Spacewar: Profile of a Cultural Earthquake

Monday, October 16th, 2017

The world’s first video game tournament took place at Stanford on October 19, 1972, 45 years ago this week. The Living Computer Museum in Seattle is hosting an event on Thursday to commemorate this anniversary, and in conjunction, they commissioned me to write this article about the history of Spacewar and its influences.

It has been fifty-five years now since the first release of Spacewar!, a seminal computer game that began as a low-key tech demo among a group of friends but soon grew to rock Western culture like a tidal wave. When a group of Harvard employees and MIT students named Steve Russell, Wayne Wiitanen, Alan Kotok, Martin Graetz, Dan Edwards, and Peter Samson created the game, they had little idea that it would evolve into one of the most important cultural developments of the 20th century.

In its most basic version, Spacewar pits two player-controlled rocket ships against each other in a game of orbital single combat. Each player uses a set of switches to guide their ship through a physics-based two-dimensional simulation of deep space. Momentum and inertia play their part just as they would with a real spaceship, and a large star in the middle of the screen acts as a huge gravity well that draws the ships into oblivion if they do not carefully thrust their way around its pull.

As the first interactive virtual world, in the sense of simulated physical space, Spacewar set conceptual precedents that are still reverberating in our society. The game also marked a new dawn for human storytelling, allowing interactive expressions of archetypal stories as old as civilization itself. Along the way, it also launched a massive industry.

All this starting in 1961 — the year men first went into space.

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[ VC&G Anthology ] Video Games Turn Forty (2007)

Monday, May 15th, 2017

Note: this article was originally published on 1UP.com on May 15, 2007 under the title “Videogames Turn Forty.” (Original URL: http://www.1up.com/do/feature?pager.offset=0&cId=3159462).

Since 1UP is no longer with us, I decided to republish the article here for historical reference. I have learned quite a bit about video game history in the decade since this was originally published, and naturally some of my conclusions have changed. But this is still a great overview of the work done by Baer, Harrison, and Rusch in the 1960s. I plan to republish my other 1UP articles on VC&G as well in the near future. — Benj

Video Games Turn Forty 1UP Screenshot

The nineteen-inch screen flashed in waves of blue and black as two normally reserved professionals threw themselves into a competition destined for the history books. Mashing furiously at hand wired buttons, each battled to be the first winner of a unique contest never before played by man: the contest of the video game.

VC&G Anthology BadgeIn 1967, a bold engineer with a vision led a small team to create the world’s first electronic games to use an ordinary television set as a medium. Wary of naysayers from within, the video mavericks sequestered themselves behind closed doors, and for good reason: they worked under the payroll of Sanders Associates, a giant Cold War defense contractor.

As hippies on the streets of San Francisco stuck flowers in the barrels of guns, three men in snowy New Hampshire crafted the future of electronic entertainment deep in the heart of a commercial war machine. In May of 1967, the world’s first video games — as we know them today — made their quiet, humble entrance into the world.

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VC&G Anthology Interview: Ed Smith, Black Video Game and Computer Pioneer

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017

Ed Smith, Black Video Game Pioneer of APF ElectronicsIn 1978, APF Electronics introduced the MP1000, an early cartridge-based video game system. It wasn’t a smash hit like offerings from Atari, but it carried within its faux woodgrain housing a hidden kernel of cultural brilliance: The console would not have existed without the work of an African-American electronics engineer named Edward Lee Smith (b. Nov 4 1954).

I first learned about Ed Smith while researching Jerry Lawson, one of the first known African-Americans in the video game industry. Not long after Lawson did his pioneering design work on the Fairchild Channel F in Silicon Valley, Smith began a similar task on the opposite side of the country, crafting his own contributions to the industry while at APF in New York City.

VC&G Anthology BadgeAs part of a small engineering team, Smith helped design the MP1000 and its plug-in computer expansion module, the Imagination Machine. That work got him noticed by Black Enterprise magazine, and in 1982, Smith and Lawson were both interviewed for a feature written by S. Lee Hilliard about the roles African-Americans had played in the video game revolution, which was a hot business topic at the time.

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VC&G Anthology Interview: What Makes a Video Game? A Short Conversation with Nolan Bushnell (2011)

Friday, October 23rd, 2015

Nolan Bushnell HimselfBack in 2011, I wrote an article about the creation of Nutting Associates’ Computer Space on the occasion of its 40th anniversary. If you’ll recall, Computer Space was the world’s first mass-produced and commercially sold video game. It started the video arcade game industry.

While researching the piece, I conducted extensive telephone interviews with Ted Dabney and Nolan Bushnell, the co-creators of the game (who went on to become the co-founders of Atari). During my conversation with Bushnell, we touched upon some other topics too — when you have a guy like Bushnell on the phone, you tend to ask whatever you need when you have the chance.

VC&G Anthology BadgeWhile looking through the transcript of that 2011 interview again recently, I came across a section near the end where Nolan and I talked about what it really means to be a video game. During our conversation, Nolan hit on something that I think is rather profound, yet completely obvious in hindsight. I thought other folks might find our conversation, and its resulting conclusion, interesting.

I’ve kept this transcript nearly verbatim because I feel it reflects the spontaneous, free-flowing nature of the conversation. We were talking as he was driving home from a business appointment, so he was slightly distracted at the time.

[ Continue reading VC&G Anthology Interview: What Makes a Video Game? A Short Conversation with Nolan Bushnell (2011) » ]

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] Tandy Memorex VIS

Monday, March 9th, 2015

Tandy Memorex Video Information System VIS - Tiger Electronics Catalog - 1995CD-ROM ON YOUR MOTHER LOVIN’ TV!!

Back in 2009, I made a list of the worst video game systems of all time for PC World, and the Tandy Memorex Video Information System (1992) was #2 on the list.

Six years later, I am not fond of dishing out bad vibes toward any game console. But the VIS was indeed an underwhelming commercial product.

And honestly, calling the VIS a video game console is a stretch. As more of a multimedia appliance than a straight up “video game system,” its lineage lay half-way between game machine and general purpose PC. Its designers intended it to run educational software as frequently as games.

For fans of odd an interesting systems, the VIS definitely stands out. Under the hood, it sported a modified PC architecture based on an Intel 286 CPU and a custom embedded version of Windows called “Modular Windows.” In addition, the VIS allowed storing data on removable memory cards that plugged into the front of the console (a feature that, in game consoles, arrived second only to the Neo Geo, I believe).

Of course, ever since I saw this section of a 1995 Tiger Software catalog (Tiger had apparently bought up a clearance stock of the machines — see also this scan of the Jaguar CD in a Tiger catalog), I wanted a VIS regardless of its faults. While I have used them before — including some in-store demos at Radio Shack — I still do not have one in my collection.

[ From Tiger Software CD-ROM Buyer’s Guide – Vol. V Issue 6, 1995, p.56 ]

Discussion Topic of the Week: Did you own any CD-based game consoles from the multimedia console era? (i.e. CD-i, VIS, 3DO, CDTV, Jaguar CD)

Remembering Ralph Baer (1922-2014)

Monday, December 8th, 2014

Ralph Baer, inventor of TV video gamesIn Memoriam: Ralph Baer (1922-2014),
co-inventor of TV video games and the home video game console

Our dear Ralph. What a man. 92 years old. A life full of technology, audacity, and gumption (with equal measures wise prudence). He died on December 6, 2014 at his home in Manchester, New Hampshire. May he rest in peace.

Just summarizing Baer’s biography with keywords sounds impressive: Germany, Kristallnacht, WWII Service, small arms expert, Lee De Forest, TV technician, Sanders, engineering, Apollo, inventor of TV video games, game console, Odyssey, cable TV, patents, Simon, toy inventor. The list could go on and on. He achieved quite a bit and lived a very full, very fulfilling long life.

Ralph Baer at Sanders, Circa late 1960sOf course, he is most well known for inventing the concept of television video games and co-inventing, with William Rusch and William Harrison, the world’s first video game console during his time at Sanders in the mid-late 1960s. The prototype console that the trio finished in 1968 later became the Magnavox Odyssey (1972), the world’s first commercial video game console.

But there was much more to the man, and I count myself lucky to have known him.

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