For many of us, video games have been with us for life. They’ve seen us through joyous childhood years, to gangly teenagedom and well into stressed adulthood. A constant companion, a hobby, a passion. So, it can be weird to think of a time before video games. Before Master Chief, before Lara Croft, and even before Mario.
Considering a world without video games is a terrifying thought, one I do not recommend thinking about, as it can result in a severe case of shivers and a brain stomper of a bad headache. But following this train of thought does lead one to an interesting conundrum – just what was the first video game? What helped kick start a global phenomenon? Where did it all begin?
Introducing… Bertie the Brain!
Funnily enough, this is a contentious issue. With historians and video game connoisseurs offering different theories of just what was the very first video game. This issue is exacerbated by differing ideas of what even constitutes a video game. I’m not going to get into all that because, quite frankly, it’s too confusing for my puny brain. Instead, I’m going to keep it simple; a video game is an interactive experience that takes place on a screen. As such, probably the earliest example of a video game is ‘Bertie the Brain’.
Back in the 1950s, visitors to the Canadian National Exhibition were finding themselves increasingly addicted to an entirely new experience. The CNE certainly had a history for debuting life changing, world altering, tech; people were wowed by Edison’s phonograph in 1888, delighted by the arrival of the radio in 1922 and had their ghasts well and truly flabbered by the unstoppable rise of television in 1939. But 1950 was different. On this year, crammed between a vast array of technological glimpses of the future was ‘Bertie the Brain’. Bertie was an impossibly massive computer with only one function; to play an interactive version of noughts and crosses.
Who was Josef Kates?
Its inventor, Josef Kates – born Josef Katz – had certainly led an astonishing and eventful life. The child of Bernard and Anna Katz, Josef was born in 1921 and had six other siblings. Not that he was able to spend much time with them, as Josef was sent off to a children’s home, or kinderheim. At the time, in Vienna, this was a common practice for parents with a modest income who couldn’t support their family. It was an experience that absolutely sucked for young Josef however, who could only visit his family on Sundays or special holidays. By the end of his childhood, Josef had found himself ensconced in over a dozen different kinderheims. In 2011 he told the New York Mirror, “I was a Jewish kid growing up in depressed, anti-Semitic Vienna. I don’t think I was a happy child. I was lonely and I was in a horrible world.”
He was only seventeen when he was forced to flee his home town when it was invaded by the Nazi’s in 1938. The next few years were a life on the run. Josef had to resort to sleeping on the floor of a gondola with his friend, before fleeing through Milan and Zurich. He eventually arrived as a refugee in England before being sent off to an internment camp in Canada. Upon his arrival at the camp, Josef recalled how he was greeted by Nazi sympathisers, singing from the other side of a barbed wire fence. “We marched into the camp in Three Rivers [Trois-Rivières],” Josef told the Globe and Mail, “and the first thing we heard was the song, ‘When the blood of Jews spurts from our knives’.” None of this hardship and cruelty stopped Josef from eventually becoming the top-ranked student in Quebec, despite having to practise for his exams on the back of toilet paper as no notebooks were initially supplied.
The birth of video games
It was much further into his academic career, whilst working on one of the first ever computers – the University of Toronto Electronic Computer – that the first ever arcade game, Bertie the Brain, was to be born. It was all thanks to Josef’s ‘Additron’ tube. The Additron was an elegant solution to reduce the need for a computer to have a dozen radio vacuum tubes to perform even the most basic of functions. It was patented in March 5, 1957 and described as such:
‘An electronic vacuum tube having characteristics making it adapted to perform the functions indicated by a function table, for subtraction, for multiplication, for division, or for a switching arrangement.’
Bertie the Brain then, was a demonstration of just what the Additron Tube could do, though even Josef must have been shocked with the red hot reception Bertie received at the Canadian National Exhibition, as there were literally queues of visitors desperate to have a crack at this new game.
“We had long line-ups from day one,” Josef told Popular Mechanics in an interview, “of both visitors wanting to play and visitors just wanting to gawk.”
I can easily imagine swathes of visitors just stood there, staring. When they finally laid eyes on Bertie, they must have been awed by his vast bulk. The Bertie ‘cabinet’ was the same height as your dad riding a penny farthing – that’s 13 feet tall in case you weren’t sure. Rather than a screen, its display was instead made up of nine lightbulbs; each one lighting up a corresponding ‘X’ or ‘O’ on a display board. The ‘controller’ was a mini-version of the huge display, a nine-square pad that the player could press in order to place their naught or cross. When they did so it prompted Bertie to perform a binary notation to respond with a counter move. People had never seen anything like it before. It was like magic, only real.
Tougher than Dark Souls
In addition to being arguably the first ever arcade game, Bertie the Brain was also the first ever ‘hardcore’ game, because it was crazy, crazy hard. Forget Dark Souls, Bertie was making adults cry in frustration at its obscene level of difficulty long before. In fact, Bertie simply couldn’t be beaten. Here was an example of a computer out-witting puny humans decades before IBM’s DeepBlue crushed Garry Kasparov at chess in 1997.
The problem with an impossible level of difficulty was that a great many children wanted to play on Bertie the Brain. Thankfully, Josef, in a moment of genius, devised the first ever difficulty setting. He could alter the challenge that Bertie offered so that children might have a chance at besting the behemoth. That’s probably best, because having the sign “Computer Brain Win” flash viciously from the top of the cabinet might launch even the staunchest 7 year old into a tantrum.
Game over for Bertie
Despite its success though, Bertie was dismantled at the end of the CNE and largely forgotten. Josef moved on to other projects; during a long and visionary career he created the first computerised traffic system, and it seemed that Bertie was consigned to the dustbin of history. It’s only now, in the hindsight of living in a video game loving world, that we can recognise in Bertie several of the qualities that we adore in modern video games. Bertie had engaging but simple gameplay, his own unique controller and alterable difficulty settings; he truly was a trailblazer. He also had a cabinet so epic in its scope that it would make the luxurious extravagance of an arcade Star Wars cockpit look paltry in comparison.
And yet, was Bertie really the first ever video game? As mentioned at the start of this article, experts agree to disagree. Many peg ‘Tennis for Two’ designed by William Higinbotham as the first example of gaming. If that’s true then Higinbotham was not only the daddy of the modern video game but also a father of the nuclear bomb; having worked on the electronics for the first atomic bomb at the Los Alamos National Laboratory during World War II. We’ll take a look at his life and the fascinating story behind ‘Tennis for Two’ in our next History of Playing feature.