SpaceWar! - the First Computer Game Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

SpaceWar! - the First Computer Game

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Nowadays, we think of video games as six-foot-high boxes in pizza parlours and movie theatre lobbies or as programs on smaller boxes back home. Kids today don't even remember the first generation of boxes that sprouted up as the microprocessor became fast and cheap. But where did it begin? What brought us to the point where we could take all this for granted? Well, as always in matters of history, the beginning is a murky place, but there is an easy signpost stuck in 1962. A sign attached to a machine called the PDP-1 and a game called SpaceWar!

Sci-Fi and Computer Science

The whole thing began in the minds of three sci-fi-addled fellows at the Hingham Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts during the summer of 1961. Mathematics whiz Wayne Witanen, J 'Published Author' Martin (Shag) Graetz, and AI specialist Stephen R (Slug) Russell were hard at work on various projects, at least when not reading Lensmen or wasting time on the latest Japanese Monster movies.

The Beast Machine and its Early Games

The machine of the day was the TX-0 ('Transistorised eXperiment 0') one of machines made by universities to test the limits of electronic digital computers. Graetz had become a member of Jack Dennis' TX-0 Team, which allowed him some face time with the machine itself, a rarity in the day of Users and White Coats. MIT held open houses every year, and to show off the capabilities of their monster pieces of metal, they would come up with demo programs to show the blinking lights doing something recognisable. Bouncing Ball had been popular with the earlier machine Whirlwind, and TX-0 had made many folks happy with its simple Mouse in the Maze, a very simple game where users would set up a maze with cheeses and a mouse would run to fetch the cheese and eat it. This was a fun demonstration, along with the psychedelic imagery program HAX and the old stand-by Tic-Tac-Toe. These simple games, along with the rumours of a table tennis game written by Bill Higginbothom at Brookhaven National Lab, are what made the boys look long and hard at coming up with a new demo for a new machine - the DEC PDP-1.

A New Machine to Play With

The Digital Equipment Corp Programmable Data Processor-1 was one of the earliest work stations, or at least one of the first that a single person could turn on, use and turn off without having to be one of those lab-coated professionals lovingly called the 'White Coats'. The PDP-1 was faster than TX-0, though with less memory. The PDP-1 had a Type 30 Precision CRT display, a large, RADAR tube-like display that the boys thought would make a good platform for a new type of demo program. They formed an Ad Hoc committee to study the possibilities and came up with three guidelines.

  1. It should demonstrate as many of the computer's resources as possible, and tax those resources to the limit.

  2. Within a consistent framework, it should be interesting, which means every run should be different.

  3. It should involve the onlooker in a pleasurable and active way.

Basically, they were saying it needed to be a game that folks could come up to and play. Several other developments made the game possible - Steve Piner's text display and editing system, 'Expensive Typewriter', and Marvin Minsky's 'The Minskytron', a program that allowed three dots to interact and form various patterns on the display. At this point, the boys had decided that they wanted to make the game in the image of the space battles that their favourite novels and films depicted. The ships they designed were affectionately called the Needle and the Wedge, made up of ASCII characters that floated through the air.

The Most Primitive of Futures

By February 1962, the first version of SpaceWar! was in use. It was a bare-bones model with just the two ships, a supply of fuel, and a store of 'torpedoes' - points of light fired from the nose of the ship. Once launched, a torpedo was a ballistic missile, zooming along until it either hit something or its 'time fuse' caused it to self-destruct. The need for perspective and to tell relative movement spoke of the need for a background of stars, which Steve Russell provided. Russell's first pass used a series of randomly placed stars, which offended Peter Samson, who would write 'Expensive Planetarium' to provide a true to life backdrop of real constellations.

Taking it to the Next Level

While the earliest versions of SpaceWar! were little more than glorified Old West shoot-outs, with the quickest hands winning the day. The desire of another level of strategy led Dan Edwards to incorporate gravity calculations and the central star or 'CBS Opening', due to its similarities to the network's logo. The star's gravity would drag in anything on the screen, allowing for new manoeuvres like sling-shooting around the star to make a back attack. The final major addition to the program was 'Hyperspace', which was a panic button manoeuvre that would allow you to jump into the fourth dimension, disappearing from the screen for a second, allowing one to dodge a bullet.

Control Problems

There was still the matter of controlling the ships on the screen. Early tests of the game were run using the test switches on the front of the machine, and an excited played could mistake the power switch for their torpedo switch and the entire machine would turn off, destroying the entire universe.

The solution? Joysticks! The problem? They hadn't been invented for use with computers yet.

Alan Kotok and Robert A Saunders took it upon themselves to build the original boxes. The devices would become standard for all video games as time went on.

SpaceWar! Is Busting out all over

SpaceWar! was ready to demo for MIT's annual Science Open House in May 1962. Within months, copies of the paper tapes began to make the rounds to the major computing universities, including the University of Utah and Stanford University, where Steve Russell had followed AI legend John McCarthy to the new AI lab. As time went on, many versions of the game appeared on many different systems. At one point, of all the traffic going across the Arpanet - the computer network that would eventually become the Internet - almost a third were SpaceWar! games being played between Stanford and MIT. Eventually, SpaceWar! became a standard arcade game in the 1970s.

Its Best Days Behind It...

The PDP-1 that SpaceWar! had been written for now lives at the Computer Museum History Centre, on Moffett Federal Airfield in Mountain View, CA, where Historical Collections Co-ordinator Christopher J Garcia keeps it clean and will gladly tell you more about the game than you want to know. The machine last ran in the early 1990s at the Computer Museum in Boston, where Slug Russell, Shag Graetz and Alan Kotok played the game for a large crowd. The PDP-1 now stands in the same room with two of the earliest attempts to bring SpaceWar! to the general public - Bill Pitts' Galaxy Game, and Nutting Associates' ComputerSpace, designed by Atari founder Nolan Bushnell.

You can try Spacewar! for yourself.

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