Spacewar

Tagged: Game

Videogame (1962). Designed by Stephen Russell, J M Graetz, Wayne Wiitanen. Platforms: Mainframe, Arcade, Others.

While not the first game to be implemented using electronic hardware, Spacewar was the first such game with an original design, and the first to be widely distributed. Inspired by E E Smith's Lensman and Skylark series, the developers decided to write a game for the new PDP-1 minicomputer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, based around the theme of interplanetary war. The programmers were among the first generation of computer hackers, working informally on one of the earliest digital computers which allowed a single user to interact directly with the system. Previous mainframe designs had been extremely large and expensive, operated by teams of professionals and surrounded by an almost religious air of reverence, an image that helped inspire the depiction of the Computer as inhuman tyrant in much of the popular culture of the 1960s and 1970s. As the first Videogame to become highly popular (though only among the computer academics and engineers who had access to the necessary hardware), Spacewar is an important step on the road which transformed the computer from inaccessible mainframe to ubiquitous microcomputer, from God to Toy.

The game itself uses a simple two-dimensional display which shows two Spaceships, a background of Stars, and a central Sun which exerts an intense gravitational attraction on the spacecraft. Two players can shoot at each other using "torpedoes" and manoeuvre round the screen; supplies of torpedoes and rocket fuel are limited. The actual gameplay is surprisingly sophisticated. The limitation on available fuel means that players must make strategic use of the Gravity well, adopting orbits which allow them to fire and evade without impacting the sun. Many different versions of Spacewar proliferated throughout the academic computing community during the 1960s, including minor changes and additions such as reversed gravity and shields (see Force Fields) for the players' ships. Two of these variants became the first commercial Videogames: the Galaxy Game (1971 Mainframe) designed by Bill Pitts, Hugh Tuck, a version running on a PDP-11-based machine installed at Stanford University which users had to pay to play, and Computer Space (1971 Nutting Associates, Arcade) designed by Nolan Bushnell, Ted Dabney, a dedicated hardware design implementing a simplified single player version of the original game. Computer Space was sold as an amusement device to be installed in bars and college campuses; one cabinet appears as a futuristic prop in the film Soylent Green (1973). While Computer Space proved to be too complex to be successful in the mass market of 1971, it was the ancestor of all later arcade games (see Videogames), beginning with the far more popular table tennis-based Pong (1972 Atari, Arcade) designed by Allan Alcom. Spacewar remains of interest both for its influence on the development of action-based games and for its demonstration of a close connection between Videogames and science fiction, a link which persists to this day. [NT]

Related works: Space Wars (1977 Cinematronics, Arcade; 1982 Vectrex) designed by Larry Rosenthal and Space War (1978 Atari, AtariVCS; 1983 Atari8; vt Space Combat) designed by Jeff Petkau, two commercial versions released in the late 1970s, both bear rather more resemblance to their original than does Computer Space. [NT]

further reading

  • Steven Levy. Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984) [nonfiction: insightful analysis of the microcomputer revolution, including a detailed history of Spacewar as well as material on the early Adventures Colossal Cave (1975) and Time Zone (1982): hb/nonpictorial]

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