Literature Faculty Member Reverse Engineers First Video Game Console

Generous funding from Pitt’s Year of Creativity will help Professor Horton push forward with OdysseyNow. The multi-year, large-scale media archaeology project studies the world's first video game console by re-creating its social, cultural, and technical conditions of emergence. OdysseyNow has received local and national news coverage, including in Vanity Fair.

The Odyssey inaugurated a major shift in the history of media that forever changed the relationship between large-scale information infrastructure and local interface, generating a new form of interaction with others in both actual and virtual environments. It was developed in the late 1960s and released to the public in 1972. Incredibly sophisticated in comparison to the second generation of video games that are much better known today (including Atari, Intellivision, etc.), the Odyssey “hacked the living room” by reversing the polarity of the television-viewer relationship. Creating a new circuit that was both electronic and social, it required multiple players and elaborate analog interfaces including decks of cards, gameboards, physical tokens, dice, etc. This complex combination of digital and analog modes, domestic and virtual spaces, and technological and social dynamics has made the Odyssey very difficult to understand today. Despite being well documented by its inventor—Ralph Baer—and media historians, the Odyssey has received very little attention from either the retro gaming public or scholars.

OdysseyNow seeks to change that by diving deeply into the thick context of the Odyssey's emergence, asking students to peel away the lens of subsequent video game culture to fully engage in media history. This experimental project includes archiving and restoration, gameplay recreation and documentation, new game development, hardware reverse engineering, the production of new hardware, emulator coding, and the curation of a public-facing web archive. Anyone interested, from any discipline, is encouraged to join this project, which is hosted in the Vibrant Media Lab, sponsored by the Department of English. Please contact Zachary Horton at for more information.