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The History of Spacewar!: The Best Waste of Time in the History of the Universe

June 10, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[In the latest in a series of Gamasutra-exclusive bonus material originally to be included in Bill Loguidice and Matt Barton's new book Vintage Games: An Insider Look at the History of Grand Theft Auto, Super Mario, and the Most Influential Games of All Time, we look at Spacewar!, one of the most groundbreaking games ever created. Previously in this 'bonus material' series: Elite, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, Pinball Construction Set, Pong, and Rogue.]

If you're at all interested in the history of video games -- as any reader of this site must surely be -- then you've likely wondered what the first video game was like. What was, in fact, the first true video game to grace a screen?

This question has long plagued those of us who'd write even semi-accurate histories of the medium. Many gamers (and even some writers!) think the honor belongs to Pong (see bonus chapter, "Pong: Avoid Missing Game to Start Industry"), which introduced video games to the masses in the 1970s.

However, Pong wasn't even the first commercial arcade video game; it was preceded by Nolan Bushnell's and Ted Dabney's Computer Space for Nutting Associates, which had crashed on the launch pad in 1971.[1] As we'll see, Computer Space was itself based on a much earlier video game called Spacewar!, which was introduced in playable form as early as February 1962. Even Spacewar! had its antecedents; two frequently brought up games are OXO (1952) and Tennis for Two (1958).

The original Spacewar! code running on a PDP-1 emulator in a web browser. Shown here is the standard starting position.

The short answer to the question of what came first is that we don't know -- yet. The problem is that we only know of the games that were successful enough to be remembered by those who played or created them, and at least some of those people have to be interested and willing to tell their stories (with some sort of supporting evidence). Who knows how many pioneering games might simply have been forgotten?

The previous examples, for instance, gave the lie to earlier claims that Spacewar! had been first, and it's quite possible that as more and more people grow interested in the subject, we'll uncover still earlier and lesser-known games. There is, in short, no better time to be a game historian.

But even if Spacewar! isn't the first, it is certainly one of the first that really mattered. It was Spacewar! that established many of the conventions that are still with us today. Its influence on later developers was -- if not always successful -- quite palpable.

Even though Computer Space failed, Atari's later Asteroids (1979), offering similar gameplay concepts in a more user-friendly format, was a shattering success. We can also easily see Spacewar!'s influence in other popular video games like Atari's Lunar Lander (1979) and Gravitar (1982), and, if we tilt our eyes a bit, even in video game pinball simulations.

Spacewar! introduced real-time action, an arsenal of weapons, special moves, variable game conditions, physics, and a virtual world. It demonstrated that computers were far more than just expensive calculators. They were, at least for many of us, the future of entertainment.

Since early computer history and Spacewar!'s development were described in the Pong chapter, we'll simply provide a quick recap before going into detail about the game itself. The story of Spacewar!'s creation has been told many times, and we'd certainly point readers to Steven Levy's book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution for an in-depth look at not only the development of the game, but also the unique subculture that made it possible.

To put it simply, the creators of Spacewar! were the nerds that movies like Jeff Kanew's Revenge of the Nerds (1984) portrayed so humorously -- endlessly fascinated with science fiction, robots, electronic gadgets, and, of course, computers.

A Spacewar! battle under way.

[1] There is also some contention that Computer Space wasn't even the first coin-operated video game; that honor may belong instead to Bill Pitts and Hugh Tuck's Galaxy Game, another game inspired by Spacewar! that launched a few months before Computer Space. However, this game was not mass-produced, mostly because it was powered by a Digital PDP-11/20 minicomputer -- and a single unit cost over $20,000!

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Richard Kiernan
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The first computer game that I've found evidence for is a 1951 game for the British-made Ferranti Nimrod. Designed for the Festival of Britain, a World's Fair-type event, the Nimrod, as its name suggests, played a number of different variations of Nim.

There may have been an earlier game, but the signs seem to point to this machine being the first example of a computer game, produced a few years after the first development of the EDSAC, which was the computer used for OXO.

Bill Loguidice
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Thanks for that Richard. An argument can be made against NIMROD for the simple fact that - if my reading of its history is correct - it only controlled a series of lights/lamps to play Nim, i.e., it didn't generate its own display like the EDSAC and its OXO game did. While Nim was certainly computer controlled and that would make it a computer game in the broadest sense, from my perspective I still see OXO as still the first known prototypical videogame.

Jeff Zugale
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I'm pretty sure the Cinematronics Space Wars version was the second video game I ever played - there was one in the pinball arcade at the Willowbrook Mall in New Jersey back in the early '70s. (The first video game I played was Pong, which was in the lobby at Don's restaurant in Livingston!) I think I was barely tall enough to be able to use the controls, but the fact that one of the ships looked like the Enterprise made this young Trek fan drop an awful lot of quarters into that box... thanks for the history!

Bart Stewart
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Computer Space, sitting in its futuristic cabinet at one of the Baton Rouge State Fairs in the early 1970s, was the first computer game I ever played, and it blew my mind. I remember my grandfather having to nearly drag me away from it; I was mesmerized by the realization that there was an entire simulated world inside that box that was different every time you interacted with it.

The first sign of a lifelong infatuation with interesting systems, I suppose.

Matt Barton
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It wouldn't surprise me at all at this point if there were many forgotten videogames of some sort in the 40s and 50s. Who's to say what was happening in all those top secret labs? I've also scratched my head a few times at the fuzzy line between videogames and wargames. Could you say that radar was the first videogame; at least the first massively multiplayer "game?"

Gerard Gouault
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A device called the Cathode-Ray Tube Amusement Device was patented in the United States by Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr. and Estle Ray Mann. The patent was filed on January 25, 1947, and issued on December 14, 1948. It described using eight vacuum tubes to simulate a missile firing at a target and contains knobs to adjust the curve and speed of the missile. Because computer graphics could not be drawn electronically at the time, small targets were drawn on a simple overlay and placed on the screen.