Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Sometimes It Was Fun & Games

Early and (below) later Space Wars games and Computer Space
The young hackers described in John Markoff's What the Dormouse Said were a dedicated bunch. But there was time for fun and games, and Markoff describes the development of the world's first video game by Stephen "Slug" Russell and a small group of like-minded hackers:
Russell and his friends had something very ambitious in mind. They were all devotees of the E.E. "Doc" Smith "Lensman" pulp science fiction novels, a series of shoot 'em up space operas that seemed the perfect model for an interactive software game. . . .

By January 1962, Russell had a rudimentary object-in-motion worked out on the screen. Space Wars, as the game came to be called, pitted two two-dimensional spaceships against each other on a background of stars. Pressing keys on the keyboard would move the ships on display, and they could shoot tiny projectiles at each other. Space Wars was significant in that it was the classic collaborative hacking exercise, which would be cited as an early example of how the open-source shared programs could be continuously improved by a group of volunteer programmers. For although Russell did the yeoman's work of creating the basic program, others had soon added lifelike constellations and a gravitational effect generated by a star placed in the center of the screen. Initially, the PDP-1 [computer] had enough power to compute the gravitational effect on the ships accurately but not enough to compute the trajectories of multiple torpedoes. The hackers defined away that problem by decreeing the projectiles were actually "photon" torpedoes and were thus beyond the gravitational pull of the star.

A decade later, a commercial version of Space Wars was installed at Stanford's Tresidder Union coffeehouse. Called Galaxy Game, it first appeared several months before a similar game, Computer Space, was developed by a young entrepreneur named Nolan Bushnell. Although Computer Space was a commercial flop, it was followed by Pong and the explosive growth of Bushnell's company, Atari.

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