Pong: A game that is so simple that a bunch of brain-cells from a lab could play it. This might sound like a low blow, but it’s true – last month, Australia-based startup Cortical Labs challenged its creation DishBrain, a biological computer chip that uses a combination of living neurons and silicon, to play the early console classic.
The game – a 2D version of table tennis where players control a rectangle “paddle”, moving it up and down to rally a ball – ran in the background, wired up to the DishBrain. The cells were stimulated with electrical stimulations to simulate the placement of the paddle. When the ball was hit, feedback was pinged. The scientists then measured the DishBrain’s response, observing that it expended more or less energy depending on the position of the ball.
“After a 20-minute session, [the DishBrain was] playing much better than then when they started and much better than chance,” Dr Brett Kagan, Cortical’s chief scientific officer, says. While it wasn’t operating at the level of a human or even a motivated mouse, it did demonstrate a consistent learning path and some form of information processing optimisation. “It was so exciting,” Kagan says gleefully. “We honestly did not expect to see the extent of the results.”
If you go back 50 years, the world is quite different. In the early 1980s computers were so big that they could be found in coffee shops. Pinball was the dominant game at arcades. Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari, tricked Al Alcorn (24 years old), into creating Pong after he had made Computer Space an arcade game. “He wanted me to get some practice designing video games,” Alcorn, who at the time had no experience making video games, remembers.
Bushnell started small, briefing Alcorn to create the “very simplest game” possible. Bushnell pretended to have commissioned Alcorn for the creation of the game for General Electric. He inspired the young engineer not to give up. After picking up a Hitachi black-and-white TV for $75, Alcorn wired the game, amplified the TV’s built-in tones to create sound effects and housed it in a cabinet, creating an all-in-one system.
“[Bushnell] understood the economics of pinball machines and coin-operated games,” Alcorn says. “And he said, ‘Gee, if I could put a quarter on Pong, I could make money doing that’.” The key was making it work without the need for anything too expensive. “The breakthrough was figuring out how to do this without using a computer,” Alcorn explains. The prototype was slotted into local drinking hole Andy Capp’s Tavern, and Pong was officially switched on – a new form of playable, payable game.
It was quickly a success. Alcorn was called to fix the machine in a matter days. The problem was too common: quarters were blocking it. To fix things, the coin holder – a coffee cup – was replaced with a larger milk carton, allowing more revenue to be collected. Pong wasn’t a huge success at first because the two failed to attract enough buyers. “It was never a marketing problem,” Bushnell says. “It was always a supply issue. We had very little money and no factory so solving those issues was our biggest challenge.” Soon, though, sales picked up, and Pong was officially released by Atari in November 1972.
Pong, unlike its similarity to pinball and its shady connections with the mob and savage designs, was uncontroversial. It wasn’t only a game that could be enjoyed by anyone, but also, for the first time, a game that could be enjoyed by people together. “I think its success was because it was so simple and easy to understand. There was no one-player edition. Anybody could play it,” Alcorn says. Bushnell agrees: “It was an ideal icebreaker. Many people have told me that it was how they met their partners.”
Its beauty came from its simplicity. After a few beers, it was easy to explain. “It was the first time anyone had seen anything like it and they knew instantly how to play it,” Bushnell says. After much discussion, a sticker with the rules was attached to the cabinet. To retro game enthusiasts, they now read like holy commandments: “Insert quarter. Serves automatically. Avoid missing ball for high score,” Alcorn reels off automatically. “I want it on my tombstone,” he laughs.
Pong became a big money-spinner for bars who bought it. A single machine could bring in as much as $40 per day. Just a few years after the arcade game’s emergence, a plug-and-play version titled Home Pong was released, made possible thanks to a cutting-edge, large-scale integration chip. Suddenly the TV wasn’t a passive object dictating information to an onlooker, but an interactive platform. “Marshall McLuhan would say that television was a cold medium,” Alcorn says. “Pong made it a hot medium … the TV set now just sat there unless you did something.”
Atari released a number of sequels that attempted to imitate the original. Pong Doubles, Quadrapong and Pong Doubles were four-player versions. More eclectic and eccentric spin-offs aimed for new audiences; Snoopy Pong (later Puppy Pong, to avoid legal issues) livened things up with the addition of the famed cartoon beagle, while a free-to-play version was designed for GP waiting rooms and new versions were created for Bushnell’s Chuck E Cheese empire.
With technology improving and attention spans fading, Pong was replaced by newer titles that featured more modern graphics and gameplay. Pong has remained a popular game in popular culture. Pong has been a pioneer in new paradigms since the 80s. In the visual arts, it’s moved from a mere amusement to a muse, featuring in shows dedicated to its retro-futuristic minimalism and hypnotic looping quality. Pierre Huyghe, an artist, created the Atari Light in 1999. It allowed visitors to play Pong against one another and was later taken to the Venice Biennale. Pong itself was exhibited at the Barbican’s Game On exhibition in 2002, and a decade on, the game was acquired by MoMA, immortalising its place in art.
In a similar vein, Tom Friedman, an American artist, used a projection of Pong to create a 2017 installation. “It represents the beginning of digital technology,” he says. “It’s so basic and aesthetically, for me, it was the perfect ready-made minimalist video. I represented it in my video projection as a static game, before the complexity of competition.” Bushnell shares this interest in its aesthetics; he recently released the Arcade OG Series with artist Zai Ortiz, a set of NFTs depicting the original cabinets.
Pong’s simplicity and innocence has been used in psychology. The inspiration for Adam Curtis’s series All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, computer engineer Loren Carpenter’s thought experiment in 1991 saw Pong set up on a huge screen, with a seated audience split in two. Each seat had a paddle under it, with no instructions. Recalling Bushnell’s idea that knowing how to play Pong is almost akin to a priori knowledge, the crowd soon realised, in a state of ecstasy and excitement, that they could collectively contribute to moving one of two giant on-screen paddles by moving their own individual real-world paddle. While Carpenter saw the experiment as showcasing individual freedom, Curtis thought otherwise, telling the Guardian: “It was a video game, which made it fun, but it still made me wonder whether power had really gone away in these self-organising systems, or if it was just a rebranding.”
Pong, which is an old game, has been enjoying a revival in recent years. Pong Quest, a role-playing game created by Chequered Ink, a Bath-based developer, was revived two years ago. The quirky title sees the player control an anthropomorphic version of the paddle, imbued with what director Dan Johnston calls “unique character traits”. Again, the game’s simplicity sparked interest: “Any person of any language, culture or age can understand it,” says Johnston. Pong can feel outdated in some ways but its repetitive, basic nature is very similar to other mobile apps, such as Flappy Bird or Wordle. Pong Quest is proof that even the paddle has become a character, proving its iconic status.
Pong, which was developed in 1972 using computational genius, is now used to teach code to children. “Implementing it yourself is a rite of passage,” says David J Malan, the instructor of Harvard’s free CS50 Computer Science course. “It focuses you entirely on game mechanics.” Fellow instructor Colton Ogden, agrees: “Students get satisfaction from being able to get something simple and complete like Pong up and running.”
This thrill is still there. Pong has survived 50 years of technological evolution, appearing in new contexts and even actual living neuronal cultures. Cortical Labs will introduce DishBrain to more complex games. However, Pong will still have its fans and be available for reprogramming, reinventing, and replaying.