Graphic designer based in Liverpool, UK

Pong & (Lack of) Sound

One of the first videogames to be released to the public was Pong, a very simplistic version of table tennis. Produced by Atari and released in arcades in 1972, it was a first generation video game that also became one of the most popular of all time. First generation games were produced from 1972-1977, while today’s video games are considered to be seventh generation.

Al Alcorn, one of Atari’s first employees, was the engineer who constructed the first Pong arcade game. The game was named after the desired sound that Bushnell wanted incorporated in the game. The dictionary defines “pong” as a hollow, ringing sound, and this was the sound Bushnell felt was necessary in the game. (A Brief History of Video Games)

Pong would not be the same without the noise that accompanies it. It is perhaps more famous because it’s the only sound in the game. Scott Cohen, author of “Zap! The Rise and Fall of Atari” explains how this helped make the game more popular:

One of the regulars approached the Pong game inquisitively and studied the ball bouncing silently around the screen as if in a vacuum. A friend joined him. The instructions said: ‘Avoid missing ball for high score.’ One of [them] inserted a quarter. There was a beep. The game had begun…There was a beautifully resonant “pong” sound, and the ball bounced back to the other side of the screen…Seven quarters later they were having extended volleys, and the constant pong noise was attracting the curiosity of others at the bar. Before closing, everybody in the bar had played the game… Cohen, R. (1984) Zap: The Rise and Fall of Atari. Xlibris Corporation.

This single noise gave players an audible aid as to what was going on onscreen. Without this noise, there would be a vacuum, as Cohen writes. The sound adds a level of interaction that visuals alone cannot. It makes each hit of the ball feel more real. Although the visuals were nothing more than white blocks on a black screen, by adding a single sound, the overall dynamics are changed. The blocks are suddenly sturdier, with weight and depth. With this one sound, a user is able to create something in their mind that isn’t shown on screen, but is explicity implied via the sound. From here, it is easy to see how sound in video games progressed through to modern day games.