The first time I saw Pong, I knew that massive change was coming – and that I would spend my life against the background of that change.
I was a high school junior at the time. I was in Yakima, Washington, with the other top two runners from my training group with the Vancouver Olympic Club. We had spent most of the day on the bus, and had been picked up at the bus depot by the head coach of the running camp we were scheduled to start the next day. The coach found a hotel for us, warned us of the consequences of getting into trouble before he picked us up early the next morning, then left us to our own resources.
Not that there was much chance of trouble. We were upper middle class kids (middle class, in my case), and our idea of a wild time would have been to have a couple of beers. But we were in a small town in eastern Washington on a Sunday evening, so our chances of getting into trouble were mathematically remote. After experiencing the minor thrill of paying for our own dinners, we had several hours to kill and few resources for making them interesting.
Not knowing what else to do, we started walking. Back then, Yakima’s downtown (or at least the part we found ourselves in) consisted mainly of three or four story stone or brick buildings, the newest of which must have been fifty years old. Had I known the labor history I knew a few years later, I might have been amused myself – if not the others – by finding the locations of famous strikes, but at the time I knew nothing of such matters. All the architecture told me was that I was some distance from home.
We passed a couple of taverns, and looked into one, getting cursed for our troubles. Like many athletic teens, we not only looked our age but a couple of years younger, so trying for a drink was out of the question. We passed a strip joint and laughed uneasily at the thought of what we might do there if we were any more daring.
Another store front turned out to be a makeshift chapel. The minister was preaching to a couple of old men and several rows of empty chairs. He saw us, and gestured for us to sit down, all without interrupting his Baptist-style preaching. One of my friends was tempted to listen for a while, but we dragged him out by his elbows, laughing as though we had found those mythical beers after all.
Finally, we found an amusement arcade. Most of it was filled with pinball machines and mechanical games that haven’t existed now for decades. It wasn’t dusty, but looked as though it should have been.
Still, it was a way to spend our evening – if not one that we were going to boast about. Soon, we we working systematically around the machines.
It was waiting for us in the middle of the third wall, obviously newer than the other machines in the arcade, and resembling what even then we recognized as a computer. “Pong,” it said across the top, and the word was strange enough to be enticing.
In these days of 32 bit, 3-D graphics, Pong is nothing much: just two rectangles that move vertically, but not horizontally, and a square representing the ball that moved at angles rather than in a curve. The sole aim was to get the ball past your opponent’s rectangle – either the machine or another player. But we had never seen anything like it. At fifty cents, it was twice the price of the other machines, but as soon as we saw it, we forgot about all the other machines, feeding quarter after quarter into it and pausing only to get more change or to give the others a chance to play.
After all this time, I can’t speak for my friends. But for me, the fascination wasn’t in the game. No doubt a world Pong champion exists who can contradict me, but there wasn’t much strategy that I could see beyond aiming and trying for an angled shot whose trajectory or increased speed might slip past your opponent.
But as we quickly organized a tournament among the three of us, what kept me interested was the possibilities. I had spent much of summer playing board games, usually against myself, and I understood almost at once that in another few versions, such computerized games would solve my lack of opponents problem. I knew Pong was primitive, but I took it as a proof of concept – as a promise of better to come.
When we were finally quarterless, we found our way back to our hotel room, stopping only for the decadence of bedtime milk shakes. As I lay awake in my strange bed, staring up at the ceiling, my excitement wasn’t about the cross-country camp starting in a few hours. It was about that next-to-mindless game of Pong, and the thought of what might come after it.
The next day, ordinary reality reasserted itself. Yet my conviction about the importance of Pong never wavered. A year or two later, when Space Invaders came out, I recognized it immediately as the next step that I had been expecting. I never thought of taking computer science, my talents being more verbal than mathematical, yet the conviction remained absolute..
Forget reading science fiction. I was living in a science fiction age, and the fabulous promises of Pong would be part of the fabric of my life.