The year 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of Spacewar!, the first digital video game. To celebrate this milestone and the game's enduring legacy, Museum of the Moving Image will present Spacewar! Video Games Blast Off, a highly interactive new exhibition and series of accompanying programs, from December 15, 2012, through Sunday, March 3, 2013.
The exhibition looks at the first 50 years of video games through the lens of Spacewar!, its development, and the culture from which it sprang. The centerpiece of the exhibition is a model of the original PDP-1 (Programmed Data Processor-1) computer running a playable simulation of Spacewar!, presented alongside 20 playable video games ranging in platform (arcade, console, handheld, PC), genre (shooters, platformers, action, arcade), and developer (commercial, independent, experimental). From Missile Command to Halo 4, and from Star Fox to Portal, the exhibition draws connections and contrasts between these games and Spacewar!, signaling the latter's central place in the development of video games as a cultural form.
"Since the Museum's opening in 1988, video games have been central to our mission," said Carl Goodman, the Museum's Executive Director. "In 1989 we presented Hot Circuits, the very first museum retrospective of the video arcade game, and since then the Museum has regularly exhibited video games. The games in this show reflect the vast diversity of the medium, from classic arcades to the latest console extravaganzas, and collectively pay tribute to the incredible legacy of Spacewar!"
Spacewar! was created by a group of students and researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1961, conceived of as a demonstration for the new Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-1 computer. The game premiered at the 1962 Science Open House at MIT, and was later made available for order to computer labs with PDP-1 machines via DEC's printed software catalog. This "computer toy" influenced untold technological advances and gave rise to the cultural phenomenon now known as video games. Among other things, Spacewar! set the template for the game development industry and its relationship to technology, created a model for how communities of players interacted and modified games, established shooting as a common aspect of game play, and inspired space and science fiction themes for future games.
"The Museum exhibition traces the extraordinary impact of Spacewar! on the subsequent history of video games," said guest curator John Sharp, who organized the exhibition. "Spacewar! set off a seismic rumble in the early computer science community, the ripples of which are still felt today in the game industry, academia, and player cultures. It even inspired the first coin-operated arcade game, as well as industry pioneers like Nolan Bushnell, a co-founder of Atari."
In conjunction with the exhibition, the Museum will present special programs, including talks with video game pioneers, hackathons, tours and workshops for student groups, and classes, camps, and design jams for children, teens, and families.
Curator John Sharp is a designer, art historian, and educator. He has been involved in the creation and study of art and design for over 25 years. Sharp is a member of the game design collective Local No. 12, which focuses on games as a research platform, and also a member of the Leisure Collective, a group dedicated to the intersection of games, narrative, and art. Sharp is the Associate Professor of Games and Learning in the School of Art, Media and Technology at Parsons The New School for Design where he co-directs PETLab (Prototyping, Evaluation and Technology Lab), a group exploring games and their design as a form of social discourse. He is also a partner in Supercosm, where he focuses on interaction and game design for arts and education clients.
As the first museum to include video games as part of the scope of the "moving image" and the first to appoint a full-time Curator of Digital Media in 1992, the Museum is considered a leading institution in the exhibition of digital media. Changing exhibitions focusing on this subject area have included Hot Circuits: A Video Arcade (1989), the first exhibition of video games ever presented in a museum (which then proceeded onto a ten-city tour) and Interactions/Art and Technology (2004), presented in conjunction with Ars Electronica (Linz, Austria). Real Virtuality (2011), featuring six experiments in art and technology, was the first digital media exhibition in the Museum's newly renovated and expanded facility. The Museum has regularly exhibited video games in its core exhibition, Behind the Screen. Jason Eppink, the Museum's Assistant Curator of Digital Media, assisted with organizing Spacewar! Video Games Blast Off, and organized the installations Pretty Loaded and DVD Dead Drop, currently on view at the Museum.