[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?
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.
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. As we'll
see, Computer Space was itself based on a much earlier video game called
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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,
A Spacewar! battle under way.
 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