Why DARPA Banned the First-Ever First Person Shooter Video Game

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The MIT version of Maze on an Imlac PDS-1D. (Computer History Museum)

Just four years after NASA put a man on the moon for the first time in history, they were accomplishing another first. Yes, 1973 was the year NASA launched Skylab, the first American space station, but it was also the first time NASA workers made direct video-game history.

Called "Maze," it was the result of an attempt at creating 3D images conducted by high school seniors in a work-study program at NASA's Ames Research Center in California. The students were pushing the limits of the center's Imlac PDS-1 and PDS-4 minicomputers. In a first-person point of view, players simply tried to find their way out of the maze.

Like all fun things, the adults in the room eventually had to put a stop to it. Like all video games in the early days of gaming, they considered it a waste of time. But it led to a multibillion-dollar industry and a genre of gaming that has endured pretty much ever since.

Greg Thompson was a high school electronics teacher who was introduced to the Ames Research Center's work-study program by his teacher, John McCollum (who was also a teacher to Apple's Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs). There, Thompson met Steve Colley and Howard Palmer, also high school students on the work-study program.

The Imlac computers they were using were state of the art for the time period, and NASA tasked them with pushing the computers to their absolute computing limits. Thompson created a sense of space in three dimensions with stacked cubes, which he eventually used to form a maze. Escaping the maze was simple but fun ... for a while. Eventually, they got bored with the maze itself.

An older game, but it checks out. (Computer History Museum)

The next step was linking two computers together and adding a second player, represented by a pair of floating eyes. After that, they added bullets so players could shoot each other. They added a code to peek around corners. When Thompson graduated from high school, "Maze" came with him to college at MIT.

There, he met Dave Lebling, who would later co-found video-game pioneer Infocom. With Lebling, "Maze" became "Maze War." By 1974, it was expanded so users could create their own mazes, keep score and could have up to eight players. Solo players could soon fight robots, too. The world's first-ever first person shooter game was born.

Then, the source code ended up on the U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), the predecessor of today's internet, created by the U.S. Army office that was funding these research labs, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. Once on the ARPANET, "Maze War" really took off. Players at MIT could square off against players at Stanford. Before long, half of all data being sent along this early internet connection was related to the game.

To top it all off, "Maze War" players would forget to reload the terminal software for the actual DARPA projects they were working on, which led to research directors banning the game altogether.

That didn't kill "Maze War"; it just forced the creators to develop a system designed only for the game itself. That led to an untold number of iterations of the game, which in turn led to the genre of first-person shooter games. Early, more graphic versions of the game, like Faceball 2000 and Hovertank 3D, were just as successful.

In 1992, the first-person shooter genre's popularity was assured when "Wolfenstein 3D" was released. iD software's iconic game pitted an American soldier escaping from a Nazi bunker, fighting more and more dangerous enemies.

(3D Realms Entertainment ApS)

"Wolfenstein 3D's" popularity led to "Doom" -- arguably one of the most popular games of all time -- in 1993, all the way to today's "Call of Duty" franchise and the hundreds of first-person shooter games whose object is to, essentially, escape from a maze.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on LinkedIn.

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