Firsts: Spacewar! was the world's first video game

Contributed by
Jan 29, 2018

Two full decades before the glory days of the arcade video game boom in the early '80s and ten years before gamers began pumping quarters into Atari's hypnotic Pong machines, a revolutionary game called Spacewar! was born.

Spacewar! is one of the earliest known digital computer video games and the first science fiction-themed game in the galaxy. Created by Steve "Slug" Russell, Martin "Shag" Graetz, and Wayne Wiitanen from their fictional "Hingham Institute," the hacker team first devised the game concept in 1961 for deployment on a newfangled DEC PDP-1 computer installed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

It was a primitive, two-player application, with each "starship captain" steering their spaceship amid a speckled deep space background while attempting to destroy the other with lethal torpedoes. A pulsing star in the center of the screen attracts both ships which necessitated agile maneuvering to avoid dropping into its crude gravitational clutches.

A built-in emergency measure let players zap themselves into hyperspace to re-appear at a random location on the screen, at the risk of exploding if the desperation feature was used too often.

 

Besides the thrill of NASA's space race to put a man into orbit, Russell was inspired by Disney's Man in Space films, Toho Godzilla movies, and the pulpy sci-fi prose of E.E. "Doc" Smith's adventurous Lensman paperbacks. After over 200 hours of careful coding, the graduate student and sci-fi fanatic produced a demonstration version of Spacewar! to show to his geeky colleagues and university professors.

In February 1962, the same month astronaut John Glenn made three orbits of the Earth in his Friendship 7 Mercury capsule, Spacewar! was first implemented on the Digital Equipment Corporation's flagship, room-sized computer the PDP-1 (Programmed Data Processor-1).

Russell's energetic crew took full advantage of the computer's modern typewriter console, circular viewscreen, paper tape reader, and shockingly minuscule 9 kilobytes of pure digital power. Additional features and refinements like the gravity-sucking stellar object and starfields were developed by Dan Edwards, Peter Samson, and Graetz.

 

The game premiered publicly at MIT's Science Open House in May of 1962, then was shared, studied, and modified at numerous computer labs around the country. Spacewar! and its shooting game mechanics set the official template for the billion-dollar computer gaming industry yet to come and its unique amusement-level relationship to technology.

The success and enthusiastic response of Spacewar! would be seen in later next-generation standup arcade games like Space Invaders, Asteroids, Battlezone, Tempest, Defender, and Missile Command. Not only was it a pioneering piece of computer programming art, but it provided a visionary example of how human beings could interact with advanced machines and play games at their computer consoles.

Credit: Museum of the Moving Image

Engineered by passionate researchers at MIT, Spacewars! is the progenitor of all space-based video games we indulge in today, and deserves a hallowed place in the history of the industry. In 2012 a special exhibition titled "Spacewar! Video Games Blast Off" was presented at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City, with the ancient game on display as the event's honored guest and focal point.