When MIT installed the PDP-1 in 1961, three men could probably be seen peeking through the window with a copy of E.E. Smith’s Lensman series under the arm of a young Steve Russell. Well maybe not, but it’s always good to open with a poetic image. Inspiration for Spacewar!, the video game most widely recognised as the first in the world stemmed from a series of science fiction books, and the first playable version was completed just a year later in 1962.
The game revolves around a single star and two spaceships fighting its gravitational pull as they attempt to destroy each other. Space was always going to be the time-tested convention that started it all. With such an expansive and unknown space, it affords the kind of imagination and technological limit-pushing that has come to define many modern day interactive spectacles. Clockwise and counter-clockwise controls, as well as a thrust and hyperspace option made up the four buttons afforded to each player along the front panel test switches of the PDP-1. Players destroy their opponent’s ship by firing a limited amount of missiles at it and flying across the screen on a limited amount of fuel. The Hyperspace option is your last ditch attempt to escape the star’s crushing gravitational pull or your enemy’s onslaught of ammo. Your ship disappears from the screen before being respawned in a randomly generated location. Don’t get too carried away though, because each Hyperspace respawn increases your chances of exploding, and there’s always the threat of reappearing right above the very star you are trying to avoid.
While some argue the case of OXO, an early interactive graphical program created on TX-O, it is the vastly improved player-computer relationship that pervades the gameplay that sets Spacewar! up as the first video game rather than interactive program. While OXO presented the player with a tic-tac-toe program in which the computer consistently plays a perfect game, Spacewar!‘s computerised decisions support the player’s interaction with the game. They afford recovery – in that the computer doesn’t decide the fate of the player, something inherent in a good game’s design that still constitutes a successful experience in the eyes of modern game critics. In a sense, then, SpaceWar should be considered the first video game because of its basis in allowing the player the opportunity to work with the computer.
Constructed by Steve Russell, the original version took 200 hours of work to complete,
with Alan Kotok having to throw his new found sine and cosine routines obtained from DEC themselves at him before he even began. Peter Samson took a look at the finished product and became frustrated with the inaccuracy and lack of realism in the game’s background and so wrote a program based on real star charts that scrolled behind the action. The Hyperspace and gravitational elements of the game were the work of Dan Edwards and Steve Russell, who then completed the game in 1962. The game was therefore created in the same spirit that would come to define video game creation during those formative years – collaboration, sharing, and experimentation. Video games arose from individuals sitting for hours at computers with the power of a calculator typing endless codes that may or may not produce the desired effect. But just as your ship is pulled towards that star in the centre of Spacewar!, this ambition and trial-and-error approach continued to drag developers back to their screens in efforts to create what they envision possible. The creation of Spacewar! showed just how a devotion to pushing technological limits in the name of art and play was and still is integral to video game design, and was therefore the first video game enterprise of its kind.
After the original game’s completion, DEC tested their PDP machines with it and eventually began shipping the computers with Spacewar! already coded into the core memory. Clones emerged, and the game was widely shared among the computer community. It wasn’t until 1971 however, when two men who would later found the industry’s ancestral parenthood, Atari, would take the game commercial. Renamed Computer Space, the world’s first commercially sold coin operated video game was born and made its debut at The Dutch Goose bar in August. It set the standard for the basic form that all arcade games would follow, existing as a machine built for the sole purpose of running one program.
Spacewar! was founded on the imagination of its creators, and so sparks imagination in its players – a compelling feature of all video games throughout their history and a considerable factor in their extensive influence. Its process of creation and recreation by its founders demonstrate the same technological ambition that we see in next gen consoles today, and that fuelled the rapid advancements in gaming technologies in our past. We should celebrate this little space shooter as the foundations of everything we know and love about gaming and video game culture today.
Where can i see it?
The only working PDP-1 with Spacewar! still operating is situated at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. After a restoration project, the public can view the original system playing the originally coded game.
Computer Space is more widely available, and even up for purchase on some sites if you happen to have a fat wad of cash lying around. If you just want to have a peek though, it’s currently being shown off at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York.
Where can i play it?