Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Hitting the books: an analog computer ushered in the era of video games

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Once upon a time there was a first hominid. And maybe at one point this primitive hominid threw a stone at a mastodon he was hunting, or a saber-toothed tiger, or some other primitive hominid, and missed it; instead, the boulder hit a hollow tree, and it made a funny sound. “Ha ha!” said the first hominid, forgetting the mastodon. And so he took another stone and threw it on the tree. This time he missed. And he tried again, and again, until he was out of the rocks.

Maybe he had a friend. Maybe he said to his friend, “Hey, man, try to hit that tree with that rock.” No, no, you have to start it. Like that. ”Maybe he said,“ I bet I can hit him more times than you. ” And maybe he said, “No, no, it’s too close, you have to stand here behind the bones of the sloth, that’s the rule. If you walk on the bones, it doesn’t matter. .

Maybe the friend said, “Hey, and if I hit him more times than you do, I get the good chunk of your sloth meat.”

“No, no,” said the first. “Just throw it away.

It was a game.

A few hundred thousand years later, a physicist named William Higinbotham made another. Higinbotham, who had worked as a member of the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos and later became a leading proponent of nuclear weapons, was working at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island in 1958 when he designed something for the doors annual lab openings just for fun. . With an analog computer, an oscilloscope, and electromagnetic relays (essentially switches), he created what many gaming historians consider to be the first video game. It was called Tennis for two, and it consisted of a little green blip (the bullet) on a five-inch screen that you hit back and forth with a button and a button. It was the success of the open house. He didn’t bother to patent it and never did another one.

That same year, a 21-year-old man named Steve Russell began working with John McCarthy and Marvin Minsky in MIT’s new artificial intelligence lab. Russell joined an MIT group called the Tech Model Railroad Club, which had been founded in the 1940s by a group of students interested in the automated operation of model trains, but which would now quickly become a workshop for the world’s first. the Pirates. The Signals and Power subcommittee, which created the circuits that ran the trains, is credited with popularizing the term “hacking” and establishing many ethical principles in hacker culture. Their dictionary of new terms, for example, is often credited with authorship of the rallying cry “Information wants to be free”.

In 1962, using the lab’s new $ 120,000 PDP-1 computer (an upgrade to the $ 3 million TX-0 they had previously used), Russell, together with his colleagues Martin Graetz and Wayne Wiitanen, created a game. They called it Spacewar! The game was a battle between two spaceships, maneuvering in a star’s gravity well. Both ships are controlled by human players. When finished, Russell left it in the lab for anyone to play or improve. Spacewar! became not only one of the first video games, but also the first game with mods, that is, modifications made by players. A colleague in the lab hacked into the game to encode the night sky, making the placement and brightness of stars and constellations more precise; another added a sun with gravitational pull. A third hyperspace added, giving players the option to escape into a fourth dimension and reappear in another part of the game. Russell added a scoring system. The game was the first video game to be played on multiple computer facilities. He tore up the tiny 60s programming community.

Russell’s game, and others like it, were still in the hands of academics and researchers; you had to have access to a $ 120,000 computer to play Spacewar! That is, this novelty – the video game as it was – was not really available to the masses. A young University of Utah graduate Nolan Bushnell has the lion’s share of the responsibility for changing that.

At the time, the University of Utah, along with Stanford and MIT, was one of the top three schools for the new field of computing, and also one of the few to buy a PDP-1. Bushnell has found Spacewar! in the computer lab and got hooked. Until then, these games had been created to show what computers could do, or as experiments, or just for fun. Bushnell was interested in a fourth option. Entrepreneur by nature, he had worked halfway through a local amusement park near Salt Lake City, and he immediately thought how much money a game like this could make in the right place. That thought, a few steps away, would turn into the birth of the video game industry.

Almost a decade after Russell completed Spacewar !, the technology to create this industry was almost here. Now living in Northern California, Bushnell had programmed a game called Computer Space, an imitation of Spacewar! (So ​​began the proud tradition in video game design of taking a beloved game and tweaking it slightly into a new game.) He designed it for a Data General of four. thousand dollars, but he realized that playing a computer game on a computer wasn’t going to work when his early efforts to market Computer Space failed. So he built a circuit board meant only for playing Computer Space, hooked it up to a TV he had bought from Goodwill, and put it all in a plexiglass case, attached to a storage box for quarters. A local arcade company pledged to produce fifteen hundred coin operated Computer Space arcade games and distribute them on their pinball course, and with that, Bushnell had invented a new industry. Yet the game failed again. This time, Bushnell decided to start his own business, with an associate, an engineer named Ted Dabney. They wanted to call the company Syzygy, but the name was taken, so they went with their save, from the Japanese word used in the game Go which means more or less the same as “check” in chess: Atari.

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