Yesterday afternoon, even as scholar were discussing the cultural and educational impact of video games at a three-day symposium sponsored by Harvard University, Steve Russell was sitting a few miles to the west in the Waltham offices of Interactive Data, where he was using a CDI portable terminal to debug a financial management program he has been writing for the Chase Manhattan Bank.
Russell, a 45-year-old computer whiz, is one of the guys the symposium forgot: 21 years ago, in a Massachusetts Institute of Technology laboratory less than a mile from Harvard, he invented video games.
Although this achievement is generally ascribed to another person not invited to the conference -- Nolan Bushnell, the 40-year-old founder of Atari, because he conceived the game "Pong" -- Russell created his inter-galactic, shoot-'em-up "Spacewar!" long before Bushnell had ever laid his hands on a terminal.
"There's no doubt," says Bushnell, "that 'Spacewars!' made me realize there was money to be made in computer games -- a notion Russell says he and some of his computer buddies "thought about for maybe four days, but you could calculate on the back of an envelope how many quarters it would take to buy a computer and ther was no way we could imagine it working."
Russell seems cut from the classic cloth of creative computing: he's fascinated by electronics and games (he has two computers in his home, and his favorite game is "Megabug," a maze exploration program); he has only one a other obsession: trains, both model and real; his shirt pocket is stuffed with pens (seven, in four different colors). He was born in Connecticut to a mechanical engineer father and a schoolteacher mother. His parents moved to Washington state and eventually bought a dairy farm; Russell returned east to study math at Dartmouth, and left shortly before graduation to work at MIT with John McCarthy, a pioneer in artificial intelligence research who developed the programming language LISP that is now almost university used in artificial intelligence work.
Just as Russell himself is out of the techno tradition, the development of "Spacewar!" is similarly a basic and characteristic, although relatively unread, chapter in video game history; like many of the innovations in the field, it came about almost accidentally,
Specifically, in the fall of 1962, the Digital Equipment Corp. donated to MIT's artificial intelligence lab a progtotype of its Program Data Processing computer, better known as the DEC PDP-1. "It was really the first appliance computer on the market," Russell says. "If it was off you could walk in and turn on the power switch and it was running. And it was substantially cheaper than the IBM 370 that was most in use then: $120,000 versus $1 million."
Before "Spacewar!" there was only one crude tennis game, displays of bouncing balls and various graphic patterns, and programs with titles like "Expensive Planetarium," Expensive Desk Calculator," Expensive Type-writer" -- so named because "to do adding or typing for $120,000 is pretty expensive," Russell says.
"Somewhere around that time I had read Doc Smith's 'Lensman' series, which has spaceships roaring around the universe. There were a bunch of us who worked with the computer who were always wondering what we could do it demonstrate its power and eventually we decided that we could create a demo that had something to do with a spaceship and have it be like Lensman shooting around the universe. I was one of the loudest talkers, and after a few months people were asking me how come I wasn't doing something about it, I said, 'I need to calculate angles and I don't know how to do sines and cosines.'"
Aother member of this video vanguard supplied Russel with the necessary formulas. The resultant game program, written in about six weeks, displayed on a cathode ray tube two spaceships that could turn left and right, move forward and fire torpe-does -- a very sophisticated precursor of the arcade game "Asteroids" that would be introduced in 1980.
"The original control board of the computer had 18 toggle switches for entering data in the form of binary numbers," Russell says. "We use the four on either end for controls. We had to change that in a couple of months for separate control boxes, because you always tended to get very sore elbows when two people were sitting beside each other at the computer terminal."
The control boxes looked remarkably like precutors of contemporary joysticks: they could maneuver the ship, fire its thrusters and torpedoes, and eventually jump it into hyperspace. "There were two problems with the early game," Russell says. "It gave too much advantage to the experienced player and it really didn't exploit the power of the computer, which had a little more than 8K of memory."
The games spread quickly to most college campuses. Bushnell, for instance, often played it at the University of Utah, and Russell himself finally realized what he had created a few years later, when he moved to Stanford University.
"One night we were working very late and went out for some hamburgers," Russell says. "There were a bunch of guys in the bar playing pinball, and we all got thrown out when the place closed. When I got back to the lab, I noticed that the guys who had been playing pinball also worked at the lab. When they came in they went over to a terminal, and loaded 'Spacewar!' That was when I realized I had really created the new pinball machine.
"Maybe I was just ahead of my time. I have no regrets really that I didn't make money at it. I had fun, which is what I think computers are all about. And I'm not sure I have the tolerance for the nonsense that goes with big-bucks consumer electronics."
And although Russell may not have received much public acknowledgement for his creation, for years his work was immortal in the computer business: after its creation every DEC PDP-1 was shipped from the factory with the "Spacewar!" program loaded in its memory. "If the machine survived shipment," Russell says, "first thing the customer ever saw was my game."