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Pioneering video game ‘Spacewar!’ turns 50

Plugged In

Right around this time 50 years ago, the world of gaming was forever changed.

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Spacewar! was launched in mid-February 1962 (the exact date is a matter of debate, though most people agree it was between the 13th and the 15th). And while it wasn't the first video game ever created, it was the first to strike a chord with people, effectively kicking off the era of video games.

The game was meant for two players. Both pilot starships and try to destroy each other with a limited supply of torpedoes, while fighting the gravitational effects of a star in the center of the screen. If a ship is about to plunge into the star, the player can hit a hyperspace button to escape, but hit it too often and your ship will explode.

The trio of Steve Russell, Martin Graetz, and Wayne Wiitanen created the game, spending 200 hours at "The Hingham Institute Space Warfare Study Group" (technically, Russell's house) putting together the first version. Other developers helped Russell tinker with and improve it for a few months afterward to refine the game.

The audience for Spacewar! was initially a pretty limited one. It could only be played on a PDP-1 computer, which were quite expensive and generally only located in the computer labs of top universities.

Since there was no such thing as a video game industry at the time, Russell and his co-creators never thought to charge for the game. Instead, anyone who requested the source code was given a copy -- and new PDP-1 machines were ultimately shipped with the game pre-installed.

It was that open distribution that ultimately sparked the video game revolution. Though a Tic-Tac-Toe game and a forerunner of Pong ('Tennis For Two') had been introduced before Spacewar!, the complexity of this game was a source of inspiration for future gaming kingpins, including Nolan Bushnell, who would later found Atari. The developers of arcade classic Asteroids and Star Control also borrowed liberally from Spacewar! as they were creating their titles.

And even though it's now 50 years old, Spacewar! is still inspiring game makers. A version of the game is used in Microsoft's XNA Game Studio Express, a set of tools that allow students and hobbyists to build their own games.

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