Poolhall Thrills and Barroom Chills11 minute read

How did companies advertise “video games” to a world that had never heard the term?

SpaceWar! being played on a restored PDP-1

In a world where video games are part of the largest media industry in the world it is hard to consider a time when the term did not exist. This feature in Console Yourself looks at the history of the term “video game” and how companies struggled to market to a world who had never seen one.

The history of the term “video game” begins

Since 1958 video games have existed on this green and blue ball of madness. It was Pong that started the history of gaming after the Physicist Willam Higinbotham designed the first game display. Having worked on displays for radar systems Higinbotham was able to work alongside Technician Robert Dvorak to create the first video game debut. Pong was originally titled Tennis for Two.

William Higinbotham
William Higinbotham (photo credit: unknown)

After 1958 it was inevitable that video games would become popular, but no one knew when. Games were originally novelties that were passed around technicians and programmers. As of the early 1960’s one such game was Spacewar! which was created in 1962. Being popular amongst the programming community of the time it was soon copied to several installations in American academic institutions. This made Spacewar! quite possibly the first game that was available outside of the location it was created in – four years after Pong had been created.

Spacewar! spread fast and was found on most research computers with programable CRT displays. To put this into context, the PDP-1 display cost a staggering $120,000, which equates to over $1 million in 2020. There were also only 53 of these displays created, meaning the demographic audience was heavily minimised to an academic one. This also meant that there was no way to monetise such an invention.

A Syzygy of great minds

In the words of Tom Kenny, it was eight years later that Computer Space began hatching from its academic egg. In 1970 two electrical engineers by the names of Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney put their heads together. They had an idea to create a coin-operated version of Spacewar! under a partnership that they called Syzygy Engineering. The thought came after they realised it was still heavily uneconomic to use a computer to run the game on. Instead a custom hardware unit would be a cheaper option as it could be created solely to run their game.

In August of 1971 the first location test of this arcade cabinet, manufactured by Nutting Associates, was performed. The press and Music Operators of America were the first people to see the game in the October of that year. There was a huge interest upon the reveal of this hardware and Nutting Associates ordered a run of 1,500 units.

Spacewar! (photo credit: unknown)

The birth of Atari

The game was successful and sold approximately 1,500 units by the end of 1972. Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney left in June 1972 and formed Atari. This came after Nutting Associates decided that the sales weren’t as large as they had hoped. They soon released their next arcade game, Pong. The “early history of video games” era had ended with Computer Space and the industry had started to open it’s eyes to a whole new world.

The aforementioned games had to be advertised throughout this 10 year period. Previously the games were restricted solely to the academic audiences, but Computer Space had changed the playing field. Being the first commercial game it would have required actual advertising. The issue was that, even though it was pitched, it was still pitched to engineers, boffins, programmers and technicians. The general population would have still been none-the-wiser about video games and the related hardware.

An Odyssey into the future

The history of the term “video game” brings us to the fall of 1972. Odyssey was launched to the general public of this year and highlights a milestone for the industry. Odyssey, developed by Magnavox, was the first home video game console. But how do you describe a console to a world that doesn’t even know the now-coined term “video game”? Even the official catalogues for Odyssey didn’t know how to describe their product in a manner that would be recognisable today.

A 1973 catalogue for the Magnavox Odyssey (image credit: Magnavox)

An interesting video to watch is one from a panel show called What’s My Line?. There is an episode that aired on October 16th 1972 where the host Larry Blyden and a contestant named Robert use a Magnavox Odyssey.

A perplexed panel

The panel in front of them have to guess what they are doing on a television set that is facing away from them. The host describes the act as them doing “something electronically”, showing controllers to the panellists and the screen to the audience where they played a variant of what we would know as Pong. Take note that at this stage in world history “console”, “video game”, Pong and other terms that we take for granted, had not been coined.

The Magnavox Odyssey seen for the first time on What’s My Line?

When the panellists start to guess at what the two gentleman are doing there are some hilarious statements. One lady says they are “doing something sassy,” and asks if they are “reproducing something on the television screen,” asking if the picture on the screen is something “other than an X-ray”. However she becomes close to guessing when she asks if they are “moving something around that makes for action” on the screen.

Most of the guesses are that of the panellists being on the picture on the screen or that they may be watching a sports game. Melba guesses that they are “controlling the picture in some way”. Ultimately the entire panel is completely and utterly confused, even after it is announced that they are “playing tennis”. This is a world that may as well be Jurassic in comparison to the console wars spanning four decades since the 1970’s.

The markets first controversy

The year is now 1976 and the worlds first glimpse at a video game that causes controversy lands. Long before the days of Doom or Grand Theft Auto was Death Race.

Exidy released Death Race in the United States as a modified version of Destruction Derby. In Death Race the player achieved a higher score by ultimately running over gremlins. This game was soon viewed as a game where the player was flattening pedestrians, and was one of the first games that received a negative media perception due to its violent content.

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(image credit Argus-Leader, Sioux Falls, South Dakota)

It was with this game that hundreds of headlines emerged across America, all citing violent terms. However, the violent terms are not the point I am about to make. Instead the manner in which this video game is described is the interesting point as, again, the term “video game” was yet to be coined.

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(image credit: The Ithaca Journal, New York)

The media seemed to get around the definition of an arcade game by some colourful descriptive terms. Newspapers used terms such as “electronic board game”, “tavern game”, “poolhall thrill”, “slot game” and “pinball game”, the latter of which is clearly incorrect.

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(image credit: Journal-News, Hamilton, Ohio)

However a couple of sources used the terms “Video Game” and “Arcade Game” correctly.

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(image credit: Press and Sun-Bulletin, Binghamton, New York)

Invading the lexicon

It would be a further two years, when Space Invaders was launched, that the terms “Video Game” and “Arcade Game” became predominant, but when was the term actually coined? Surprisingly it was not 1976 when Death Race was released and caused mass hysteria.

Atari, Taito, Ramtek and other companies used many flyers in 1973 that had the term “video game” upon them. These fliers were in relation to games such as Space Race, Astro Race, Soccer, Hockey, Gotcha and more. So the term originates prior to 1973, but clearly after the What’s Your Line? episode which was aired in late 1972.

The first article I found with the term being used correctly was from May 1973. The Vending Times presented an article stating “Williams introduces new ‘Paddle Ball’ video game”. The first patent I can locate with the term is patent 4.006,47. This was originally filed on the 18th March 1976, for a Video Game Rebound Apparatus created by Jeffrey Reed Lukkarila of Magnavox themselves.

A global phenomenon arrives

This suggests that between October 1972 and May 1973 the term had gained some traction, but probably still within the isolated demographics of technicians and programmers alike. By 1976 the media were still perplexed with defining these “electronic slot games”. But then came the aforementioned Space Invaders in 1978. Before this time there was no previous blockbuster video game. Space Invaders by Taito was the world’s first an began what is commonly known as The Golden Age of video games.

Original Space Invaders Arcade Machine hire | Arcade Direct
Space Invaders (image credit: Taito)

Running on a Taito 8080 system with 2Mhz of processing power the arcade cabinet quickly sold more than 100,000 units by the end of 1978. In four years it had grossed $3.8 billion, which would account for a whopping $10.2 trillion in 2020 with inflation. This made it a global, commercial success which supersedes the market we know today. Surely this had a massive impact on describing the video game to an ignorant audience?

Oh, those amusement machines…

The real moment when “video game” began to stick is often traced back to Ed Adlum. In a 1982 issue of RePlay, Adlum was credited with naming arcade games and video games as “video games.” He found the original descriptions confusing and clumsy so took inspiration from the movie jukeboxes from the time. He started to term the new style of amusement machine as “video games” and from here the phrase truly stuck. In Japan however they still used the term TV geemu, or terebi geemu, meaning “TV Games”.

So from 1972 to 1982 the terms had been used, but each time to different audiences. The whole process behind video games was one that eluded the conceptualisation of the general public (as seen from the attached video). The industry had started to use the term themselves but nothing showed consistency towards what these electronic machines were. It took a worldwide blockbuster like Space Invaders to jumpstart the industry to huge proportions and finally the term began to stick.

Language sometimes shows us that there is a time and a place. If you are given the correct audience it will make something “go viral” in todays world of social media. The world clearly worked exactly the same in the 1980’s. So let us end on a question. If the world had not adopted the term “video game” for its advertisements, would “Computerized Poolhall Thrill” have sufficed? Answers on a postcard.