By J.G. Newman / September 19, 2016
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.
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.
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.
J.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.