Aug 28, 2019
Spacewar is a remarkable game for a large number of reasons. It was one of the first video games ever made, first conceived by Steven Russel and his colleagues at MIT's AI Lab sometime in 1962. And despite the game's age it presents a core experience not that far off from modern video games. There were numerous firsts to come out of Spacewar. However there are factors outside the game itself that make the story of Spacewar so compelling. One of those factors is the continues efforts at preserving the nearly 60 year old game.
A lot of early video games, or early programs for that matter, have been lost to time. Luckily, due to Spacewar's popularity and the open nature of the computer scene at the time there were a lot of copies of the game floating around. Both source code and paper tape of the game circulated through institutions all over the country in the 60s. And having access to the software does make preservation easier, but that only solves half the equation. To actually play Spacewar you still need either a running PDP-1 or some kind of replacement.
The problem here is that only 53 PDP-1s were ever produced. That and the age of the machine makes it no small feat to find a machine. Of the production run only 3 are known to have survived to the modern day, and all of those machines are currently housed at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. Of those machines, one has been fully restored to working order and is on exhibit. Twice a month, or during special events like the Vintage Computer Festival Far West, the machine gets fired up for public demonstrations. So if you can make it to Mountain View you can get a chance to play Spacewar for yourself on it's original hardware.
If you can't make it to Silicon Valley, there are still plenty of ways to experience Spacewar. One option is to track down a port or adaptation of the game. But while releases like the 1973 Atari 2600 version or the 1985 of the game are similar to the original, they aren't entirely the same game. For the accurate experience, you need to track down an emulator. Luckily, commonly available multi-system emulators like SIMH and MESS can easily run PDP-1 software. By using an emulator you can faithfully run the original version of Spacewar as written in 1926.
So why not go play a round or two? After playing Spacewar myself I can tell you it feels shockingly modern, and surprisingly fun.
To learn more about Spacewar and the dawn of video games, listen to my episode on the topic.