Gaming Literacy: Spacewar! The first video game worthy of the name

In our Gaming Literacy series we're taking a look at relics and moments from gaming past. These are the artifacts and events all gamers should know, whether they be glorious highlights or frightening failures.

What was the first video game ever made? It turns out, that’s a hard question to answer. Most people would say Pong, but unless you are talking about the Magnavox Odyssey’s Pong-Alike – which was one of the first release titles available for the first home console – Pong doesn’t even count. Tons of video games existed before Pong. Computer gamers would routinely code board games like Tic-Tac-Toe, Chess, and Checkers into computers as a way to test their coding skills. Before that, primitive arcade games used simple lights, colored film, and shadow puppets to produce game images. And even before that, electronic pinball machines existed as early as the 1930’s. Heck, coin-op electronic amusement machines existed well back into the 1920’s – that’s nearly a hundred years ago!

This question is so difficult to answer because we’ve never really defined what a video game is. In the present, it’s easy to tell: any game that puts images on a screen is basically classified as a video game. However, as we go back in time, we encounter some interesting questions, such as “What counts as a screen?” Can it be a mechanical setup like the aforementioned light and shadow arcade machines or does it have to be a monitor? Furthermore, can the game be mechanical or does it need to exist as a piece of software? The further back you go, the more the dividing line between traditional games and video games blurs.

Since there’s no clear consensus on what counts as a video game, the question of “What was the first video game?” has become a bit of a personal one. Every video game historian has a different answer, and it usually says something about what aspects of video game history that individual is most interested in. So I’m going to share with you my answer:

The first video game was Spacewar!

The Race To Space

Spacewar! wasn’t the first game to use a screen, or the first game to be coded in software, or the first game on a computing device. It was, however, by most accounts the first video game programmed explicitly to be a video game. It wasn’t mimicking an already existing game or sport. Instead, it provided an experience that could only take place in the realm of software and monitors.

Spacewar! was developed in 1962 as a tech demo. In fact, it may be one of the very first examples of video games being used as tech demos for new equipment. The equipment was the Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-1 minicomputer, a gigantic device (especially for being called a minicomputer) that was revolutionary at the time because of its tiny, circular, one-color display.

As I said before, it was common practice to code games as tech demos at the time. Usually, these games were just simple recreations of other games, such as Tic-Tac-Toe. However, three individuals – Steve Russel, Martin Graetz, and Wayne Wiltanen – wanted to do something more to show off the PDP-1’s power.

"We had this brand new PDP-l," Steve Russell said in a 1972 interview with Rolling Stone. "It was the first minicomputer, ridiculously inexpensive for its time. And it was just sitting there. It had a console typewriter that worked right, which was rare, and a paper tape reader and a cathode ray tube display, (There had been CRT displays before, but primarily in the Air Defense System). Somebody had built some little pattern-generating programs which made interesting patterns like a kaleidoscope. Not a very good demonstration. Here was this display that could do all sorts of good things! So we started talking about it, figuring what would be interesting displays. We decided that probably you could make a two-dimensional maneuvering sort of thing, and decided that naturally the obvious thing to do was spaceships."

Why spaceships? It allowed the team to show that the PDP-1 could model Newtonian physics. Acceleration, deceleration, and gravity would all be important parts of the game environment…eventually.

The Debate Over Skill vs. Luck Begins

So how does Spacewar! play? If you are familiar with other space shooting games like Asteroids then you are familiar with Spacewar!, because they use almost identical programming. Spacewar! had two spaceships floating around in the void of space, attempting to shoot each other with torpedoes. Hit the opponent and you score a point – it was really that simple.

However, Spacewar! was important and influential because the design evolved with community participation. You could say it spawned one of the very first modding communities. Another programmer, Dan Edwards, designed two defining elements of Spacewar! after the initial game had been developed.

First, he put a gravity well in the middle of the playing field. This meant players had to constantly adjust their position and momentum to avoid falling in, but it also meant that they could use the gravity well for tricks. Shooting your torpedoes close to the well would make them curve around it, letting you hit your opponents with trick shots, although earlier versions of the game left torpedoes unaffected by gravity since it was taxing on the PDP-1’s resources. Flying dangerously close to the gravity well could also allow the gravity to slingshot you away at high speeds, a great way to avoid enemy projectiles.

The second major gameplay element that Edwards integrated into the game was “hyperspace”. This allowed your ship to disappear for a few seconds and reappear in a random place on the field. It allowed you to escape difficult situations, but put you in danger of randomly dying to the gravity well in the center of the field. Early versions of the game gave you a limited amount of hyperspace jumps, along with limited fuel and torpedoes. These limits were later removed, but the player was assigned a random chance of simply exploding whenever they used a hyperspace jump.

This made way for another video game first: the first discussion of randomness versus skill. In a practical mirror of Smash Brothers arguments of the present day, Spacewar! players split into two factions. One faction liked the hyperspace functionality, citing that it added an interesting bit of fun to the game and operated as a comeback mechanics. Another said that the hyperspace jumps made the game more random and made it less of a true test of skill. This argument would continue as the game slowly spread and continued to be iterated on.

Tons of new functionality would eventually be added to the game. A planetarium program was integrated to give the game a background, which just so happened to be an accurate star chart of our galaxy. Later iterations of Spacewar! would experiment with replacing the hyperspace functionality with things like cloaking devices, mines, and alternate weapons. At one point, someone coded positional damage into the game, making it more difficult to turn right or left if you took hits to the right or left side.

The game was initially played with the switches on the PDP-1, but this proved a bit too complicated. It would require one player to be positioned to the side of the monitor, which put them at a disadvantage. To solve this problem yet more developers, Alan Kotok and Bob Saunders, created a separate device that attached to the system’s switches. This device only had five buttons, allowing you to turn right or left, fire, throttle, and activate hyperspace. It was, in essence, an early example of a dedicated gamepad.

The World’s First E-Sports Competition

And on top of all these other firsts, Spacewar! was also the very first e-sport. While there weren’t major teams or sponsorships to speak of, there was the Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics held in 1972, the world’s very first video game tournament.

Spacewar! had an admittedly small fanbase, out of necessity more than anything else. Only about 55 PDP-1s were ever sold at the ludicrous price of $120,000. This limited Spacewar! to a player base of academics who had free access to a computing lab. Even so, two-dozen players gathered in Stanford University’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory on October 19, 1972 to participate in the first ever e-sports competition.

You might notice that this competition took place ten years after Spacewar! was first created. The game had quite a bit of time to develop at that point, and was being played on a PDP-10, a much more advanced computer. Regulations had to be put into place. Most of the extra bells and whistles – from extra weapons to special damage – were turned off. The game was reduced to little more than its original concept for the fairest competition possible.

The tournament had two categories, Free-For-All and Teams. Slim Tovar and Robert E. Maas won the Team division while Bruce Baumgart took the Free-For-All competition. Bruce even walked away with one of the first ever e-sports prizes: a year’s subscription to Rolling Stone.

And that is why I say that Spacewar! is the first video game ever. It’s the first game that we did, well, game things with. We made mods, we organized tournaments, we debated fairness, and we gushed over expansions. We pushed it forward to new and more powerful hardware, discussed strategy, and even made our own controllers. It was a sport, a game, and even escapism; a platonic ideal of what would come to be known as the gaming fandom. It’s an important part of gaming history, arguably far more important than Pong ever was.

And you can even play it yourself! Several websites run PDP emulators in a browser window, and if you are lucky enough to be in the California Bay Area, you can play Spacewar! on an original PDP-1 at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA.