‘Spacewar!’ and the Birth of Video Games

By J.G. Newman / September 19, 2016

Spacewar Baumgart

Bruce Baumgart, winner of the Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics held at Stanford University on October 19, 1972

Spacewar! (1962) was the first video game the way that Little Richard was the first rock star. Both 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 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 first kernel. OXO (1952), a tic-tac-toe simulator, and Tennis for Two (1958), something of a 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. It wasn’t merely technically influential, but helped forge the mythos and values of an entire medium. The last fifty years of video games (which, importantly, are also the first fifty years of video games) could even be seen as a refining of what Spacewar! achieved, turning a group of early MIT programmers’ (Steve Russell, Wayne Wiitanen, and Martin Graetz) 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, unless of course he has been swept in to the roblox hack phenomena and can’t get his mind of the grind of fake currencies.  You can’t blame them too much if that’s the case, as you know the video game industry is very good at making non rewarding actions feel rewarding.

Essentially, Spacewar! is a deathmatch game. No need to 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. Both players control a spaceship, floating haphazardly through a tiny chunk of the final frontier. The ships are armed with torpedoes and jet boosters, and would it shock you to learn that the player’s sole motivation is to destroy his opponent’s ship?

Yet it’s in these very restrictions and subtleties that Spacewar! most resembles the more polished games of today. For one, it’s a creation with a deep respect for physics and science. The game’s spaceships orbit a central sun that is 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 actually inhabit 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.

Spacewar PDP-1

Spacewar! on the PDP-1 console

Perhaps even more strangely familiar 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, Spacewar! allowed only the most brilliant computer programmers of the era to 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 becomes your mortal enemy. The rare commoner who got his hands on Spacewar! didn’t feel much differently. After getting his ass squarely handed to him by a seasoned space warrior, Joseph F. Goodavage, writing for men’s magazine Saga, concluded, “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 desire to keep playing a game he loves, even when he’s losing at it. Goodavage’s melodramatic take on his make-believe spaceship’s defeat also notes another unbroken standard set by Spacewar!: punishment in video games has traditionally meant death, even if it’s only the death of your avatar. 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. He explains the maneuver in terms of story, not science: “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 to college campuses and technology companies also resulted in something akin to the first mod scene, where students would take each other’s code for the game and make improvements and modifications. Spacewar! was an ever-evolving creature during the 1960s, 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 so much about its era. Spacewar! is one of those games, a distillation of post-Sputnik, pre-Apollo 11 America’s dual fear of and fascination with space exploration. It’s odd (and a little disheartening, given NASA’s diminishing budget) to think back to a time when America was deeply invested in space travel, and the nerdily accurate star map that scrolls past Spacewar!‘s backdrop captures that wish to journey through the cosmos. But the foreground of the game all but (literally) annihilates that wonder. The original version of Spacewar! appeared only months before the Cuban Missile Crisis, at a time when any leap in technology meant our enemies could harness that new power and pummel us from above. The game’s two warring spaceships—with only the force of gravity between them—are as starkly opposed 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, perhaps a bit sensationally, was convinced that Spacewar! was more a sign of things to come than a mere entertainment. Games attempting to capture the zeitgeist these days usually fall flat, their ambitions too telegraphed and tactless. Perhaps we still have a few things to learn from Spacewar!’s inspired innocence.

Newman AvatarJ.G. Newman is a writer and film researcher living in Los Angeles. At his former blog, Playing the Canon, he reviewed highly regarded classic and contemporary video games.

11 thoughts on “‘Spacewar!’ and the Birth of Video Games

  1. Aw man, Spacewar!

    I can’t remember exactly where it was—if it was on the Santa Monica Pier, somewhere in the Valley or elsewhere in L.A.—but I do recall one day in the early ’80s (1980-82 at the latest) that my good friend and I were out playing games in a large arcade. After sifting through the usual gauntlet of classics (Asteroids, Pac-Man, Space Invaders, etc.), he spotted a larger cabinet which stuck out like a sore thumb, nestled within a row of standard-sized arcade cabs.

    “Spacewars!” he exclaimed. “That’s an awesome game! Let’s play it!”

    I had no idea what he was talking about, which kinda surprised me, ‘coz at the time I, he, and basically everyone else we knew practically lived in our local arcades. Nevertheless, I sprinted alongside him as we raced to the cabinet.

    The cab itself looked really old and worn; the deck on which the buttons laid had definitely needed replacing and a lot of the instructions were faded or wiped away from what looked like years of good use. My buddy actually had to walk me through the gameplay and how to use the buttons to maneuver and fire. It was unusual in the sense that we were both able to play at once—I mean, truly head-to-head on one screen. It was definitely the first time that I played an actual deathmatch game where the stakes weren’t who could claim the high score, but rather, who could get the most kills.

    I remember there being different styles of game play. We could choose whether or not the sun/star in the middle would have gravity or not, as well as other options. But he insisted that gravity was the best so we went with it.

    It didn’t take more than a few minutes into gameplay for us to get totally hooked, frantically trying to kill each other. The sun’s gravity “pull” was amazing in the sense that it appeared to simulate real astro-physics as our spacecraft accelerated rapidly as we got closer to it, and we would have to compensate with our thrusters and rotation to safely swing ourselves away from collision while at the same time avoiding incoming fire.

    One of the best things was how our spacecraft would take a certain amount of structural “damage” before becoming complete space junk. I was flying the Star Trekky “Enterprise” style craft and remember my friend blowing away one of my thrusters, leaving me crippled and lop-sided, having to struggle with any further evasive maneuvers (while dealing with the gravity pull, of course).

    Of all the games in the arcade that day, Spacewars was by far our favorite, because it was the only game that allowed us to directly compete against each other in a kill-or-be-killed scenario. It wasn’t until Electronic Arts’ Archon (1983) that we were able to meet each other again, face-to-face on a battlefield.

    It’s amazing that after all these years that I would still remember Space Wars so vividly, and your article definitely brought it all back with even more insight to its history and development. Thanks for sharing!

      • Whoa…I’d never even heard of Polybius, nor the urban legend surrounding it! However, it is still weird to me that as much as we enjoyed playing it, we never returned…and I never saw that game in any other arcade…

        [creepy music plays]

        lol. I wish they’d bring that back! It’d be great to see a survivor somewhere.

        • Creepy urban legends about retro video games are a bit of a cottage industry these days. Younger fans (millennials, mostly) of retro gaming seem to have taken the trope and run with it. I think that a lot of it has to do with the lack of fidelity in old forms of gaming media (glitches, alternate versions, etc.) and an overall anxiety about the uncanniness of dead tech among a generation who’d just missed it. Basically, it’s the same reason why all of the stuff in The Hatch on Lost (its old computers and 8 mm orientation films) was so uncanny and creepy for someone my age.

          My personal theory is that just as The Ring appeared as VHS was beginning to decline as a format, all of these retro gaming myths started appearing in the late ’90s/early ’00s, as the internet and ROMs made classic games easier to play and reproduce and thus accessible to a generation who’d never played them.

          • Interesting theory, Grasso. The retro gaming myth is seriously something I never really caught wind of. Then again, I was barely a part of the gaming community/culture throughout the ’90s, aside from my local LAN buddy bouts with Descent, Warcraft 2 and Starcraft. Thanks for the enlightenment!

        • I was lucky enough to encounter several Space Wars cabinet in my travels of yesteryear. The one that stands out for me and was available to me for regular play was in the local mall. There wasn’t an arcade in the mall at that time – it was pre-arcade boom. The Space Wars cabinet stood alone like a monolith against the wall in one of the entrance hallways. It was the giant Cinematronics cabinet, not the smaller Vectorbeam version. In the late ’70s and early ’80s my brother and I played that game a lot. We were quite young but we sussed out its control scheme and tried all the different variations. We loved that game.

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  4. Space War! is definitely the world’s first Video Game. Sure there were other Computer Games, but they did not use Video to display play.

    Space War! was unique for the reasons you mention – start of gamer culture, adopting a space mystique.

    My linked article is validated by your recognition that Video Games were tied to technology. In my language, Games are the Play of Measurement and how else to track complex measurement then through computers. Thanks for such a great read!

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