Although "avoid missing ball for high score" cannot claim to be the first set of printed, player-directed instructions in the history of video games, or even arcade machines, the phrase is nonetheless particularly evocative of a simpler age. Pong
, the arcade machine on which these words were emblazoned, emerged in the mid-1970s, a far-off time about which we know little; the wave of machines which followed were popular, but quickly crushed by the successive twin juggernauts of Space Invaders
and Pac Man
The console for Pong was a large black upright with an orange fascia, into which was set a consumer portable black and white television. Beneath the fascia was an aluminium strip, which housed two paddles, and the following legend:
BALL WILL SERVE AUTOMATICALLY
AVOID MISSING BALL FOR HIGH SCORE
'Deposit quarter' is the very first instruction; it is the prime directive of Pong in particular and of the arcade machine in general, the coin-op. Nowadays the coins are no longer quarters, and indeed for this reason arcade machines tend to use the more functional, more universal 'insert coin' rather than 'deposit quarter'; and perhaps one day people will insert their credit cards rather than have to mess about with physical coinage. But the money remains. If you don't pay, you don't play. There is the tale of the very first Pong machine, literally a circuit board inside a wooden box, connected to a black and white television and a metal coin container; the machine was given by Nolan Bushnell to a barman, who kept it in his bar as a means of judging public reaction. After a day, the machine broke. Anticipating disaster, Bushnell opened the machine to find that its coin box had overflowed with quarters; and just as the ape in '2001' flings his bone into the air, and SNAP we cut to a satellite, so SNAP we cut from that overflowing box of money to the present day. There were a few slips here and there, and Atari Games itself no longer exists, but the money is still building up in a big pile.
'Ball will serve automatically' is the least interesting of Pong's three instructions. It is too picky and specific to have mythic resonance, and could easily have been removed.
'Avoid missing ball for high score' is a masterpiece of coiled-spring Rod Serling terseness - not quite grammatical, pared down to the very bone. As I wrote this, on the morning of September 11, 2001, the computer games industry had travelled far in the other direction, loading their games with extensive instruction manuals, hint books, novellas, lengthy filmed introductions and so forth, all in an attempt to give the games more weight, more depth. A miniature revolution spurred by the impressively concise Half-Life has subsequently reigned this kind of thing back, and the games of 2005 thankfully tend to have simple instructions, and to incorporate their storylines into the narrative flow.
Nonetheless, even the simplest run-and-shoot game of today tends to have more complicated controls and rules than Pong. Computer games are no longer a novelty unto themselves, and the average human being is exposed to a greater volume of games at an earlier age than in the 1970s. Pong grew in part from Nolan Bushnell's realisation that Computer Space, the very first arcade machine, was tricky for new players to pick up; Pong was not supposed to require instructions, and one suspects that they were added as a concession to whatever marketing department the nascent Atari Games had at that time (it was their very first game).
An extra-textual note
It was surprisingly hard to verify this information. Plenty of web pages state that the instructions for Pong were 'avoid missing ball for high score', but most of them seem to copy their information from each other; and, if these really are the instructions, few sources make it clear whether this information appears on the screen before the game starts, on the arcade cabinet, or in a separate instruction manual. As far as I can tell Pong actually did have an instruction manual, but as with most such pamphlets it was aimed at the arcade operators and was purely a technical guide. The game does not show any text on the screen beyond the scores.
A photograph of the instructions, which seem to be in the Eurostile font: