Computer's Screen Inspired First Video Game, 'Space War'

Steve Russell was the main creator of Space War! at MIT in 1961 — the project was one of the earliest digital video games. He tells Robert Siegel how he came up with the idea of battling spaceships as a way to use a donated computer.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We've been talking occasionally with inventors about what inspired their creations. Today, a computer scientist in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Fifty-one years ago, one of the first digital video games was born out of his imagination.

STEVE RUSSELL: My name is Steve Russell, sometimes known as Slug. In 1961, I was working for the MIT Artificial Intelligence Project, and a new computer got given to MIT by its maker, the Digital Equipment Corporation. And it was all transistorized, so it was relatively reliable, and it had a CRT display on it. CRT is the initials for cathode ray tube, the tube that was used before flat panels came for television. And it was also developed a lot in World War II for radar.

So I thought this was interesting and a couple of things made it even more interesting. One was Professor Marvin Minsky had written a little program that displayed three spots on the screen, and they influenced each other and generated a sort of kaleidoscope display. It was interesting for an hour or two, but after a while you realize that eventually everything decayed into a random pattern. So I started talking up the idea that a better demonstration was needed.

And the space race was very much in the news at the time. And so I started talking up the idea of a spaceship trainer that would teach people how to fly a spaceship. And what I got going was a display which showed two spaceships on the screen, and it had some random stars in the background. To add a little motivation to learning how to fly a spaceship, we added torpedoes, and we consciously designed it to be a game.

We called it "Space War!" And when everything got working, I decided that was pretty good, so I added an exclamation point.

SIEGEL: That's Steve Russell, creator of "Space War!" an early digital video game. It premiered for the public at the 1962 Science Open House at MIT.

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