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The Making of 'Spacewar!: Video Games Blast Off'

On December 15, the Museum of the Moving Image opened the exhibition, "Spacewar!: Video Games Blast Off. Curator John Sharp discusses the means by criteria used to select the 21 games in the exhibition.

John Sharp, Blogger

January 7, 2013

5 Min Read

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Spacewar!, arguably the first game produced for a digital computer, I worked with the Museum of the Moving Image to organize the 'Spacewar!: Video Games Blast Off' exhibition in New York. The goal of the exhibition is to honor Spacewar!‘s place in our history, and to consider the ways it established themes still present in games today. In addition to a replica Digital Equipment Corporation’s PDP-1 on which you can play Spacewar!, we included twenty other games from a range of platforms, periods and genres.

To get started, Carl Goodman, Jason Eppink, Sam Love and I looked for vectors we could trace from Spacewar! to the current state of video games. Three themes rose to the top as we talked—science fiction as the narrative conceit; the modeling of real world phenomena into a game’s systems; and shooting as a core mechanic and building block of game design. 

In addition to the themes from the game itself, we looked at the Hingham Institute Study Group for Space Warfare’s Theory of Computer Toys (this was a quasi-manifesto Spacewar!’s developers wrote in the planning stage of their design):

1. It  should demonstrate as many of the computer's resources as possible, and tax those resources to the limit;

2. Within a consistent framework, it should be interesting, which means every run should be different;

3. It should involve the onlooker in a pleasurable and active way — in short, it should be a game.

From the Theory of Computer Toys to add three additional themes to guide our selection of games for the exhibition: the drive to maximize technology; the role of interactivity; and the aesthetics of gameplay.

Spacewar! and its History

The first thing we wanted to do was establish Spacewar!’s importance to the early development in the game industry (a complete history of which is found here and here). So lined up next to our PDP-1 replica are Nutting Associates’ Computer Space (arcade, 1971, the rare two-player version! even), Cinematronics’ Space Wars (arcade, 1977) and Atari’s Asteroids (arcade, 1979). Through these four games, we established Spacewar!’s bona fides as the origins of the video game industry.

Space Marines FTW

One of the earliest decisions we made was to use science fiction and space-themes as a filter for selecting the games in the show. While this left elves, orcs, zombies and sports heroes (among others) on the sidelines, there were still plenty of games to work with. We took a rather broad view of sci fi and space, so in addition to Star Wars and Planet Zeon, we included Tempest and Super Mario Galaxy 2

Pew-Pew-Pew, Run and Jump

From there, we looked for games that used shooting as a building block of game design are to help us explore the ideas of genre and sub-genre. The exhibition looks at the early burst of shooting sub-genres like side-scrolling shooters, top-down shooters, rail shooters and many other sub-genres build upon and diverge from genres that pop up in the late 70s and early 80s through games like Defender (arcade, 1980), Space Invaders (arcade, 1978) and Galaxy Force II (arcade, 1988). Sometimes this took us down the paths where platformers and shooters overlap: Metroid II: Return of Samus (Game Boy, 1991) and Super Mario Galaxy 2 (Wii, 2010).

Gravity and its Discontents

If you ask Steve Russell about Spacewar!, he’ll tell you it is an educational game—it teaches you how to fly a spaceship. Russell and his cohorts carefully modeled rocket propulsion and the pull of black holes, for example. So we included games like Portal (PS3, 2007) and Osmos (iOS, 2009) that allowed us to think about the ways game designers adhere to, bend and break the laws of physics in order to create fun. 

Max it Out

The Theory of Computer Toy’s first tenet was quite forward-thinking given the emphasis the industry has place on maximizing hardware. So we included games like Yar’s Revenge (Atari VCS, 1982), Star Fox (SNES, 1993) and Battlezone (arcade, 1980) to look at the ways games have creatively exploited their technologies.

Let them Play
The second tenet of the Theory of Computer Toys is about creating systems within which playres can poke and prod—interactivity, in other words. This was in response to an earlier demo, the “Minskytron,” which was a procedural drawing program that was mesmerizing for a minute or two, but ultimately didn’t hold your attention. To give museum-goers opportunity to think about the role of interactivity in games, it was important to us that all games were playable within the confines of a museum gallery by a wide range of visitors (some of whom had never played a video game before). So certain obvious choices like Starcraft and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic were left out of the exhibition, while we included a large number of arcade games designed with a high degree of “pick up and play.” 

Fun & Games

Ultimately, the Theory of Computer Toys was about bringing games and computers together to create enjoyable play experiences. Russell, Wiitanen and Graetz (the members of the Hingham Institute) saw that computers were going to be an important medium for games, and so we wanted to trace some of the diverse paths the aesthetics of video games have taken in the wake of Spacewar! by including Child of Eden (Xbox 360, 2011) and Vertical Force (Virtual Boy, 1995) but also Asteroids and Portal

Through the 21 playable games in the exhibition, I think we did a good job of drawing out the importance of Spacewar! to the first decades of the game industry, and have provided developers, players and the general public alike with a fun show that helps explain the place of video games as a form of popular entertainment.

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