24 February 2010


Was it Arthur C. Clarke who posited, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic?"
I was a little surprised when Victor first suggested I submit the occasional guest posting to his video game blog. I'm not much of a gamer. I'm a digital immigrant, but I was born on the cutting edge of the generation shift. I'm old enough to remember playing Pong. Yes, Pong: the simplistic simulation of table tennis. And yes, I sucked at that game too.
Now, many of you may think NES is the Prehistoric Era. So let me peek through the mists of history and legend and try to describe Pong for you.
In terms of hardware, Pong was one box, a bunch of wires, and two knob controllers. There was no cartridge. The software for the game was inside the box. I can only assume it was on some chip, but for all I know, it could've been even more primitive. I was too young to know the actual price, but I know it was expensive, probably at least as great in late 1970's dollars as the latest and greatest gaming system today. And remember, all you got was one game.
Visually, Pong left much to be desired. It was a black screen, a white bouncing cursor, and two mobile, white bars at either side of the television screen. I don't think there was any kind of music, only the tinny sound of "bip" when the cursor bounced off a bar or the side of the screen. Still, this was amazing to us. We could interact with the TV; like magic.
I won't say Pong truly entertained us for hours. It had its place in our play rotation, but in the carefree youth of the 1970's we still ran around the neighborhood; sometimes we even rode our bikes out of the sight of our parents! My friend – who actually owned the only Pong system in the neighborhood – and I liked to build forts in his living room and pretend they were spaceships. Pong, and later his Atari system, filled the role of our mission controls. Using our imaginations, the game systems took us to far away worlds where we battled space aliens.
Sure it seems silly now. But remember, this was also the time when Commodore Vic 20's managed the flight systems of the entire Battlestar Galactica (the original model, under Lorne Greene's reliable command). Primitive computer line animation was cutting edge. A few years later, Disney's Tron really blew our minds with bleeding edge computer generated graphics like the light cycles. "Whoa!" as Tron's distant relative Neo might say.
The world's all changed now. I see preview trailers for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, or the brand new Heavy Rain, or even the new Aliens vs. Predators games, and I sit stunned. It's hard to imagine these are the evolution of Pong. Today's games have complex stories, near-photo realistic graphics, and full-fledged soundtracks. You can walk around a fully realized world, and interact with it. Heck, Pong's program could probably easily fit on my smart phone and still leave enough computing power to play a high fidelity ringtone of Beethoven's 5th Symphony when my VoIP call comes in.
That's 30 years of progress, it's magic, and people just take it for granted.
By John Fitzpatrick