The Most Important Video Game Ever Made
So first question: important how? If we're just talking "impact to the game industry" it'd probably be something like Super Mario Bros or Tetris or something like that. But that's not very interesting! I'd rather talk about "impact to humanity". The game which changed broader society the most.
That's a hard question to answer because society is a complex system. World of Warcraft permanently shaped humanity because of all the time people spent on it. Without WoW, millions of people would have done different things with the past 16 years of their life. That would have snowballed into bigger societal changes by 2020. Then again, maybe they all would have played a different game instead. We don't know how important WoW was because we can't peer into the counterfactual world.
So let's scope the question down to irreplacable importance. Specific ways the game changed things. For example, when I was 8 I first played Age of Empires II. I quickly found myself way more interested in the history facts that came with the game than the actual game itself.1 If I didn't play that game, would I still be the historian I am today?
...Probably! But you can see the argument there, right? "Age of Empires II is important because if Hillel instead played StarCraft he wouldn't be a historian." That's the kind of "important" I'm talking about. It might snowball from there, much like how WoW would snowball, but it's snowballing from measurable changes.
With all that setup you'd expect for the answer to be really, really unsatisfying, but it's not. There is a most important video game ever made. It's Space Travel.
What, never heard of it? That's cool, nobody has. It was developed in 1969 for the Multics mainframe. You flew a ship around the solar system and tried to land on planets. Maybe a dozen people have played it total. This is the only image of it that I can find (from Wikipedia):
When AT&T pulled out of Multics development, Space Travel was ported to the GECOS. But GECOS was a batch computer, meaning you had to play Space Travel like a crappy turn-based strategy game. You'd review the output and then submit your next move as a new batch job. Not exactly a great experience!
For a better experience, Space Travel needed to run interactively on its own computer, which ended up being an unused PDP-7 Bell Labs had lying around. Of course, there were some minor challenges converting a game that originally ran on mainframes with dedicated FP hardware to a minicomputer that was already five years out of date. Like handling all of the floating point calculations in software. Or writing a graphics driver that could handle a game. Or getting any kind of operating system. As part of dealing with these minor challenges, Ken Thompson laid the groundwork for what would eventually become the Unix operating system.
And that's why Space Travel is the most important video game ever made.
- A couple of short posts by Dennis Ritchie about Space Travel and the origins of Unix.
- An old archive of Unix 1 that has the source code for Space Travel (
st7). Supposedly you need an emulator for the specific graphics terminal Thompson's PDP-7 uses, which should be available somewhere here? I don't know anything about retrocomputing.
Many of which, I discovered as an adult, were wrong. ↩