First Video Game? Try Spacewar!, Which Beat Pong By A Decade

Culture | November 29, 2016

Spacewar! being played on a PDP-1, and a recreation of its graphics. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Everybody knows that Pong was the first video game, right? Spacewar! seems to have had it beat, though -- by about a decade. Pong, which resembles ping-pong, came out in 1972 and was the first successful arcade game. But in 1962, Spacewar! presaged digital gaming entirely by being the first computer or video game installed in multiple locations.

Spacewar! was developed by Steve Russell at MIT, with the help of Bob Saunders and Steve Piner. Crazily, the reason it was made in the first place was to showcase academic computer power and programmatic brilliance, rather than for just good ol’ plain fun.

Spacewar graphics. Source: giphy.com

Steve Russell seemed to try to bridge the gap between fun and cool demonstration, having this to say about the game:

Somebody had built some little pattern-generating programs which made interesting patterns like a kaleidoscope. Not a very good demonstration. Here was this display that could do all sorts of good things! So we started talking about it, figuring what would be interesting displays. We decided that probably you could make a two-dimensional maneuvering sort of thing, and decided that naturally the obvious thing to do was spaceships.

Spacewar! in action

The game featured two spaceships, a thin rocket (the needle) and a fatter rocket (the wedge). The goal was for one of the ships to destroy the other with fireable torpedoes in a space dogfight. The main catch for this game is that the ships were being constantly sucked into the center of the screen by the massive gravitational pull of a star, oh and you only had limited fuel to maneuver your ship. So the challenge wasn't just the dogfight -- players had so avoid getting sucked into the star while dodging the enemy's missiles.

Spacewar! was played on a computer called the Programmed Data Processor, known as the PDP-1 for short.

Capturing that sense of mischievousness and genuine charm, Spacewar! was spread to a few other schools and computer installations, making it the first game that actually had copies of it going around to be played. Previously, games were only played locally on the machine they were programmed on.

The Wedge, and The Needle side by side

This early game was incredibly respected. It could be found on any research computer that had programmable CRT throughout the 70s. People could not seem to get enough, and used similar mechanics of this game to make new games like Computer Space, and Galaxy Game. Even Asteroids, in 1979, paid an homage to Spacewar! By modeling the ship after the original designs. It has been so well regarded that it has earned a spot on the “game canon.” A list started by Henry Lowood with the intent of having the Library of Congress archive important cultural video games of the time. It was accepted by Congress, and to this day it has been archived.

Spacewar!'s impact still has echoes in design choices and how we use technology today. The next time you pull out your cell phone think about all the design choices that were made to make the experience what it is. Without people like Steve Russell and his team who dreamed for computers to do more and for people to interact with them differently, who knows how technology would be used today.

Tags: A Brief History Of... | Arcades | Inventions | Pong | Spacewar! | Video Games

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Reeves Caldwell


Reeves is young and eager, passionate about technology, and all things internet. He also likes a good puzzle, but probably loves ice cream a little too much.