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Pong: The Ping Heard 'Round the World

Thirty-five years ago, Nolan Bushnell and his new company, Atari, released the world's first successful video arcade game: Pong. Bushnell talks to Liane Hansen about the grandfather of modern video games and how it relates to today's gaming industry.

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Transcript

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Thirty-five years ago this week, the video game industry began, not with a bang but with a ping.

(Soundbite of vide game, "Pong")

HANSEN: Or more accurately, a Pong.

(Soundbite of video game, "Pong")

HANSEN: Pong was the world's first successful video arcade game. Played on a black-and-white TV monitor, Pong simulated a table tennis match, played on a rocket ball court. You could hit the electronic ball off the walls. The game's name came from the sound that was created when the ball hit the paddle.

(Soundbite of video game, "Pong")

HANSEN: As the game spread from bar to bar, the company that made it, Atari, became a smashing success. Nolan Bushnell was just 29 when he started Atari in 1972, and he's in the studios of NPR West.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. NOLAN BUSHNELL (Founder, Atari): Nice to talk to you. I wish I were 29 again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Don't we all? Don't we all? Let's go back a little bit back then. When computer games, really, they were just something that was played in computer labs. What did those labs look like?

Mr. BUSHNELL: Well, the computer lab in those days were elevated floors, you know, glass-partitioned walls, very serious air-conditioning. And the only time we'd get a chance to use the computers were late at night. And so we were kind of computer geeks playing games on the big mainframes.

HANSEN: The big mainframes are what you had to start with. How hard was it to create a computer that could fit under a table in a bar?

Mr. BUSHNELL: It was actually quite difficult, and, in fact, most of the games that we did in those days were really dictated by the hardware we can have. We didn't think that a square ball was cool, but that's all we could do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: So once you got the prototype, I mean, the first time someone saw this, what kind of reaction did you get?

Mr. BUSHNELL: We got all kinds of weird reactions like how does the TV station know that I've turned this knob because up to that point, anything that was on a TV screen was clearly coming from the studio. You know, the whole idea that you could synthetically generate something was very baffling to them.

HANSEN: Did it take a while for people to catch on about how to play it?

Mr. BUSHNELL: Not at all. "Pong" hit the fancy. It was sort of the perfect storm of a game which has two players highly social, a game that women could play better than a guy, and sort of an acceptance of this social nature of games in a bar.

HANSEN: Why could women play it better?

Mr. BUSHNELL: Women could beat guys very easily because women have better small-muscle coordination than man do.

HANSEN: So how many "Pong" games were there, I mean, coin-operated "Pong" games at the height of the popularity?

Mr. BUSHNELL: Between 150,000 and 180,000.

HANSEN: Wow. What happened? I mean, did everything become more sophisticated and "Pong" went out of favor?

Mr. BUSHNELL: Well, I think that the games evolved, the games morphed, games got very complex and lost a lot of the casual game play. I'm glad to see the casual game play coming back now on the Internet, games that aren't violent, that aren't complex that you can sit down and you can have some fun.

And this rebirth of the casual game structure, I really think is very reminiscent to the early days of "Pong," where "Pong" really was a sort of every man's game. And when it kind of went to "Street Fighter," where you had to push 13 buttons with all 13 of your fingers and ripped the spine out of somebody, you know, violent games lost the women. Complexity lost the casual gamer. And, now, we're coming back full circle to games that are casual, you can do them on the Internet, and I think it's good.

HANSEN: Nolan Bushnell was the founder of Atari, the company that marketed Pong, the world's first successful video arcade game 35 years ago. He joined us from the studios of NPR West.

Thanks so much.

Mr. BUSHNELL: My pleasure. Good to be here.

HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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