Meet Spacewar!, the world’s first video game. Similar to Atari’s Asteroids, this two-player space shooting game was played on a 16-inch, circular retro-teal monitor, powered by a refrigerator-sized PDP-1 and a typewriter. Woooah.
It’s a fossil, but The Museum of Moving Image’s current exhibition Spacewar! demonstrates that we’ve actually been playing versions of this for the past 40 years. The top-down shooting spacecraft model (which you can play online) spawned the entire shoot-em-up genre, with games like Tempest (1981), Galaxy Force II (1988), and Starfox (1993) to genre-bending games like Portal (2007), Super Mario Galaxy 2 (2010), and XBox’s Child of Eden (2011). Also the arcade version of Star Wars (1983), which makes the movie itself seem (intentionally?) pre-tailored to the format.
Even beyond shoot-em-up, though, Spacewar! established our ideas about what a video game should be. When group of MIT students invented Spacewar! in 1961, their manifesto (the “Theory of Computer Toys”) built the railroad for video game evolution. They laid it down:
1. It should demonstrate as many of the computer’s resources as possible, and tax those resources to the limit.
2. Within a consistent framework, it should be interesting, which means every run should be different.
3. It should involve the player in a pleasurable and active way— in short, it should be a game.
And lots of shooting.
You can play a version of Spacewar! with original joysticks, along with all the games mentioned above now at the Museum of Moving Image. Open til March 3rd. Here she is: