The more things change…
Spacewar! was the first video game the way that Little Richard was the first rock star. Both gracefully wrote a fairly complete rulebook for a future worldwide obsession, yet were known to such niche (or, in Richard’s case, unfairly marginalized) audiences that it’s no wonder they now play footnote to the Pongs and Presleys of history. Whether or not Spacewar! was technically the first video game does not particularly interest me; no matter how far back you go in a movement, there will always be people searching for antecedents, trying to stretch a genre back to its very kernel. OXO (a tic-tac-toe simulator) and Tennis for Two (a rarely glimpsed Pong predecessor) have Spacewar! beat chronologically, but if we’re discussing what games are “about” beyond just being graphical representations on a computer screen, then it’s no contest.
Spacewar! still holds up to the modern definition of what a video game looks like, plays like, and who it primarily appeals to, to an extent that we are not just discussing technical influence, but the creation of the mythos and values of an entire medium. It’s possible the last fifty years of video games (which, importantly, are also the first fifty years of video games) have been less about true innovation than refining what Spacewar! achieved, turning a group of early MIT programmers’ brainy off-hours passion project into something accessible enough that at this very moment, your eight year-old nephew is probably playing some rip-off of it on his cell phone.
Obviously, I have not played Spacewar! in its original incarnation. I’ve messed around with emulators of it and its imitators, but I haven’t tracked down a working PDP-1 computer, a Stonehedge rock-esque slab of a device measuring somewhere between three and five full-size refrigerators. Yet the game’s influence is so deeply entrenched, its rules and subject matter so second nature to anyone with even a passing interest in this stuff, that despite the primordial, unavailable contraption that housed its code, hearing the title still manages to instill one with a mighty case of deja vu.
Essentially, Spacewar! is a deathmatch game. There are no ancient secrets or rudimentary design decisions that add an asterisk to that categorization; if you’re familiar with Spacewar!’s direct arcade inheritors, or even the competitive first-person shooters from the ’90s and beyond, you know what to expect. Each player controls a distinctly designed spaceship, floating haphazardly through a screen-sized quadrant of the final frontier. The ships are armed with torpedoes and jet boosters; would it shock you to learn that the player’s sole motivation is to destroy his opponent’s ship?
Yet it’s in its restrictions and subtleties where Spacewar! most resembles the more polished games of today. For one, it’s a creation with a deep respect for physics and science. Its spaceships orbit a central sun, forever pulling them closer to possible doom and endowing their limited universe with a tactile believability. This is the first attempt to create a game in a representative physical location, the earliest virtual place participants could feel they actually inhabited when they logged in. Spacewar! also only allows players a limited supply of missiles and fuel, meaning this is a game of strategy as well as reflexes. From the start, video games were designed with a learning curve; this was a hobby requiring practice, something you actually had to perfect.
Perhaps even more strangely recognizable about the Spacewar! programmer microcosm of the ’60s and ’70s are the reactions from the actual human beings who played the thing. By all accounts, Spacewar! was an instant obsession among the limited number of people with access to it. It foreshadowed id Software’s famous boast that Doom was “the number one cause of decreased productivity in businesses around the world,” except unlike Doom, only the most brilliant computer programmers of the era could waste countless hours blowing each other to bits. Read up on the after-hours Spacewar! tournaments these eggheads held and try not to be reminded of your own late-night rounds of Goldeneye or Smash Bros.: that compulsive need for “one more round,” that funny-frustrating gargle of emotions when your best friend briefly became a mortal enemy.
Not that the rare common man who got his hands on Spacewar! felt much differently. After getting his ass squarely handed to him by a seasoned space warrior, Joseph F. Goodavage, writing for men’s magazine Saga, concludes, “Like nearly everyone else who’d ever played this war game, I was instantly addicted and anxious for a rematch.” You can almost hear the itch in Goodavage’s voice as he describes the battle, his words embodying his visceral, almost inexplicable desire to curl up inside a game he loves, even when he’s losing at it. That longing to return to these imaginary, far-off places where we are but empowered guests remains the seductive bread and butter of video game obsession. Goodavage’s melodramatic take on his make-believe spaceship’s defeat also notes another unbroken standard set by Spacewar!: Punishment in video games traditionally bypasses any measured slaps on the wrist and leaps immediately to the extremity of death. This is not some piddly round of tic-tac-toe or table tennis; this is kill or be killed.
In a totality not seen in any other medium of creative expression, video games are forever linked to technology and those who can wield it. In other words, nerds. So it’s only fitting that the first true video game takes its inspiration from the schlocky, otherwise forgotten sci-fi novels of E.E. “Doc” Smith. Smith was an honest-to-goodness Ph.D. who began publishing sci-fi in the likes of Amazing Stories during the ’30s. (He’s also the guy who figured out how to get powdered sugar to stick to doughnuts, and I don’t know if I could think of a better analogy for Spacewar!’s long term influence on Americans’ acceptance of computers.)
Smith’s novels and imagination struck a chord with Spacewar!‘s designers beyond the immediate flashiness of his sleek star carriers, though. In a fascinating 1972 Rolling Stone article by Stewart Brand, lead Spacewar! programmer Stephen R. Russell explains why the inclusion of hyperspace – an emergency Spacewar! move that drops your ship in a random location – is so haphazard. However, his explanation is one of a storyteller, not a hacker: “They [the Spacewar! characters] hadn’t done really a thorough job of testing them – they had rushed them into the fleet.” Before Star Trek or Star Wars, before Bioware or Bethesda – when all these nice young dweebs had to work with were Tolkien and dime store space operas – here was an attempt at lore, at giving a game context outside of what was on-screen.
The game’s exclusivity within college campuses and technology companies also resulted in something akin to the first mod scene. Spacewar! was an ever-evolving creature, a product of a more trustworthy time among the technological elite when forward momentum was more important than copyrights.
Unless you consider Pac-Man’s gluttony as a meditation on the fast-encroaching hedonism of the 1980s, it’s a rare game that reflects much about its era. Spacewar! is one of those games, a pitch perfect distillation of post-Sputnik, pre-Apollo 11 America’s dual fear and love of space exploration. It’s odd (and a little disheartening) to think back to a time when America was deeply invested in space travel, and Peter Samson’s accurate star map that scrolls past Spacewar!‘s backdrop captures that wish to journey through space at its most wistful and doe-eyed. But the foreground of the game all but literally annihilates that wonder; Spacewar!‘s original development was only months before the Cuban missile crisis, a time when any leap in technology meant our enemies could someday pummel us from above. These two warring spaceships – with only the force of gravity between them – stand in as stark opposition as the sparring ideologies of the Cold War. It’s the era’s “us versus them,” “black versus white” worldview captured in computer code, made so gripping that the aforementioned Saga writer was convinced that Spacewar! was more a sign of things to come than a mere entertainment. (To be fair, the magazine supposedly had a history of running silly UFO stories, so this extremism should be taken with a grain of salt.) Games attempting to capture the zeitgeist these days usually fall flat, their ambitions far too blatant and on-the-nose. Perhaps we still have a few things to learn from Spacewar!
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