July 11, 2020

A Conversation with Wesley Upchurch on the History of Video Games

Wesley Upchurch

Wesley Upchurch

Today we talk to Wesley Upchurch about the history of video games. Wesley Upchurch is the owner/operator of Gunther’s Games in Columbia, Missouri.

Interviewing Experts: We sort of take it for granted that video games have been around forever. How far back do they really go?

Wesley Upchurch: Farther than I thought, really; all the way back in 1947. An engineer filed a patent on a “cathode ray tube amusement device.”

Interviewing Experts: Wow! What was that primitive video game like?

Wesley Upchurch: The player had a WWII-style radar screen and could fire at “airborne” targets by using buttons and knobs.

Interviewing Experts#: Did it ever make it to market?

Wesley Upchurch: No, but the ball was rolling. Another television engineer had the idea of a home video game all the way back in 1951, but his boss killed the idea.

Interviewing Experts#: Well, what about computer video games?

Wesley Upchurch: Yes, there were computer video games for the earliest computers, but little is known about them since all those early, primitive computers are long gone. There was a game that came along in 1961, though.

Interviewing Experts: What game was that?

Wesley Upchurch: The game was called Spacewar, and it was developed by students at MIT. It was a two-player game involving spacecraft, missiles and stars.

Interviewing Experts: Wow, that sounds a lot like later arcade games.

Wesley Upchurch: Yes, and it was patented and even swapped among universities, as that’s pretty much the only place that had early computers back then. They were for the old PDP-1 computer, for Electrical Engineering departments of colleges.

Interviewing Experts: When did home games start to come around?

Wesley Upchurch: That was in the 70s, when the first generation of video games came to the market. The Magnavox Odyssey was just about the first on the scene back then.

Interviewing Experts: What were some of those early game titles?

Wesley Upchurch: Space Invaders, Galaxy, Gun Fight were all really early games. They were simple and primitive, but that’s what broke the market open and pointed the way.

Interviewing Experts: Well, when did the arcade game come online?

Wesley Upchurch: Remember that there had always been arcade games, but all-electronic arcade video games didn’t really get their start until 1978.

Interviewing Experts: What was the groundbreaking arcade game, then?

Wesley Upchurch: No question, it was Space Invaders. It was huge for the time. They went on to sell over 360,000 arcade cabinet versions of that game.

Interviewing Experts: What were the other games in that first generation?

Wesley Upchurch: Galaxian, Pac-Man and Asteroids were also in that first wave of games. The technology advanced really quickly from there, though.

Interviewing Experts: Yes, they’re a pretty far cry from what came later.

Wesley Upchurch: Run-and-gun games, cinematic platforms, action role-play games were all in the next wave.

Interviewing Experts: I imagine modern kids would get bored with those early games pretty quickly.

Wesley Upchurch: Yes, but there’s always going to be a nostalgia aspect to playing them, too. You’d be surprised how many older players just love putting in time on a Frogger or Defender game!