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Fri, Mar 01, 2002 - Page 19 News List

The pioneers of video games found little fame

The world's first computer game was written in 1962 with a machine that punched holes into a paper tape that was fed into a very, very slow computer

By John Markoff  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Forty years ago, a small group of pioneering computer programmers, led by Steve Russell, designed Spacewar, which became the world's first video game. It was an early hint that a powerful new entertainment medium was on the horizon, one that would ultimately bond Silicon Valley to Hollywood. Spacewar demonstrated that sheer fun would become a driving force toward progress in computing technology. Russell, with the vintage PDP-1 computer on which Spacewars was played in Mountain View, California.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

Not long ago Steve Russell sat in a darkened movie theater watching the army of credits roll by after a computer-animated Hollywood blockbuster.

There was a time, he recalls thinking, when a cutting-edge computer-generated fantasy could be conceived, written, tested and packaged for distribution in a few months, just through the part-time efforts of a small group of friends.

To be precise, that time was 40 years ago this month, with the result played out on a computer screen at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Two tiny spaceships were locked in mortal combat as they swung around a simulated sun. The duel was called Spacewar.

Designed by a small group of pioneering computer programmers led by Russell, it was the world's first video game. It was an early hint that a powerful new entertainment medium was on the horizon, one that would ultimately bond Silicon Valley to Hollywood. Perhaps most significantly, Spacewar demonstrated that sheer fun would become a driving force underlying progress in computing technology.

Over the years it played a crucial role in inspiring the creators of companies like Apple and Atari, said Henry Lowood, the curator of Stanford University's collections on the history of science and technology. "It set off a chain of events that created companies and led to a whole idea of what Silicon Valley would be," he said.

It certainly established at least one stereotype of the high-tech age: a few frenzied geeks in their twenties obsessively laboring after hours in a computer lab on a creation that combined play and programming. But the premise of Spacewar seemed to reflect the specific preoccupations of that moment in the early 1960s. It was completed the same month that John Glenn made the nation's first manned orbital flight. And the Cold War was at its most perilous stage: The Berlin Wall had just gone up, and the Cuban missile crisis would soon follow.

Now those 20-something geeks are near or past retirement age. Unlike more recent generations of computing and Internet pioneers, Spacewar's six programmers did not find fortune from their invention. Their achievement has made them legends only among a fraternity of the world's original computer hackers.

"The only money I made from Spacewar was as a consultant for lawsuits in the video game industry in the 1970s," said one of the game's creators, Alan Kotok. "I have all this fame, but it's in a very narrow circle."

Kotok and the other members of the original team all remained part of that circle, pursuing careers in computers. Several became hardware designers, several went on to write software, one became a professor and one joined the secretive National Security Agency.

Their early creation is now a museum piece -- literally -- reflecting the software principles and programming culture of its era.

Designed to take advantage of Digital Equipment Corp's brand-new PDP-1 minicomputer and the advent of a cathode-ray display screen, Spacewar was written before software was patented, and the original programmers' instructions were shared and freely modified by a small group of software designers.

Introduced some months later at Decus, which was then a Digital Equipment Corp users' group, Spacewar immediately attracted a cult following. It became so addictive that at the MIT laboratory where it was designed, play was soon banned except during lunchtime and after working hours.

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