Friday, April 3, 2015

The etymology of "video game"

One subject I have toyed with addressing on this blog is the subject of what was the first video game or who created the first video game. So far, however, I have avoided tackling the subject, primarily because it generates so much rancor. There are not many “religious” issues in the history of video games, but this is one of them. And as with many such issues, those on one side often denigrate those on the other with epithets and accusations of incompetence, or worse. While I am not going to get into the issue here, there is an ancillary issue that shouldn’t generate as much heat – when was the term “video game” first used.

First, let’s look at some standard sources for etymology. The
Online Etymology Dictionary does not have an entry for “video game” but the entry for “video” notes, “video game is from 1973.”’s entry for “video game” cites the Random House Dictionary (unabridged) as tracing the origin of the term to “1970-1975” – not very helpful. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition also traces “video game” to 1973, as does Third Barnhart Dictionary of New English. But let’s cut to the chase. What about the Oxford English Dictionary and its extensive etymology citations? The second edition of the OED also traces the term to 1973 and lists as its first citation an article from the November 10, 1973 issue of Business Week. The section cited in the OED reads, “
The astonishing ability of the video game to lure quarters from the public and the electronic techniques used in its design are forcing major changes on the coin-op industry.” The term is used seventeen other times in the article, including in its title (“A red-hot market for video games”).


 Not to demean the OED, but surely we can do better than that. The OED probably does a fine job with tracing the first known usage of words from a century or more ago but I’m not sure how thorough they are in scouring sources for newer words. More importantly, we can look at sources that the OED editors almost surely did not, like game flyers and trade magazines. Before we do, however, some might wonder why I just don’t look up the term in Google NGram or an online newspaper archive. Wouldn’t that be the best way to settle the question? Actually, no it wouldn’t for a number of reasons. One of the biggest is that a raw search for “video game” or “videogame” doesn’t really help much since those words were used together long before 1973 in contexts that had nothing to do with electronic video games. To cite just one example: an article from the August 8, 1953 Long Beach Independent is titled “Tigers s. A’s – Video Game for Today”. A second problem is that even when an article does use the term “video game” to refer to an electronic game, the date given for the publication is often incorrect. Again, to cite but one example, a search for “video game” turns up an ad from the “28 Nov 1896” Laredo Times for an “Atari 2600 video game.” The indexed date is obviously wrong – it was actually the 28 Nov 1986 edition. While this was a mere number transposition and I could tell it was wrong by looking at the synopsis, other erroneous dates are not so easy to recognize and require opening up the images. The same kinds of errors are found in all of the online databases I checked, including NGram. While NGram does a better job, it still has these kinds of errors – only in Ngram the actual publication date is often much more difficult to identify (all the pre-1974 dates I checked in Ngram were erroneous – though I didn’t check them all). In addition, these two types of errors occur so frequently that it makes filtering them out so time consuming as to render the online sources of little use.
            So how about a different tack? Another way to tackle the problem is to look for specific systems and see if the term “video game” was used to describe them. Since we know the term was used by at least November 1973, let’s look at two major video games that came out before 1973. – the Magnavox Odyssey and Computer Space.

I have not found any source referring to the original Odyssey as a “video game” or “videogame” prior to 1973. Nor, AFAIK, has anyone claimed that the term was first used to describe the Odyssey. Even Ralph Baer, who was quite insistent that the Odyssey was the first “videogame,” never, to my knowledge, claimed that the term was first used in reference to the Odyssey. Note that Baer used the one word term “videogame” rather than the more common “video game.”
Baer’s original 1966 description of the game referred to it as “TV Gaming Display,” while later documents (which were reproduced in Baer’s Videogames: In the Beginning) from the 1967-1972 period call it a “TV Game.” None of the various patents that Sanders filed between prior to 1974 used the term “video game.” Instead, they usually called it a “Television Gaming Apparatus.” Ads for the system referred to it as and “electronic game,” as did most early articles.

Here’s an article from June 5, 1972 (though it’s hard to read).


And here’s an ad from December 4, 1972.


Computer Space

This one is a bit more interesting since we do have one source claiming that it was the first game to be called a “video game.”
In December 2007, Benj Edwards interviewed Nolan Bushnell. The interview included this exchange:

Edwards: Do you know how the term "video game" came about?

Bushnell: I think it was started at the first trade show that Computer Space was at. And I think it was coined by a reporter, and that was in the fall of 1971, when we showed it in Chicago. The reporter, writing for one of the trade magazines, coined the term "video game."

Edwards: So it was around 1971, you think?

Bushnell: Yeah. To be exact, it was November 1971.

Edwards: Do you have any idea what reporter it was that might have coined the term?

Bushnell: No, but I know the magazine. I think it was the magazine called Vending Times

So according to Bushnell, the term “video game” was first used in a trade magazine in November 1971 to describe Computer Space. He thinks the magazine was Vending Times.
Is his claim true? It appears not.

While I do not have any 1971 issues of Vending Times (though I do have the 1974-1985 issues), the magazine is still in existence, and they have a complete set of back issues. I contacted one of the editors and had them check and they did not find any article using the term “video game” in the November 1971 issue or any issue from 1971 or 1972. Another person (former GameRoom magazine editor Tim Ferrante) volunteered to go to Vending Times’ New York Offices to check the pre-1974 issues for anything of interest involving video games and they did not turn up any use of the term in 1971 or 1972 either. The earliest Vending Times article referring to the game that I have a copy of is the May 1972 issue. As you can see, it does not use the term “video game”


Could Nolan have been thinking of the other major coin-op trade magazine of the time, Cash Box. Again it appears not. Again, I don’t have all of the 1971 or 1972 issues, but Michael Current’s excellent Atari timeline website does include scans of an ad for Computer Space from Cash Box’s November 27, 1971 issue as well as an article announcing the game’s release from the November 4, 1971 issue. Neither of them uses the term “video game.” Note that while Billboard used to cover the coin-op industry extensively, it had stopped doing so by 1970.

What about flyers?
Here is a quick summary of all the flyers for video games produced prior to 1974, with approximate release dates, along with the term (if any) they used to describe the game (you can see most of the flyers at the Arcade Flyers Archive or Flyer Fever websites) A question mark indicates that either I didn’t find a flyer or the flyer was in Japanese. Note that flyers generally appeared in trade magazines about a month before the game was released – though it is possible that some of these flyers were alternate versions produced after the game was released. This is unlikely, and I suspect that the flyers here were all produced around the time of the game’s release.

·  Computer Space  (Nutting Associates, 11/71) – “game”
·  Star Trek (For-Play, 9/72?) – “game”
·  Pong (Atari, 11/72) – “video skill game”
·  Computer Space Ball (Nutting, ca 1/73-6/73) – none
·  Paddle Battle (Allied Leisure, 3/73) - none
·  Rally (For-Play, 3/73) – “fast action space age game”
·  Volly (Ramtek, 3/73) - ?
·  Winner (Midway, 4/73) – “television skill game”
·  TV Ping Pong (Chicago Coin, 4/73) – “electronic ping pong game”, refers to Chicago Coin as “the newest leader in electronic games”
·  TV Ping Pong (Amutronics 4/73) – “game”
·  Paddle Ball (Williams, 5/73) – “game”
·  Space Race (Atari, 7/73) – refers to Atari as “the originators of video game technology” and “the reliable leader in video games”
·  TV TableTennis (PMC Electronics, ca 7/73) - none
·  Tennis Tourney (Allied Leisure, 7/73) - none
·  Elepong (Taito, 7/73) – “video skill game”, “electronically simulated ping pong game”
·  TV Tennis (Chicago Coin, 8/73) – “electronic game”
·  Ric-O-Chet (Allied Leisure, 9/73) - none
·  Pong Doubles (Atari, 9/73) – “video game”
·  Winner IV (Midway, ca 9/73) – “tv game”
·  Pong Tron (Sega, 9/73) - ?
·  Elimination (Kee/Atari, 10/73) – “video game”
·  Gotcha (Atari, 10/73) – “video skill game”, also refers to Atari as “the originators of video game technology” and “the reliable leader in video skill games”
·  TV Table Tennis (United Billiards, ca 10/73??) - ?
·  Olympic TV Football (Chicago Coin, 11/73) - none
·  Olympic TV Hockey (Chicago Coin, 11/73) - none
·  Super Soccer (Allied Leisure, 11/73) – none
· Deluxe Soccer Allied Leisure, 11/73) – none
· Wham Bam (PMC, ca 11/73) – none
·  Hockey TV (Sega, 11/73) - ?
·  Pong Tron II (Sega, 11/73) - ?
·  Pro Hockey (Taito, 11/73) - ?
·  Soccer (Taito, 11/73) – “video reaction game”
·  TV Tennis (US Billiards, ca 11/73?) - none
·  Pro Tennis (Wiliams, ca 11/73) – “t.v. tennis game”
·  Hockey (Ramtek, ca 11/73?) – “video game”
·  Scoring (Volly, ca 11/73?) – “hockey game”
·  Tele-Soccer (BAC Electronics, ca 11/73?)
·  Champion Ping Pong (Arizona Automation, ca 11/73?) - none
·  TV Hockey (Amutronics, ca 12/73) - none
·  Pro Hockey (Williams, ca 12/73) – “game”
·  Asteroid (Midway, ca 12/73) – “TV thriller”
·  Leader (Midway, ca 12/73) – “game” or “TV knock-out”
·  Olympic Tennis (See-Fun, ca 12/73) – “game”, “electronic match-point tennis game”
·  Sports Center (For-Play, ca 12/73) – “t.v. game”
·  Elimination (Volly, ca 12/73?) - ?
·  Sportarama (United Billiards, ca 12/73??) – “video game”
·  Astro Race (Taito, 1973?) – “video game”
·  Davis Cup (Taito, 1973?) - none
·  Soccer (Ramtek, 1973?) – “video game”
·  Hockey (Volly, 1973) / Tennis (Volly, 1973) – “video game”, “video audio game”
·  Missile Radar (Nutting, 1973??) - none
·  Crazy Foot (Bally, 1973?) - none

So here are the flyers that used the term “video game” in 1973:
·  Space Race (Atari, 7/73)
·  Pong Doubles (Atari, 9/73)
·  Elimination (Kee/Atari, 10/73)
·  Gotcha (Atari, 10/73)
·  Hockey (Ramtek, ca 11/73?)
·  Sportarama (United Billiards, ca 12/73??)
·  Astro Race (Taito, 1973?)
·  Soccer (Ramtek, 1973?)
·  Hockey (Volly, 1973) / Tennis (Volly, 1973)

So it appears that Atari may have been the first to use the term “video game” on its flyers, starting with Space Race around June of 1973.
Finally, let’s look at magazines – trade and non-trade.

As far as non-trade magazines go, I have not found very many articles on video games prior to November 1973, aside from those mentioning the Odyssey. I did find an article in the November 1973 issue of ee Systems Engineering Today that also uses the term “video game.”
One of the earliest articles on coin-op video games was a UPI article on Atari that appeared around February 15, 1973. It refers to the games as “computerized ‘pinball’ machines.”

For trade magazines, the three major candidates I reviewed were Vending Times, Cash Box, and Marketplace. Play Meter did not publish its first issue until November 1974 and RePlay started in October 1975.

Vending Times

The first use of the term “video game” I found in Vending Times was an article in the May 1973 issue titled “Williams Introduces New ‘Paddle Ball’ Video Game.” While this might seem like a clear reference use of the term, it might have just been “headline-ese”- a shortening of a term like “video skill game” to save space in a headline. The body of the article calls it a “video ping pong game.” The term was also used unambiguously in the December 1973 issue,

Cash Box
I don’t have all of the early 1973 issues of Cash Box, but I have most.
Here are the ones I have from the fist six months of the year: 1/20, 2/3, 2/10, 2/17, 3/3, 3/10, 3/17, 3/24, 3/31. 4/7, 4/14, 4/21, 5/5, 5/12, 5/19, 5/26, 6/2, 6/9, 6/16, 6/23, 6/30.

I am missing 1/6, 1/13, 1/27, 2/24, and 4/28.

I found nothing in the January and February issues or in the March 3 issue - though the March 3 issue had what some say was the first ad for Pong (referring to it as a "video skill game")

 Then, in the March 10 issue, I hit pay dirt.

That was the only use of "video game" in that issue, but the 3/17 issue had three of them.

The first was an article titled “ACA & For-Play Introduce New Rally Video Game.” As I mentioned in an earlier post, however, this could be another instance of headlinese, however, as the body of the article uses the terms “video skill game” and “television control game”
The second and third instances appear in an article on the Atari/Midway Pong licensing deal, which notes that Atari was “allowing Midway to produce its latest video game” and quoted Midway’s Hank Ross as saying that “We felt that the best way to produce the reliability operators demand in video games was to make use of Atari’s proprietary technology.”

So I think that all of these articles represent deliberate use of the term. While the body of the Rally article does not use the term, remember that the body of game announcements was usually supplied by the manufacturer, while the headline would have been written by someone at the magazine.

Another significant usage occurred in the April 14 issue, which also uses the term “video game” multiple times. Once, in a article titled “ChiCoin Calls All Distributors to Chicago Meeting 3/30; Three New Novelty Pieces Previewed Including Video Game,” once in an article mentioning the “For Play Rally video game”, and most significantly in the issue’s editorial, which includes the line “Then came Periscope, the quarter novelties, something called ‘Speedway,’ soccer tables, now hockey tables, and what do they call them, ‘video games.”

Summing up, here is a list of the number of time the term "video game" (or "video games") is used in Cash Box in the first half of 1973:
1/20, 2/3, 2/10, 2/17, 3/3 - Not used.
3/10 - once, 3/17 - three times, 3/24 - not used, 3/31 - once, 4/7 - four times, 4/14 - three times, 4/21 - once, 5/5 - twice, 5/12 - twice, 5/19 - once, 5/26 - not used, 6/2 - not used, 6/9 - not used, 6/16 - not used, 6/23 - five times, 6/30 - three times. 
And here’s what may be the kicker. The editor of Cash Box’s coin-machine section in 1973 was Ed Adlum, who later went on to found RePlay. The September 1982 of RePlay includes the following tidbit.

"RePlay's Eddie Adlum worked at 'Cash Box' when 'TV games' first came out. The personalities in those days were Bushnell, his sales manager Pat Karns and a handful of other 'TV game' manufacturers like Henry Leyser and the McEwan brothers. It seemed awkward to call their products 'TV games', so borrowing a word from 'Billboard's description of movie jukeboxes, Adlum started to refer to this new breed of amusement machine as 'video games.' The phrase stuck."

When I first read this, I was very skeptical but given the evidence above, it seems quite plausible indeed that Adlum coined the term around March 1973. The March timeframe especially makes since three of the earliest Pong clones were released that month, which could be seen as the beginning of the coin-op video game “industry.”
I cannot say for certain that the March 10 issue was the first time Adlum used the term since I am missing a handful of earlier issues. But it seems quite likely to me that the the March 10 issue was the first time the phrase was used. Remember that the first Pong ad had appeared in the previous issue (March 3).
Finally, while Adlum may have coined the term as far as a public mention is concerned, there was at least one usage that predates March 1973. The below letter, which I posted earlier, was sent from Nolan Bushnell to Bally’s John Britz on July 10, 1972. In it, Nolan uses the term “video game” not once but twice.


So far, this is technically the very first usage of the term I’ve found, but since it was in a private letter, it is debatable whether or not it should count as a first usage or not.

Bushnell also used the term in an article that appeared in the April 7, 1973 issue of Cash Box.

The article quotes Bushnell as saying "Video games are just the first step toward putting coin boxes on the products of our space age technology."

So who coined the term “video game”? Nolan Bushnell? Ed Adlum? Someone else? From the evidence I’ve found, I’ll go with Adlum for now – though

As an aside, the first patent I found using the term “video game” was patent 4.006,47, filed 18 Mar 1976, for a Video Game Rebound Apparatus by Jeffrey Reed Lukkarila of Magnavox.

Another early patent to use the term was patent 4,116,441, filed 29 Oct 1976 for a “Moving goalie circuit for manually controlled electronic video game” by Robert Ralph Runte and Theodore A. Mau. Note that Runte was the founder of Fascination, Ltd., an early Pong clone manufacturer. In July 1974, he filed for one of the earliest patents on a video game cocktail cabinet (though the patent did not use that term).



  1. That first picture is absolutely full of awesome. I've been waiting for this for a long time, glad you finally got around to it. I love etymology and this idea that we can never truly know the origin of phrases and terms in that strange societal way.

    I personally believe, based on this evidence, that Bushnell was the popularizer of the term. Whether he actually 100% came up with it, I don't know, but I think he was the first person to go around telling people that he was selling "video games" and it snuck it's way into the press from there.

    Around what time did the term become completely commonplace, do you think? That's one of the best things about seeing some of these early articles, the way they have to describe what's never been seen by the general public before. Thanks for the enthralling read! Definitely going to take it to heart.

  2. Simply incredible work...

  3. Just of note: the Japanese use of the term in the flyers mentioned:

    Pong-Tron: 電子ピンポンゲーム (electronic Ping Pong game)
    Elepong: 電子ピンポンゲーム
    Pro Hockey: 電子ゲーム (electronic game)
    Balloon Gun: TVゲーム (TV Game)
    Goal Kick: TVゲーム
    Mini Hockey: TVゲーム
    Crash Course: CPU・TVゲーム (CPU/Microprocessor TV Game)

    They also use TV Soccer, TV Tennis, or TV Hockey.

    Sega adopted the "Pong Tron" and Taito the "Taitronics" labels - both using the 'tron' part of "electronics".

    But it looks like it was Sega who adopted TV Games as the official name for video games in Japan.

    1. I also just verified those missing issues of Vending Times, and there's no mention of "video game" in any of them.

    2. Do you have access to pre-74 issues of Vending Times? Those would be incredibly useful.

    3. Late to this party, but what a great article. I think the Bushnell letter is VERY relevant because if he was writing it then he was more than likely saying it to everyone, which is how it got picked up by reporters. The man does love to talk.