Spacewar: “A Flawless Crystal Ball”

// Posted by on 01/23/2012 (10:08 PM)

In his 1972 article in Rolling Stone, Stewart Brand delves into Spacewar, the first digital computer game developed by Steve Russell. Ironically, for Brand, “gaming” did not yet exist (we need to flash forward about 8 years to see the world of gaming explode). So his report didn’t credit Spacewar as part of a natural progression of software or even hacking, and Brand definitely did not view it as genuine piece of the technology revolution puzzle, but it was still fun.

What Brand did acknowledge about Spacewar was (as quoted from Spacewar: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums):

  • It was intensely interactive in real time with the computer.
  • It encouraged new programming by the user.
  • It bonded human and machine through a responsive broadband interface of live graphics display.
  • It served primarily as a communication device between humans.
  • It was a game.
  • It functioned best on, stand-alone equipment (and disrupted multiple-user equipment).
  • It served human interest, not machine. (Spacewar is trivial to a computer.)
  • It was delightful.

So Spacewar was a crystal ball… how?

Recently I stumbled upon this gem of a TED Talk:

Now I am probably the furthest thing from a gamer, so McGonial’s theory was eye opening, even if I didn’t really buy it.

My disclaimer before I get into Spacewar’s prophecy, if you will…

I apologize to any mother whose gamer also stumbles upon Jane McGonigal’s talk. Much to your and Marie Hemming’s (see comments on McGonigal’s Talk and you will quickly learn why) dismay this will only encourage his/her gaming.

Now onto the “how”… (based on McGonigal’s theory)

Spacewar was interactive:

  • COLLABORATORS: at every level and mission, hundreds of thousands of people ready to work with you
  • EPIC STORY: inspiring story of why we’re there, and what we’re doing
  • POSITIVE FEEDBACK: leveling up, plus-one strength, and plus-one intelligence


Spacewar encouraged new programming:

McGonigal created three games that that are an attempt to give people the means to create epic wins in their own futures:

  1. World Without Oil: an online game in which you try to survive an oil shortage
  2. Superstruct at The Institute For The Future: the premise was a supercomputer has calculated that humans have only 23 years left on the planet.
  3. Evoke: if you complete the game you will be certified by the World Bank Institute, as a Social Innovator

Spacewar bonded human & machine through graphics:

photo by Phil Toledano


Jane McGonigal explains the above gamer expression, photographed by Phil Toledano, as:

“a classic gaming emotion… if you’re not a gamer, you might miss some of the nuance in this photo. You probably see the sense of urgency, a little bit of fear, but intense concentration,deep, deep focus on tackling a really difficult problem… If you are a gamer, you will notice a few nuances here: the crinkle of the eyes up, and around the mouth is a sign of optimism, and the eyebrows up is surprise. This is a gamer who is on the verge of something called an epic win.”

McGonigal hopes to make it as easy to achieve an epic win in the real world as the virtual world.


Spacewar served as a communication device between humans:

Games like World of Warcraft make gamers virtuosos at: WEAVING A TIGHT SOCIAL FABRIC

“There’s a lot of interesting research that shows that we like people better after we play a game with them, even if they’ve beaten us badly. And the reason is, it takes a lot of trust to play a game with someone. We trust that they will spend their time with us, that they will play by the same rules, value the same goal, they’ll stay with the game until it’s over. And so, playing a game together actually builds up bonds and trust and cooperation. And we actually build stronger social relationships as a result.”


Spacewar was a game:

Games can save a civilization, as McGonigal explains through Herodotus’ story of Lydia during an 18 year famine which eventually lead to the Etruscans. Games allow us to ignore real-world suffering because they are engaging and immerse the player in satisfying blissful productivity. McGonigal believes if we game long enough, we can eventually solve real-world problems instead of virtual ones.


Spacewar served human interest:

McGonigal claims that if we want to solve problems like hunger, poverty, climate change, global conflict, obesity, we need to aspire to play games online for at least 21 billion hours a week, by the end of the next decade. We need to answer these questions:

What about games makes it impossible to feel that we can’t achieve everything? How can we take those feelings from games and apply them to real-world work?


Spacewar was delightful:

Games like World of Warcraft also make gamers virtuosos at: URGENT OPTIMISM

“Think of this as extreme self-motivation. Urgent optimism is the desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle, combined with the belief that we have a reasonable hope of success. Gamers always believe that an epic win is possible, and that it is always worth trying, and trying now”


So, the question then becomes: do you think gaming can save the world?


Jane McGonigal: How gaming can make a better world

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Tommy said...

To answer your question, yes, I absolutely think gaming can save the world. However, I don’t know if I think that it will happen on the scale that Jane McGonigal predicts. Stewart Brand touched on it a little in his article “Spacewar: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums.” One part of the article that really stuck out to me was in the section on the hackers and what they were working on (besides Spacewar): “There’s a speech recognition project. There’s the hand-eye project, in which the computer is learning to see and visually correct its robot functions. There’s work on symbolic computation and grammatical inference. Work with autistic children, ‘trying to get them to relate to computers first, and then later to people. This seems to be successful in part because many of these children think of themselves as machines. You can encourage them to interact in a game with the machine.” This was written in 1972. Now watch this video from 60 minutes titles “Apps for Autism”

Almost 40 years before this was filmed, the potential of computer gaming was already being realized (the fact that it took almost 40 years for things like this to actually be utilized is a whole different story). While the games featured in that 60 minutes segment aren’t the same types of games Jane McGonigal is talking about, I think that these games are the ones that are really going to end up making a difference. Importantly, echoing Turner’s point about the progression of computation-oriented machines to an emphasis on communication, the therapist from the video mentions that “communication is the essence of being human;” in helping children and adults with autism to be able to communicate, it’s unlocking a vast amount information previously thought lost.
Not only does the iPad improve communication and socialization, “there’s something about the ipad that draws the students in. They’re engaged with it in a way that we don’t see with other toys or puzzles or teaching tools. In this article on gaming and the classroom, the use of gaming-based learning throughout an entire school is highlighted. I also noticed that the article points out that the school is using a gaming curriculum centered on systems-thinking; so far, games increase communication due to their systems-thinking methodology- and Stewart Brand recognized this, more or less, before gaming was even a thing. So basically, although I think that it’s hard to imagine how gaming and other forms of online interaction won’t save the world, when to me it looks like it’s already begun.

// 01/24/2012 at 8:48 pm

Kelsey said...

I don’t think gaming, as it is, can save the world. An epic win in today’s video games mean that a gamer can solve a puzzle and move his/her fingers fast enough to make it all happen. Not to say that a sense of accomplishment is bad but I find that, for example, climbing a 14,000ft mountain is infinitely more gratifying than leveling up in some game, and far more memorable if I do say so myself. McGonigal claims that video games can change the world but I don’t see gamers changing the world or becoming more hardy by any means. I see gamers becoming lazy, bad at prioritizing, and entirely focused on a world that is not real, emphasis on the ‘not real,’ pulling them out of the world and its problems and its demands thereby starting a vicious cycle of escaping from the world because one no longer fits in but by escaping making the situation worse. Resulting, in an extreme case, with a lot of 32-year-olds living in their parents basement working at a dead end job.
This also leads me to think about what would happen if suddenly, for whatever reason, technology stopped working. No internet, no phones, no games, no GPSs, just people and the world. Who knows how to fix a car without a computer? Who knows how to diagnose the problem with a car without a computer?! Which way is north? Can you do the math that your calculator does? Could you survive?
I would love for people to believe that they have the ability to change the real world but how could that ever happen if people have their noses in a tv or computer screen for roughly 476 hours a year? Perhaps if people were accomplishing things in the real world such as…
an A on a spelling test, a hit in a baseball game, growing a garden, running a marathon (notice the epic win expressions). Perhaps people would feel accomplished in an atmosphere that actually would result in their changing the world because they have never left it and they know what they can do. The people who started communes in the 1960s thought that escapism was a good way to change the world too, by the 70s their philosophy changed because their way wasn’t working and all of the sudden changing the world from within was the way to make things happen.
Perhaps McGonigal’s games like Evoke, World Without Oil, and Superstruct will begin to make a difference in the world, which would be a great thing! I just don’t see if happening with games like Resident Evil, Nazi Zombis, and Super Smash Brothers.

// 01/25/2012 at 2:00 am

Milissa said...

I loved this article is very true things!

// 01/25/2012 at 2:41 am

Roland said...

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// 01/29/2012 at 4:39 am

Sharen said...

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// 01/30/2012 at 12:51 am