50 years since Spacewar!

I am terrible at Spacewar! Let me note that the exclamation point was already in the title, and that my mediocrity brings me no joy.

Until last week, I had never had the chance to play what is considered the world's first digital computer game. Spacewar! was created 50 years ago by three students at MIT as a way to show off the power of a new high-end computer, the PDP-1. It was a massively important milestone, something all gamers should experience for themselves, but doing that is not as simple as booting up an emulator and loading up a ROM. See, part of the magic of experiencing Spacewar! is about understanding how much of a pain it is to play.

The Museum of the Moving Image, located in New York City, is offering nostalgic gamers a chance to do just that at a new exhibit titled "Spacewar! Video Games Blast Off." The exhibit features a recreation of the original PDP-1, along with authentic controls that are about as fun to play with as your taxes.

Imagine trying to play Asteroids but instead of buttons to engage thrusters and turning, all you have are stiff toggle switches ripped from a model train set. It ain't pretty. In several matches against the exhibit's associate curator, I was crushed within seconds.


And yet, it's hard not to be amazed at the level of depth Spacewar! exhibits. There's a remarkable simulation of gravity, as well as deep layers of strategy. About to be shot out of the stars by your opponent? You can hit the hyperspace toggle, which will drop you randomly somewhere on the map or obliterate you instantly. Two skilled opponents can swerve around each other for hours, dodging advances and making risky maneuvers to get ahead of their foe. Unfortunately, I was far from a skilled opponent.

In addition to Spacewar!, the exhibit also highlights five decades of gaming history. John Sharp is an associate professor at Parsons The New School of Design and was responsible for curating a selection of games that owe much to the simple origins of Spacewar!

"In some ways, things haven't changed. We're still navigating a space, trying to shoot an enemy while being shot in return."

"One of the things we really focused on in the exhibition is the role of shooting as a core activity of the play experience in video games," said Sharp. "Pretty much every game up there is exploring this idea of shooting ... In some ways, things haven't changed. We're still navigating a space, trying to shoot an enemy while being shot in return."

Over 20 games are playable in the exhibit, running the gamut from Space Invaders to Star Fox to Halo 4 and Portal, showing just how far the concept of shooting in games has come.

The Museum of the Moving Image has been exhibiting video games for 25 years, but in recent years we've seen more traditional museums express interest in the medium. Earlier this year, the Smithsonian ran an exhibit called "The Art of Video Games," and the Museum of Modern Art has a video game exhibit planned for 2013.

Carl Goodman, the Museum of the Moving Image's executive director, sees a parallel between museums now acknowledging video games and another art form which was long dismissed by such organizations.

"Film was thought of as an experience that was only relevant to the lower classes."

"In certain respects, we've been there before with film," he said. "Film was thought of as an experience that was only relevant to the lower classes. It was only until the '60s and '70s that film had begun to be recognized as a creative endeavor worthy of criticism and academic attention."

Certainly the games now on display at the Museum of the Moving Image are worthy of both, but even if you're looking for a more shallow examination (i.e., the experience of getting your butt kicked in the first computer game ever made), it's worth the trip.

Spacewar! Video Games Blast Off will be at the Museum of the Moving Image now through March 3, 2013.

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