Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Ode to Willy A. Higginbotham - Video Game Pioneer

Dear Dr. Higginbotham:

I realize that you wanted to be remembered for your work in nuclear nonproliferation, but the world has, let's just say, maintained some constants in human behavior, and accordingly, remembers you for creating the world's first computer video game, Tennis for Two. 

While I'm sure your work as Chairman of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) was fascinating and all, especially the part about using scientific analysis to make the world more secure, it's really your video game that interests our technologically-minded generation. It's this work that the world pays for, that warrants royalties, which of course, you didn't earn on your game.

It might have been a good idea, in hindsight, to have created an atomic bomb video game that simulated what would happen to people and the planet we live on should an atomic weapon ever be detonated, but, unfortunately, history tells us that your work on timing devices to detonate the first atomic bomb and the subsequent beta testing on this one took a turn for the worse. 

Still, it really was your hands-on display for "Visitor's Day" at Brookhaven National Laboratory that people remember. The prior cardboard displays with blinking lights to look at, geiger counters and electronic circuits to fiddle with, didn't really "do it" for people. 

It was a stroke of genius to take that oscilloscope (the one with the cathode ray tube like the old TV picture tubes) and an old analog computer and hook them up in a way that a "ball" of light would bounce randomly around the screen. 

Think about it, all those years of missing parties to study, whereas you could have spent that time playing Tennis for Two. Years of work vs. the two hours it took you to draw up the schematic diagram for Table for Two...imagine all the fun you missed out on, not to mention, all those royalties. 

Within minutes, hundreds of people were crowding around your game for a chance to play. They didn't care about peaceful applications of nuclear energy, they wanted to be entertained. Given this response in 1958, it's not difficult to move forward that time line to today, when most people would rather be entertained than give due consideration to the work you people in white lab coats are conducting for the governments and oligarchies who pay you to do so (but I won't go into that today). 

For someone so smart, you didn't have an inkling as to the significance of what you had done. No, not nuclear nonproliferation, but that confounded game of yours! Thanks to you, generations of kids ignore their homework while their parents scoff at their responsibilities just to play meaningless games. 

After Visitor's Day in 1959 you took the game apart and put the pieces away. What were you thinking? You could have patented your invention and earned oodles of money while the world went on playing games. Even the patent lawyer for one of Magnavox's competitors might have helped you make some money off this little stunt of yours. 

But you're right, money isn't everything and you wanted to be remembered for your work in nuclear nonproliferation. You do realize, of course, that most people don't know what that means, right? That might be why most people don't really care. What they do like is games. In 2001, Americans spent $9.4 billion dollars on video game systems and software. 

While I realize working for the government means they would have owned the patent (anything you invent under the umbrella of the government belongs to the government), but it's kind of ironic that you're remembered more for a bouncing ball than for your noteworthy work in nuclear physics. 

It just goes to show that no matter how hard you work, no matter how much you sacrifice, sometimes all any of us can hope to be remembered for might end up being something silly. I guess it's a good lesson in not taking oneself (and the systems society creates) so seriously. 
PS: I love video games, but personally, I thank you for the work you did in promoting a safer and more secure world by developing and advancing security policies that educated the public and policy makers, which promoted more transparency. It's this transparency that the world is demanding today. So, in the end, perhaps, you'll be remembered for your true pioneering efforts after all. 

William Higinbotham (1910 - 1994)

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