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Feature: The History Of  Spacewar!

Feature: The History Of Spacewar! Exclusive

June 10, 2009 | By Staff

June 10, 2009 | By Staff
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More: Console/PC, Exclusive

[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.]

What really was the first "true" video game? It's a question that's tormented historians, although most gamers generally attribute this honor to Pong.

Not so fast, explain historians Barton and Loguidice:

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.

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).

Even still, whether Spacewar! was first is open to debate. Nonetheless, the historians give it credit for not only paving the way for Asteroids, but for establishing many of the conventions with which gamers today are familiar:

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.

Spacewar!'s creators were MIT students and faculty, benefiting from the university's heavy investment in computer science during the 1960s. Loguidice and Barton go in-depth with the team and project's surprisingly complex origins:

The nerdy members of MIT's Tech Model Railroad Club quickly adopted the PDP-1, spending the bulk of their days studying and writing programs or, "hacks," one of many new words they coined to describe their activities. Though most of these programs consisted of neat math or geometry tricks, Steve "Slug" Russell -- by all accounts something of a slacker -- decided to one-up his friends by designing a fully interactive science fiction game.

Russell's project might have sounded overly ambitious, but members of the Tech Model Railroad Club weren't the type to back down from a challenge. Russell's friends offered him a steady stream of encouragement and helped him stay on track however they could. Far from the secretive and highly competitive world of modern software development, Russell worked in what is now called an "open source" environment, where most code was freely shared and implemented without fear of copyright or patent infringement.

For the full story on the history of Spacewar!, read the whole book excerpt in today's Gamasutra feature (no registration required, please feel free to link to this feature from other websites).

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