Stewart Brand Recalls First 'Spacewar' Video Game Tournament

Visionary staged debut competition of sci-fi rocket combat game at Stanford in 1972

In 1972, Stewart Brand was a writer and editor at 'Rolling Stone.' Credit: Photo: Glixel

The first video game tournament was held on October 19th, 1972. Competitors gathered at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab in Los Altos, California to do battle in the sci-fi rocket combat game Spacewar. At the time, the lab was one of the only a handful of locales in the world with hardware sophisticated enough to run it.

The event was put together by Stewart Brand, best known today for his leadership of the Long Now Foundation, but then a 33 year-old writer and editor who was in the midst of working on a magazine feature story for Rolling Stone. The story was about the tremendous potential of computers to unleash creativity and change society. And as far as Brand was concerned, nothing seemed to embody that potential more than video games.

His epic 9,000-word feature ran in a December 1972 issue of the magazine, between a cover story about Carlos Santana and an advertisement for The Connoisseur's Handbook of Marijuana. Brand was credited in the story as the magazine's "sports reporter," and he presented the world's first esports event to readers as a pulse-pounding spectacle. He also celebrated the skill of the players as if they were star athletes, dubbing them "those magnificent men with their flying machines, scouting a leading edge of technology."

In October of 1972, not many people even knew that video games existed – the first Pong machine would not be installed until six weeks after the tournament was held. The select few who did play games never could have imagined that the medium would become a lucrative spectator sport. "It may seem extraordinary that you can now fill arenas with people who want to watch videogames," says Brand. "But it's a perfectly reasonable outcome of what you could already see in 1972."

The winner of the world's first video game tournament received a free subscription to Rolling Stone, and a chance to be immortalized in print by a young shutterbug on the magazine's staff. But the real prize would be the bragging rights that came with being named the Intergalactic Spacewar Champion of 1972.

Brand had something of a knack for staging epochal cultural happenings. In 1966, he co-produced the infamous Trips Festival with Ken Kesey. Thousands of hippies attended this three day event in San Francisco to listen to psychedelic rock and drink punch dosed with LSD. He figures heavily in Tom Wolfe's countercultural touchstone The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. (Brand also made a cameo appearance in Tom Wolfe's counterculture touchstone The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test – he's the guy driving the pickup truck, wearing a white butcher's coat and necktie but no shirt.)

Brand was equally tuned in to the technological revolution that was rocking the Bay Area at the time. "I discovered that drugs were less interesting than computers as a way to expand your consciousness," he says.

In 1968, Brand helped the inventor Doug Engelbart orchestrate a presentation at a computer conference that has come to be known as The Mother of All Demos. Engelbart demonstrated video conferencing, the computer mouse, email, hypertext, word processing and a windows-based organizational structure. Basically, he predicted most of the elements of the modern personal computer and the modern workplace.

"You were balancing skill versus luck, and not only dealing with the threat of your opponents, but the threat of losing control and being slurped into the sun."

Brand found Engelbart's vision of tomorrow thrilling. But he was even more excited by the nascent medium of video games. "They manifested so many amazing things about what was becoming possible with computers."

Whenever Brand had visited computer labs at universities and research institutions around the country, there was one constant. "There were always some young engineers gathered around the computer blasting away at this game Spacewar."

The depth of their engagement with the game astonished Brand. "I saw them having some kind of out-of-body experience," he says. "Their brains and their fingers were fully engaged. There was an athletic exuberance to their joyous mutual slaying. I'd never seen anything like that."

Spacewar had been kicking around for a decade by the time Brand staged his competition. Steven Russell, a young programmer from Dartmouth, had tried to build something that showed what computers could do, and that recreated the thrilling battles from classic pulp scifi like Skylark and The Lensman.

The game is a two-player duel between rocketships. Players control the ships by rotating clockwise or counterclockwise, thrusting, and firing photon torpedos. (It's very similar to the later arcade game Asteroid, which is heavily indebted to Spacewar.)

In the 1960s, the most affordable computers were still extremely expensive – the equivalent of a million dollars or more today. Time on those computers was precious. Yet Spacewar was still passed around or reverse-engineered on computers across the country, and new features gradually accrued. Someone added a sun in the center of the screen that had a gravitational pull – skilled players could use it to slingshot themselves around. Others added hyperspace and a cloaking device.

"I was intrigued at the quality of game design intelligence these guys had from the very start," Brand explains. "You were balancing skill versus luck, and not only dealing with the threat of your opponents, but the threat of losing control and being slurped into the sun. And hyperspace was an astonishingly brilliant breakthrough."

Brand engaged in some space combat himself. "They'd hand you the little button pad, and you'd get your ass handed to you," he says. "But the game had been so well-designed that a naive player could last long enough to learn to be dangerous."

In late 1972, the implementation of Spacewar at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab may well have been the most ambitious video game in existence.

The Stanford AI lab got its funding from ARPA, a research arm of the Department of Defense, and serious groundbreaking research happened there. But the people at the lab also had a playful streak. Different offices were named after locales from Tolkein's Middle Earth. The computer room was called "Mordor."

At the time of Brand's Rolling Stone story, the lab had recently upgraded to a PDP-10 computer, which was vastly more sophisticated than the PDP-1 that Spacewar had originally been made on. Ralph Gorin, the head system programmer at the lab who would go on to create the first spellchecker, designed a souped-up version of the game that took full advantage of their next-generation hardware.

Gorin's version added space mines, and the option of partial damage rather than one-hit kills. But more importantly, it could accommodate five simultaneous players and allowed for an audience. This allowed for the sort of chaotic kill-crazy free-for-alls we associate with Quake LAN party deathmatches. It also allowed for an audience.

Brand was writing a feature story that he hoped would introduce the world to hacker culture and the interesting things people were doing with computers. Five-player Spacewar at the Stanford AI Lab seemed like the perfect illustration of that. He convinced Les Earnest, the executive officer at the lab, to shut it down for an evening and invite students and researchers to come attended the First Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics. There would be snacks and beer.

"I would sleep during the day, roll in at night, and work for 12 hours."

Bruce Baumgart first encountered Spacewar in the late 1960s, when he was studying applied mathematics at Harvard. The game's visuals were what most impressed him. The backdrop looks like arbitrary dots, but it's actually an accurate depiction of every star in the night sky above a certain magnitude of brightness."The starfield was the real star of that game," says Baumgart.

Baumgart came to Stanford AI Lab to do his grad work on geometric modelling for computer vision – basically, eyesight for mobile robots. Scores of researchers were jockeying for time on the lab's computer, and he adopted a Morlock lifestyle so he'd have easier access. "I would sleep during the day, roll in at night, and work for 12 hours," he says.

Baumgart became one of the best Spacewar players at Stanford. "Pretty soon, you don't think about the buttons," he says. "It's like speed typing – you just look at ships on the screen and make them move where you need them to go."

He began handicapping himself to make matches more of a challenge. Like Inigo Montoya, he would play with the controller in his non-dominant hand to give less experienced opponents a sporting chance. He even mastered steering two ships simultaneously, with a controller in each fist

By the time that an announcement went out about the Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics, Baumgart was a veritable Spacewar wizard.

On the night of the competition, Brand arrived at the Stanford AI Lab with Rolling Stone staff photographer Annie Leibovitz. "This all must have been very strange to her, but she got really good pictures of people in the scene," he says. The students and researchers excitedly led her around, showing off their bleeding edge technological creations like schoolkids on parents night. There was a robot arm that could actually see the things it was picking up, computer programs that could play music, and a six foot rack of equipment attached to a video camera that they used to capture a digital image of Leibovitz herself. "This was years before Kodak claimed to have created the first digital camera,” says Baumgart.

Brand was relieved to see that a critical mass of contestants were on hand. The preliminary 2v2 competition commenced, and he had a tape-recorder running that captured what must be the first documented example of gamer team chat and trash talk in history.

Here's how Brand renders it in his article:

Get him! Get the mother!
Clickclick click
Lemme get in orbit. Clickclick
Way to dodge. Click clickclickclick
Get tough now. Clickclickclick

Competition moved on to the final five-player free-for-all and the grand prize. Baumgart won enough of the preliminary rounds to make it into the finals. He had sized up the competition beforehand. "You pretty much knew the pecking order," he says. There was just one person he was worried about – Dave Poole, a colorful hacker who would go on to create the supercomputer used to make the CG animation for the movie Tron. Luckily, Poole was a no-show.

The final match began, and Brand could tell that this spectacle he had orchestrated would be worth immortalizing. "Five players sitting next to each other yelling and banging away on their buttons added a nice sort of physical violence to the onscreen violence that was going on," he explains.

Baumgart’s unorthodox two-fisted training regimen was serving him well. So was the excitement of the crowd. The denizens of the lab had occasionally mustered enough participants for a five-player match before, but never had a match played out in front of spectators like this. "You had a gallery watching," he says. "There was laughter, cheering, applause."

Baumgart won, with what Brand described in his article as "a powerhouse performance." Leibovitz's camera captures him in his moment of triumph, with a grin that threatens to split his face in half, brandishing the controller like Aragorn holding his sword Andúril aloft after the Battle of Black Gate.

He was the Intergalactic Spacewar Champion of 1972.