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Spacewar at MIT

Today I dropped by MIT to see a demo of Spacewar, the Very First Videogame -- originally written for the PDP-1 in 1962; now reconstructed by GAMBIT for the Arduino.

My photos aren't terrifically clear, but you can see the two spaceships maneuvering around a central sun (and its gravity well). They shoot at each other, and that's a videogame. The starry background, famously, is based on actual star charts.

The original source code to Spacewar has long been available (here, for example) but it is minimally-commented PDP-1 assembly code and not very accessible. The GAMBIT folks have worked for several months to reverse-engineer the code and figure out what's going on. See their blog posts on the project.

GAMBIT has promised (nudge, nudge) to post their marked-up copy of the original assembly, to document what they've discovered. I'll add a link when that happens.

If you missed Spacewar today, you should drop by the MIT Museum this Friday evening (5:30 pm); the game will be demoed again.

More photos below the dotted line.

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For a neglected console, back to school at last

8x4t.jpgA personal note: After lugging them around for many years, I finally found a better home for my Atari VCS, its many controllers, and the sixty-odd game cartridges I had collected for it while I played it throughout the mid-to-late 1980s. Last Friday, I donated the whole lot to the GAMBIT Game Lab in Cambridge. At right is the one last family portrait I snapped on my phone before packing them all away one last time and heading to the subway.

I’d been considering doing something like this for long time, but what finally tipped me over the edge was seeing Toy Story 3. I found myself unable to avoid humanizing my poor Atari system, stashed away in the dark for so long, holding out hope after all these years that someone, anyone would set it up once again play with it.

For years, I could dismiss such thoughts by telling myself that I’d get around to it myself, someday. But it occurred to me only this year that I’ve irrevocably lost this ability. The Atari VCS cannot, by definition, work with flat-screen LCD televisions. Like other early home videogame systems, it displays video by, essentially, hacking the television it’s connected to. Lacking any modern notion of video memory, the VCS uses a variety of tricks that all assume the presence of an electron beam sweeping across the screen, painting pixels row by row. VCS games must carefully time their internal operations to the relentless march of that beam.

I bid farewell to my last such television in 2008, giving it to a friend the same day I bought my Xbox 360 and my first LCD HDTV. I didn’t think at the time about what else I gave up along with it.

I could have responded to this belated realization by trashpicking an old CRT TV, setting it up in the corner of my apartment somewhere, and finally building my own little Atari shrine. But, faced with it, I found myself thinking: why emulate Al’s Toy Barn when I could instead pass it along, where it could do some good?

I’m pleased with its new home, and have great faith that the faux-woodgrained little box and its dozens of boxlets have a bright future ahead of them as an object of study for today’s game students. Most of them wouldn’t even have been born yet when I received the system from my older brother’s friend in a big paper Stop ‘N Shop bag; he had loved it for years before that, but gave it away to a game-loving kid he knew when it was time to move away. Maybe I should have done something like that myself, perhaps when I myself went away to college. But I’m happy I finally did it now. (And I used a canvas Stop ‘N Shop bag, this time around.)

Confidential to Clara: I meant what I said about being willing to take on all comers at Indy 500. I still have my one-button driving-controller chops, even after 20 years. I just know it.

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[Boston] GAMBIT Talk: Magic Systems in Theory and Practice

For those who can make it to the Kendall Square area on Friday, GAMBIT is hosting Jeff Howard for a talk on magic systems. Here's the synopsis:

GAMBIT Talks: Magic Systems in Theory and Practice

Friday April 9th, 5-7 pm.

Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab
5 Cambridge Center, 3rd Floor (near the Kendall Sq T Stop)

Magic Systems in Theory and Practice

In his talk, Jeff Howard discusses ideas for creating magic systems that are more fun, meaningful, and interactive than those typically seen in many role-playing games. Weaving together examples such as the operatic magic systems of Demon's Souls and the multi-sensory magical language of Eternal Darkness, Howard suggests that the magic systems of the future should draw upon the occult teachings of the past in order to create magical grammars that take input from a variety of sensory modes, including gesture, music, voice, and color. Drawing on many concrete gaming examples, including his game-in-progress Arcana Manor, Howard argues that the total art of opera and the enacted symbolism of contemporary occultist "workings" provide a model for a magical grammar that is connotative rather than purely denotative, i.e. in which gameplay enchants players on multiple levels of emotion and idea.

Jeff Howard is Assistant Professor of Game Development and Design at Dakota State University in Madison, South Dakota. He is the author of Quests: Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives. He received his B.A. from the University of Tulsa and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin. He is currently working on a game-in-progress, Arcana Manor, and related research about magic systems.

GAMBIT does various game-related things on many Fridays, but they usually start at 4:30, a bit early for me to make it from work, so I'm happy to see this one starting at 5.

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