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The Original

Ask the average person on the street for the name of the world's first video game and chances are they'll tell you it was Pong. It's certainly a reasonable assumption: Pong's simple black-and-white visuals and back-and-forth table tennis gameplay are like the electronic equivalent of cave paintings -- how much more primitive could you get? It stands to reason that such a basic creation must have been the first game ever. Right?

As any student of the medium's history can tell you, though, the answer isn't Pong. Though the identity of the absolute first video game ever is the subject of some contention, Pong didn't come along until ten years after the first fully-realized game had swept the world by storm. Or at least that very small subset of the world which had access to a computer in 1962.

The title of that obscure but vital pioneer? Some claim it was a rather complicated space combat simulation called Spacewar.

Pinning down the identity of the world's first video game can be tricky, as the answer varies depending on a person's given definition of what actually constitutes a video game. Is a video game simply any form of technology which involves manipulating an object on a screen, no matter how dull or uninvolving it is?

Fat Man versus Little Boy in an atomic battle to the death!

(Those responsible for much of the CDi's library would certainly have you believe so.) If that's the case, Ralph Baer's untitled invention in the early '50s, which allowed a dot to be bounced around on an oscilloscope, came first. Granted, it was pointless and no fun, but it was first. Alternately, is a video game just any amusement which involves some form of interactive video technology? Chicago Speedway , an arcade game which allowed players to steer a model racecar in front of a video of moving street footage, predates Spacewar by several years. Furthermore, there's significant evidence that the first computer game actually was an obscure direct predecessor to Pong: a 1960 invention by William Higginbotham called Tennis for Two.

Whatever the case, Spacewar was unquestionably the most influential "first" interactive computer game, a game which was enjoyed by a large community of early programmers while the other claimants languished in obscurity. The game was a digital battle in which two players steered tiny spaceships through the inky void of simulated space trying to annihilate one another with minute dots of destruction. A far cry from Pong's primitive take on ping-pong, Spacewar was complex and detailed, and had much more in common with Asteroids and even Descent than with Pong. Granted, it was a monochromatic space adventure with stark graphics and no sound -- a mere shadow of the detailed 3D worlds of contemporary first-person shooters -- but it introduced concepts which guide the game developers and fans alike even 40 years later. For such an early foray into interactive gaming, it was an amazing feat.

Largely created in the space of six months by a single student programmer during an era in which computer access was a rare and expensive commodity, Spacewar pitted two players head-to-head with a pair of classic sci-fi rocketships armed with tiny missiles. Controls were limited to thrust, rotate right and rotate left, with a dangerously unpredictable hyperspace panic button reserved for emergency situations. All action transpired on a single screen, the center of which was occupied by a deadly sun that exerted a powerful gravitation pull on the combatants. Clever players were able to make use of the sun's attraction to give themselves an edge by slingshotting through its gravity field -- a solid understanding of Newtonian physics was definitely a boon when playing Spacewar.

Imagine that the film industry had skipped straight from still photos to The Jazz Singer, or that Thomas Edison's first recording had been a Buddy Holly record -- that's how impressive Spacewar was as the debut of a brand new medium. By the time the game was complete in early 1962, it featured an accurate star map of the galaxy, a realistic physics model governed by gravity and inertia, and spaceships which could be rotated through 360 degrees. It even included a hyperspace button, years before Star Trek made "warp speed" a household phrase. In fact, the game was so sophisticated for its time that Nolan Bushnell's blatant copy of it (called Computer Space) was a commerical flop a decade later. Gamers were hopelessly daunted by its intricacy.

The Mod Squad

Though Spacewar was impressive as a technical achievement, the culture that developed around the game is perhaps even more noteworthy. Steve Russell is acknowledged as the mind behind the game, but the final product came to fruition only through collaboration with a number of his contemporaries. Academic computing in the 1960s was a completely new field, and in the true spirit of scientific exploration all discoveries and inventions were shared with the larger computing community. Programmers were not simply allowed to explore the work of others -- they were actually encouraged to refine and improve it.

Russell's original game design was fairly minimal. Pete Sampson added a subroutine called "Expensive Planetarium" to Russell's code to provide the starfield in the background. (Expensive Planetarium was given its name as a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of the steep cost of early computers -- it was a program which did the work of a simple planetarium on a multi-million-dollar piece of equipment.) Another student by the name of Dan Edwards hacked in the sun and the code necessary to calculate its gravitation effects.

Space is deep.

Thus Spacewar was, in effect, the first open-source video game. And it was the first piece of freeware as well; no one responsible for the game's creation profitted from it. Ultimately, the code for the game was distributed by DEC for free with every PDP-1 system they sold.

The principles upon which Spacewar was built are observed even today throughout the industry, and particularly within the PC first-person shooter community. The modern FPS is in many ways a direct descendent of Spacewar; both emphasize multiplayer deathmatch gameplay, and both feature intricate physics models. Some of the most popular FPS titles are the result of clever hacks: Half-Life was built with a heavily-modified Quake engine and then reprogrammed to create Counter-Strike, which in turn has given rise to an enormous community of amateur programmers and designers dedicated to the creation of mods and hacks shared freely with other enthusiasts.

It seems a shame that the most important of the world's first video games is largely anonymous to the general gaming public and that the creator has gone mostly unrecognized outside of historical footnotes, but it's not unusual. How many people can claim to have seen the first-ever motion picture, or listened to the first-ever commercial music recording? In a sense, gaming is fortunate, as its fairly brief history has already been thoroughly chronicled. The spirit of Spacewar lives on in countless modern video games, and it's even possible to play accurate similations of the game courtesy of kind Java programmers (see sidebar).

Spacewar hasn't been completely forgotten, nor is it likely to be. It's the kernel from which an entire industry has grown, and as long as people use computers to simulate killing their friends and peers, its influence will live on.


Platform: PDP-1 minicomputer
Year: 1962
Developer: Steve Russell (et al.)
Publisher: N/A


  • First computer game
  • First head-to-head game
  • Created first collaborative community
  • First open-source game
  • Directly inspired Nolan Bushnell's first game
  • Featured realistic physics model

  • All video games, really... but most notably:

  • Computer Space
  • Asteroids
  • Lunar Lander
  • Defender
  • Solar Jetman
  • Descent
  • Counter-Strike

Spacewar for Java

Computer Space at KLOV

Steve Russell


"I'm more than ten years younger than Spacewar, so obviously I can't say too much about the game -- in fact, I can't say that I've even seen a mainframe computer in more than a decade, and even then it was mostly to gawp at its massive size. I certainly wasn't allowed to game with it. If I had even tried the I.T. guy would quickly have had me arrested or something.

"Looking back at the game, what surprises me most is its complexity. I suppose it makes sense that the world's first fully-realized computer game would have been so detailed and intricate, considering the sort of people who used computers in the 1960s. But still, as a first step into a brave new medium, it was pretty incredible -- an equivalent achievement would have been if, say, the first motion picture had been Steamboat Willie and they'd skipped the whole silent film phase altogether.

"But Spacewar's concepts and achievements have obviously affected the games that I've enjoyed over the years, from the derivative space action of Asteroids on up to the modern era."

Article by
Jeremy Parish

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