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Playing Catch-Up: Spacewar Champion Bruce Baumgart

Today’s Playing Catch-Up, a weekly column that dares to speak to notable video game industry figures about their celebrated pasts and promising futures, this week talks t...
Today’s Playing Catch-Up, a weekly column that dares to speak to notable video game industry figures about their celebrated pasts and promising futures, this week talks to possibly the first ever video game champion: robotics engineer, hacker, and Intergalactic Spacewar Champion of 1972 Bruce Baumgart. You might not hear mention of the First Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics in many records of video game history but, thankfully, author, visionary and Whole Earth Catalog creator Stewart Brand documented the Stanford University-based event for the December 7, 1972 issue of Rolling Stone magazine. Brand wrote then, of Spacewar, which ran only on large mainframe computers in this pre-personal computing era: "Reliably, at any nighttime moment (i.e. non-business hours) in North America hundreds of computer technicians are effectively out of their bodies, locked in life-or-death space combat computer-projected onto cathode ray tube display screens, for hours at a time, ruining their eyes, numbing their fingers in frenzied mashing of control buttons, joyously slaying their friend and wasting their employers' valuable computer time." He rhapsodized: "Something basic is going on." The event was held October 19, 1972, at Stanford's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the setting and decor of which is described by Brand as "Modern Mad Scientist." A good twenty-or-so paticipants are shuffled into what's called the console room, headed by Ralph Gorin, the AI department's Head System Programmer of the time. Brand describes the scene on the PDP-10's computer screen: "Immediately the screen goes dark and then displays: Five different space ships, each with a dot indicating torpedo tubes are loaded, five scores, each at zero, a convincing starfield, and four space mines orbiting around a central sun, toward which the spaceships are starting to fall at a correctly accelerating rate." The game was booted and the First Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics - the first documented videogame competition in history - began. Baumgart recalled in our interview: "I had improved my skill a lot that month because I was experimenting with holding the button box in either my left hand, or backwards in my right, turning the buttons in the opposite order as a handicap to play against beginners." He explains: "Then, finally, I was able to play two ships in a five-man game -- using both left and right hands. The 'trick' to a quantum leap in skill is when you can stop thinking about your buttons and fingers and just look at your spaceship(s) on the screen and 'Use the force, Luke.' Use sheer will-power to make them turn, move and shoot. This skill transition is well known in Zen archery, playing the violin or riding a bicycle I suppose. The most satisfying is when I could position two ships to direct a crossfire on another player." Baumgart won the free-for-all segment of the competition, and was awarded the crown of Intergalactic Spacewar Champion of 1972, with the bragging rights and free subscription to Rolling Stone that came along with it. And like many of his contemporaries and fellow "hackers," Spacewar was his final frontier in video games. "I put a few quarters into Pong at a local beer joint," he said, "but we kind of looked down upon it. Spacewar, of course, happened before Pong. Bushnell's only achievement was to do a game without a [much larger] computer." "I've followed games at a distance," Baumgart continues. "When I had children in the '80s, I was glad to pass the wand on to them, watching them stomp turtles. They're both over 21 now, and are champions in their own right in the greater Los Gatos, California area. I do like the Sim games, gentler games like that." Baumgart now works at the non-profit Internet Archive in the Presidio of San Francisco, helping build and maintain the Petabox large-scale data repository, home to the Archive's massive web, video and audio archives, following a distinguished career in which he founded his own entertainment ticketing software company, worked at Xerox PARC in terabyte archiving projects all the way back in 1990, and spent time in the thinktank environment of the IBM Almaden Research Center. "I think we saw it back then," he says, speaking of the potential growth of video games, "and we’re disappointed that it’s not going faster. The science fiction world of robots and everything and special goggles - like, the computer built into your glasses - and connecting computers to humans... things like that, the stuff we were all dreaming about back then, we still haven't seen it. The PC was just terribly late, it hit the market a decade after we had our own homemade computers." [Frank Cifaldi is a Las Vegas-based freelance author whose credits include work for Nintendo Official Magazine UK, Wired, and his own Lost Levels website.]

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