Super Mario Nation

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In 1962 an M.I.T. student named Steven Russell pulled off the ultimate hack. Russell was the kind of kid people make jokes about: short, full of nervous energy, passionately devoted to B-grade science fiction, shy, and brilliant. He worked with the Tech Model Railroad Club, a campus organization that had recently begun turning its focus from toy trains to computers. TMRC members had their own vocabulary.

 

In 1962 an M.I.T. student named Steven Russell pulled off the ultimate hack. Russell was the kind of kid people make jokes about: short, full of nervous energy, passionately devoted to B-grade science fiction, shy, and brilliant. He worked with the Tech Model Railroad Club, a campus organization that had recently begun turning its focus from toy trains to computers. TMRC members had their own vocabulary. Rolling chairs were bunkies , for instance, and broken equipment was munged . Impressive feats and practical jokes were hacks .

Russell’s hack was creating the first interactive computer game.

Today, when the ubiquitous Mario brothers are as deeply ingrained in the national consciousness as the Disney menagerie, when arcade games of late Roman brutality are vivid enough to have prompted a Senate investigation, when the voracious M&M’s that made Pac-Man the most popular arcade game of all time have become the furniture of a shared past, it is strange to think how brief the history is that has propelled this fixture into our lives: just a quarter-century this year since the first video game went on the market, and thirty-five years since Steven Russell’s masterstroke.

Russell created his game on a Digital Equipment Company PDP-1, one of the first computers to display data on a screen instead of printing it out. Given his deep immersion in science fiction, it took the form of something he called Spacewar.

“I started out with a little prototype that just flew the spaceships around,” he says. “Pete Sampson added a program called Expensive Planetarium that displayed stars as a background. Dan Edwards did some very clever stuff to get enough time so that we could compute the influence of gravity on the spaceships. The final version of that was done in the spring of ’62.”

In Spacewar the players controlled either a curvy Buck Rogers-style spaceship nicknamed the Wedge or a cigarshaped rocket called the Needle. It was an accurate portrayal of the physics of space; the ships floated in their frictionless battlefield, and if they strayed too close to the sun in the middle of the screen, they got caught in its gravity and were destroyed.

It was a two-player game. The PDP-1, which was larger than many automobiles but tiny in comparison with many of the computers of the time, did not have enough processing power to create the artificial intelligence required to pilot one of the rockets.

Spacewar was originally controlled by toggle switches built into a panel on the computer. But the awkwardly placed switches gave the players sore elbows, and after a while some TMRC members cobbled together another set of switches and ran wires between them and the PDP-1—the world’s first controllers for the world’s first video game.

Russell never copyrighted his game. There was no reason to; he couldn’t market it. PDP-1 computers sold for $120,000, and very few people had access to them. In the end Spacewar, became shareware that Digital Equipment technicians used to test their machines.

One person who enjoyed it was Nolan Bushnell. Bushnell liked computers and he liked games—he was working his way through the University of Utah by running midway games at an amusement park—but otherwise it is hard to imagine someone less like Steven Russell than the tall, gregarious, charismatic Bushnell.

He was fortunate in his choice of school. “In the late 1960s,” he recalls, “if you wanted to connect a computer up to a telephone or a video screen, you did it only in three places in the world or the known universe: the University of Utah, M.I.T., or Stanford. And it was just serendipity that I went to school at Utah.” Bushnell spent hour upon hour playing games in the university’s computer lab. His favorite game was Spacewar.

 
SPACEWAR’S controls hurt the players’ elbows, so they cobbled together remote switches: the world’s first controllers for the world’s first video game.

In 1968 he graduated and took a job at Ampex, an engineering firm in Northern California. By 1970 he’d decided to merge his formal education with the lessons he’d learned on the midway. He converted his two-year-old daughter’s bedroom into a workshop and began looking for an inexpensive way to turn Spacewar into a coin-operated novelty that could be marketed like a pinball game.