Before “Fortnite” and “Candy Crush,” before “Super Mario Bros.” and “Tetris,” in fact, even before things like VCRs, Post-its, email, and hacky sacks, eight young MIT students came up with a truly novel idea that ended up becoming not just one of the first video games of its kind, but one of the first video games ever. Their excitement is still palpable in the game’s title, “Spacewar!”
The game essentially launched what today Smithsonian Magazine estimates as a $140 billion industry, with games as varied and ubiquitous as the devices they are played on. All modern-day players and developers owe at least part of their success to that early sci-fi strategy invention.
Early this past December, around 300 attendees — including many of the most renowned and celebrated members of the video game industry — gathered at the Smithsonian National Museum of History in Washington D.C. to pay tribute to “Spacewar!” and its founders. Christopher Weaver, the Distinguished Professor of Computational Media in the College of Integrative Sciences at Wesleyan University, hosted a panel discussion with the seven living members of the eight-person team: Martin Graetz, Steve Russell, Robert Saunders, Steven Piner, Wayne Wiitanen, Dan Edwards and Peter Samson (Alan Kotok passed away in 2006).
Weaver is himself an MIT graduate, as well as the founder of Bethesda Softworks, a video game publishing company that launched in 1986 and is known for its The Elder Scrolls series, among many other popular titles. In 2017, Weaver was appointed a Distinguished Scholar in the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation and installed as the co-Director of the Videogame Pioneers Initiative (VPI).
“By recording and archiving the stories of the industry’s creators, the Lemelson Center is gathering a trove of seminal material to help uncover many of the fundamental threads of invention and innovation that go into making every creative industry,” Weaver said in a recent message. “The Spacewar event was the first of its kind in the Innovative Lives program at the Smithsonian. Based upon the success of that event, there are already plans to make similar events an annual occurrence.”
To read more, see the magazine’s full write-up of the event and the game’s interesting history.