I have a degree in modern history from Pembroke College, Oxford. History - mainly military and art history - continues to be a hobby and I have given several lectures on the history of computer games. This is a transcript of a speech I gave on the history of computer games at the Game Developers Conference Europe in the summer of 2001.

History of Computer Games

Spacewar!  Here is a screen shot of the game running on a PDP-1 emulator with the original source code.

This is the hardware that Spacewar! ran on.

What astounds me is that this first ever computer game has so many features of so-called modern games. To put it into a historical context: this game was conceived in 1961 – 17 years after the end of WWII, before manned spaceflight, a year before the mouse was invented and the same year that Ivan Sutherland invented “Sketchpad” the first interactive graphics program and about the same time as the first stirrings of the ARPAnet.

Besides Nolan Bushnell another early addict was Alan Kay, who is credited with inventing the WIMP interface at Xerox Parc. He said: “The game of Spacewar blossoms spontaneously wherever there is a graphics display connected to a computer.”

I believe this is a picture of some of the creators, who were Stephen Russell, Peter Samson, Dan Edwards, and Martin Graetz, actually playing the game.

The story of its creation is familiar to all of us. They wanted to produce a demo that would show off their new hardware, in this case the new vector graphic display. Martin Graetz wrote about it in an article for Creative Computing in 1981. He said:

A good demonstration program ought to satisfy three criteria:

· It should demonstrate as many of the computer’s resources as possible, and tax those resources to the limit;

· Within a consistent framework, it should be interesting, which means every run should be different;

· It should involve the onlooker in a pleasurable and active way — in short, it should be a game.

This seems to be a pretty good starting point for any game today.

They weren’t just inventing the video game, they were inventing the controls too. At first it was played with the toggle switches on the actual mainframe. Graetz again: “At the very least, a jittery player could miss the torpedo switch and hit the start lever, obliterating the universe in one big anti-bang.” Later they raided the university model train society and got some analogue controllers that they could use instead.

Another nice story that resonates with modern designers is ‘feature creep’: Another student had invented the “Expensive Planatarium” which used actual planetary data above Boston. They incorporated this into the game to provide the background of the screen and by flashing each point of light, the stars can be made to glow at the correct level of brightness.

The game itself runs to 9kb of memory and 40 pages of listings.

This may have been the first and last time computer games were genuinely hip: this is the picture taken by the now-famous Annie Liebowitz for Rolling Stone magazine in December 1972 of the winner of the ‘Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics.’

Rolling Stone’s remarkably prescient article in December 1972 (ten years before the PC and five years before the Atari VCS) sums up the historical significance of Spacewar! better than I can. I quote: “Yet Spacewar, if anyone cared to notice, was a flawless crystal ball of things to come in computer science and computer use:”
1. It was intensely interactive in real time with the computer.

2. It encouraged new programming by the user.

3. It bonded human and machine through a responsive broadband interface of live graphics display.

4. It served primarily as a communication device between humans.

5. It was a game.

6. It functioned best on, stand-alone equipment (and diarupted multiple-user equipment).

7. It served human interest, not machine. (Spacewar is trivial to a computer.)

8. It was delightful


Click here to play the original Spacewar! running in a Java PDP-1 emulator in your browser window!