During the 1950s, space adventures loomed large in American pop culture as authors, comic book illustrators, and movie directors entertained the public with a steady diet of space epics. Bizarre aliens, laser beams, and spacecraft of all shapes and sizes mesmerized children and adults alike.
In the early 1960s, President Kennedy fueled public interest in such adventures, when he announced his vision of sending astronauts to the moon and John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth.
What does this have to do with our study of electronic gaming? Games often reflect the culture in which they are produced, and when you look at the earliest electronic games, one theme stands out: space adventure. Given the culture of 1960s America, it’s no surprise that the world’s first software-based computer game was MIT student Steve Russell’s 1961 program Spacewar!, which featured dueling spaceships capable of intergalactic hyperspace.
Going forward, electronic extraterrestrial exploits dominated the early stages of the game industry. The first coin-operated video arcade game, Computer Space (1971), was clearly inspired by Spacewar!, as were numerous other arcade designs.
If you tour our Videotopia exhibit, you can readily see the impact that America’s fascination with space had on the industry. Arcade titles in the exhibit include Space War (1977), Space Encounters (1980), Space Duel (1982), Space Attack (1979), and, of course, Space Invaders (1978).
One space game that gets my attention is the Atari arcade version of Lunar Lander, released in 1979. Earlier text-based computer versions by the same title were developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but this cabinet game is unique. You utilize a throttle control handle to fire thrusters to guide the descent and landing of a lunar module displayed on a black and white vector monitor.
You need to account for gravitational pull, atmospheric friction, and the spacecraft’s rotational momentum, all while burning through fuel (quarters or tokens) at an alarming rate. This was one of the first games to allow you to continue the game by purchasing more fuel (game time), a brilliant revenue-generating idea.
As you play, you may often think to yourself, “Houston, we have a problem.” The moon’s jagged lunar surface offers few suitable landing sites, and a minor piloting miscue brings disaster and a mocking message from mission control, such as, “You just destroyed a 100 megabuck lander,” or “You created a two mile crater.” In an emergency, the “Abort” button gives an extra strong vertical burn that gets you out of most, but not all, dicey situations. A perfect landing brings a congratulatory, “The Eagle has landed.” For a solitary moment, you experience life as Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin.
Yes, the limitless nature of space has given game designers ultimate license to create unique worlds and gaming situations. From Golden Era arcade classics, such as Asteroids (1979) and Galaxian (1979), to contemporary games like Mass Effect (2007) or StarCraft (1998), space has been and will continue to be a significant part of the gaming universe. What game sends you to the moon?