Category Archives: MIT

Spacewar!: A Spin Around the Sun

Created by a group of hackers at MIT in 1962, the pull of Spacewar! on nascent computer gamers was as strong as the gravity well of the blazing sun in the game.

I’d like to say that Steve Russell “led” the group that developed the game, but he didn’t earn the nickname “Slug” for his programming alacrity. The rest of the team, consisting of Wayne Witanen, J. Martin Graetz, Alan Kotok, Peter Samson and Dan Edwards had to prod Russell every inch of the way, constantly throwing in pieces of the programming puzzle to skirt around the roadblocks Russell would profess were preventing him from continuing.

When they were finished, they had 9K worth of rolled-up paper-tape program that would create the foundation of the entire video game industry. Over a field of stars, two spaceships face off in a duel with limited missile supplies and fuel.  Besides each other, players would also have to avoid the bending gravity of a central star, eager to pull them down to their destruction. The game was such a hit around MIT that playing it was banned during school hours, and copies of the program were included by Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) with each installation of the computer system Spacewar! was created on: the PDP-1.

Image of A PDP-1 minicomputer, the same model used in the creation of Spacewar!

The PDP-1 computer by DEC

Spacewar! influenced later games made by entrepreneurs intent on creating the video game industry, including Computer Space in 1971, the first mass-produced arcade video game, made by future Atari co-founders Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney. It also inspired Larry Rosenthal, creator of the first vector game Space Wars in 1977, as well as Ed Logg, creator of 1979’s phenomenally successful Asteroids. Spacewar! blazed forth from the minds of those early computer hackers at MIT, lighting the way for others to follow.

For more information on the history of Spacewar!, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.

Excerpt from Zork cover art.

Zorked: The Story of Infocom

I’d be hard-pressed to do a review of the computer gaming I did in my youth and not dedicate an entire chapter to the wonderful text-adventures put out by Infocom in the 80’s.

I remember that the first disk I ever bought for my gigantic 1541 floppy drive, newly attached to my Commodore 64, was a Commodore-labelled version of Infocom’s Zork.  Just a few minutes exploring the surface landscape and then delving deep into an ever-expanding Underground Empire had me hooked.

Box art for Zork, a computer text adventure game for the TRS-80, by Infocom 1980

Zork, TRS-80 version

Starting as an answer to Crowther and Wood’s original Adventure text adventure, a group of MIT students designed Zork as a program on a mainframe computer, and eventually developed a system to port it to personal computers. After an initial release by VisiCalc makers Personal Software, the Infocom team decided to publish the games themselves, and hence was a computer game giant created.

Ten Zork games were eventually produced, along with a huge library of other works spanning genres such as science fiction, history, mysteries, fantasy, and on and on.  When Douglas Adams got wind of what Infocom is doing with interactive fiction, he signed on with the company to adapt his seminal comedy science fiction book Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  From this unholy pairing of Adams and Infocom “IMP” Steve Meretsky would come one of the most cruel, diabolical computer games of all time.

Even as graphics eventually supplanted text and the human imagination as the canvas of computer game design, the great writing and intricate design of Infocom’s worlds kept me visiting them. For our full history of Zork and Infocom, consult your local Dot Eaters article.

Image of Spacewar! running on a PDP-1 monitor

Spacewar! Reduex

In 1962, Steve “Slug” Russell and bunch of his buddy hackers created Spacewar! on a DEC PDP-1 mainframe computer at MIT, and went down in history as creating the first widely distributed, fully interactive video game.

On my site I’ve linked to an online version of the original, running on a PDP-1 emulator written in Javascript in 1997.  The creators of this homage have recently upgraded the code to Java/HTML5. Why not put a buddy in front of your computer with you and see what fragging a friend felt like when Kennedy was President?

For more information on Spacewar! and those kooky hackers that made it, consult your local TDE article here.

Play Spacewar! online.