The first computer games sprung up in the 1950s and 1960s, not long after the inception of the computer. Early computer games were very basic and very few people had access to them (they were played on expensive mainframes and the ironically named ‘mini-computers’ – they were the size of filing cabinets). The 1970s though was the decade when all that started to change – firstly with arcade video machines and then not much later the first video games consoles hit the shelves. The first personal computers began appearing on the scene towards the end of the decade.
1971 was a landmark year for video games, with several notable games being released, even if very few people would have had chance to play them. Before we look at those games however, we need to take a short step back in time to 1962. In that year, a space combat video called Spacewar! Was developed for the new DEC PDP-1 at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). This became a popular game around the MIT campus, and soon spread to other locations using the PDP-1 computer (mainly university campuses). It is generally considered to be the first computer game to be played on multiple computers.
Fast forward to 1971 and two arcade games were produced that took their inspiration from Spacewar! They were Computer Space and Galaxy Game. Computer Space was designed to be a coin operated version of Spacewar! and featured a rocket controlled by the player engaged in a missile battle with a pair of flying saucers. Over 1000 machines were made. The game was single player, although a two player version was developed and released in 1973.
Galaxy Game was similar to Computer Space except that this was a two player game from the outset. It featured two spaceships, “the needle” and “the wedge” engaged in a dogfight in the gravity well of a star, and both ships were controlled by human players. Like its predecessor Spacewar! it used real physics in the gameplay. This game was more sophisticated than Computer Space, but was never released commercially. The initial prototype was put on display in the student union building of Stanford University. It was very popular and drew crowds ten deep. A second prototype was developed in the next year, which stayed on the campus until 1979. This second prototype has now been restored and is on display as a playable exhibit at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.
The Oregon Trail
Another, quite different game made its debut in 1971. The Oregon Trail was an educational computer game developed by three student teachers – Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann and Paul Dillenberger – in just over 2 weeks in 1971. The game was debuted to Rawitsch’s class on December 3 1971, and the kids loved it. The idea of the game was that players played a person leading their family along the Oregon Trail in the 1800s to settle new lands in the American West. They got to make choices as to what to buy with limited funds, how to ration the food, how to cross rivers and lots of other decisions that affected the outcome. In most cases they weren’t successful and the characters died, but that just meant the kids just wanted to play again and again. The three student teachers had invented the first simulation game, and probably the most successful educational game ever.
Soon after that first play with Rawitsch’s class, they uploaded the game onto the ‘timesharing system’ (basically an early equivalent of a computer server) so teletype machines throughout the Minneapolis school district could play the game. At the end of the year, Rawitsch deleted the game but not before printing off the hundreds of lines of code. Several years later, the recently founded Minneapolis Educational Computing Consortium (MECC) would release the first widely available version of the game. It went through multiple versions, and sold over 65 million copies.
I really fancied having a go at The Oregon Trail. I wasn’t able to find a really early version of the game on the internet, however I did find a 1990 MS Dos version. This is obviously almost 20 years later, however other than some colourful – though definitely retro looking – graphics, this feels very similar to what the original version would have been like. I had a go at this, and started out by playing a banker from Boston. My task was to guide my family across America to the promised land in Oregon, several thousand miles away. It was quite a challenge! You get asked to name the characters in your group. Don’t make the same mistake I did and name them after your close family or friends. After they catch cholera, dysentry and probably die you will be feeling rather bad about the whole thing. Better to name them after your enemies! I enjoyed this game quite a lot, it is quite addictive!