cheese’s, which ShowBiz Pizza Time bought in 1985 after Bushnell filed for bankruptcy.)

Commissioner of the new Professional Gamers’ League, Bushnell has eight children and lives with his second wife, Nancy, in Northern California, where he works for the touch-screen game and entertainment company PlayNet Technologies. If he had to do it over again, he says, ”I wouldn’t have sold Atari.”

(Additional reporting by Deanna L. Martin)

Time Capsule / Nov. 28, 1972

SUPER FLY brings urban black cool to movie theaters across America. Director Gordon Parks Jr. would later direct the movies Three the Hard Way and Aaron Loves Angela before dying in a plane crash while filming in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1979.

THE TEMPTATIONS top the Billboard pop chart with their groovy anthem ”Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” which would be the group’s last single to make it to No. 1.

RICHARD BACH‘S New Agey allegory Jonathan Livingston Seagull is perched atop the fiction chart.

AND THE SHORT-LIVED space-age musical Via Galactica opens at the Uris Theatre in New York City, starring Raul Julia and a 13-year-old Irene Cara, who would go on to star in the 1980 hit film Fame and win a 1983 Grammy for Flashdance‘s title song. Julia, after starring in the Addams Family films, would die of a stroke in 1994.

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