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‘No one had seen anything like it’: how video game Pong changed the world | Games




Pong: a game so simple a bundle of lab-grown brain cells could play it. This might sound like a low blow, but it’s true – last month, Australia-based startup Cortical Labs challenged its creation DishBrain, a biological computer chip that uses a combination of living neurons and silicon, to play the early console classic.

The game – a 2D version of table tennis where players control a rectangle “paddle”, moving it up and down to rally a ball – ran in the background, wired up to the DishBrain. Electrical stimulations were fed into the cells to represent the placement of the paddle and feedback was pinged when the ball was hit or missed. The scientists then measured the DishBrain’s response, observing that it expended more or less energy depending on the position of the ball.

“After a 20-minute session, [the DishBrain was] playing much better than then when they started and much better than chance,” Dr Brett Kagan, Cortical’s chief scientific officer, says. While it wasn’t operating at the level of a human or even a motivated mouse, it did demonstrate a consistent learning path and some form of information processing optimisation. “It was so exciting,” Kagan says gleefully. “We honestly did not expect to see the extent of the results.”

Rewind 50 years and the world was strikingly different; computers were the size of coffee shops and pinball ruled the arcades. Following his success with early arcade game Computer Space, Atari founder Nolan Bushnell tricked 24-year-old computer engineer Al Alcorn into creating Pong. “He wanted me to get some practice designing video games,” Alcorn, who at the time had no experience making video games, remembers.

Tom Friedman’s 2017 projection.
Without a paddle … Tom Friedman’s 2017 projection. Photograph: Farzad_Owrang/Farzad Owrang/ Stephen Friedman

Bushnell started small, briefing Alcorn to create the “very simplest game” possible. Pretending that he had commissioned Alcorn to create the game for General Electric, Bushnell inspired the young engineer to aim big. After picking up a Hitachi black-and-white TV for $75, Alcorn wired the game, amplified the TV’s built-in tones to create sound effects and housed it in a cabinet, creating an all-in-one system.

“[Bushnell] understood the economics of pinball machines and coin-operated games,” Alcorn says. “And he said, ‘Gee, if I could put a quarter on Pong, I could make money doing that’.” The key was making it work without the need for anything too expensive. “The breakthrough was figuring out how to do this without using a computer,” Alcorn explains. The prototype was slotted into local drinking hole Andy Capp’s Tavern, and Pong was officially switched on – a new form of playable, payable game.

It quickly struck gold. Alcorn was called out to fix the first machine within a matter of days. It was too popular: quarters were blocking the mechanism. To fix things, the coin holder – a coffee cup – was replaced with a larger milk carton, allowing more revenue to be collected. At first, the duo struggled to entice enough buyers to ensure Pong was a success. “It was never a marketing problem,” Bushnell says. “It was always a supply issue. We had very little money and no factory so solving those issues was our biggest challenge.” Soon, though, sales picked up, and Pong was officially released by Atari in November 1972.

Success, off the bat: (l-r) Nolan Bushnell, Fred Marincic and Al Alcorn.
Success, off the bat: (l-r) Nolan Bushnell, Fred Marincic and Al Alcorn. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Unlike pinball, with its seedy connections to the mob and salacious designs, Pong was free from controversy. It wasn’t only a game that could be enjoyed by anyone, but also, for the first time, a game that could be enjoyed by people together. “I think its success was because it was so simple and easy to understand. There was no one-player version. Anybody could play it,” Alcorn says. Bushnell agrees: “It was an ideal icebreaker. Many people have told me that it was how they met their partners.”

Its beauty stemmed from its clarity, easy enough to be explained in a heaving bar after a few beers. “It was the first time anyone had seen anything like it and they knew instantly how to play it,” Bushnell says. After some deliberation, a sticker was stuck on to the cabinet explaining the rules, just in case it was required. To retro game enthusiasts, they now read like holy commandments: “Insert quarter. Serves automatically. Avoid missing ball for high score,” Alcorn reels off automatically. “I want it on my tombstone,” he laughs.

For the bars that bought into Pong, the game became a money-spinner. A single machine could rake in upwards of $40 a day. Just a few years after the arcade game’s emergence, a plug-and-play version titled Home Pong was released, made possible thanks to a cutting-edge, large-scale integration chip. Suddenly the TV wasn’t a passive object dictating information to an onlooker, but an interactive platform. “Marshall McLuhan would say that television was a cold medium,” Alcorn says. “Pong made it a hot medium … the TV set now just sat there unless you did something.”

Console yourself … Atari’s Pong Home Edition.
Console yourself … Atari’s Pong Home Edition. Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters

Striking while the silicon was sizzling, Atari produced a slew of sequels aiming to one-up imitations; Pong Doubles and Quadrapong took the format to the next level with four-player versions. More eclectic and eccentric spin-offs aimed for new audiences; Snoopy Pong (later Puppy Pong, to avoid legal issues) livened things up with the addition of the famed cartoon beagle, while a free-to-play version was designed for GP waiting rooms and new versions were created for Bushnell’s Chuck E Cheese empire.

By the end of the 70s, with technology advancing and attention-spans fading, Pong was overtaken by new titles with more up-to-date gameplay and graphics. Popular culture, though, has refused to give up the game. Since the 80s, Pong has entered new paradigms. In the visual arts, it’s moved from a mere amusement to a muse, featuring in shows dedicated to its retro-futuristic minimalism and hypnotic looping quality. In 1999, artist Pierre Huyghe created the Atari Light, an interactive ceiling that allowed visitors to play Pong against each other, and which he later took to the Venice Biennale. Pong itself was exhibited at the Barbican’s Game On exhibition in 2002, and a decade on, the game was acquired by MoMA, immortalising its place in art.

Advancing in a similar direction, acclaimed American artist Tom Friedman used a projection of Pong for a 2017 installation. “It represents the beginning of digital technology,” he says. “It’s so basic and aesthetically, for me, it was the perfect ready-made minimalist video. I represented it in my video projection as a static game, before the complexity of competition.” Bushnell shares this interest in its aesthetics; he recently released the Arcade OG Series with artist Zai Ortiz, a set of NFTs depicting the original cabinets.

The Pong remains the same: Pong Quest.
The Pong remains the same: Pong Quest. Photograph: Atari

This simplicity and innocence of Pong has also seen it used in psychology. The inspiration for Adam Curtis’s series All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, computer engineer Loren Carpenter’s thought experiment in 1991 saw Pong set up on a huge screen, with a seated audience split in two. Each seat had a paddle underneath it, but no instructions. Recalling Bushnell’s idea that knowing how to play Pong is almost akin to a priori knowledge, the crowd soon realised, in a state of ecstasy and excitement, that they could collectively contribute to moving one of two giant on-screen paddles by moving their own individual real-world paddle. While Carpenter saw the experiment as showcasing individual freedom, Curtis thought otherwise, telling the Guardian: “It was a video game, which made it fun, but it still made me wonder whether power had really gone away in these self-organising systems, or if it was just a rebranding.”

At the same time as entering these new worlds, Pong has recently enjoyed a revival in gaming. Two years ago, Bath-based developer Chequered Ink revived Pong, making it into an role-playing game titled Pong Quest. The quirky title sees the player control an anthropomorphic version of the paddle, imbued with what director Dan Johnston calls “unique character traits”. Again, the game’s simplicity sparked interest: “Any person of any language, culture or age can understand it,” says Johnston. While Pong may feel outdated in many ways, its basic, repetitive nature is shared with the mobile hits of our recent past, from Flappy Bird to Wordle. Pong Quest proves that even the paddle itself has reached iconic status, becoming a character in its own right.

While Pong required computational genius to make in 1972, it is now also used to teach kids how to code. “Implementing it yourself is a rite of passage,” says David J Malan, the instructor of Harvard’s free CS50 Computer Science course. “It focuses you entirely on game mechanics.” Fellow instructor Colton Ogden, agrees: “Students get satisfaction from being able to get something simple and complete like Pong up and running.”

This thrill remains. In just 50 years, Pong has survived the hyper-evolution of technology, popping-up in new contexts and, now, actual, living neuronal cultures. While Cortical Labs plan to introduce its DishBrain to new, more complex games, Pong will continue to have its admirers, ready to be reprogrammed, reinvented and replayed.

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$2.5m last year • The Register




Scammers have scammed their fellow cybercriminals out of more than $2.5 million on three dark web forums alone over the last 12 months, according to Sophos researchers.

In a Black Hat Europe session, Sophos threat hunters detailed their investigation, which examined scams on two well-established Russian-language marketplaces, Exploit and XSS. They also looked at BreachForums, which launched in April 2022 after a Europol-led operation shut down the earlier version of the stolen-data souk, RaidForums.

And it turns out that scammers gonna scam, even in the criminal underground.

“We saw referral cons, fake data leaks and tools, typosquatting, phishing, ‘alt rep’ scams (the use of sockpuppets to artificially inflate reputation scores), fake guarantors, blackmail, impersonated accounts, and backdoored malware,” writes Sophos senior security researcher Matt Wixey, in the research posted today. “We even found instances where threat actors got revenge by scamming the scammers who scammed them.”

Scams on these three cybercrime forums are so prevalent that all of them have dedicated “arbitration rooms.”

Exploit, which has about 2,500 reported scams, has two: one for claims and another, the Black List, for confirmed scams. These have been around since the mid-2000s, along with closed Russian attacker forum XSS, which reported around 760 scams on its site, according to Sophos. XSS also keeps a “ripper list” that indexes scam sites.

“Exploit is the worst for scams, both in terms of numbers of reports and money lost to scammers,” Wixey writes. “It does have around twice as many members as XSS, and may also attract more scammers because of its reputation.”

Exploit’s open claims’ room lists 211 claims totaling $1,021,998, while its Black List cited 236 exploits that cost other crooks $863,324. 

In one case, an Exploit user opened an arbitration claim in an attempt to negotiate with ransomware gang Conti about decrypting a company’s assets. Exploit admins, however, closed that claim because ransomware is banned on the marketplace, so apparently there are some standards.

Meanwhile, XSS, for comparison, reported 120 open claims valued at $509,901. BreachForums’ arbitration room, which has only been around since that market opened in April, lists 21 claims worth $143,722.

While higher-end scams on all three forums hit six figures — $160,000 on Exploit and XSS are the most lucrative — some victims on these sites have filed claims for as little as $2, according to Wixey. “Threat actors seem to be as indignant about having their money stolen as anyone else, no matter the amount,” he notes.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the claims processes sometimes descend into name calling, insults and general chaos with the accuser accusing the accused of scamming. In some cases the alleged victims end up getting banned from the sites for being dishonest.

While banning is the most common punishment for ripping off fellow criminals on these forums, BreachForums also publishes banned users’ email address, registration, and last-seen IP address, thus leaving them open for doxxing, the research says. 

However, Sophos also cites a few cases “involving serial scammers” who were banned, and simply created new profiles, paid another registration fee, and carried on with their criminal ways.

As Wixey notes: “If there’s a takeaway from all this, it’s that no user is immune; any trade on criminal forums involves an inherent risk of scams.” ®

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Meet the award-winning geneticist changing patients’ lives




Prof Sally Ann Lynch talks about the complexity of DNA tests and the work that led to her winning the HRCI Research Impact Award.

Last Thursday (1 December), consultant geneticist Prof Sally Ann Lynch won the inaugural Health Research Charities Ireland (HRCI) Research Impact Award for her contribution to the field of research.

The award highlights the role of health research charities in funding research as well as principal investigators who have participated in the joint funding scheme from HRCI and the Health Research Board.

Lynch’s work, which was supported by the National Children’s Research Centre and the Children’s Health Foundation, Temple Street, was recognised for its real-world impact and for making a positive difference to patients’ lives.

Specifically, Lynch and her team undertook two projects under the scheme, which identified a total of 11 genes that have been responsible for significant health issues for people.

One of these genes, the LARS gene, and its association with a failure to thrive in babies was a brand-new discovery.

With the remaining 10 genes, Lynch discovered new clinical symptoms that were not previously associated with diseases for these genes, from lung disease to neurological conditions.

Lynch told more about her research, which started 10 years ago.

“We were using new technology to try and make diagnoses in families where routine testing was negative. It was done in collaboration with a team in UCD [University College Dublin],” she said.

“We successfully identified new diagnoses in a number of families using this. Now, this technology forms part of routine diagnostic testing in the investigation of children and adults with various different clinical problems.”

‘I do feel it is important to try and find diagnoses where one hasn’t been found’

Lynch said the LARS gene had not been previously recognised as a gene that caused human disease.

“This gene, if it is not working properly, causes children to fail to thrive. Many had evidence of anaemia and liver problems and when these children got a dose of flu or other viral illnesses, they could get very ill and go into liver failure,” she said.

“A colleague working in the metabolic unit in Temple Street had identified a small number of families who had affected children so we collaborated together and received consent from the families to use this new technology to see if we could identify the cause of the liver failure. We found genetic alterations in this gene, LARS.”

The discovery can help many children around the world be diagnosed as well and, while a new treatment has not been developed yet, a greater understanding of the condition can help with day-to-day management.

The challenges around genetic testing

While discoveries such as these can be amazing for diagnostics, medicine and innovations in health, the work is not without its challenges.

Because there is so much variation in DNA, trying to work out if these variations are causing a disease or if they are completely benign can be extremely difficult.

“It is important that due care and attention is paid to genetic test reports as they are not always black and white. The biggest challenge we face is interpreting DNA changes and trying to work out if we have reached a diagnosis or if it still remains elusive,” said Lynch.

She added that DNA tests are often misconstrued as easy to organise and have the ability to give a yes or no answer, when the reality is far more complex.

“DNA tests might give you a diagnosis, they might not give you a diagnosis. Sometimes a gene change is found and no one is sure whether a diagnosis has been reached or not because there is not enough evidence to be completely sure. DNA tests need consent. DNA tests need thought.”

Upon winning the Research Impact Award, Lynch spoke about her passion for solving rare diseases and said that an estimated 300,000 people in Ireland are living with a rare disease.

“Rare diseases undoubtedly get less bite of the funding cherry than other conditions, even though they are more in number and are just as, if not more, challenging. This needs to change.”

She added that identifying new genes is the first step in a long road that will hopefully one day lead to a new treatment.

As part of her research work, Lynch helped produce a handbook, Genetic Testing & Risk Assessment of Rare Disorders, for primary healthcare professionals.

“As a medic, staying still is not OK. I do feel it is important to try and find diagnoses where one hasn’t been found. I do feel I have to keep trying.”

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Infinite lives: the company saving old arcade machines | Games




On a rural industrial estate five miles outside Honiton, under the flight path of a nearby aerodrome, sits a rather nondescript warehouse. Only one feature marks it out: in front is a graveyard of stripped arcade cabinets, slowly rotting in the cold and damp.

I am here to visit Play Leisure, a company that restores and sells old arcade games. It has a compelling TikTok account where it shares new discoveries – a recent post showed off a Deadstorm Pirates machine with its enormous sit-in cabinet and giant cinematic display. I’ve dragged my friend and fellow arcade fanatic Joao Sanches along, and now I’m feeling nervous and responsible because, walking up to the unmarked entrance, I’ve no idea if they will have anything interesting in stock after our 90-minute drive.

But peering inside, I spot it immediately, sat there in the cramped reception area amid piles of cardboard boxes: a pristine 1992 Street Fighter II machine, the backboard sporting a wild illustration of Ryu kicking Ken, each special feature on the playfield named after famous Street Fighter attacks. I almost gasp.

Matt Conridge, the owner of Play Leisure, has always been interested in arcade machines. “Like a lot of us in our 30s and 40s, it comes from back when I was a kid,” he explains as he comes to greet us. “I used to visit arcades at seaside resorts – places like Dawlish and Lynmouth.”

Matt Conridge, the owner of Play Leisure.
‘It comes from back when I was a kid’ … Matt Conridge, the owner of Play Leisure. Photograph: Joao Diniz Sanches

Three years ago, Conridge was running a video game bar in Bideford, north Devon, when Covid hit. Facing disaster, he decided to close up and use his contacts in the arcade scene to pivot into a new project: restoration. He rented a warehouse, employed a small team of specialist engineers and started buying up all the old coin-ops he could get his hands on. The plan was to repair them and sell them on to private collectors and retro theme bars, after the pandemic.

“Back then, we were only buying small quantities so it usually came from collectors. Now we take them on an industrial scale,” says Conridge. “At the moment, with what’s happening in the economy, arcades are cutting costs, getting rid of some of the lower performing machines that cost them more to run than they make in revenue. We get clearances from arcades, play centres, trampoline parks … ”

Another problem is that older coin-ops require specialist engineers to maintain them. “A lot of the people who used to build and service these machines have retired,” says Conridge. “That knowledge is dying.”

Matt takes us through to the main warehouse space, where we’re momentarily stunned again. Crammed into a space about the size of a tennis court are 200-odd arcade machines from throughout gaming history. The first thing I spot is the twin cabinet version of Sega’s brilliant 1995 racing game Manx TT Super Bike, which allowed players to sit on reproduction motorcycles and compete against each other along narrow country lanes. Nearby there’s Konami’s thrilling Silent Scope 2: Fatal Judgement, complete with its authentic sniper rifle controller, and further back in this electronic labyrinth is a twin cab of Final Furlong, the crazy Namco horse racing game that you control by sitting on a plastic horse and jumping up and down.

I’m taken back to the first time I visited Japan in 2000 to attend the Tokyo Game Show. I walked into an arcade in Akihabara and saw salarymen on their lunch hour, dozens of them in rows playing this game, grimacing with effort in the darkness.

The warehouse has about 200 arcade machines from throughout gaming history.
The warehouse has about 200 arcade machines from throughout gaming history. Photograph: Joao Diniz Sanches

The machines arrive in huge shipping containers and Conridge is never quite sure what games he’ll find or what condition they will be in. “The problem is, arcade operators don’t generate any more money by keeping machine internals clean,” he says. “If you open it up and start cleaning the inside you may end up causing issues. We’ve opened them and found coins, tools … We found a porno mag in the back of a machine once. We’ve just got one from Blackpool, a crane machine that dispensed sweets – it’s been left for a few years and the sweets have fallen inside and rotted, then the flies got in there … ugh.”

Will they clean that? “No,” laughs Conridge. “We’ll sell it off and let someone else deal with it.”

Conridge is however, conscientious about whom he sells brittle older machines to. “There are some retro machines that we advise people not to buy unless they’re technically minded,” he says. “There’s a pinball machine, a 1966 electromechanical model we’re just about to put on sale, and we’ll refuse to sell that to nine out of 10 people who contact us because we know it won’t be suitable for them. These machines are like classic cars: they are specialist pieces of equipment and need constant care. If I sell it to someone who just wants a working machine, they’ll be fed up after five minutes – we’ve got to choose the right customer for it. Someone who is able to tinker.”

It’s not just ancient pinball machines that are problematic. The big video arcade games of the 1990s – the technical peak of the industry – often used proprietary hardware that is simply impossible to replace or reproduce. “The Sega Model arcade boards used custom Lockheed Martin chips, which you just can’t source,” explains Chris, the lead engineer. “We have to decide whether to harvest parts from less interesting games and use them to resupply classics like Sega Rally.” Around the outskirts of the warehouse space, there are shelves groaning under the weight of esoteric parts, haphazardly piled or collected in boxes.

Lining the warehouse are shelves of esoteric parts.
Lining the warehouse are shelves of esoteric parts. Photograph: Joao Diniz Sanches

Adding to the value of these machines now is the fact that arcades historically dumped old units when they stopped being profitable. “Ten to 15 years ago companies just didn’t foresee that there would be any interest from collectors,” says Conridge. “We just sold an Addams Family pinball machine for £10,000 – that would have been chucked in a skip 15 years ago. People didn’t expect anyone would want them.”

This was especially true of larger speciality machines, such as rhythm action games, with their bulky floor pads and complicated controllers, and driving games with their realistic race car cabinets. Not only did they take up valuable floor space, they were expensive to maintain. Their growing rarity represents an interesting challenge for Play Leisure, because games like Dance Mania and Guitar Hero are exactly the sorts of machines that the new era of retro gaming bars – such as the NQ64 chain, which has just taken on £2m of funding – are looking for: not only are they fun to play in a bar environment, they’re fun to watch, too. “Dance Mania is now a £3k machine,” Conridge says.

When cabinets arrive, their condition is assessed. For Conridge there is a delicate balance between restoration and preservation. He shows me a Point Blank machine that’s just come in: Namco’s entertaining light gun shooter, which was also popular on the PlayStation, is a currently a hit with buyers. He will aim to repair these machines whatever state they arrive in – even though the guns themselves, with their delicate recoil mechanic, are often busted beyond repair (“they get really smashed by kids in the arcade”).

On this cabinet, the lavishly illustrated decals on the sides are peeling off: do they change the artwork for a modern reproduction? “If we do, it will look better but it won’t be original,” says Conridge. “It’s a challenge. We don’t tend to sell perfect-looking machines. When we went into arcades as children, the machines would have cigarette burns – that’s how you remember them. There’s a certain charm to that.”

‘I almost gasp’ … at the sight of the classic arcade game Street Fighter II.
‘I almost gasp’ … classic arcade game Street Fighter II. Photograph: Joao Diniz Sanches

Some arcade cabinets are not economically viable to repair, but that doesn’t mean they’re unsellable. “We sell quite a lot of project machines,” he says. “For a collector working in their garage, that’s fine. We had a Star Wars 1982 Atari machine come in about 14 months ago. We put it on TikTok and Facebook – someone rang and they were desperate for it. It was nice to save this original machine from being scrapped.”

If they can’t be repaired, they’re stripped for parts: circuit boards, cathode ray monitors, joysticks, motors. Almost none of these are manufactured any more, so they’re all saved. Even completely stripped cabinets can have value: people often use them as a shell for their own arcade machines, using a PC and LED monitor. “Our customers can be really creative,” says Conridge. “We have people turning them into cocktail cabinets, stands for DVD players and games consoles. It’s nice because they’re not ending up in a landfill site – they’re getting another life.”

Conridge reckons half his machines go to retro bars and modern arcades. The rest are bought by private collectors. There’s a highly active arcade-collecting community, based around Discord servers and forums such as UKVAC, and Covid brought in a lot of new customers who started building gaming dens in the midst of lockdown.

Besides retro pinball tables and 1990s hits, the big sellers are attached to film or TV licences. Play Leisure has sold three Star Wars Battle Pods, really big immersive machines, for £10,000 each. An Aerosmith-branded arcade game named Revolution X will sell for £1,500, an X-Files pinball table for £3,500. There’s an odd market too for old coin-pushing machines, mostly thanks to the TV quiz show Tipping Point and the growing popularity of TikTok accounts that specialise in coin-pushing live streams.

Close-up of game instructions.
‘It’s nice because they’re not ending up in a landfill site – they’re getting another life.’ Photograph: Joao Diniz Sanches

Joao and I spend the whole day here, snaking between the machines, peering into their exposed innards. We photograph everything. A long time ago we worked together on the video game magazine Edge, often reporting on arcade shows – these machines, which are now antiques, were the newest, hottest tech when we started our careers.

And before that, as a kid, I hung out in arcades in the 1980s. Donkey Kong, Defender, Space Harrier, Out Run; a pocket full of 10 pence coins, a whole day to waste. It is bittersweet to see the machines here, their CRT monitors cracked or missing, light gun holsters worn and split.

It is good that these things are being saved. To many of us, these are more than just disposable commercial products: they are works of art containing within them the experiences of thousands of players, my own included.

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