It’s 1972. How The Hell Do You Explain What A Video Game Is?

Not the way Magnavox tried with their ill-fated Odyssey.

The Magnavox Odyssey was the first consumer video game console, the pioneering device that presaged a 20-billion-dollar industry. But when it was released in 1972, almost no one outside a handful of American scientists would have known what a video game even was.

This short promotional film was given to Magnavox television dealers in the US in anticipation of the console’s release to give them talking points for their consumers. How, exactly, should they explain a video game console?

The vision we see in the ad is very different from the way consoles are marketing and played today; it’s not hard to watch it and imagine a different history of gaming.

3. The console was a device for the whole family.

Something to use on rainy or cold days.

4. There was a heavy emphasis on how, exactly, to set up and use the device.

5. You operated it with little knobs.

Head movement: optional.

Normal face: optional.

7. And while the dials and knobs controlled little pricks of light, you actually had to lay down a mat on the TV to get a specific background.

The above game led to the first lawsuit in the industry’s history, when Magnavox accused Atari of stealing their tennis game to create Pong.

8. You could even buy an optional, creepily realistic rifle.

Despite the video, the Odyssey was a failure, in large part because Magnavox salesmen themselves didn’t know how to properly market the device as a separate category of electronics—they saw it as little more than a one-off gadget.

10. By contrast, this commercial for the home version of Pong—which was already an arcade phenomenon—emphasizes the addictive qualities of the game.

It depicts an old-timey father concerned that his daughter has been spending all of her time at the arcade. Home Pong isn’t presented as a device for the whole family; rather, it’s a cool product for kids.

11. By the time of the Atari 2600, released in 1977, console manufacturers had realized that they needed to market their devices as easily sold-out objects of excitement, desire and addiction.

13. That’s still the basic model for Microsoft and Sony.

14. In fact, the only console maker to still advertise their product chiefly as an all-family device is Nintendo. This ad, for the flailing Wii U, looks more than a little like the original Odyssey spot.

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