Spacewar! [1962]

Spacewar is still the first video game. Not technically: the developers of Spacewar were already aware of a playable Tic Tac Toe implementation on the very computer they were working on, which by that point was already a more-than-decade-long tradition for computers, not to mention Tennis For Two [1958]. (For greater detail on this cascade of history, watch Ahoy’s fantastic and dry documentary The First Video Game.) These prior works are only trivia, though, and false starts all of them. They’re what you find if you look at the past not on its own terms but on ours, applying a rigorous schema of definition aspiring to the condition of a science, searching for something specific they couldn’t have known they had. Tennis For Two is the only game of that protozoic era to be relevant or even known of to anyone in the field for the next several decades, and even then all that was required of it was the mere fact of its existence (its status as a trivia item) for the sake of a something so banal as a lawsuit. They are worthy of honorary mention, but a medium is not a prescription, it is a chain of tradition. Not only is Spacewar wholly original and something only achievable with a digital computer and not an attempt at transferring a real-life game, but more importantly and ironically, it did not exist in a vacuum.

Spacewar is not something you apply a definition to, Spacewar IS the definition. Although nothing so strident and bold and definitive was intended as it would be with later games, when it was taken as a prototypical guide by those who followed, that is what it functionally became. Not to be too precious and romantic and mythologize it (“First there was nothing, then there was Spacewar!”), not to be too essentialist about it (“Spacewar contains the seeds for all what followed”), not to use it to answer What Doth Games and fall right back into the checklisting trap — but we can read the game itself as a manifesto, a collection of precepts and assumptions, and one of the creators (JM Graetz) was even considerate enough to give us an itemized list of exactly what the MIT Tech Model Railroad Group hoped to achieve in making Spacewar:

1) It should demonstrate, that is, it should show off 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.

The expressed reason video games exist as a distinct artistic medium, as anything more than a shadowplay of traditional games and sports, is to show off the power of our computers. I use that word — power — and not the more prosaic and accurate “computer resources” that Graetz used for a reason. It’s 1962, and it can not be put out from anyone’s mind, viewer, player, or creator, that computers would be instrumental in a real Space War of the foreseeable future. Or even a terrestrial war, which was the sole practical purpose and reason for the existence and funding of computers up to this point in history (if we take pure mathematics for its own sake as “impractical.”) It’s a show of force, it could even be a threat if it were leveraged in a Cold War propagandistic context against those with weaker or nonexistent computers and not with the giddy, childish innocence that it was created and received with. Better to call the spirit “utopian frivolity,” though. Self-proclaimed hackers brought not only Spacewar to the system, but the music of Bach and by extension his rosy vision of the divine and human. Perhaps these programmers may have had their imaginations circumscribed and imprinted with the hitherto military legacy of computing, not to mention American culture… but these eggheads messing around saw the potential of computers reaching far beyond that, towards a hi-tech Arcadia. There’s much to admire there, but it carries the unmistakable stench of classical tragedy, and Spacewar serves as a testament of the damnation from within: not just that it is a window into an imagined future of nothing but war, but that its explicit priority is the poisonous ambition to simply use more and more resources, again endemic to American culture as much as it is to future game development culture.

Things like “crunch” weren’t around yet, of course. Spacewar is sometimes casually attributed to Steve Russell as the lead or main developer, as in the current lede of its Wikipedia article. The original concept was borne of three-man bull sessions with Russell, but then the very first step towards practical implementation was taken by a fourth man. Russell then created a barebones prototype, including the ships and their ability to turn and thrust and shoot (and it is not mentioned, but presumably, to die.) In response to playtesting, he added background stars. After that point, it became stone soup. Other people in the Tech Model Railroad Club would have a bright idea — bespoke controllers, accurate background stars, freshly optimized ship-turning code, death animations, hyperspace warp, and the big one, the central gravity-well star — and then just implement it themselves. The end result is a game that’s simple, but surprisingly polished and full-featured, especially compared to our image of early games as clunky, primitive, blocky things. It reminds one of the hagiographic myth of early-90s Id, a very small team of friends having as much fun making the game as they are playing it, all leaving their personal touch on the work. Steve Russell was not the auteur with a hand on the tiller and an eye on his vision, but one crucial member of the team. It’s all very kumbaya, non-hierarchical, no pressure, if we take testimony about its development on face value and don’t chuck it out as rose-tinted nostalgia.

This stands in contrast to the game, which is a fantasy of violent domination in competition, with a definite winner. We could unpack the implications of that more, and what it all means that the very first video game was of war, but, well, we’ll have plenty of chances to in the future to say the least. Two opponents, precisely balanced and equal in a space ballet, identical in every way except for visually (the distinctive silhouettes of the needle and the wedge are a minor triumph in character design.) Hey, maybe there’s some Tic Tac Toe influence there! Spacewar’s idea of gaming is inherently multiplayer, and that makes sense. Solo games like pinball or Solitaire card games exist, but the large majority of games at this point that inform what we understand a game to be are all communal activities. The game even came with inviting options to modify the game’s parameters to suit the player’s preferences.

[I must confess now: other than maybe a couple minutes at a computer museum with a partner, and a few minutes in the middle of writing this awkwardly sharing a keyboard on a browser emulator with my dad, I don’t think I’ve properly played this. I’m just a tourist. Is this an analysis of Spacewar or of JM Graetz’s The Origin Of Spacewar? This is more of a programming note than anything about the game, but part of why I’m starting this project is because I’ve always been on the outside looking in when it comes to gaming. I’ve always loved reading about games more than playing them, and this writing and canon-exploring endeavor is a hope that I can fill in the gaps and to force me to form my own thoughts. And what’s the point if I can’t well play the game for myself? Unless I change my mind, I’ll be largely avoiding multiplayer games whenever I possibly can, because not only can securing a Player 2 in these early non-online games be an awkward or high barrier to clear for me, and not only are many of them ephemeral, and/or hard to fix in place and get a read on, such as here where the intention is that every run is different because of the guile and fumbles of your human opponent even though the game blatantly remains static, but their basic legibility depends even more than usual on practiced skill that I just haven’t personally built up.]

The game is inherently hostile to your continued existence, and both players are only empowered to make it even moreso. Movement is constant, although very slow so as to facilitate strategic marksmanship over spray-and-pray. It’s not an anxious atmosphere though, the edge of threat and action is what keeps the player engaged, throws them into interaction and thought. The central star is the key that makes this dramatic and dangerous gameplay: it makes it impossible to stay still, and it serves as the passive threat of death, one that can’t be defeated, only negotiated. The only other gameplay element to speak of is your human opponent, but the star serves as the personification of the game itself. It shares something in common with the roulette wheel, not in the randomization which is more in play with the Hyperspace Warp Hail Mary, not even in the gravitational pull, but in the way it stands as an emblem that ultimately, you’re playing the game on the terms of the game-maker and at the mercy of physics. Maybe it’s only a small philosophical leap from playing against the computer’s game and a player to designing a game played against only the computer.

Spacewar exists already at the fruitful intersection of abstraction, simulation, and fiction that games will never escape. You don’t get to brake, but instead have to apply reverse thrust, in a nod to simulating what space flight would really be like. But you can pivot freely without applying any thrust at all as though on a Lazy Susan, so that your nose is always pointing in the opposite direction   of the thrust for quick visual clarity. Your bullets don’t obey gravity like your ship does. These have their respective knowingly-silly technobabble explanations, papering over the gap between simulation and abstraction with fiction. War is its name and theme, but it’s really more of a duel, boiling war down to a single dogfight. Space is its name and theme, but it’s not empty and it’s not infinite, it’s a closed area smaller than a sheet of paper that wraps around at the edges and corners, which if I’m visualizing correctly, would resolve to a teardrop shape (which is then projected onto a rectangle, which is then projected onto a circle.) In each case, we are presented with a small slice of what we understand through the minimal text (the title) to represent an almost incomprehensibly bigger idea.

We easily understand its shorthand mostly through intertextuality. We only understand what we’re looking at, and why we can regard war with frivolity, because of the pulpy science-fiction wrapper. The inspiration for the concept is explicitly cited as low-culture “genre fiction” for nerds like the seemingly endless procession of science-fiction B-movies through the movie theaters. Specifically singled out is the cheesy space opera book series The Skylark Of Space. The yearning for the combination, a Skylark Of Space special effect B-Movie, was exactly what produced the creative energy in the bull sessions to dream up the totally-unprecedented gameplay concept of Spacewar. That’s right: the first original video game was genre trash born of frustrated aspirations of filmmaking. Doesn’t get much more fitting an inauguration.

Spacewar spread like a folk song, not a commercial proposition. The determination was made that there was simply no consumer base, so the source was handed out to anyone who asked. Somehow or another, a fellow hacker would catch a look at Spacewar, then return to their own machine to recode it from scratch if it wasn’t a PDP-1, and people would keep adding onto it themselves. That’s a remarkable method of propagation that has its successors such as the Type-In game but it relies heavily on a baseline of common computer literacy that necessarily dies out as computers get both more widespread and infinitely less demanding on the user to learn how to program just to use it. I can’t help but feel a twinge as Spacewar is cloned into Galaxy Game [1971], one of the first if not the first coin-op arcade video game. Money makes it ugly: Is it stealing when it was freely and casually distributed before?

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