1 Sound in Early Computer Games

The relationships between sound and image and the development of innovative sound effects have played an important role since the beginning of computer games. Even Spacewar (MIT 1962), generally regarded as a prototypical computer game, already featured simple sound effects in a subsequent enhanced edition.

The first commercial computer game with sound effects was Atari’s famous, table tennis-based Pong (Atari 1972). Stephen L. Kent reports that the game’s designer, Al Acorn, added the sound almost coincidentally: The truth is, I was running out of parts on the board. Nolan [Bushnell] wanted the roar of a crowd of thousands—the approving roar of cheering people when you made a point. Ted Dabney told me to make a boo and a hiss when you lost a point, because for every winner there’s a loser. I said ‘Screw it, I don’t know how to make any one of those sounds. I don’t have enough parts anyhow.’ Since I had the wire wrapped on the scope, I poked around the sync generator to find an appropriate frequency or a tone. So those sounds were done in half a day. They were the sounds that were already in the machine.[1] The sounds of first-generation video games like Pong were still generated on the basis of specific electronic circuitry due to limited storage capacities. This meant that the options for integrating musical forms were severely limited. But still, even the characteristic noises of this early phase fulfilled the important function of generating auditive feedback coupled with the visual events on the screen. Claus Pias, for instance, writes about the extremely reduced electronic sounds that can be heard when the racket hits the ball in Pong: [T]he ‘pong’ sound of the collision detection seems like a reward for the right answer in a responsible game, and its steady recurrence makes audible the functioning of this ball game and thus couples man and game to the beat of a shared internal clock.[2]

This illustrates one of the most important qualities of the relation between image and sound in interactive games: the audiovisual coupling of the players to the game system. This phenomenon is connected with Michel Chion’s concept of ergo audition,[3] referring to situations in which we hear ourselves doing something, or in which the listener is simultaneously the one who triggers the sound. For this reason, the permanent audiovisual feedback in games is the basis for the affective positioning of the players in a simulated world.

Even though the quality and complexity of audiovisual forms have clearly changed due to technological developments since the games of the early 1970s, this basic principle remains continuously effective.