This post is part of an ongoing series annotating my book They Create Worlds: The Story of the People and Companies That Shaped the Video Game Industry, Vol. I. It covers material found in chapter 5 on pages 68-70. It is not necessary to have read the book to comprehend and appreciate the post.
Now that we are through all the early experiments, its time to start examining the beginning of commercial video games. And its here the stories start to get more complicated. There really is not much disagreement in the sources about who did what in Spacewar! or Tennis for Two, but when it comes to the launch of Computer Space and Pong, there are three major participants and what feels like ten different stories. In writing the book, I tried to construct a single coherent narrative out of this mess, which means that I made certain choices about which information I found reliable and which I did not. In some cases, where that was impossible, I included footnotes explaining where the stories diverged. The single longest footnote in the book explained why I was confident Nolan Bushnell did not see Spacewar! while a student at the University of Utah in the 1960s. So let’s expand that footnote into an even longer blog post.
The standard story Nolan Bushnell tells about his first encounter with video games basically goes like this: in 1965 or 1966, soon after transferring to the University of Utah from Utah State, a buddy or a fraternity brother informs him there is something really cool he needs to see. Sometimes they just head on over to the computer lab, other times it plays out like the world’s geekiest heist story as they sneak in late at night. Either way, he beholds Spacewar! for the first time at the University of Utah Computer Center, where its running on a big mainframe, either an IBM 7094 or a UNIVAC 1108. Bushnell is entranced and is soon playing the game all night long whenever he can.
Also working as an arcade manager at the Lagoon Amusement Park at the time, Bushnell thinks to himself that the game would be perfect as a coin-operated product if it were not running on such an expensive computer, but alas, there is nothing to be done. He goes on with his life, playing his Spacewar! and even programming a few of his own games like a “Fox & Geese” program until he graduates in 1968 and moves to California. An avid go player, Bushnell meets a man named Jim Stein at a Stanford University go club, who takes him over to the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL) and reconnects Nolan with Spacewar! Soon after, Nolan sees a sales sheet for a Data General Nova, realizes computers may now be cheap enough to run a coin-operated video game, and the rest is history.
Bushnell has consistently told this version of events for fifty years, and while some of the details get embellished as time goes on, the core story remains unchanged. I fully believe that today, Mr. Bushnell considers the above to be a true and accurate account, as memory is a funny thing and the more we relay a certain set of facts, the more real they become in our own minds. Sadly, this account is almost certainly false, save for the last part where Jim Stein introduces — rather than reintroduces — Nolan to Spacewar! at Stanford.
So why lie? Why does it matter whether Nolan Bushnell first saw Spacewar! in 1966 at Utah or 1970 at Stanford? Either way, he played a complex computer game relatively early and took inspiration from it to play a key role in launching commercial video games. Well, the answer to that has to do with patent litigation. As has already been mentioned more than once in this series, when Ralph Baer and company developed the prototype of what became the Magnavox Odyssey, they filed patents relating both to the invention of video games generally and to the invention of a system in which two objects electronically rendered on a screen collide and one of them changes vectors specifically. Once those patents were issued in 1972, Magnavox, as the sole licensee of Ralph Baer’s technology, could theoretically claim patent infringement against any electronic game in which a human-controlled object and a computer-controlled object displayed on a screen collided and one of them changed vectors, which basically describes any of the dozen or so ball-and-paddle games that took the coin-operated world by storm in 1973 after Atari launched Pong. The best way to avoid paying damages for patent infringement in this scenario would be to show that your own invention predated the work of Baer and his team to some degree. As Bill Rusch came up with the Odyssey table tennis game in late 1967 and the collision patent was filed in 1969, suddenly whether Nolan Bushnell was inspired by Spacewar! in 1966 or 1970 becomes incredibly important.
Meanwhile, in Summer 1973, Nolan Bushnell gave his earliest known interview in which he discusses the origin of his fascination with computer games. The venue is a short documentary called Games Computers Play that chronicles the birth of arcade video games through Bushnell’s Computer Space and Pong as well as the fascination with Spacewar! at SAIL. In this documentary, a very young Nolan Bushnell states the following:
We used to play Spacewar a lot at the AI project at Stanford, which is a big computer complex, and one day it just hit, you know this is a lot of fun, you know I oughta be able to package it and sell it for a price.
No mention of Utah or amusement parks or long-standing dreams of a coin-operated video game empire. He was just hanging around Stanford and one day realized people just might pay money to experience this fun computer game. After Nolan reveals his inspiration, the documentary transitions from talking about Atari to talking about Spacewar! at SAIL, and the narrator begins the new segment with the following words: “The AI Project, where Bushnell first played Spacewar…” While this statement does not come straight out of Nolan’s own mouth, clearly the understanding of the documentarians based on their interview with Bushnell is that he first saw Spacewar! at Stanford.
By November 1973, Nolan Bushnell is singing a different tune. A profile of Atari in a trade publication called Systems Engineering Today recounts the following:
During the early part of the Spacewar craze, Nolan Bushnell was pursuing an EE degree at the University of Utah and working summers as manager of the games department at an amusement park. He was familiar with Spacewar, and from his amusement arcade background he believed that it would be a great arcade game. The only problem was the price: a computer, even a mini, would cost far more than any amusement arcade operator would spend for a game.
And there it is, the Spacewar! at Utah story fully formed. A story from which Bushnell would never deviate in all the years to follow.
So what changed between Summer and Fall 1973? Well, another November 1973 profile of Atari, this one in Business Week, provides the answer:
Magnavox Co., which introduced its Odyssey games that can be played on home TV sets last year, also plans to require companies marketing coin-operated TV games to obtain a license. But some people in the coin-operated game business believe that the Magnavox patents pertain primarily to the home TV market.
So by Fall 1973, Magnavox is making noises about enforcing its patents against companies producing coin-operated video games, and said companies are already trying to figure out their response to this threat. Interestingly, Bushnell takes his Utah story a step further in Business Week as well. Says Bushnell:
The idea for Pong really goes back to my time at the University of Utah. I used to go into the computer center late at night and think up games to play with the computers.
Now, Nolan is not just playing games in the mid 1960s; he is dreaming them up too. And, he claims this is the lineage of Pong, a lineage that is now being conveniently established in a time well before the Magnavox Odyssey existed.
In 1974, Magnavox finally pulled the trigger, suing Atari and several other companies for patent infringement. In the depositions that followed, Nolan continued to refine his Spacewar! story. From a deposition given by Nolan Bushnell on January 13-14, 1976:
Q: Were you personally involved in any activities prior to December 31, 1969 related to apparatus for playing of games which utilized cathode ray tube displays?
A: Yes, I was.
Q: What was the first such activity of that kind that you can recall?
A: I recall playing a game on the computer at the University of Utah.
Q: When did that activity occur?
A: I have been trying to pinpoint that. I think it was in the neighborhood of 1965. It was shortly after I came to the university of Utah.
Q: By shortly after you came to the University of Utah, how long a period to you mean by shortly?
A: I really don’t recollect. […] I had a friend in the engineering department that I used to play chess with that said, “There’s some great games over at the computer center.” And we went over one night and played.
Q: Could you describe the game which you saw on a computer at the University of Utah, this first game you saw?
A: Yes, It was a game which was called Space War.
Q: Using a computer?
Q: What kind of computer was being used?
A: I’m not sure. That’s one of the things that I can’t put the time on it. It was either a Univac 1108 or an IBM 7094. The University of Utah changed computers while I was there and I’m not sure which it was, really.
This exchange establishes two things: that Nolan Bushnell is now swearing under oath that he saw Spacewar! at the University of Utah around 1965, and that his testimony is as vague as possible. He does not remember exactly when he saw it, and he does not remember on exactly which computer he saw it. In fact, he does not even really remember the person who showed it to him. From the same deposition:
Q: What was the friend’s name?
A: His name was Jim Davies, I think.
Q: And you knew him through your work at the University of Utah?
A: No. I knew him through the chess club.
Q: Do you know where Mr. Davies is located today?
A: I have no idea. I’m not really sure that Davies is his last name. In fact, just a second. I’m not sure that Jim Davies isn’t another guy. It’s Jim something, and it started with a D, but I’m not sure.
This vagueness would continue in a followup deposition given on March 2, 1976.
Q: Mr. Bushnell, in your testimony in January you referred to a Jim Davis or someone with a name like that and then referred to him as Jim D. Have you determined with any great specificity who that individual was?
A. No, I haven’t. In fact, I– No.
Q. This was an individual who you said showed you a game being played on a computer at the University of Utah; am I correct?
A. That’s correct.
Q. Have you made any effort to determine who that individual was?
A. Yes, I have.
Q. What have you done in that regard?
A. I went to the university and went through the rogues’ gallery. They have a listing of the graduates for each school year. I attempted to match a face with a name.
Q. Did you personally go to the university and do that?
A. Yes, I did.
Q. Where is the rogues’ gallery maintained at the University of Utah?
A. On the second floor in front of the Electrical Engineering department.
Q. In what office or department?
A. It’s in the hallway. It’s actually right in front of the computer center.
Q. Did you do anything else to try to establish who Jim D. was?
A. Yes , I did.
Q. What else did you do?
A. I talked to some of the people in the computer center attempting to find some people that had been around at approximately the same time.
Q. Were you able to find anyone?
A. No, I wasn’t.
Q. When did you make this trip?
A. It was in the middle of January.
Q. Of 1976?
A. Yes. Sometime shortly after the deposition.
Q. Did you prepare any report on your trip?
A. No, I did not.
Q. Any memoranda of any kind?
A. No, I did not.
Q. Were you able to find–
A. Well, memoranda? I wrote the names down in my notebook here.
Q. Nothing other than that?
Q. Were you able to find any document that would support your testimony concerning Jim Davis showing you a game played on a computer at the University of Utah in 1965?
A. No .
Q. Did you find any documentation that would support your testimony that a game was played on a computer at the University of Utah in 1965?
Q. Did you find anything other than documents tangible, that would support your testimony that a game was played on a computer at the University of Utah in 1965?
A. Excuse me just a second . No.
Q: In your earlier testimony you indicated that you weren’t certain whether the computer was a UNIVAC 1108 or an IBM 794 [sic] that you saw a game played on. Do you know which of those two it was?
A. No, I don’t.
Q. Did you make any effort to find out at the University of Utah?
Q. Did you make any effort to find out what computer was at the University of Utah in 1965 at the time you say you saw a game played on a computer there?
After this alleged first encounter with Spacewar!, Nolan claims he did not encounter the game again for some time. Back to January 1976:
Q: After this first occasion when you saw Space War shortly after going to the University of Utah what was your next activity with relation to the apparatus for playing games using a cathode-ray tube display?
A: Well, it was about, oh, somewhere around a year later and one of my fraternity brothers got involved in the computer center a little bit more and introduced me to several of the people and we got to talking about the games and I thought it would be kind of fun to learn how to program games.
Q: Did you see any Space War games between the first time that you saw it and the time approximately a year later when your fraternity brother got involved in the computer center?
A: No, I didn’t.
This second encounter supposedly led to more engagement with computer games at Utah and then to a senior thesis in 1967 in which he first put forth his ideas to create his own video game system that could be played at an amusement park. Again, from the deposition:
Q: Did the paper include any description of the types of games that might be played on it?
A: Yes, it did.
Q: What kind of games were described?
A: Space War.
A: Hangman, which is a word game. […] A baseball game.
Q: Any other games?
A: I think those were the only three that I described.
As with his claim of being introduced to Spacewar! by the elusive Jim Davies, Nolan was unable to provide any proof that this senior thesis ever existed. Per the March 1976 deposition:
Q: Mr. Bushnell, you testified about a paper that you prepared while at the University of Utah on games. Have you made a further effort to find a copy of that paper?
A: No, I haven’t.
Q: I think you said the paper was done in conjunction with a course of Professor Atwood; is that correct?
A: I believe that’s true.
Q: have you contacted Professor Atwood as you indicated I think that you were going to do?
A: No, I haven’t.
Q: Do you have any better information today than you had at the time of your last deposition session with respect to that paper or its contents or its location at the present time?
I’ve thrown a lot of quotes at you, so this is probably a good time to summarize the historical record so far. In early 1973, Nolan Bushnell indicated that he first saw Spacewar! at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Later that year, Magnavox publicly declared it was looking to exploit its patents by extracting licensing fees from all the companies making coin-operated video games, including Atari. As the patents were filed in 1969, an individual or company looking to avoid liability in a patent suit would need to prove that their video game activities started before that date. Nolan did not see Spacewar! at SAIL until spring 1970 at the earliest, however, a timeframe established in another part of his deposition. This would not do.
In late 1973, Nolan suddenly starts talking about all the game ideas he had at the University of Utah after seeing Spacewar!. In depositions given in 1976, he further explains that he first saw the game in 1965, first seriously engaged with it in 1966, and wrote a senior thesis all about playing computer games on a system tailored for use in amusement parks in 1967. If true, this new narrative would give his work priority over the work done by Ralph Baer and Bill Rusch. However, when pressed for details by the attorneys, Nolan was as vague as possible on the names of the people involved and the computer system on which he played the game. He was also unable to provide any documentation proving that he saw Spacewar! at Utah during the period in question or that his thesis on playing computer games in an amusement park ever existed.
That about does it for Bushnell’s own words on the matter and why he might have an incentive to distort the truth, but it still leaves us with the fact that he did testify under penalty of perjury that he first saw Spacewar! at Utah. So would he really lie under oath? Well, his answers were vague enough that he would probably avoid a perjury charge, and indeed the lawyers did not seem particularly interested in trying to catch him in a perjury trap, content to let his vague and flimsy recollections stand on their own. After all, if he was lying, his sparse recollections backed by zero documentary evidence would be unlikely to convince the judge in the case — the matter was not being decided by a jury — that Bushnell really was designing video games in the 1960s, but if he was actually telling the truth and an investigation did uncover additional documentary evidence, then it could be problematic for the Magnavox case. For the lawyers, it was far better to just let it be.
But would Nolan lie about his role in early video game history with or without the threat of legal consequences? Sadly, we know the answer to that question is almost certainly yes. While there is no conclusive proof that Nolan’s Utah statements were false since it is nigh on impossible to prove a negative, we do have other examples of him not being completely honest.
The prime example of Nolan’s aversion to the truth comes from another aspect of the Magnavox case: to wit that he saw the Magnavox Odyssey in Burlingame in May 1972 when it was being demonstrated ahead of release. Nolan admitted as much in his deposition — it was hard not to when Magnavox presented as evidence a guestbook from the event with his signature in it — and these days he even admits publicly that he told Al Alcorn to do a ping-pong game as a test project because he saw the Odyssey. He even tries to downplay any controversy thereof by claiming it was no big secret. For example, in a post he made on the Atari Age forums in 2010, Bushnell stated:
I saw the Burlingame demo of the odyssey and thought it was crap and it was. I signed the register with my own name and have never denied it. It did spark the idea that the ping pong idea could be an interesting game if it were done well.
However, while Nolan did cop to the visit in his deposition, in public he denied it for decades. From Video Invaders by Steven Bloom in 1982:
“Pong was no coincidence,” Baer says firmly. “Later on in the mid-’70s, when we negotiated with Atari to get them under license, it came out that somebody over there had actually seen Odyssey sometime during the course of 1972. I don’t know how they did it, but they saw it. So, Pong was a derivative of Odyssey – not the other way around, by any means. The coin-op games are derivative of what we did here back in the ’60s!”
Surprisingly, Bushnell barely counters Baer’s assertions. “It’s really hard to say,” he replies. “I think he can say that even though I had not seen an Odyssey game at that time. But if you do look at the time frame, Pong was actually on the market before Odyssey. I remember being quite surprised to see Odyssey.”
And nearly two decades later in Steven Kent’s The Ultimate History of Video Games:
What they’ve always alleged was that there was a meeting or a distributor show somewhere in the valley, and I should have, would have, could have been there. So it’s one of those pissing matches.
Nolan was never honest about this until Ralph Baer wrote his own book and included a copy of the guestbook signature for all the world to see.
A second fabrication from these early days concerns Bushnell’s own history, or lack thereof, creating games before Computer Space. As far as I know, Nolan still maintains to this day that he was not just playing games at the University of Utah, but also creating his own. In particular, he is proud of a Fox & Geese game. Per another post in 2010 at the Atari Age forums:
Did you program a game in college called Fox and Geese? Could you tell us about the game and the experiance [sic] of programming the game?
I programmed several games but the one that played the best and was sent around the country was Fox and geese. In the game the fox could move in any direction at twice the speed of the geese there was only one fox. The geese could move up to the right or the left. If a goose was alone the fox could eat it. If there were two geese adjacent he could not. The object was for the fox to either eat all the geese or escape past them. The geese won if they trapped the fox against the upper part of the screen. The number of geese was variable. 3 geese almost always lost 7 geese always won.
Bushnell has also described creating this game to Kent and other interviewers as well. Under oath in 1976, however, a different picture emerges:
Q: Do you recall any games other than Space War specifically at the University of Utah?
A: Space War was really the only game I was interested in at the University.
So where does this Fox & Geese story come from if he was not involved with any other games at Utah by his own admission? The deposition answers this question as well:
Q: Do you recall seeing or playing any other games played with a computer and a cathode-ray tube display either at that conference [the Spring or Fall Joint Computer Conference circa 1969] or at the AI project or at the University of Utah prior to the time you left your employment at Ampex?
Q: What other games do you recall?
A: There was a game called Fox & Geese. That was a game where the fox would chase geese and the geese would, you know, run away from the fox and you would attempt to trap a goose in a corner and eat it. I think the geese were hollow circles and the fox was a filled-in circle. That was definitely at the AI project [SAIL].
Can you fix the time of the fox and geese game any closer?
Q: A: I’d say somewhere between the spring and summer of 1970.
Q: How do you fix that time?
A: I fix it pretty much coincident with when Jim Stein was working there, who was my key to the door to get into the place.
So not only did Nolan not program any games at Utah by his own admission nor play any games there other than Spacewar!, but the Fox & Geese game was just a game he saw at SAIL. Notice this portion of the testimony also establishes he was not visiting SAIL before 1970, hence the need to concoct earlier encounters with the game at Utah to avoid patent infringement.
So now we have established that Nolan both had a motive to stretch the truth and a history of doing the same. What other evidence can we bring to bear?
Well, first of all, we can establish just what computer hardware the University of Utah owned during the events in question. If there was no system capable of playing Spacewar! between 1965 and 1968, the years Nolan attended the institution, then he could not possibly have played it there. Fortunately, Utah has put many of its internal university records online. One such record is a report made by David Evans in November 1966. At the time, Evans was just beginning the research that would put Utah on the cutting edge of graphical technology and provide breakthroughs in everything from polygonal rendering to virtual reality. According to the report:
The Computer Center has replaced the IBM 7044 computer by a UNIVAC Type 1108 computer and has undertaken the system programming required to interface with the graphics laboratory.
The major computing facility is the 1108 system, which was delivered during November and is undergoing hardware and software checkout. It is expected to be in service beginning early in December.
This report is interesting for two reasons. First, it does corroborate Nolan’s claim in his deposition that the Computer Center changed hardware while he was there and upgraded to an 1108 system. They upgraded from a 7044 rather than a 7094 as Bushnell stated, but that can easily be explained away by screwing up the similar model numbers in his head. More importantly though, it confirms that the only computer in the Computer Center in 1965 and 1966 when Nolan claimed to have played Spacewar! was an IBM 7044. As explained by Atari historian Marty Goldberg in a since-deleted blog post from 2014 in which he delved into some of the same issues, the 7044 was an older machine that could not be interfaced with a graphics terminal or monitor; it was strictly a teletype system. Therefore, it is simply impossible for Bushnell to have played Spacewar! in the computer center in 1965 or 1966 as he claims.
For the sake of argument, let’s say Nolan was mistaken about the timeframe. Could he have actually seen the game on the UNIVAC 1108 before graduating college in 1968? Again, this does not appear possible. While the 1108 was hooked up to a PDP-8 to create a graphical system, Marty Goldberg and a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Utah named Sarah Bell did a deep dive into David Evans’ project reports from that time period and learned that by the end of 1968, Evans was still struggling to get basic shapes up on his kludged-together system, making it highly unlikely anyone was running Spacewar! on it. Utah was on the brink of becoming a major center for advanced graphics research when Nolan Bushnell graduated, but it was not quite there yet.
Another strike against Spacewar! being at Utah in the 1960s is that no other faculty member or alumnus has ever claimed the game was playable at the university. In fact, in 2020 my colleague Ethan Johnson specifically asked noted Utah alum and Spacewar! enthusiast Dr. Alan Kay about his first encounter with the game. Kay stated he saw the game while a graduate student at Utah, but he had to visit MIT to do so. Kay was at Utah from 1966 to 1969, worked closely with Evans, and knew Spacewar! well enough that Stewart Brand quoted him on the influence of the game in his seminal 1972 article for Rolling Stone, yet even he had to travel elsewhere to see the game.
Finally, the game never appears in the University of Utah student newspaper, which is available online for the years in question. At both MIT and Stanford, the student newspaper reported on the game soon after it appeared, but the Utah newspaper is completely silent on any game playing on Utah computers before the 1970s.
Finally, I will leave you with another piece of evidence that I discovered in my own research. In describing his second encounter with Spacewar! in 1966, Nolan Bushnell states the following in his January 1976 deposition:
Q: What did you do as a result of your thinking that it would be fun to program games?
A: Well, I asked for a listing of the current Space War game, I think I wanted to understand how they had done what they had done, you know, and made some modifications.
Q: Who did you ask for this?
A: Randall Willey.
Q: Who was Randall Willey?
A: He’s the fraternity brother.
Q: How do you spell Willey?
A: W-i-l-l-e-y, I think.
So here we have a name of someone else involved in the supposed Spacewar! scene at Utah, one that feels far more tangible than Mr. Jim with a D. As soon as I first saw this deposition back in 2015 or so, I honed in on Mr. Willey as a person that might be able to shed some further light on the situation. Unfortunately, he appeared to have vanished without a trace.
Flash forward to 2018, when I realized the Utah student newspaper was available online. A search within revealed that Nolan was wrong: his fraternity brother’s last name was actually spelled W-i-l-l-i-e. Armed with the correct spelling, I soon managed to locate Mr. Randall Willie and conducted a phone interview with him. The following exchange comes from that interview:
Q: So at that early stage in the Utah Computer Center were there any games there, was any game stuff going on?
A: There might have been, I don’t recall a lot of that. I don’t recall any games going on.
While its not an outright denial of any games at the university whatsoever, it is a complete denial of his own involvement with such. Its hard to believe that someone so enmeshed in that scene that according to Nolan he knew where to go to get game code would have no recollection of any computer games after the fact. It appears we may have caught Bushnell red-handed, though he needn’t fear, as the statute of limitations for perjury has long since expired. Regardless, while it is impossible to completely disprove a negative, I think the weight of the evidence speaks for itself. Nolan Bushnell did not encounter Spacewar! at the University of Utah in the 1960s; he encountered it at Stanford University in 1970.
They Create Worlds: The Story of the People and Companies That Shaped the Video Game Industry, Vol. I 1971-1982 is available in print or electronically direct from the publisher, CRC Press, as well as through Amazon and other major online retailers.