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(Living Computers Image)

Modern video game competition has become a huge money maker, with pro players and teams battling in different e-sports and leagues and attracting giant audiences.

On Thursday night at Living Computers: Museum + Labs, players are invited to compete in a tournament with a more vintage look and feel.

The Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics is a 45th anniversary celebration and tournament marking the first-ever gaming tournament, which took place in 1972 when about two dozen players gathered in Palo Alto, Calif., around a DEC PDP-10 computer in Stanford University’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. The players competed in Spacewar! — a space combat video game developed in 1962.

The Living Computers tournament will take place on an IMLAC PDS-1, running a three-player version of Spacewar! using arcade button controls.

Lath Carlson, executive director of the Paul Allen-founded facility, told GeekWire that it’s surprising how popular Spacewar! still is, not just among nostalgic gamers of the past but also for modern vintage gaming lovers and retro computer fans, too.

“Spacewar! can’t quite claim the name of the first video game, but it is arguably one of the most influential video games of all time, largely because of its unique gameplay and storytelling,” Carlson said. “As the focus of the first-ever video game tournament 45 years ago, Spacewar! created a community around video games that had never existed before, and many of those bonds and that energy still remains today. It’s simple yet frustratingly difficult gameplay keeps people coming back to it again and again.”

vintage video game
An Atari 2600 version of Space War from 1978. (Living Computers Photo)

In addition to its modern collection of video games featuring virtual reality, a self-driving car simulator, robots and digital art, Living Computers has over 65 restored, operating vintage computers that will be accessible during the event, including:

  • Oscilloscope Tennis for Two (1958)
  • Cinematronics “Space Wars” (1977) (Special thanks to Ed Fries)
  • Nutting Associates Computer Space (1971)
  • DOS Spacewar! (1985)
  • Space War Atari 2600 (1978)
  • 8-player Mazewar (1977) ContrAlto, a Xerox Alto emulator
  • Vectrex Space Wars (1982)
  • Atari 8-bit Space War (1983)
vintage video game
Vectrex Space Wars, 1982. (Living Computers Photo)

“Unless you learned how to play video games on these vintage machines — with the very basic controls and long phosphor displays — it’s likely that these early favorites are some of the most challenging, infuriating, and addictive games you can play,” Carlson said. “Modern video games are great at creating life-like scenarios with unlimited possibilities and outcomes, but like most art forms, there is just something so satisfying about minimalism. Games like Spacewar! have just a handful of controls and constraints and allow players to just focus on the game, hone in on their skills, and fill in the rest with imagination.”

The IMLAC PDS-1 was introduced in 1970 by the IMLAC corporation and was a pioneering graphical display system (priced at about $8,300). The complete system included a 16-bit minicomputer built into a desk pedestal, a control panel, keyboard, and CRT display.

Carlson said that pioneering computer designer Chuck Thacker credits the PDS-1 with inspiring the development of the ground-breaking Xerox Alto (also on display for use at Living Computers), and several students created many early interactive games for the PDS-1, including Frogger and Mazewar (the first first-person shooter computer game).


Because so much of his job involves understanding the vintage machines that he’s surrounded by every day, Carlson can’t help but be wowed by how far the culture of computing and gaming has come.

“I can’t imagine that the group of students huddled around a screen at Stanford 45 years ago could have envisioned how far gaming would go,” Carlson said. “That we would have professional video game players, and that the gaming industry would surpass movies.”

Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics will run from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Thursday at Living Computers: Museum + Labs at 2245 1st Ave. S. in Seattle. Admission is $12, or free for members.

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