The Complete History Of Gaming – Part One: Origins

Welcome to the first part in a groundbreaking four hundred part series on the complete history of videogames. If there’s one thing games coverage doesn’t do enough, it’s incessantly talking about the start of the industry, then hastily jump ahead twenty years and discussing GTA. We hope to put that right with this stunning new series, in which the complete, unabridged story of videogaming will be told, from its ancient origins, to the latest ventures in 3D SFX technology. We begin, of course, at the beginning.

There is much contention about the true origin of videogaming. While the veracity of this tomb painting has yet to be settled, there are some who argue it goes back as far as Ancient Egypt.

Whatever the truth about that old photograph, there is no question videogames have been around almost as long as humans have walked on land. But since no one invented the videogames magazine until 1979, it was unfortunately not until then that the first concrete records of specific games were made. All before is lost to us.

Perhaps there is no more famous game than that which adorned the cover of that very first gaming journal.

SPANG was, of course, the very first game available for people to buy without a license, allowing the phenomenon of videogaming to enter every public library in Britain. The seven-player game was available for both the ITV Highfive, and Sir Clive Dunn’s Chromatron. (The first and last game ever to be released on both rival systems.) With just a bat, a ball, three bases and a revolving mirror, it looks amusingly primitive today, but at the time was at the very cutting edge of science. Played using a joystick and a mass spectrometer, almost everyone of the era remembers at least giving SPANG a go.

It went on to spawn not just five sequels (the most notorious of course being SPANG IV: Visible Erection), but also a slew of copycat games that dominated the market for the next six years. It wasn’t until 1985 that anyone sought to create a different sort of game, and that’s when everything began to change.

Everything. With universal physics realigned, and the predatory nature of moths no longer a threat to young humans, videogaming began to appear in a new light.

New light allowed images to be viewed from more than three feet away, meaning games (and indeed television) could now be seen from the sofa. With the extra dimension and increased pull of gravity, sitting became a pursuit of many in the mid-80s, leading to a craze for couch-based games, viewed from as far away as the other side of the front room. And with it, the birth of simulation gaming. But that is for another time, as this series continues.

This article was first published as part of, and thanks to, The RPS Supporter Program.

48 Comments

  1. amateurviking says:

    SPANG consumed my brother. I mean that quite literally: all we found were his shoes.

  2. thedosbox says:

    That’s a subtle bit of product placement on the last image. I’m happy that South Korean electronics companies are interested in capturing an accurate record of the history of video gaming.

  3. Llewyn says:

    We had one of Sir Clive Dunn’s Chromatrons. Dashed unreliable thing, and all the useless Troubleshooting section of the manual contained was “Don’t panic! Don’t panic!”

  4. Dorga says:

    It’s All true!

  5. Premium User Badge

    Serrit says:

    Ah thanks John, that’s brightened up the evening a bit :-)
    (which is a lot easier to do since the early 80’s and the switch to the new longer ranged light!)

  6. cpt_freakout says:

    Now That’s What I Call Gaming

  7. sonofsanta says:

    Oh man, 1985. When spacetime refolded and retroactively incorporated a new history born from the fever dreams of a hitherto-non-existent Amiga Power intern, allowing RPS to suddenly blossom into existence as a 112-year-old publication and pushing the birth of games journalism back by 106 years.

    Took me bloody ages to get through that backlog. I didn’t see the sun at all that summer.

  8. Fnord73 says:

    I played SPANG back in the 80s, before it was hip.

    /snark :-)

  9. Premium User Badge

    Wisq says:

    In the top image: While the laptop is certainly the more obvious of the two, I’m actually more impressed by the thing between the arm-wings, which I assume was actually part of the original. I mean, doesn’t that look like some sort of nicely-styled tower PC with a carrying handle? The Egyptians must’ve had some wild LAN parties.

  10. tehfish says:

    This is not what i was expecting when i read the article title :D

    • Monggerel says:

      Whereas this is exactly, word-for-word, picture-in-picture, back-to-back hand-in-hand heart-to-heart brain-in-a-jar what I was expecting.

  11. Dances to Podcasts says:

    “With just a bat, a ball, three bases and a revolving mirror, it looks amusingly primitive today”

    Tsk. In my day we had to make do with an old newspaper, some gum and a hairnet.

  12. Valkyr says:

    I…

    I didn’t get the joke.

    • Premium User Badge

      Bluerps says:

      There is no joke. It’s history.

    • SanguineAngel says:

      What joke? Have they playfully mixed up a couple of the dates again? Those tongue-cheeked scallywags!

  13. Alfius says:

    Wat?

    • Horg says:

      Another tragic victim of the rapidly recalled SPANG III: Mild Brain Damage.

  14. gbrading says:

    Ah the ITV Highfive. The best £15,499 I ever spent.

    • Jernau Gurgeh says:

      Unfortunately, this was well beyond the reach of my Family at the time. We were rather poverty stricken as both Mater and Pater succumbed to Consumptive Disorders Of The Membrane and we became wards of Uncle Silas, the Penny Pinching Pedarast of Peterborough.

      So by the time we had saved our allowance to purchase said Home Computer Device, technicalologoy had moved on somewhat, and you could actually get an ITV Highfive free with 6 coupons from tins of Dr Heinz’s Medicinal Gruel, sent off to their Manufactory with a Stamped Self-Aware Envelope. However, it was the lesser model with the disabled Thingummyjig Chip, mean you could only play classic 1bit games, like ‘Stare At The Square’ and ‘Three Pixel Puckman’.

      But by God, did we enjoy such Wonders!

  15. Jernau Gurgeh says:

    I say, this takes one back rather. Of course, at the time, all one could get one’s hands on was The School Computer… a BBC TeleTypeTrixWriter 380Z device without a screen that required punched cards, industrial-sized bobbins and numerous grubby street urchins in order to program it correctly – not to mention a whole 17 watts of Faraday’s Electrickery, meaning half of my home town had to go without power in order for us to play Paper Pong.

    Youngsters today don’t know how lucky they are, with their 128K+ Spectrals and their RAMPAKs and Analogue Cassette Tape Recorders and Kingston Jamaicasticks.

  16. Player1 says:

    Preserving the history of digital games gets more important every day, as we keep losing early artifacts fast. Therefore I really appreciate and endorse every effort going towards that goal. If you’re German speaking and you’re interested in some aspects of the cultural history of digital games, you may want to read my book which came out in September: Digitale Spiele und Hybridkultur

    It covers the more recent history from the 1990s onwards with a strong focus on how Sony’s PlayStation changed the gaming culture and its perception, but it also delves back into the beginnings of the industry.

  17. PoLLeNSKi says:

    Can’t help but hope that articles like this are all that gets left behind when human civilisation ends for archaelogists of a future species to ponder over.

    • Baranor says:

      Undoubtly they will then describe this as a religious text.

  18. Poison_Berrie says:

    I would have bought SPANG back in the day, but the mass spectrometer was prohibitively expensive and we didn’t have a soundproofed room to keep it in.
    Also I hadn’t been born yet.

  19. TheNavvie says:

    We were too poor for a Highfive or a Chromatron, we passed the time with a stick. When that got boring, we’d poke ourselves in the eye.

    I remember the great new light roll out of 1985 and how it made us second class citizens, ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ if you will. You see, ours was one of the estates that didn’t get new light until 1988. Turns out we’d been passed over for a electromagnetic spectrum upgrade at the end of the dark ages and new light wasn’t compatible with the dark system we had. New light was only a viable upgrade for old light but by the time old light had been installed and upgraded everywhere else would be tripping the light fantastic.

    The chosen solution was gas light, filtered through rose tinted glasses, although it had obvious flaws it was a lot better than dark. Gas light was rolled out in a matter of months and then adapted to allow a new light upgrade. Between you and I, I always thought the alternative moon light would have been a better solution. People looked at you funny if you suggested it, but it was a lot less controversial than the fair light that some wanted… but that’s another story.

    Looking forward to part two of the complete history of computer games.

  20. ShDragon says:

    Now just wait one cotton-pickin’ minute here. You say in this article

    But since no one invented the videogames magazine until 1979, it was unfortunately not until then that the first concrete records of specific games were made. All before is lost to us.

    But I know for a fact that this selfsame publication has been operating since no later than 1873! I know that most people have understandably forgotten the great bug that shipped in SPANG II that erased great swaths of history across several multiverses any time anyone deleted their game save, but that doesn’t mean it never existed… though I guess it DOES mean it never existed. Hmm.. Nevermind. Carry on.

    • Hedgeclipper says:

      There are secret histories, all that can safely be said is that it involves John “John” de Marcheur and the summoning of Horace.

  21. Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    I was once a regional champion at SPANG, but its sequel, SPANG!!, changed the core mechanics too much. The change of emphasis from strategy to micro really hampered my transition to the new game, and the overpowered Thief class totally ruined any sense of balance.

    • Horg says:

      You can’t blame the developers, they saw the gold mine of professional e-sports decades before the competition. Their brief flirtation into the field might have worked too, if only the insane APM requirement of SPANG !! hadn’t caused the pro-player ”Horifice” to spontaneously combust on stage. They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity but professional SPANG !! never really recovered from his loss.

  22. stele says:

    This reminds me of the night I played SPANG, SPANG, SPANG, SPANG, SPANG, Half-Life 2 and SPANG.

  23. muira says:

    SPANG was a totes rip off of P-TAANNGGG!! In fact i rem.. …[sigh].. nope, can’t be arsed.

  24. JamesTheNumberless says:

    The Highfive was the most uncool of all computers. They were the ones they made you use at school and the only kids who had those at home were ones whose parents were teachers. The Walnut Pythagoras!! Now there’s a computer that could put hair on your chest.

  25. Optimaximal says:

    Great article!

    I can’t wait for Part Two: Grand Theft Auto!

  26. racccoon says:

    The reason why our life has headed towards games is because the real reality is we are in a game, the world earth is a game, a superior alien race is watching and laughing while their time is infinity we are just one game of many that are out there. lol

  27. Themadcow says:

    Apparently they recently found the landfill site where 2,426,911 copies of the Atari 2600 version of SPANG: THE MOVIE were buried.

  28. macek677 says:

    If anyone knows single bit about cryptology then he can start realizing what computer games really are.
    I am a gamer myself however I have noticed a very similar patterns between logistics behind game like Dota 2 and real life Army maneuvers.

    Today people are beginning to realize that every single move they do on computers is being tracked, stored and sold for a good money as a part of PRISM program.

    What do exactly I mean behind logistics in computer games is perfectly described here (it is also related to the very first day, logical thinking that created computers) link to cabinetmagazine.org – How to Make Anything Signify Anything

    The more person play the more those who suck-in all that information know about specific person.
    Now you gonna say that you have nothing to hide right?
    Here is excerpt said by Bruce Shneier when asked the same question:

    AMY GOODMAN: So, governments tell us, “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” Why should you be concerned about government surveillance, Bruce?

    BRUCE SCHNEIER: Well, I mean, that’s ridiculous on the face of it. Those same government officials who say that don’t tell you all of their secrets, give you copies of all of their emails and correspondence. Privacy is not about something to hide. Privacy isn’t something that you only have if you’re a criminal. Privacy is about individual autonomy. It’s about presenting yourself to the world. It’s about being in charge of what you say about yourself and what you reveal about yourself. When we’re private, we have control of our person. When we’re exposed, when we’re surveilled, we’re stripped of that control, we’re stripped of that freedom. We don’t feel secure. We don’t feel like we have something to hide. We feel like we’re under the microscope. We feel like prey. Privacy is a fundamental human need, and it’s not about something to hide. I think that’s a very wrong characterization, and we should fight it at every opportunity.

    Think about it.

    • jrodman says:

      If you aren’t a bot, can you explain how this comment relates to this article at all?