The History of Spacewar: The First Computer Game

In 1962, Steve Russell invented Spacewar

Spacewar on the Computer History Museum's PDP-1
Spacewar on the Computer History Museum's PDP-1. Creative Commons/Kenneth Lu

"If I hadn't done it, someone would've done something equally exciting, if not better, in the next six months. I just happened to get there first." - Steve Russell aka "Slug" on inventing Spacewar.

Steve Russell - Inventing of Spacewar

It was in 1962 when a young computer programmer from MIT named Steve Russell, fueled with inspiration from the writings of E. E. "Doc" Smith, led the team that created the first popular computer game. Starwar was almost the first computer game ever written. However, there were at least two far-lesser-known predecessors: OXO (1952) and Tennis for Two (1958).

It took the team about 200 man-hours to write the first version of Spacewar. Russell wrote Spacewar on a PDP-1, an early DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) interactive mini computer which used a cathode-ray tube type display and keyboard input. The computer was donated to MIT from DEC, who hoped MIT's think tank would be able to do something remarkable with their product. A computer game called Spacewar was the last thing DEC expected but they later provided the game as a diagnostic program for their customers. Russell never profited from Spacewars.


The PDP-1's operating system was the first to allow multiple users to share the computer simultaneously. This was perfect for playing Spacewar, which was a two-player game involving warring spaceships firing photon torpedoes. Each player could maneuver a spaceship and score by firing missiles at his opponent while avoiding the gravitational pull of the sun.

Try playing a replica of the computer game for yourselves. It still holds today up as a great way to waste a few hours. By the mid-sixties, when computer time was still very expensive, Spacewar could be found on nearly every research computer in the country.

Influence on Nolan Bushnell

Russell transferred to Stanford University, where he introduced computer game programming and Spacewar to an engineering student named Nolan Bushnell. Bushnell went on to write the first coin-operated computer arcade game and start Atari Computers.

An interesting sidenote is that "Doc" Smith, besides being a great science fiction writer, held a Ph.D. in chemical engineering and was the researcher who figured out how to get powdered sugar to stick to doughnuts.

Spacewar! was conceived in 1961 by Martin Graetz, Steve Russell, and Wayne Wiitanen. It was first realized on the PDP-1 in 1962 by Steve Russell, Peter Samson, Dan Edwards and Martin Graetz, together with Alan Kotok, Steve Piner and Robert A. Saunders.

Try playing a replica of the computer game for yourselves. It still holds today up as a great way to waste a few hours:

  • Spacewar Online - The original 1962 game code runs on PDP-1 emulator in Java.
  • Play Spacewar - The "a", "s", "d", "f" keys control one of the spaceships. The "k", "l", ";", "'" keys control the other. The controls are spin one way, spin the other, thrust, and fire.

Steve Russell is a computer scientist who led the team that invented Spacewar in 1962, one of the first games ever written for the computer.

Steve Russell - Other Achievements

Steve Russell also contributed to the IBM 704, which was a 1956 upgrade of the 701.

Steve Russell - Background

Steve Russell was educated at Dartmouth College from 1954 to 1958.

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Bellis, Mary. "The History of Spacewar: The First Computer Game." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 27). The History of Spacewar: The First Computer Game. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "The History of Spacewar: The First Computer Game." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).