Play Stuff Blog

Space to Play: A Cosmic History of Video Games  

A short time ago, in an archive a few states away, I had the pleasure of exploring the far reaches of space—as represented in video games. I am working on a dissertation project examining the role of outer space in the history of the American video game industry. This has meant a lot of rewarding hours spent poring over design documents, reading internal memos, hazarding the tunnels to the fabled City of Myster  y in Vanguard, and smashing millions of invested taxpayer dollars into the surface of the moon in Lunar Lander. Thanks to a different investment—The Strong Fellowship—I was able to conduct all of this research and more over a period of two weeks. What do I mean by “outer space?” An interested reader might note the cosmic proportions of the topic. There are two mirrored questions that guide my studies: (1) How did space get into games and (2) How did games get into space?

Rejected designs for a tank and moon rock in Atari's Moon Patrol game. The The first seeks to understand the role that space themes have played in the nascent American video game industry. Why were they chosen? Who was working on the games? How did players interact with them? And why was the industry punctuated by alternate periods of intense interest in the space genre and a distinct lack? Indeed, executives at the time lamented that their focus on space games sometimes left them at the mercy of the “comic character” world of Mario, Donkey Kong, and others. Still, the space theme was a tempting one for many a company. Take this document as an example. It is one of several from Atari’s Moon Patrol that shows photocopies of designs for a tank and a moon rock that were “rejected, dejected, and unselected,” summarily removed from consideration for inclusion in the game. And why was this? Because they didn’t look much like they were supposed to. Note the prominently written “This has to look more tank-like, let’s talk…” And why should it look more tank-like? Because we know what a tank looks like. But the extraterrestrial components of such a game? An alien spacecraft, or minions swarming a distant planet? Players will readily suspend disbelief. Especially since the default black display can be so convincingly presented as the vastness of space and then populated by entities that could exist only in the imagination of designer and player. All of this points to the fact that while traversing “real” space might be an immensely expensive endeavor, creating “game” space was often cheap and effective.

Jerry Lawson SSDL Certificate, 1994.

The second focus of my project is the reverse relationship—the people who make games, and the games themselves—finding their way into industries or organizations interested in human space programs. One notable individual who made this transition is Jerry Lawson. Lawson already holds the illustrious position in the history of video games as the man responsible for the first video game cartridge, designed for the Fairchild Channel F. After his time at Fairchild, however, Lawson went to work at Stanford to help with the university’s satellite engineering program. Little is widely available explicating the exact role he played there, however, with only this certificate and a brief mention in a 2006 interview attesting to his participation. One of the next steps I will take is to follow this trail and learn more about the way in which this pioneer in the video game industry helped to train others in the aerospace industry. In sum, the time I spent as a Strong Research Fellow was tremendously valuable; I sifted through this material and much more, and it will help to form the critical base of a research project that I hope will shed light, through a new lens, on the vibrant history of video games.