I am Pong years old.
That is to say that the original video game and I were born in the same year. This was the year that the Vietnam War finally began to end, the year The Godfather debuted in theaters, and the year the Egg McMuffin began its campaign of conquest of commuter breakfast cravings. No one was yet sick of Stairway to Heaven.
And you had Pong: the world’s first video game. It was new then. too.
Pong was originally developed for the Magnavox Odyssey (Google it!) by Allan Alcorn at Nolan Bushnell’s then nascent Atari Corporation. It is, as one would expect of a video game made in those times, very simple. In essence, it is graphical table tennis with fewer rules. One moves a “paddle” (represented by a solid line segment) up and down in a fixed vertical channel to hit the “ball” (a square of the same thickness as the paddle) back and forth over an imaginary line. You miss, your opponent gets a point and you get an unpleasant boop sound. You hit it back and you get a better boop. Score a point on the opponent and you get the best boop. There were no instructions, as most players tend to pick up the concept of Pong pretty quickly. It was meant to be simple, cheap to produce, and playable on a home television set. It was wildly popular at the time it came out, and despite Pong clones crashing the video game industry a few years after its debut, it weirdly now still kind of is.
I love that Pong and I came into the world at the same time. It shares many fine qualities with other things that I love:
1) It is simple.
Dots and lines dude. That is it. White on black, no music, just a few basic sounds. It’s such a basic game that instructions are unnecessary. For comparison’s sake, consider that one of the first things they teach in culinary programs is how to boil an egg. Even that has instructions. Pong? Nope.
2) It is (apparently) pointless.
It is a card-carrying, certified tool of amusement. Pong isn’t here to make you smarter. It’s not a flight simulator or some sort of first-person shooter that might provide some kind of emotional catharsis or feeling of dominance. There’s no story. No characters to relate to or think about; no bad-ass ability upgrades or magical items for your guy to hunt down. The only power up is practice. It’s just digital table tennis. It’s you, and maybe a friend, going mano a mano in a primitive ping-pong emulator. You maybe could say it’s Pong without the ping. You’d have to be in 3D for that and this puppy is on a television screen. At the time the game came into the world, you might perhaps even have played it on a TV right around the corner from an actual table tennis setup in the den. You know, the one that you might otherwise have been playing on for realsies. And yet here you are, sitting in front of the tube when you might have been moving, looking at the little dot and the two lines and listening to the beep-boops. Whatever are you doing with your life?
3) For such a simple and pointless thing, people can become astoundingly good at it.
4) Pong greatness demands calmness of mind and steadiness of hand.
Don’t think so? Try it on hard mode against the computer.
I’d bet serious money that, contextualized in the right way, Pong could be a really excellent instructional tool for meditation teachers. If you want to play the game for any length of time you really have to learn something resembling the same physiological and mental moves: Be still, relax, regulate the breathing, stay focused. If you miss, don’t hang onto the miss. Don’t get angry or let frustration hijack your central nervous system. Just calm your shit, check your ego, start again and keep going. If you keep at it, eventually in all likelihood you will get there. Nearly everyone can achieve some skill level at it if they try.
5) Pong is Pong, all day long.
Whoever said “it is what it is” first could easily have been talking about Pong. Despite gobs of time having passed and endless variations, upgrades, clones and digital paint jobs, Vintage Pong persistently remains what it is: simulated table tennis. Do whatever you want to with the graphics, Pong, like punk rock, a hot dog from a vendor cart, the Borough of Queens, NYC or the entire state of Idaho, just kind of is what it fucking is. Put whatever you want on top of it. Dress it up however you like. You’re still playing Pong. The core of the thing is beautifully immutable.
6) It is deep nerd shit.
By that I mean, even though most people probably will not be interested or motivated enough to do more than play a couple of rounds, those who sense there’s more to learn and wish to seek a deeper level of understanding—of games, of what they mean to people, or how they work—can hit any number of truly satisfying rabbit holes through the Great Gate of Pong. Creating a Pong type game is a great challenge for budding developers, for instance.
Those interested in the business side of the history of the video game industry can also learn a lot from Pong, as can those interested in the cultural impacts of video gaming. We all (rightly, I think at least) decry the way that mobile devices and social media have taken over our lives, and gaming is a part of that overall picture. But the first scare about games warping the minds of our children and turning them into sleep deprived zombies? You guessed it. Pong. Pong is the O.G. of all of that.
Why is all this nerd shit? Because only those who nerd out about the sort of thing Pong is and represents will be excited by it and be motivated to go deeper. No shade if it’s not your thing. Apart from playing a round or two on a goof it probably won’t be most people’s thing. That’s fine. The Pong community’s love will remain undiminished. You probably get it, as you probably have nerd shit of your own about something else. At least, I hope you do. Having just a little nerd shit in your life is part of what makes it worth living, I think.
So what’s the point of all of this, then? I suppose the point is that, as this is one of those birthdays that occasions reflection, I have been looking back on the time I’ve spent on the ol’ marble here so far. I see a lot of things that went well, and some that didn’t go so well; some times where I fucked up and some times where I did okay. Good choices and bad; fortune and ruin. The odds have been all over the place, but I made it here somehow. I figure I’m blessed to be pretty healthy, all things considered. I’m equally fortunate to have been able to travel around the world. Along the way I’ve done some interesting things and met some really cool people. You, dear reader, are probably one of them.
But above all else, the theme that emerges centrally as I look back on the way I’ve spent my time so far is that I have spent the overwhelming majority of it in Pong-like pursuits and practices. However you know me, it’s probably from one of them. For that, and for many other reasons too numerous to give, I consider it time well spent.
In the years to come, I intend to double down on my Pong habit. It might take new forms as the rabbit holes twist and turn, but whatever I’m doing, it’s for sure going to be Pong-like in all the ways described here. There is so much more to learn. How can I resist?
Maybe I’ll see you out there. If not, here’s wishing you all the best boops in your own pursuits.