Fresh off a strong and successful 1977, Atari’s Video Computer System was in a good place. Hundreds of thousands of units had been sold; the company’s home game design team continued to grow and was getting more experienced. Having exhausted most of Atari’s top-tier arcade titles, those same developers had to get creative on what to make next. One of those designers, Ian Shepherd, seemed to have decided to look backwards for inspiration – about 15 years backwards, specifically, to one of the very first video games ever designed: Spacewar.
For as long as people have been mashing up numbers, they’ve been looking for ways to make the process easier. Whether it’s mathematical techniques like long division or using an abacus to keep track of large numbers, anything that can help reduce human error, we like. And similarly, anything that might make teaching math easier, well, we’ll give that a shot too.
It’s no secret that computers are good at math problems, and the introduction of the pocket calculator in 1971 gave the general public its first real opportunity to find that out firsthand; suddenly, the idea that using a computer to learn things that traditionally required books, paper and pencil didn’t seem so far-fetched. And so when the first programmable game consoles started arriving on the market, they all tried to position themselves as being more than just game machines – they could teach your kids math, vocabulary, and even some social studies in a fun, entertaining environment.
From early on, video games have been translating the games people play in the physical realm to the digital. Sometimes this manifests as a sport, like racing cars, but it can also take the shape of something you might play in everyday life. One of the earliest computer games was a 1954 computer conversion of blackjack done on an IBM-701 by Los Alamos engineers to break down the best ways to play the game, and it would prove to be a popular target for computer programs in the 1960s and 70s, with early renditions such as David Frailey’s September 1967 version for DEC’s PDP computer line, and another written in BASIC that was included in David Ahl’s seminal book, 101 BASIC Computer Games. With this kind of background, it’s not terribly surprising that the card game was routinely among the earliest releases on the first programmable consoles, either.