How Spacewar Started a Revolution


Sixty years ago this month, in April 1962, a group of MIT hobbyists launched the pioneering computer game Space war! on the DEC PDP-1, which paved the way for the video game revolution. Back to its origins and its impact.

A duel in space

What is a video game? Does it need a television and video signal for display, or a digital computer to manage the conditions and rules of the game? Should the display be real-time and interactive, or is periodic ticker output acceptable? All of these questions and more have hampered historians of technology from defining the “first video game” as they delve into the earliest and most influential works of the art form.

While a few paramount visual computer games emerged in the 1950s, the game that arguably first defined “video games” as we know them today – real-time action-oriented fantasy simulations on a dynamic electronic screen – appeared in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1962. That year, a group of Harvard employees and MIT students led by Steve Russell created Space war!, a two-player real-time simulation of space dogfighting. Unlike the computer games that preceded it, space war catapulted the player into a tense virtual gaming world that far surpassed previous computer simulations of checkers, billiards, baseball, tic-tac-toe or other down-to-earth activities in intensity. No, it was an entirely new thing: an action-driven fantasy video sport. The video game was born.

Dan Edwards (L) and Peter Samson (R) play Spacewar circa 1962-63.
Dan Edwards (L) and Peter Samson (R) play space war around 1962. MIT Museum

In space war, you play as a spaceship (shaped like a “wedge” or a “needle”) flying through a field of stars. Your objective is to shoot your opponent’s ship with missiles launched from the nose of your spaceship. As you play in this virtual universe, physics are at work: your ships push and move with momentum and inertia, and in the center of the screen is a gravitational star that pulls both ships inward at any time. (If one of the ships touches the star, it explodes or deforms, depending on the version of the game). The result is an acrobatic dance of thrust, momentum and gravity as you launch your ship around the screen, trying to time the perfect missile launch at your opponent.

A group of Harvard employees and MIT students began development on space war late 1961 at MIT. The hobbyist group used the university’s $140,000 DEC PDP-1 computer system (about $1.3 million today, adjusted for inflation), which included a DEC Type CRT display 30 peak – a key piece of the puzzle that made the dynamic visual nature of space war possible. Steve Russell developed the PDP-1 assembly language game, working closely with Wayne Wiitanen, Alan Kotok, Martin Graetz, Dan Edwards, Peter Samson and others.

Initially, players controlled the game with switches on the PDP-1 computer console, but later Robert A. Saunders (and possibly Alan Kotok, according to one source) created two wired control boxes with a custom switch layout (the first video game controllers) that could be held on each gamer’s lap. The group also added points to make competitive matches more exciting.

Spacewar ad from the April 1962 issue of the Decuscope newsletter.
An ad from April 1962 that describes space war as sports. DEC

After completing the game in the spring of 1962, Dan Edwards and Martin Graetz advertised Spacewar in the April 1962 issue of the DECUSCOPE newsletter, which was aimed at users of DEC computers like the PDP-1. Soon, space war became popular at MIT and students lined up to play. University staff had to limit gaming sessions to nighttime or off-peak hours only, as this began to interfere with other uses of the expensive machine.

The influence of space warfare

Shortly after space war emerged, DEC began using the game as a demonstration program of the PDP-1’s capabilities. While the PDP-1 was not widely distributed due to its cost (and the added expense of the optional CRT system), other programmers began translating space war to work on other computer systems with CRT screens. The game has spread to universities across the United States.

The Computer Space arcade flyer.
Computer space (1971) was inspired by space war and turned it into a single player game. Nutting Associates

A fan of Espacewar was Nolan Bushnell, who encountered the game at Stanford in the late 1960s on a PDP-10 computer. Having worked at a carnival midway, he thought this would make a great coin-operated arcade game (other people had a similar idea and came up with galaxy game).

In 1970, Bushnell and his friend Ted Dabney began developing an arcade game inspired by space war called Computer space for Nutting Associates, released in late 1971. While their game was single-player only and technically did not use a computer, it was the first ever commercial video game product and the first arcade video game . Less than a year later, the duo founded Atari, which released the wildly successful game pong in November 1972, catalyzing the video game industry worldwide.

In 1972, Stanford hosted the world’s first video game tournament, presaging the era of esports we have today. As arguably the first original computerized “sport”, space war inspired gamers to hone their reflexes and action-oriented gaming skills, just like a pro in a modern world To break tournament.

While Spacewar itself waned in popularity in the late 1970s with the emergence of new video game diversions, some of the newer titles were markedly influenced by it. In 1977, Cinematronics released space warsa vector arcade cabinet that played a variation of Space war. And in 1979, Atari released the hit arcade title Asteroids, which borrowed an Inertial Ship as part of deep space but added space rocks to detonate. In fact, the vessel used in Asteroids, inspired by the “corner” of Spacewar, has even become the widely used navigation cursor icon in technology today. In a way, that tiny little navigational triangle on your screen started in 1962 with space war.

How to play Spacewar today

Even though Spacewar is now 60 years old, it’s still fun to play if you have a human opponent (the game doesn’t have a single player mode). Thanks to Norbert Landsteiner’s mass:werk website, you can play an accurate simulation of Spacewar in your browser. It even simulates the original long persistence phosphors on the CRT screen.

Spacewar emulated on masswerk website.
A screenshot of space war be emulated in a browser. Benj Edwards

To get started, all you need to do is visit the mass:werk website in a modern web browser. Player 1 turns their ship left or right with the “A” and “D” keys, shoots with “W”, pushes with “S”, and engages hyperspace with “Q”. Player 2 uses “J” and “L” to turn left or right, shoots with “I”, pushes with “K”, and activates hyperspace with “U”.

space war might look clunky at first by modern standards, but if you play it for a while you’ll notice that it’s actually quite sleek, which is probably why it proved so popular in its heyday. Have fun and happy birthday video games!

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