Not Art: Pong (1972)

By Alex Kierkegaard / February 5, 2017

I dunno if you're really learning as much about game design so much as figuring out what icycalm likes.

Derek Yu, The Independent Gaming Source

Videogame Art: Volume I

Let's start this by clearing up the number one question doubtless currently in everyone's mind: what's up with all this "Not Art" nonsense? In brief, if "Videogame Art" means "Great Videogames" (as I've already sort-of explained in my Can Games "be Art" essay, and more fully elaborated in my Genealogy of "Art Games"), then "Not Art" means "Not Great". These are games which for a variety of reasons (most usually: ignorance and/or bad taste) are universally hailed as masterpieces and milestones of the artform, but which, as I'll be showing in each review in detail, are in reality at best merely good, and usually mediocre or even submediocre. This, then, will be an exercise in golden calf-toppling, and will as such form a natural pendant to the proper Videogame Art essays. Or, more simply: I figured an entire icycalm book filled with praise would be something jarring, so these occasional negative reviews should ensure that all my books conform to the rules of cosmic balance.
   Two more things to note before we proceed with the main event. Number 1 is that, unlike the main Videogame Art reviews, and for obvious reasons, these ones will come with ratings. Number 2 that in this little collection of reviews I will only be focusing on PROPER videogames, meaning not "casual" games, nor "indie" games, nor "art" ones (well, maybe some borderline "casual" ones, which category is anyway the more harmless of the three, and the most closely related to proper games). For there's a huge difference between the kind of failure evident in something like Zelda or Doom or StarCraft — all of which are on the one hand more or less solid, competent games despite all, and on the other hand were clearly made by passionate artists with the best intentions — and stuff like Flower or Knytt or Braid, which as we've seen were made with utter contempt for the craft of game design, and from the start with the intention to deceive. This, in other words, is a serious book about a serious subject, in which scam-games simply have no place (just as splattered canvases and tin cans filled with shit have no place — or at least should have no place — in a book about the history of art).
   And so, with those brief introductory remarks out of the way, let's move on to the main event.
   Pong then. It is indicative of the level of ignorance of practically everyone involved in the videogame industry that Pong, released a goddamn DECADE after Spacewar, is still being widely cited as the first-ever videogame. To be sure, a decade didn't mean much in those days, when we'd be lucky to get a couple dozen games a year, but still. When even Wikipedia is trumping you on factual information, it's time to start reevaluating the degree of your passion for the artform. Take Chris Kohler, for instance, the weeaboo fatass who runs Wired's gaming blog. For years he used to have a Pong gif as the blog's header, until someone clued him in on what a huge idiot he was being (maybe after reading my Spacewar essay? I wouldn't be surprised), and he removed it. And the internet is rife with imbeciles who try to sound smart by namedropping stuff they saw someone else namedrop, so if you see someone propagating the "Pong started it all!!1" meme you'll know what kind of person you are dealing with.
   Then there is the "Pong was awesome!!1" meme, which is a little more excusable. It's tough to properly appraise an artwork as primitive as this, and especially for those who weren't around to play it the first time round. I, however, was around, and that's part of the reason why I can write reviews as unique and iconoclastic as what you are about to read (the other part is that I am a genius). And how cool is it that there's someone reviewing games today whose involvement with the artform goes as far back as fucking Pong? That's how hardcore Insomnia is, dear readers. You want credentials? There's your fucking credentials — and all the rest are casuals.
   Not only is Pong not awesome then, but it is in fact the first instance of dumbing down a game for the masses — both mechanically and aesthetically. Pong was the first sports game. That should be a huge red flag for you right there, if you paid sufficient attention to my Kick Off essay. What's worse, though a number of early sports games — all the pioneering ones, essentially — had wildly innovative mechanics (see Kick Off essay again), Pong was just a dumbed down ripoff of Spacewar. Two sprites shooting another sprite at each other, only now all three sprites have far less freedom of movement so that no one can get confused. Am I the only one who can make the connection? Hell, the damn thing may even be regarded as the first "indie" game; according to Wikipedia, it was created by Allan Alcorn as a training exercise assigned to him by Nolan Bushnell. It would take over three more decades until it dawned on others to start marketing student exercise games for real money, so Bushnell was a pioneer in that field too, and made a fortune out of it to boot.
   So Pong was by no means the first. Was it perhaps the best? And here, unlike everyone else who's ever opined on this game, I can draw on some first-hand experience acquired shortly after the game's release (or at any rate what in those days still counted as "shortly"). Spacewar I didn't get to try when it originally appeared — I hadn't even been born then. But I did play Pong (or at least a port of it on some kind of single-game console), sometime in the early '80s, and I am going to tell you all about it.
   It was nothing at all special. Picture the scene: a friend's birthday party taking place in the lounge of a spacious apartment, a couple dozen little kids running around and doing whatever the hell it is kids do at birthday parties at that age, and a Pong console with two controllers hooked up to a TV, waiting patiently to give the kids a taste of the art of the 21st century. I can't tell with any certainty how old I was at the time, but somewhere around five or six is a good bet. Since I was born in '78, that would put the year of that birthday party at around '83 or so. Pong began its life as an arcade game, eventually receiving a home version, and it was that home version, or at least a clone of it (of which there seems to have been many), that my friend's parents had bought for him and placed at our disposal in his party.
   My entire criticism of the game hinges around the fact that, after the party, I did not start badgering my parents to buy me one too, which means that I could not have been very impressed by it. There are two things you need to know about me in order to correctly interpret the significance of this fact. Number 1 is that my parents were fairly well-off when I was growing up — if not upper class then certainly upper middle class — and basically always bought me everything I asked for. The only time during my entire childhood that I can remember them saying no, was one of the times I asked for a new PC (something which, after VGA graphics became standard, happened more or less once a year), and my response was to leave the house in the middle of the night and start wandering the streets, until I realized that I had nowhere to go lol, and eventually returning to hide in our neighbours' yard. And of course the neighbours quickly found me there, took me in, and called my parents to come get me. The next day they agreed to get me the new PC, and there was never again any serious resistance from them on that front. So if I had asked for a Pong console, is what I am saying, I would have got it.
   Number 2 of the two things you need to know about me to correctly interpret the significance of my reaction to the game, is that I always wanted all the cool toys I saw around me, and was moreover smart enough to know which toys were cool. So it's not just the money that makes me different, but also, and above all, this desire for all the cool new stuff. For I knew plenty of kids whose parents had as much money as mine, or even more, and who were just as liberal with them (I went to one of the two most expensive schools in all of Greece, and when they expelled me I went to the other one), but who had nowhere near as many toys as I had, and didn't seem to mind. Nietzsche says somewhere that "It takes far more imagination to spend than to acquire", and my entire life is an empirical proof of this. Just look at all the kids today who simply aren't into videogames. Could anyone in the '80s and '90s have imagined that many, if not most kids in the 21st century would just not give a shit about videogames? "Lack of imagination" doesn't even begin to cover it: "blindness" and "deafness" comes much closer to what these kids are suffering from as far as I am concerned.
   So, Pong by no means made a great impression on me. To be sure, I played it (or at least a few rounds of it, far as I can recall), and certainly enjoyed myself, but even then the only thing I remember vividly from the entire evening is this plump little blonde girl I had my sights on and her friend rooting for me during my couple of matches. Of the actual on-screen action I've almost no recollection. And so the question now is why? Why was little Alex not taken with Pong? Why was his imagination not captured by it? For at this point that's what art criticism, and by extension art theory, boils down to; "art theory" from now on simply means: "the correct and rigorous interpretation of icycalm's taste": this is its definition. "Why does icycalm prefer this over that?" — in every artform, and on every issue, this, from now on, will be the essential question. (And mark my words: the day will come when that definition will be right up there on Wikipedia's art page. And if the fuckwit editors prove too resistant, don't worry, I'll edit the damn page myself when the time comes for me to take over and become Skynet.)
   Now, in the Spacewar essay, I said the first ever videogame is something incomparable, but that's more of a literary flourish than a strict truth. For a videogame is still, after all, a game, and when there are no other videogames around you can still compare the first one to existing games, non-electronic ones, the same way that when a new videogame is released that will eventually go on to found a new genre, it is, and should be, compared to existing games, outside of that as-yet non-existent genre (for it takes at least two similar games to establish a genre). So Pong's natural competition in the '70s were the kinds of games kids used to play in those days, and the toys they employed to play them, and compared to that stuff Pong was a boring piece of crap, good for a few goes due to its novelty, which is the way I experienced it, but nothing to write home about after that. My Playmobiles and Legos and G.I. Joes were a thousand times more colorful, more imaginative and more fun. Subbuteo and Marklin train sets kicked Pong's ass. Hell, stuff like hide-and-seek and cowboys-and-indians kicked Pong's ass, none of which would later be true for the Contras and the Bard's Tales, the R-Types and the Civilizations.
   Bottom line then is that my toys were more fun, because my toys were art, and Pong wasn't, or barely so. Remember art's definition from my Genealogy: "the craft of illusion", and there sure as hell is a whole load more of illusion in a Playmobile figure for the exact same reason there is in a sculpture: because these things are used to represent something, and are not simply given to the viewer or the player as is. So yes, you read that right: TOYS ARE ART, just as I explained in the Genealogy that board games like Monopoly and Risk are art but architecture isn't. Not all toys of course: not a soccer ball, for example, since a soccer ball isn't meant to represent anything, and neither are the paddles or the "ball" in Pong, except perhaps in the most tenuous sense of that term, as opposed to the spaceships and their torpedoes etc. in Spacewar, which is not only far more mechanically complex but a real artwork to boot. And you can see the imagination chasm that separates the games all the way down to their titles: "pong" vs. "SPACEWAR". I mean seriously, what game would a healthy boy pick if all he knew about them was the name? So I stuck with my toys, and when my parents built a house and moved us to the suburbs a few years later and bought us a ping pong table I got all the pinging and ponging I could handle in small impromptu tournaments we organized in the neighborhood. Same exact argument then to be employed against all sports games ever apart from sci-fi- and fantasy-themed ones: that it's better to play the real thing if you aren't a cripple, and leave the computer for stuff you can't do in real life.
   As for why it made a lot of money... [shrugs] Madden makes a lot of money; what does that prove? So yes, Pong was the first arcade game to reach mass popularity, but Computer Space (1971) came earlier, was a far superior game and failed largely because it was too complex. Bushnell told New York Times Magazine, "All my friends loved it. But all my friends were engineers. The beer drinkers in the bars were baffled by it. I decided what was needed was a simpler game." That simpler game would be Pong. At least he dumbed down his own game, as opposed to someone else's, as happens usually today, without anyone even giving credit to anyone else.
   So okay, you've made a videogame, strictly speaking, since it requires a digital computer and a video display of some kind to play; but if it's far less complex than a similar game that came out a decade earlier, and if it's about as aesthetically bland and uninspired as aesthetics can get, can we in all honesty hail it as much of an achievement? And that's why it failed to compete for my attention with traditional games and toys, and why I never played it again beyond that one evening and don't plan to. And for the record, I am sure that would have been my reaction to Spacewar too, if I had played it at the time. Perhaps it would have occupied me for a few more hours, but it would have ultimately failed to capture my imagination too in any major way. Indeed, all the "Golden Age" titles like Asteroids, Pac-Man, Pole Position et al. would fail in that regard, though I sampled all of them and though all of them were far superior as videogames to both Pong and Spacewar. It would take a very special game to make me stop and pay attention to the nascent artform: the very first proper "Cinematic Game", developed by the fittingly-named Cinemaware, and called Defender of the Crown, and I will soon be telling you all about it.