*Raises right hand* I am not now, nor have I ever been, a gamer. A horrible confession for any geek to make, I know, but most video games bore and frustrate me. I tried Myst early on and got totally fed up; it felt too much like taking the logic section of my GREs: I've tried everything I can think of and I can't get anything to work! What do you people want from me? I have a vivid enough imagination, thanks, that I don't need a game to experience being another character. Books will do just fine for that, and writing fanfic takes care of the interaction part without having to fend off other pesky players trying to kill my character and then camping it so it can't respawn (although I would probably do that if I were a gamer. reee reeee reeee).
Well, it's not entirely true that I'm not a gamer. I'm not keen on First Person Shooters (FPS), Massively Multiplayer (MMP) games, Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPG) (like World of Warcraft; or Years of Yarncraft as the webcomic Sluggy Freelance spoofed it.), Multi-User Dungeons (MUD), or Real-Time Strategy (RTS) (Civilization) games (and yes, I realize a lot of these categories overlap). I'm fascinated by the whole online avatar creation thing, but MUDs actually make me a little queasy, and Second Life just seems, well, silly, unless it involves something like Sean Carroll's talk on the arrow of time given at Second Life's Galaxy Dome in Spaceport Bravo. The educational potential for those kinds of activities makes the teacher in me salivate. Otherwise, not so much.
I do, however, confess to an unhealthy love of Tetris, Solitaire, online pinball, and Snood. (In fact, is there a twelve-step program for Snood? I really need that; I've got it open right now, in fact and am Alt-Tabbing between my browser and the game. What a loser.) The attraction of these games for me, especially Tetris, is the spatial element. I've always liked the kind of puzzles were you fit things together, or which take the calculation of angles to score points. I loved geometry in high school (at least the constructing part) and liked playing pool and air hockey for the same reason.
And once upon a time, I was totally hooked on Pong, the arcade version of Atari's popular electronic tennis game that first came out in 1972. We had one pizza parlor in my town and whenever my friends and I headed there after our high school's Friday night football or basketball game, we'd play the arcade version while waiting for our pie. I was killah. Developing all that excellent hand-eye coordination from playing air hockey and old fashioned table pinpall totally paid off.
If you're a regular, long-time gamer, you may or may not know that one of the first video games—a forerunner of Pong called "Tennis for Two"—was developed not at Atari, but at Brookhaven National Laboratory. On an oscilloscope screen. Brookhaven's then-Chief of the Instrumentation Division, William A. Higinbotham, and Robert Dvorak, Sr., built the game as an exhibit for an open house, which proved to be so wildly popular that it threatened to overshadow Brookhaven's real mission and its six Nobel Prizes. Brookhaven has their own little synopsis of how the game came to be, and why it was never patented, but there's another video of a couple of people playing the recreation of the game, called "The Second Ever Video Game."
As with most firsts, there's a little disagreement about which game actually was the first videogame. And whether Tennis for Two was really a video game or not depends in part on how picky you are about nomenclature. The image produced on the oscilloscope's CRT screen did not use video's graphics rastering, in which a shape is converted to pixels for display, a process that gives contemporary video games their 3-D quality. Although the images in Tennis for Two are projected onto a CRT screen with an electron gun like any other video image, the CRT oscilloscope (unlike most contemporary oscilloscopes which use LED displays) only displays fluctuations in voltage, and the image reflects the vector or geometric shape of those fluctuations rather than a relative sampling of the shapes mapped onto a grid of pixels. Rasterization allows faster display time and changes in those displays than vector graphics do, hence their use in contemporary videogames. That's why the capacity and speed of graphics cards is so important in gaming; the more powerful your graphics card is (i.e., the more capacity it has for processing position and shape algorithms), the quicker your display changes. And that matters when you're gaming in real time. Display time is part of what made Tennis for Two so innovative:
“The real innovation in this game is the use of those ‘new-fangled’ germanium transistors that were just becoming commercially available in the late 1950s,” said Peter Takacs of Brookhaven Lab’s Instrumentation Division, who is currently working to rebuild a playable Tennis for Two. “Higinbotham used the transistors to build a fast-switching circuit that would take the three outputs from the computer and display them alternately on the oscilloscope screen at a ‘blazing’ fast speed of 36 Hertz. At that display rate, the eye sees the ball, the net, and the court as one image, rather than as three separate images.”
One unintentional innovation in this game was the satisfying little click players heard when they "hit" the "ball" back to the other player across the screen. This was the result of the physical movement of the switches mentioned above, but it may have had a role in the game's popularity by actually making it easier to play. Sound plays a significant role in our perception of speed and motion, with both inputs processed more or less together in the brain. Different areas of the brain process visual, auditory, and touch input, but new studies show that the boundaries between those areas are pretty blurry, with neurons from one area encroaching on the territory of the others. This means that perception of one stimulus may affect the perception of another without involving higher brain functions—one of the reasons that gamers' reflexes can be so quick. Sight and sound work in tandem with each other and with touch in a feedback loop that grows smoother with practice.
This same feedback loop is part of what helps people learn to type. Typewriter keyboards, especially the electric or early electronic ones had a satisfying clicking sound and "touch" with some resistance to reinforce what typing felt and sounded like. People who learned to type on these keyboards often still have strong preferences for how their computer keyboards sound and feel. We like a little resistance and noise, rather than silence and a perfectly smooth touch. (Blackberry's new Storm has actually added a tactile touch screen that depresses when you touch the buttons for this reason.) But the rhythm and sound of your typing can actually be extremely revealing. "Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have found a way to turn the clicks and clacks of typing on a computer keyboard into a startlingly accurate transcript of what exactly is being typed." So much of the text can be recovered through sound alone that it may actually be possible to "recover" someone's password just from a sound recording of their typing.
Hmm, I guess someone playing Tetris with the arrow keys would kinda foil that. And of course playing Snood with my trackball. And if it weren't for Pong, I'd would never have gotten hooked on either of them in the first place. Pong, the Gateway Drug. Who knew? And to think it all started with a harmless desire to make science exciting!