Let The Games Begin!

By Alex Kierkegaard / November 27, 2008

War is the father of all things.


Videogame Art: Volume I

How do you review the first ever videogame? What can you compare it to? It is something incomparable. To appreciate it therefore you have to either have been there when it happened, or, as is more likely considering its age (46 years — my, how they flew by!), seek out first-hand accounts and take it from there, proceeding much in the same manner Borges does when he reconstitutes a lost civilization through the fragments of a library. Our goal is no less ambitious than to travel back in time — any judgement rendered otherwise would be out of context, and thus naive, unjust and worthless.
   Yet there are things that can be said about this game even before we begin time-tripping, and they are by far the most important ones. Too bad, however, that this is not the time and place to say them. I am of course referring to the game's theme — because in a game such as this (which is to say the first one), the relative importance of theme and mechanics is for once reversed: here, theme is far more important than mechanics, far more interesting, not for the impact it has on the quality of the game — because it practically has none — but for its anthropological, psychological, sociological and above all philosophical implications on our understanding of the culture which produced it. It is here — right here and nowhere else — at the beginning, that a serious inquiry into these issues can commence, by those who are serious enough to undertake it. Now supposing such people exist (because I have yet to hear of any), they would all, no doubt, immediately stumble upon a single, fundamental, question, a question towards which all the various threads of history and the sciences lead and from where all our prospects towards the future start, that question being —

Why "Spacewar"?

   Why not "Earthpeace"? — Why not "Earthlove"? Why not indeed. And how about that exclamation mark? How much youthful, unconcerned enthusiasm it betrays! What a delightfully immoral sense of adventurousness! For aren't we constantly being told that war is supposed to be a Bad Thing? Something indecent? Something unethical? Something that must be abolished? What's the point then of glorifying it by simulating it?
   To these kinds of questions, which have never ceased to crease the brows of all kinds of blockhead commentators and assorted journalistic clowns and never will, I am for the time being only going to reply with a condescending smile and a salutation:

Welcome to the World of Videogames: Corrupting Mankind's Youth Since 1962.

   But that's enough of a preamble; let's leave the bigger questions for another time and direct our attention now to the smaller ones: they too can be enlightening if properly examined — they too are, to a certain extent, worth investigating. So time to discover what it was that made this game so special, apart from it being the first one — which as it turns out it might actually not have been, though the specifics of the matter turn on semantics, as such matters tend to do, and as it happens in this case are of little interest.
   It really is an issue of no consequence. Whether Spacewar came first, or NIM (1951), or OXO (1952), or Tennis for Two (1958), or some such other obscure little game we don't even know about (there seems to be at least one more candidate: a mysterious early "golf" game from the UK regarding which next to nothing is known), depends on whether we talk about computer games, or videogames, or electronic games, et cetera, and how we define each of these terms. The earliest known electronic game, for example, was a missile simulator inspired by radar displays from World War II. This was developed in 1947 and used analogue circuitry to control the CRT beam and position a dot on the screen, so it doesn't count as a digital computer game. Moreover, since the system it ran on wasn't capable of drawing graphics, it used screen overlays for targets, and so doesn't quite count as a videogame either.
   Similarly, NIM doesn't qualify as a videogame since the computer it ran on used a panel of lights as a display instead of a video monitor (it was, however, a true digital computer game — the first one we are aware of). Tennis for Two, meanwhile, was built using discrete analog hardware rather than as a program for a digital computer, and moreover used the vector display system of an oscilloscope to depict the action, so it really only counts as an electronic game. Spacewar itself also used a vector display system, so depending on your definition of a videogame it might not have been one — but it ran on the PDP-1, a true digital computer, so it definitely counts as both an electronic and a computer game.
   But this is all beside the point, for, on the one hand, all pre-Spacewar games were either pre-existing games adapted to work on a computer (ports of real-life games, to put it in our language: NIM was a mathematical strategy game dating back to at least the sixteenth century; OXO was just a computer version of tic-tac-toe), or overly simplistic action affairs (that "missile simulator" game I mentioned; Tennis for Two and others) which were not meant to retain anyone's attention for long. The former were widely known, reasonably amusing games, which however did not require the aid of a computer to be played, so whether they used one or not is irrelevant (much in the same way chess or Monopoly should never be regarded as videogames even when played with the aid of a computer), whilst the latter were hardly designed with a view to being played and enjoyed on a regular basis; such games would be called "tech demos" today, and this is what they were, meant to show off a new piece of hardware in a manner slightly more captivating than abstract number-crunching. Spacewar, it is true, was also conceived as a tech demo in a sense, but there's a difference.
   The difference lies in the game's design, by which I mean to say that, in contrast to everything done before, and much that was to follow, Spacewar actually had one. It is this fact that makes us place it apart from and above the rest, not some pedantic argument based on vaguely defined neologisms. Russell and co. were the first programmers to design a brand-new game, instead of merely a novelty show-off piece of code like everyone else. The result was the first electronic/computer/video/call-it-what-you-will-game because it was the first completely original game designed to run on a computer.
   And what a game it was. When I read up on its history, and consider the amount of thought and play-testing that went into its making (and to that of its numerous revisions — new versions are still being made...), I am reminded of a very insightful claim of Schopenhauer's. He at one point explained the (very natural, very human, all-too human) reasons why the course of science is often retrogressive, and I can't help but think how true this is also for videogames, and for the same reasons. — But of course it would be, for what are videogames — what is simulation — if not the ultimate expression of a science triumphant, which finally dispenses with "reality", that pesky flavour of existence from whence it sprung, when it no longer needs it. But I am digressing... into more interesting, and thus more complicated territory. To return to the slightly more mundane phenomenon of retrogression in videogames, just consider the complexity and depth of what immediately followed Spacewar: Chase (1966), Computer Space (1971), Pong (1972) and the like — extremely crude, extremely shallow games by comparison, which only managed to surpass it in popularity simply because they became more widely available. Criticism was non-existent back then, but wouldn't have made much difference even if it hadn't been, for what was true then remains so: in videogames, as elsewhere, the rabble has no taste and marketing is king. The result: it would be well over a decade before videogaming produced its next genuinely interesting designs (Maze War and Spasim, both appearing in 1974).
   And as for Spacewar itself, as for the fate of its design — minor revisions aside, it would take 43 years and half a dozen guys from halfway across the world to pick it up and do something significantly new, something truly exciting with it (Senko no Ronde). Indeed, one could claim that the entire subgenre of single-player shooting games was one long interlude of retrogression (since the versus mechanic was removed in order to make the game more accessible to more people, by dropping the required partner) — or at least partial retrogression, since the other half of the game, the shooting part, was indeed evolved, and to a great extent. The concept of versus play was meanwhile evolved through fighting games (by adding character variety, special abilities, etc.), and later reunited with shooting in G.rev's little gem. It's quite a story, isn't it? — by this industry's standards anyway. Perhaps eventually, with some help from my friends, we'll slowly venture to relate it to you.
   And do you think it a coincidence that the first ever videogame was based on versus play and shooting? And what does shooting and destruction represent if not, well... shooting and destruction? And what does versus play reflect if not the struggle of one man against another? Haha. And you were told that videogames were all about creation. But Russell knew much better. "I unleashed the curse of videogames upon the world", he said, and that's just what he'd done.