Watcha Doing With Computer Games in Space

The Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down just a bit ago, marking the end of the Shuttle Space Age in America. Throughout my life, Americans have gone to space regularly. Now that is over.

As I dug through the Dungeons & Dreamers yesterday constructing a draft of the Second Edition introduction, I was struck by how intertwined space was with the computer game world.

SpaceWar!, the first computer game, was a recreation of sci-fi writer E.E. “Doc” Smith’s novels. The M.I.T. students, as described by Steven Levy in Hackers, went to great pains to create realistic physics reactions within the game. (Years later, id Software’s John Carmack would expend a tremendous amount of energy creating a real-time physics engine for Doom III.)

Just a few years later, Richard Garriott’s father – Owen Garriott – would briefly hold the record for longest time in orbit when he circled the earth for 60 days. Young Garriott, who came of age as his father rocketed into outer space and computers came into the nation’s consciousness, was changed forever by those experiences.

(Aside: Richard told us he’d always been annoyed when he asked his father what space was like. “It’s like being underwater,” he said. Years later, Richard would venture into space as part of the Russian space program. This past year, Richard and I met at the South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin where he was launching his latest game company. I was hosting the event where he was competing. I asked him: “Was it like being underwater?” He looked at me, and laughed: “No.”)

In 2000, Carmack founded Armadillo Aerospace, a company competing in the Space X Prize competition. Since its inception, Carmack has spent $3.5 million pursuing the dream of building a low-orbit space craft.

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I’ve long been a proponent of NASA and the manned-flight missions we’ve undertaken as a country. The feats of science and engineering are astounding. The research we’ve accumulated about the planet, the solar system, the galaxy, and the universe are immeasurable.

Most importantly, though, space is about what’s next? It’s the great unknown, the idea that keeps us on our toes, dreaming, and striving for something bigger than ourselves, and answers we may never find.

Space has inspired three generations of computer programmers (and countless others). Until today.

Now we must ask what’s next? for entirely different reasons.

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