Feature: 'Spacewar and the Birth of Digital Game Culture'

Gamasutra is partnering with the IGDA's Preservation SIG to present in-depth histories of the first ten games voted into the Digital Game Canon, beginning with the 19
Gamasutra is partnering with the IGDA's Preservation SIG to present in-depth histories of the first ten games voted into the Digital Game Canon, beginning with the 1961 mainframe-based shooter Spacewar, arguably the first ever video game. In his introduction, writer Jeffrey Fleming comments on the genesis of this groundbreaking effort, which began with a simple gathering of like minded enthusiasts that would eventually lay the groundwork for a significant milestone in the world of electronic entertainment: “In 1961 a small group of friends gathered regularly at a small apartment on Hingham Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Steve “Slug” Russell, J.M. “Shag” Graetz, and Wayne Wiitanen shared a common interest in the nascent field of computing, having worked together at Harvard’s Litauer Statistical Laboratory where they ran computations on the IBM 704.” He later continues: "An informal group of students, faculty, and research staff gathered in the halls of the Research Lab during the off-hours, eager to grab some time on the computers. “The PDP-1 was available pretty much at any time,” Graetz said. “Jack Dennis wrote out a schedule and people booked time on it.” Circulating through the mix were members of the Tech Model Railroad Club. Ostensibly they were a group of gear heads devoted to model trains but they had become increasingly preoccupied with designing “hacks” or clever improvisations that created new configurations out of scavenged technology. Russell and Graetz, among others, had plans for the machine as well. “One of the things we knew was coming was this CRT that was going to be interactive, something that was not the case with the big mainframe computers,” Graetz remembered. “We thought how could we show off what this thing can do and it didn’t take long to realize the best way to show it off was with a game. It just seemed like a natural tendency. We were still thinking about E.E. Smith in a movie and we thought we could we do something like that. It didn’t take very long for us to figure out that the right kind of game would be a two-person game in which you tried to shoot each other out of space,” Graetz said. “When we told Jack Dennis that we wanted to do this thing called Spacewar and could we have time on the computer he said, ‘I’ll give you a trade. If you can develop essentially the same assembly and diagnostic software, debugging software, that we had on the TX-0 for the PDP-1 over the weekend then, yeah, you can do this’,” Graetz remembered." You can now read the complete feature, which includes a detailed look back at the collaborative effort that went into bringing Spacewar to life, include additional comments from the people who were there and helped make it happen (no registration required, please feel free to link to this column from external websites).

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