The Birth of Video Games: From Checkers to Spacewar!

Some people simply adore playing. Give them a ball, a pen, or a pile of leaves, and they’ll find a way to make it a game. In fact, so many people enjoy playing that whenever a new invention comes along, people discover ways to play with it.

While Christopher Strachey didn’t invent modern computers, he didn’t even see one until 1951, several years after their initial creation. However, he had been friends with Alan Turing, one of the pioneers of modern computers, during his time in college in England. So when Strachey heard about the new computer installed at the University of Manchester in the U.K., he was able to request a copy of the programming manual from Turing. He studied the manual and was soon given the opportunity to write a program for the computer. People were incredibly impressed with his work, granting him access to the computer whenever he had free time from his teaching duties.

Strachey dedicated his school breaks to developing a checkers-playing program, remarkably complex for its time. The program displayed the board on a screen, a cathode-ray tube. Players would input their moves using a Teletype, a typewriter electronically linked to the computer, which printed the moves on paper and transmitted them to the computer. The machine would then analyze potential moves and countermoves, ultimately choosing its own move and even playfully mocking players for particularly poor decisions. I refer to this game as “M.U.C. Draughts” in my book “[Book Title]” because Strachey never assigned it a name. M.U.C. stands for Manchester University Computer, and draughts is the British term for checkers. I believe it’s the first video game. However, there are many playful individuals out there, so someone else might have beaten him to the punch.

Around the same time that Strachey was creating M.U.C. Draughts, A.S. (Sandy) Douglas developed a tic-tac-toe game, also displayed on a cathode-ray tube, for the University of Cambridge EDSAC computer. It’s possible that future discoveries will reveal other playful individuals who created video games for early computers.

While people still enjoy video game versions of board games and card games, they’re usually not the first things that come to mind when someone mentions “video games.” Generally, people think of a video display depicting a simulated space, with one or more elements that players can control within that space – perhaps gliding through the sky in a spaceship or navigating the buildings and people in a city.

The next significant step (as far as I know) toward such games is what’s now known as “Tennis for Two”, though it didn’t have a name when it was created. William Higinbotham, Robert V. Dvorak, and David Potter developed it as a demonstration for the 1958 visitors’ day at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York. They utilized an old-fashioned analog computer to create a side view of a tennis court, displaying the ground, a net, and a ball that would fly over the net. Unfortunately, it was dismantled after the event.

“Spacewar!” was another demonstration project, released in 1962 by a group of MIT engineers, including Steve “Slug” Russell, Peter Samson, Dan Edwards, and Martin Graetz. It took the world by storm. Rolling Stone magazine even sponsored a “Spacewar! Tournament” in 1972 – a remarkable level of publicity at a time when most people had never even seen a computer in person, let alone played a video game.

“Spacewar!” is the first game to encompass all the features that people today commonly expect from a video game. It featured a simulated space, with objects moving around. In this case, it was outer space, with a backdrop of stars and a central sun that exerted gravity. The game included elements that players could control within that space, specifically two spaceships locked in combat. Visual flourishes, like fire emanating from the ships’ rear whenever players used their thrusters to maneuver, enhanced the experience.

Video games finally entered the home in 1972 with the release of the Magnavox Odyssey game console. Ralph Baer, Bob Tremblay, Bob Solomon, Bill Rush, and other engineers at Sanders Associates were determined to find a way to play games on home televisions. They came up with the idea of a ball being hit back and forth: “Tennis”, the precursor to “Pong”, a game that achieved widespread popularity. From that point onward, video games became a growing force in world culture, fueled by people who simply love to play.

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