How Stanford faculty, students and alumni shaped the evolution of digital diversions.
By Greta Lorge and Mike Antonucci
Long before master chief, before Mario and Pac-Man, there was the Wedge and the Needle.
In 1962, at MIT's Research Lab for Electronics, graduate student Stephen Russell and his pals from the Tech Model Railroad Club wanted to kick the tires of the lab's new PDP-1 computer. The PDP-1, manufactured by Massachusetts-based Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), was one of the first minicomputers (which meant that it was the size of three refrigerators, rather than an entire room). It could be turned on with the flip of a switch and rigged up to a CRT display. Russell and co. decided to write a program that would control the movement of objects on the screen—objects like spaceships, one a squat triangle (the Wedge), the other long and thin (the Needle). Thus Spacewar! was born.
Generally considered the first truly interactive digital computer game (it was predated by simple demonstration programs like Marvin Minsky's Tic-Tac-Toe and William Higinbotham's Tennis for Two), Spacewar! inspired countless programmers. Shortly after the game's debut, Russell followed artificial intelligence pioneer John McCarthy, whom he had worked with at MIT, to the Farm, where McCarthy founded the Stanford AI Lab. At a lab reunion in 2009, Russell accepted a gold medal for his role in launching the video game industry. He recalled once being shooed out of the Oasis at closing time and returning to campus to find the same lot that had been playing pinball until last call playing Spacewar! on the lab's computer until the wee hours.
Others saw the potential of a coin-operated version of Spacewar!, including Nolan Bushnell, who would go on to found Atari, and Bill Pitts, '68, who created the first arcade-style video game, the Galaxy Game. (He set it up in Tresidder in the summer of 1972, beating Bushnell's Pong to the punch by six months.) Ed Logg, MS '72, who also played Spacewar! at Stanford's AI lab, paid homage to the game in 1979 when he created the arcade hit Asteroids, which included a hyperspace feature and a Wedge-like ship. And Eugene Jarvis, MBA '86, who played Pong and the Galaxy Game as a teenager ("Pong was good for five minutes, the Galaxy Game was mesmerizing for hours on end") went on to create space-shooter Defender, which beat Pac-Man for video game of the year in 1981.
Video games—coin-op and, later, home console and PC versions—took off like, well, a rocket, with Stanford faculty, students and alumni contributing pivotal innovations in fundamental technology, business, hardware and gameplay along the way. (Click image above to download our "Video Games Level-up" PDF.) Today, video or computer games are played in nearly three out of every four U.S. households. And not just by young men and boys: The average age of gamers is 37 and 42 percent of them are female. (However, women still make up only about 12 percent of the industry's workforce.)
Last year the National Endowment for the Arts made video games eligible to receive grants under the Arts in Media category, which also includes radio, film and television. And while this recognition of games as an art form proved controversial in some quarters, there's no debating that video games have forever changed the cultural landscape.
Here, in their own words, some key Stanford players reflect on the games that changed them. [See sidebars.]
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For more background on the PDP-1, the PDP-6, and the Stanford AI Project at the DC Power lab, see http://forum.stanford.edu/wiki/index.php/Early_Computers_at_Stanford.
Posted by Mr. John B. Sauter, Jr. on May 15, 2012 7:37 PM
Not only will you find plenty of Stanford alumni on the game creation side of things, but you might even discover that a few made names for themselves as players. Personally, I (BS EE '81) managed to set several video game world records back in the early 80s, and that started a chain reaction of an appearance in Life Magazine (Jan. '83), followed later with a major role in the documentary feature film, "Chasing Ghosts". Video games were a huge part of my life, and I would like to thank everyone involved in their creation!
Posted by Mr. Mark A. Robichek on May 28, 2012 9:06 PM
The Effort Effect
Let Me Introduce Myself
Seeing at the Speed of Sound
Dunder Mifflin Going Out of Business
Data is from the past two weeks.