SpaceWar! is a 1962 video game developed by Steve Russel. While not the first known video game (it was preceded by others such as OXO and Tennis for Two), it is among the most important for various reasons. While it didn't start the video game boom, it inspired several people who are considered pioneers of the industry such as Nolan Bushnell, who first played the game in his homestate of Utah.
This article will explore the history and importance of SpaceWar! in-depth.
SpaceWar! is unique in that it is truly the first "computer game". Tennis for Two, which preceded it by several years, was executed using electronic circuitry instead of an actual computer. SpaceWar! was programmed using a PDP-1, a microcomputer developed by the Digital Equipment Corporation that was intended for companies that could not afford to purchase large computers (despite this the average cost of a PDP-1 was still sold for $120,000, nearly $1 million with inflation). MIT had purchased a PDP-1 for their kludge room where students were brainstorming how to take advantage of this technology and do something unique with it. In fact, before even receiving the unit they had come up with several ideas.
When experimenting with the PDP-1, the students at MIT found various unique applications that allowed them to create fascinating patterns that resembled those you would find in a kaleidoscope. While neat, they knew that they would be able to push the computer farther and came up with three general requirements for their undertaking, those being 1. the project should try to use as many of the PDP-1's features as possible and take those features to their absolute limits, 2. the project should be interesting and primarily fascinate people, and 3. it should involve the person using it. The third "rule", if executed properly, would almost automatically make whatever they planned a "game".
- PDP-1 (Programmed Data Processor-1): The first in a series of microcomputers developed by the Digital Equipment Corporation. Despite technically being a computer, the developers deliberately restrained from using the term in order to prevent it from being mistaken for a large machine (which computers at the time were known for). Even though it was a microcomputer, this term had not yet been developed. PDPs were intended for companies that could not afford larger computers. While PDP-1 is well known for being the computer SpaceWar! was developed on, it was also very popular among hacker communities. Beyond SpaceWar!, the first text editor, first chess program, and first word processor were made on the PDP-1.