Interactive Started with Pong.

It is one thing to be born into an electronic interactive world, it has always been there for you; and it is one thing to have already been an adult, lacking the extreme learning abilities and child-like amazement of a new mind; and it is an entirely other experience to have been a young child EXACTLY when electronic interactive interface was let loose upon the world, and it was not with the personal computer and later the internet.

Only a few of us were actually around, living our early childhood formative years, when society at large formally introduced the masses to the new “Interactive Digital Era.” If you were born after the mid 1970’s you were not welcomed into the new interactive digital era, you were born into an already existing one. If you were born before the mid 1960’s you were already older, and more than likely “set in your ways” when the new digital era and the birth of interactivity got underway. However, if you were born at exactly, precisely the right time—i.e. the late 1960’s to the early 1970’s—it is distinctly possible you were actually introduced to the “Interactive Digital Era” during your formative years, that being the first six or seven years of one’s life, the years that one’s experiences create the most profound and life-long impressions. I remember being welcomed into this new era of digital interactivity, today’s young adults had no such formal welcoming, because the genesis of digital era was old hat by the time the “Reagan Era” hit—that is the 1980’s for you youngsters.

Who was it that set in motion the interactive digital era to the masses? It was not the various television manufacturers in the US at the time. A TV, at least back then, was not interactive. A strong argument could be made for digital calculators, but that would be a losing argument. While the digital calculator traces its genesis all the way back to the 1960’s, the interactive experience was rarely memorable and hardly fun, unless you were adding up all your personal earnings! Also the earliest electronic calculators were used by only a small number of people. No, it was Atari and Mattel, two organizations focused on the entertainment of children, that introduced most of us to the new interactive digital era.

Absolutely, positively my first recollection of the interactive interface was when staying with a geeky, intelligent, uncle who was engaged in the personal computing scene a decade before it became mainstream. Mom, brother and my six-year-old self had just moved from Boston to San Diego, it was 1975, and my uncle had Pong!

Pong was actually invented 3 years earlier by Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari. But pong did not change the world until its wide-scale release in 1975.

Life itself was completely reinvented. I could not believe what I was witnessing before my eyes. I was controlling the TV! I was playing a game, it was like tennis, sort of, and it was on the TV, and I was controlling it! My world had an entire new meaning—a new paradigm for understanding everything had just exploded through a wormhole from another dimension. I could control objects on an electronic interactive screen and it was literally like magic. There was no turning back cognitively from this new way of interacting with the world, like a pandora’s box, once exposed to this new voodoo template, one cannot un-know it.

The electronic interactive interface hit mainstream in the mid to late 1970’s, and I remember the times quite well. It was not just video games, although that was the lion’s share of peoples’ connection with an interactive interface. Simple things, taken for granted today, represented other forms of the birth of interactivity. Remember the birth of the digital calculator?—possibly not. Think of the very first digital watches—with the red LED numbers. Older people, do you remember setting one of those contraptions for the very first time? Maybe if Pong was not your catapult into the new frontier, setting the time and date on that wildly over-priced digital watch for the first time was. Sure, not quite the same, and certainly not as fun as Pong for a 6 year old.

Other great early interactive experience milestones I had contact with include:

1976-Mattel’s “Auto Race” the first ever all-electronic hand-held, using no moving parts (except the buttons), just electronic components. I had this game too, it was not as memorable as Mattel’s “Football” that came out the next year.

1977-Mattel’s “Football” with its little, red LED football players…Were you Pro 1 or good enough for Pro 2? A year later came Coleco’s version of football, which was very similar to the Mattel version, but slightly more advanced in that the single offensive player on the Mattel version of football is now accompanied by two linemen, which added to the sophistication of the interactive game playing experience. The game play was more fun, but the actual hand-held unit itself lacked the modern, utilitarian rectangle shape of Mattel’s football, going with a more baroque design—with more angles and shapes—highlighting the somewhat larger playing field or screen.

1978-Merlin (aka merlin the electronic wizard) was born into the world, I was nine, and I was there. So were many others—the Merlin sold over 5 million units in its initial run.

As time went on the electronic interactive experience matured and became more sophisticated. Every year since 1975 the facilitation of the interactive experience, and the experience itself, has become more advanced, more refined, more studied, more important, more immersive, and hence, more all-encompassing. Today a large precentage of one’s total experience is happening through an electronic interactive experience, and none of it can compare to that day, back in 1975, when as a 6 year old I had my first taste of it all with Pong.

A great replica of Mattel’s 1977 Football, and many variations of Pong have been ported to the iPhone/iPod touch for all us 40-somethings feeling a bit nostalgic. I find myself playing the port of Mattel’s “Football” far too often given the huge amount of games available to the iOS devices. My 8 year old son absolutely, positively does not understand how moving a small red LED strip of light in between other small red LED’s that look exactly the same constitutes a football game. I tell Raymond, “That is because you were not welcomed into the interactive digital era Raymond, you were born into it.”

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This article has 7 comments

  1. Uncle Geek Reply

    Great articel Doug! I still have that old Pong game in my garage, but haven’t fired it up in decades. I am not sure it was related to Nolan’s actual Pong company, but was being sold as the first home version of the Pong style game – old timers will recall that Pong was first introduced as a bar game, coin operated at $.25/game and built into cocktail tables. I was recruited as an independent dealer for the home version and the game you remember playing was my demo model. (Not a successful venture, though Atari went on to some fame and fortune.)

  2. Gahlord Reply

    Thanks for this trip and the writing on the differences of what came before and what came after.

  3. Edith Reply

    I love that iPhone version of the Mattel Football game. Super fun.

    It is peculiar how some games need only the most simple graphics to still be great and very fun!

  4. Bill Simmon Reply

    Yup. That’s me. I was born in ’69. I remember first seeing Tel-Star pong in the mid 70s, quickly followed by a very early Atari 2600 when I think the only game available was tanks. That was on a fancy 3-gun projection CRT on a big screen too (mom’s rich nerdy friend). I had a Merlin (so much better than Simon, which only had the one game — Merlin had 6!). Nice write-up, cultural contemporary.

  5. Rain Reply

    Thanks for the trip down memory-lane.

    You, Mr. Dougit, do not look old enough to have written this blog.

    Did your Dad help you with this one?

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