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A group of students at M.I.T. in 1962 created a game which is credited as the first influential computer game, “Spacewar!”. Steve Russell, Martin Graetz and Wayne Witaenem conceived of the game in 1961 with the intent of implementing it on a DEC PDP-1 computer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Russell began programing and by February 1962 after 200-man hours of work he had produced his first version.

The game places two players against each other where each player is responsible for controlling a spaceship. The game has two armed spaceships called “the needle” and “the wedge” and the mission is to shoot your opponent while maneuvering around the environment. The students discovered that the debugger program generated random pixels on the screen which resembled stars. They simulated the real constellation with moving stars and variable luminance. The students found the game lacked any real challenge, so they added the gravity star, often referred to as the sun which attracts the spaceships in its gravitational pull. The ships fired missiles that were unaffected by gravity due to technical limitations with processing time. Each ship was given a limited number of missiles and a limited supply of fuel.

The purpose of the game is for the player to shoot down the opponent’s ship while avoiding colliding with the star. The controls of the game included clockwise and counterclockwise rotations, thrust, fire and hyperspace. The hyperspace feature could be used by a player as a last-ditch effort to avoid enemy missiles but the re-entry from hyperspace would occur at random locations in the game which increased the probability of the ship exploding with each use. The original control setup used front panel test switches, with four switches for each player.

InventorsSteve Russell
Research CenterMassachusetts Institute of Technology
GenerationPre-First Generation
DebutApril 1962
Hardware TypeComputer Technology Demo
Manufacture StatePrototype / Demonstration
GenreSpace Combat
PDP-1 hardware used to program Spacewar!

“Spacewar!” was seen as a good overall diagnostic test and great example of what the PDP-1 computer could output. DEC decided to use it for factory testing and shipped their PDP-1 computers to customers with “Spacewar!” already loaded into the core memory of the unit. This gave the ability to do field testing when the PDP-1 computer was fully setup by the field representative.

With DEC shipping their PDP-1 computers with “Spacewar!” preloaded this gave other individuals the ability to access the game and inspire future development of video games. “Spacewar!” became extremely popular in the 1960’s and was widely ported to other systems and platforms. “Spacewar!” inspired future video game creators and paved the way for very similar video games to be created which led for the creation of the first coin operated video game in 1971.

The Computer History Museum provdes an overview of Spacewar!


Computer History Museum

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