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February 3, 2014

Would You Like to Play a Game?

Filed under: Main — admin @ 12:01 am

Joshua, the computer personality of the WORP mainframe from the film War Games, uttered the most famous line in all of computer gaming history. It asked Matthew Broderick’s hacker character, “Would you like to play a game?” How can anyone say no to that?

Historically speaking, rare is the computer that wasn’t used to play games.

I should correct that: Rare is the programmable computers that wasn’t used to play games. I seriously doubt Lady Ida relaxed with a game of Tetris on Babbage’s engine.

Without peeking, I tried to guess the nature of the first computer game.

The early computers were what we today call mainframes. These were large, boxy contraptions that required terminals — often teletypes — for operator control. That meant the early games would all be text-based. They would lack instant feedback. So your starship could hang there a few minutes while you read up on its position and the location of the Klingons.

My guess was that the first computer game was most likely something that had to do with random number generation, such as the basic Guess the Number type of game.

I was wrong.

Officially, the first documented computer game was OXO, written in 1952. OXO was a Tic-Tac-Toe simulation. The programmer called it Noughts and Crosses, which I assume is British for Tic-Tac-Toe.

Coincidentally, it’s a game of Tic-Tac-Toe that convinces Joshua not to blow up the world in War Games. I’m not certain whether the movie’s screenwriter had that in mind, but it’s an interesting bit of trivia.

Most of the games back in the early days were all text, including text adventure games. I remember avidly playing Zork on my TRS-80. I never did finish it — until I purchased the cheats guide.

I doubt that OXO had a cheats guide in 1952.

The first computer game I remember playing on a real computer (as opposed to an arcade game) was a quiz on my university’s mainframe. I had a computer account, mostly so I could use the system’s word processor. Someone I met in the computer lab wanted me to try out the game he wrote for his Fortran class final. So I did! It was fun, but after a while I exhausted all the questions in the quiz.

The first graphical computer game debuted far earlier than I would have imagined. Spacewar! was designed in 1961. It’s often credited as the second computer game ever, after OXO, although I’d be surprised if no other games were developed on those early systems between 1952 and 1961.

Spacewar! involved flying two ships around a star — with gravity — trying to shoot at each other. A video arcade game in the late 1970s, called Space Wars, borrowed the same concept. I remember playing that, and preferring it to Asteroids, but it required two players.

Today, of course, computer games are all over. Windows comes with games pre-installed, including my personal enemy, Minesweeper. The Mac may no longer come with games pre-installed, yet free games are available at the App Store. Ditto for Android devices, where lots of free games are to be had, including my new annoying favorite, Flappy Bird.

Still, back in the day, computer games were rare and special. It’s amazing how far we’ve come.


  1. Yup, I can confirm Noughts & Crosses is the name for Tic-Tac-Toe this side of the Atlantic!

    Comment by glennp — February 8, 2014 @ 7:47 am

  2. That definitely implies that the first computer game was coded by a British programmer. 🙂

    Comment by admin — February 8, 2014 @ 8:55 am

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