In the 1983 Hollywood movie called “War games”, the main character played by Matthew Broderick confused reality with online gaming and brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. A school kid named David used a modem connection to break into Pentagon’s mainframe computer, thinking he’s in command of toy submarines and missile silos. Here’s a piece of the film’s YouTube trailer:
David: — Wow! We got something. We’re in.
Narrator: He found the right code word to play the game. But it was the wrong computer.
Computer voice: — Shall we play a game?
David (typing): — How about GLOBAL THERMONUCLEAR WAR?
Computer voice: — Fine.
Even though it might sound strange, military computers of the 1970s and high school online games had a lot in common. In fact, PLATO — one of the first computer mainframes for learning, as well as ARPANET – the predecessor of the modern Internet, were both initially developed as part of US Cold War military doctrine.
By 1976, Plato, which was built as a “mothership” mainframe connected to multiple user terminals, became the first computer to offer users a variety of online tools, like an e-mail prototype called Personal Notes, chat software called Talkomatic and Term-Talk for instant messaging.
Although Plato IV mainframes and terminals were installed in US universities to be used primarily for learning, they were quickly turned into exciting gaming machines. The system had a breakthrough visualization technology with yellow plasma screens, giving developers great tools for writing entertainment software.
Brand Fortner, a research professor in physics at North Carolina State University was behind one of the first multiplayer online games — a flight simulator called Airfight. He says the people in charge of the Plato didn’t like the fact that it was used for games, but considered it a kind of necessary evil. Here is Dr. Fortner speaking at the Plato@50 conference hosted by the Computer History museum.
My game in particular was a real problem because if was so heavily computationally intensive. If 30 people were playing my game, we would use most of the processing power of a million-dollar system. We would bring the system to its knees. We would play at night and it was still not that well-tolerated.
A breakthrough in online gaming came decades later, as personal computers and consoles like Nintendo, Sony Playstation and SEGA acquired networking capabilities – first with the use of dialup modems, and later – with the introduction of high-speed DSL lines and wide area networks.
But while for 1970’s programmers it was a huge challenge organizing a simultaneous game for 30 players, by the mid-2000s, MMORPGs, or “massively multiplayer online role-playing games” had millions of subscribers.
In 2004 Blizzard Entertainment released World Of Warcraft, which had 12 million subscribers at its peak in 2010, and currently holds the Guinness World Record for the most popular MMORPG.
And even though the current crop of online games don’t have much in common with the military industrial complex, and it’s hard to imagine that someone could start World War 3 just by entering a wrong menu in World Of Warcraft, the gaming universe is becoming bigger and more serious than ever.