The Making Of: Spacewar!

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It’s a computer lab as we know all computer labs to be: whitewashed concrete-block walls; linoleum floor; a long row of blinds that are, of course, always closed. A group of long-haired coders in their mid-20s are gathered around the bright light of the screen. It’s 3am, but no one wants to go home: they’re all clamouring to play next. The two lucky enough to have the controls are holding their arms up, their elbows sore with repetitive strain injury from playing the game. “No!” they shout. “Turn! Fire! Argh…”

It’s a familiar scene – Call Of Duty 4, you might be thinking; Halo 3 perhaps, or even a game of Asteroids – except Marilyn Monroe is still alive, aerial photography has just picked up Soviet cruise missile bases on the shores of Cuba, and it has been barely a year since President John F Kennedy swore – to the disbelief of a nation – that by the end of the decade the US will put a man on the moon. This is 1962, the dawn of the space race, and we’re doing our bit for the sci-fi dreams of a nation: playing Spacewar!, the first ever videogame.

You might have thought the Xbox or PS3 were bulky, but the engine of this game is not console- or even PC-sized, but a PDP-1, a computer whose banks would fill a room. The PDP is a gift, recently delivered from Digital Equipment Corporation to the MIT Research Lab for Electronics, in the hope that MIT might invent novel uses for the new technology. Well, these first-generation hackers in their mid-20s have certainly found something to do with their spare processor time. The game they’re playing, a proto-Asteroids in which two ships wheel around a blazing sun firing photon torpedoes, against a pixel-perfect starfield (this is MIT, after all), has kept them here until 3am for the last week.

Let’s say it again: the first ever videogame. For all those lost hours spent with Mario, Solid Snake, terrorists, counter-terrorists, jumping from platform to platform, cutting your lap-times, shooting through rifle-scopes – you can blame this game.

In fact, if you like, you can blame it on science fiction. It was the novels of EE ‘Doc’ Smith that did it. The three intrepid, cylinder-head robot-flick-loving, Schwinn-riding children of the ’50s at the heart of the Spacewar! phenomenon – Wayne Witaenem, Martin Graetz, and Stephen ‘Slug’ Russell – were big fans of the Doc’s Skylark and Lensman series. It was an apt inspiration: Smith’s formulaic sci-fi paperbacks pre-empted the wave-upon-wave relentlessness of Space Invaders (“Well done Earthling… now do battle with our super forces”) by over a decade.

“Doc Smith was not Shakespeare,” Russell says, of his reading habits at the time. “The heroes went around the universe being chased by the villains, the heroes defeated the villains just in time – then at the start of the next book, the villains turned out to be just the wimpy assistants for the incredibly powerful forces of evil. The colours were bright, and there was lots of action.”

At the time, though, as Russell remembers, computers couldn’t have been further from such fast-paced sci-fi action. “With most of the other computers, you had to have an engineer who understood the power sequence: turn on a power supply, then another power supply, make sure they started right, there was no smoke, then a third power supply. You had to be elected trustworthy just to turn it on. And the way you used a computer was, you punched a bunch of IBM cards with your program, and you submitted them to a good-sized bureaucracy. And in the fullness of time you would get back a pile of white paper.” The new PDP-1, however, was something else. “The PDP-1 didn’t have a high-speed printer, and it didn’t have a bureaucracy. It had a typewriter and a paper tape reader and a paper tape punch. In a sense it was the first personal computer, in that you could sit down and flip the power switch, and you could start using it.”