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Pong, the First Video Game With Mass Public Appeal, Turns 50

Atari cofounder Nolan Bushnell says he still plays the company’s iconic game

spinner image atari co-founder nolan bushnell wears a company t-shirt and a black jacket while leaning on an arcade-style pong machine
Atari founder Nolan Bushnell poses in front of Pong, the first commercially successful video game.
Greta Antoni

All in the Family was the most popular television show in America, President Richard Nixon had just been reelected and Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” topped the Billboard Hot 100 charts.

November 1972 was also the month that a video game called Pong debuted and captured the public’s fancy. Pong was not the very first video game, but this coin-operated ping-pong arcade game from a Sunnyvale, California, upstart named Atari became the industry’s first true smash.

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“I don’t think you’re overstating it by saying that it really did give birth to the industry,” says Trip Hawkins, 68, who founded the Electronic Arts video game software giant a decade after Pong showed up.

A half century following Pong’s debut, Atari cofounder Nolan Bushnell, now 79 and living in Los Angeles, is reminiscing about the game’s origins — and its influence. 

“I did not think it would be commercially successful,” Bushnell says. Nevertheless, “I pretty much foresaw the main crack of the video game business. I knew it was going to be big. Did I think it was going to exceed the movie business? Probably not.” 

Citing data from the IDC research firm, the Motion Picture Association of America and PwC, the Big Four accounting firm formerly known as PricewaterhouseCoopers, MarketWatch declared during the pandemic that the video game industry was a bigger moneymaker than the movie and North American sports businesses combined.

“I did not think it [Pong] would be commercially successful. I pretty much foresaw the main crack of the video game business. I knew it was going to be big.”

—Nolan Bushnell, Atari cofounder

A $100 home video game console called the Magnavox Odyssey, which connected to a TV, had been a source of Bushnell’s inspiration. Odyssey did not produce sound or display a score, and the three square dots visible on the TV screen passed for a ball and paddles in a bundled tennis game. Players had to stick a colorful plastic, translucent overlay on top of their TV screen to add a tennis court background or visual elements for other bundled Odyssey games.

What was to emerge as Pong began as a training project for Al Alcorn, the first engineer Bushnell hired at Atari. He “did such a good job on it that the game became fun,” Bushnell says. “And the funner [it got], the more I said, ‘Well, maybe this is commercially viable.’ ”

Magnavox eventually sued Atari over a patent dispute. The case was ultimately settled out of court.

(An aside: Future Apple cofounder Steve Jobs was another relatively early Atari employee.)

Challenge: Create games that are hard, sort of

Pong’s popularity swelled in bars and arcades. Patrons paid a quarter to compete on upright cabinet or cocktail table versions, and Bushnell says the goal was to have people last in the game for around three minutes, though average game play was probably a little shorter than that.

The objective was to turn a knob that controlled the paddle that hit the ball on your side of the net to get it past your opponent on the opposite side. You could angle your shot if you hit it off the edge of the paddle.

“One of the things we used to do a lot was called tensioning. A game needs to be hard enough, but not too hard,” Bushnell says. “That’s why you do level ups, because you get good at one level and want to make it harder for the next level.”

After three volleys, the ball in Pong would speed up. After 11, it would speed up even more. Then the paddle size would drop in half.

Early video games weren’t solitary

Pong required two players, and the game became a social anchor of sorts.

“A mass market of boomers gave Pong a try while they were out in public,” says Hawkins, who is based in Santa Barbara, California. “Introverts often don’t know what to say in social life, so having something to do was an icebreaker, conversation starter and even a way to meet girls.”

That’s how Bushnell remembers it, too.

“Introverts often don’t know what to say in social life, so having something to do was an icebreaker, conversation starter and even a way to meet girls.”

—Trip Hawkins, 68, Electronic Arts founder

​“The thing that’s very interesting to me is the number of people that said that they met their husband or wife playing Pong,” Bushnell adds.

Pong even seemed to foreshadow a time decades later when video games could become a spectator sport. Nowadays, millions of gamers watch tournaments and livestreams of esports, shorthand for electronic sports competitions.

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Retired video game executive James Cantrall, 70, says he and his buddies would be at a bar that had a Pong table and another game called Asteroids.

“We’d sit down, have our beers, and guys would be playing,” he says. “And everybody else would be watching and, you know, making snide comments.” Cantrall lives these days in Big Bear Lake, California.

Video games go home and go mobile

Such scenes eventually faded. “Arcade games stopped feeling novel and cool,” Hawkins says. “Gaming became the domain of the nerds. I was one of them, and so were my childhood friends.” 

Pong for the home didn’t turn up until 1975 as a battery-operated unit sold exclusively at Sears for $79. Eventually, rival clones emerged.

Home Pong consisted of a box with a speaker, left and right player control dials, a game start button and an on-off switch. It was connected via cable to a separate switch box that in turn was hooked up to the antenna terminals of a TV through twin lead wires.

From these rudimentary beginnings — and through numerous ups and downs — the video game business grew to be ginormous. North of 3 billion people now play video games around the world.

In 2021, about two-thirds of adults ages 55 to 64 worldwide who use the internet played video games, according to London-based GWI market research. 

“Early games were a lot of fun because they were creative. But as the power of computers went on, the developers could do a lot more with things like graphics and sound and color,” Cantrall says.

The myriad ways people played evolved, too. According to Bushnell, Atari’s own cartridge-based Video Computer System (VCS), or Atari 2600, console sold about 30 million units compared to around half a million Pongs in its heyday.

“Pong was important, but I think the VCS … was much more impactful,” he says. Atari competitors included companies such as Coleco and Mattel.

Bushnell, who also founded the Chuck E. Cheese pizza restaurant chain, ended up selling Atari in 1976 to what was then Warner Communications.

Through the years, hard-core gamers might purchase expensive “gaming rig” computers, while the masses eventually gravitated toward popular Sony PlayStation, Nintendo and Microsoft Xbox video game consoles. And like everything else, game play eventually went mobile. Legions of people now play games on their smartphones, something Bushnell couldn’t have fathomed 50 years ago.

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“The whole idea that you were going to be able to carry this screen computer in your pocket just didn’t occur to me,” he says.

Why older gamers like to play

Throughout history, video games have mainly been the province of youth. But some players who cut their teeth in the Pong era are still at it these days, either because they never retired their joysticks, a twinge of nostalgia brought them back or they wish to connect with their kids or grandkids.

According to a recent AARP online survey of Americans 50 and older, half of grandparents play video games at least once a month, though 80 percent play solo despite their intention to spend time playing with family. Even so, they turn to the grandkids as their primary source of information on new games.

Septuagenarian Swedish grandmother Inger Grotteblad says she gets the rock star treatment from her grandkids’ friends because of her alter ego as Trigger Finger, a member of Sweden’s Silver Sniper professional esports team. The team, sponsored by Lenovo, competes in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO), a first-person shooter game from U.S. developer Valve in which players assume the role of either terrorists or counterterrorists and the object is to plant or defuse bombs.

As of February, a little more than 3 in 10 digital gamers in the United States were baby boomers, according to the Insider Intelligence market research firm. Nearly half are older than 55.

Gamers of all ages play to unwind, but 82 percent of those 51 to 65 in the U.S. and Canada do so mainly to relax, according to Newzoo gaming industry research firm. That’s a higher percentage than among younger players.

Gamers cite other motivations:

  • 69 percent play to fill time.
  • 46 percent play to achieve the highest score possible.
  • 41 percent play to “use careful thinking and planning to overcome challenges.” ​
spinner image people playing pong
Visitors play the retro game Pong on Aug. 21, 2019, at the video games trade fair Gamescom in Cologne, Germany.
Ina Fassbender/AFP

Interaction relieves stress, exercises the mind

Indeed, some see video games as an outlet for relieving stress and remaining sharp mentally.

“I can tell you this: The older population should be playing video games,” Bushnell says. “Your brain is like a muscle, and you’re either exercising it or it atrophies.”

Folks interested in retro gaming still prize Pong and other games from a bygone era, and new versions of old consoles are available now. It’s certainly a sign of the times that you can play various app versions of Pong on iPhones and Android devices.

Bushnell says he hasn’t discovered a good one yet. “The real problem is Pong plays best with a knob, and there are no knobs on your cellphone,” he says

But he recommends the phone as an on-ramp for older adults looking to get into gaming. Bushnell is fond of puzzle games and says he’s addicted to one called Water Sort Puzzle, available free with in-app purchases in Apple’s App Store and Google Play. He also bought a Nintendo Switch but concedes, “some of the games don’t match my level of patience.”

After 50 years, Bushnell still plays Pong in his house, though he acknowledges his reaction times aren’t what they once were. Asked if he’s any good at it, Bushnell emphatically answers, “No.”

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