History Software Engineering

Spacewar! Video Game – 1962 AD

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Steve Russell (b. 1937), Martin Graetz (dates unavailable), Wayne Wiitanen (dates unavailable)

It was obvious to Steve Russell and friends at MIT that the best way to demonstrate the power of the new PDP-1 machine would be a multiuser video game in which players tried to shoot down one another’s spaceships. So Russell, along with his friends Martin Graetz and Wayne Wiitanen, came up with Spacewar!, inspired in part by American and Japanese science-fiction and pulp novels.

The basic program took about six weeks to develop and featured two spaceships, the Needle and the Wedge, both orbiting around the gravitational well of a sun, with a starfield as background. The program required more than 1,000 calculations per second to compute the spaceships’ motion and location, plot the relative positions of the stars and sun, and apply the player inputs. Players could launch torpedoes using a toggle switch on the computer or by pressing a button on a control pad. Because the game followed Newtonian physics, the ships remained in motion even when the players were not accelerating them. Part of the challenge then was to shoot down the opponent’s ship without colliding with a star. Spacewar! featured hyperspace, gravity-assist powers, and forced cooldowns between firings, so it required some strategy to win rather than just aiming weapons and firing at the other player as quickly as possible. There was even a lone asteroid that the players could fire upon.

First unveiled to the public at MIT’s 1962 Science Open House, Spacewar! could soon be found on most of the PDP-1 research computers in the country. Considered one of the 10 most important video games of all time by the New York Times in 2007, much of Spacewar!’s success is evident in the decades after its creation—Stewart Brand (b. 1938) and Rolling Stone sponsored a Spacewar! tournament in 1972, reporting on it with the excitement of a physical sporting event. In 1977, BYTE magazine published a version of Spacewar! in assembly language that could run on the Altair 8800, and Spacewar! was the inspiration for one of the first-ever arcade games, Computer Space, in 1971, designed by the same person—Nolan Bushnell (b. 1943)—who would go on to launch Pong® and the Atari Corporation®. And that lone asteroid in Spacewar! became the inspiration for the video game Asteroids®, which would become Atari’s most successful game.

SEE ALSO PDP-1 (1959), Pong (1972), First Personal Computer (1974), BYTE Magazine (1975)

Dan Edwards (left) and Peter Samson (right) play Spacewar!—one of the earliest digital-computer video games—on the PDP-1 Type 30 display.

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