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Down the Hyper-Spatial Tube: Spacewar and the Birth of Digital Game Culture
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Down the Hyper-Spatial Tube: Spacewar and the Birth of Digital Game Culture


June 1, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4
 

Computer Space, Galaxy Game, and Space Wars

One of the many students playing Spacewar in the sixties was Nolan Bushnell, future founder of Atari. First experiencing the game while studying at the University of Utah, he became reacquainted with Spacewar after moving to California in 1969. Seeing the enthusiasm of players running the game on Stanford’s computers inspired Bushnell to create a coin-op version. Working out of his home, Bushnell struggled to make the game work on a Data General 1600 minicomputer. Unable to get the economics into the black, Bushnell realized that reproducing Spacewar in hardware, rather than software, was the answer.

Backed by an investment from Nutting Associates, Bushnell produced a coin-operated version called Computer Space in 1971. Housed in a Dali-esque molded fiberglass cabinet, Computer Space was an ambitious failure. While the game did well on college campuses, it flopped in working-class venues where patrons had little patience for the game’s complicated controls.

Working along parallel lines, Bill Pitts and Hugh Tuck started a company called Computer Recreations, Inc. in 1971 to create their own coin-op Spacewar. Unlike Bushnell’s, their version called Galaxy Game, ran on an expensive PDP-11 minicomputer. In 1972, they built a multiplayer unit that operated in a Stanford coffee shop for seven years.

Later in the decade when the arcade scene was in full swing, Cinematronics produced another arcade version of Spacewar imaginatively called Space Wars. Developed by Larry Rosenthal in 1977, Space Wars utilized a low-cost processor combined with a black & white vector display.

Graetz remembered seeing Cinematronics version of Spacewar in the seventies. “I got really pissed off about it. I was walking by one of those arcades that were really common back then and happened to see a screen that had the Spacewar opening on it,” he said.

When programming the original game back in ’62 the creators gave little thought to its financial potential. “There was a very brief discussion, probably less than a minute, about finding some way to copyright Spacewar, but there were two things; one, nobody knew if it was copyrightable, two, it wouldn’t make any money anyway because the game platform was $120,000,” Graetz recalled.

Death Match

After completing Spacewar the idea for a networked game was discussed called Console Oriented Spacewar. “It never got off the ground, partly because we had no idea how to do it, and partly because we started drifting to various other places and other parts of the country,” Graetz remembered. “But we thought if we could reprogram it for the TX-0, we had already run a communications link, a serial link between the two computers, if we could somehow reprogram it so when you’re sitting at the PDP-1 in front of the CRT and you’re sitting in front of the CRT at the TX-0 you were looking out into space and seeing the other guy.”

In Stewart Brand’s December 1972 Rolling Stone article “Spacewar - Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums”, Russell said, “One of the important things in Spacewar is the pace. It's relatively fast-paced and that makes it an interesting game. It seems to be a reasonable compromise between action - pushing buttons - and thought. Thought does help you, and there are some tactical considerations, but just plain fast reflexes also help.”

To say that Spacewar was ahead of its time is an understatement. It would be almost thirty years before its multi-player “death match” style play would become commonplace. “Using the computer as the game board, rather than as one of the participants, was brand new,” Graetz said. “This was the first time anyone had developed a game that treated the computer as the game board and you played against someone else.”

Incunabula

“We were just having fun. There was no inkling that computers would develop the way they would,” Graetz said. “Nobody knew what programming was. It was something you did to make a computer do things but it had no existence apart from the computer,” Graetz said. “The word ‘software’ didn’t come into existence until just about the time that we got Spacewar done. In fact, the first use of the word in a DEC catalog spelled it wrong. Even after it had a name, nobody knew what it was.”

Sources:

Kent, Steven L. The Ultimate History of Video Games. Roseville, California: Prima Publishing, 2001.

Graetz, J.M. “The Origin of Spacewar!” Creative Computing (August, 1981). Reprinted. Burnham, Van. Supercade. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2001.

Brand, Stewart. “Spacewar - Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums.” Rolling Stone (December, 1972).


Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

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