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First Digital Lit, First Video Game?

Media Archaeology Cover

What was the first work of digital literature, or digital art? What was the first video game — the first computer game played with graphical display? These are the sorts of questions that come up when we start rummaging around in the pasts of fields, thinking about the boundaries, and thinking about trajectories that might have been.

I offer my thoughts on these questions — one answer considered, one initial and speculative — in the new book Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications, edited by Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka.

The speculative answer is that about video games. There are a number of contenders for “first” — including Sandy Douglas’s OXO, a tic-tac-toe program displayed on a CRT, developed in 1952 for the Cambridge University EDSAC. But Christopher Strachey’s first video game, a version of checkers (aka “draughts”) for the Manchester Mark I, was already underway by 1951 and was already reported in a paper at the ACM national meeting by 1952 (which would have required a paper submission in advance). Not only was it likely before Douglas’s but, in addition, there is little doubt that it was a much more interesting game than OXO — checkers is already more complex than tic-tac-toe, and Strachey’s version used a game tree search algorithm for the opponent AI, simultaneous image and text output (of different game elements), and a sort of proto-personality for the opponent. Here is Strachey’s description of these last two:

In addition to showing a picture of the board with the men on it on a cathode ray tube, and to printing out the moves on a teleprinter, the machine makes a sort of running commentary on the game. For instance it starts by printing “Shall we toss for the first move? Will you spin a coin.” It then calls, in a random manner, and asks “Have I won?” There’s no cheating in this, at any rate as far as the machine is concerned. The player has then to feed his moves into the machine according to certain rules. If he makes a mistake the machine will point it out and ask him to repeat the move. If he makes too many mistakes of this kind, the remarks printed by the machine will get increasingly uncomplimentary, and finally it will refuse to waste any more time with him.

Calling attention to Strachey’s checkers program is the initial, speculative part of the chapter’s work. Obviously, it would require more investigation and debate to decide if this should be considered the “first” — but at the very least we should be routinely including it in all discussions of the earliest computer and video games.

The chapter’s more considered argument is about Strachey’s 1952 love letter generator — a project that he at least discussed actively with Alan Turing, and which may have included active collaboration from Turing and/or Strachey’s sister Barbara. I believe that this project is the first work of digital literature and may be the first digital art of any kind.

Of course, all such characterizations depend on one’s definitions. My understanding of these uses of words like “digital” and “electronic” — as used in terms such as “digital art,” “electronic literature,” “digital literature,” “digital humanities,” and so on — is that they are shorthand for the types of computation carried out on modern computers (aka “stored program electronic digital computers”). Strachey’s claim to being the first practitioner of digital literature/art is aided by the fact that he was working with one of the very first such computers, but more important was his unusual outlook on computation. This was a time when computers were generally seen as giant calculators. In fact, the title of Strachey’s ACM paper is “Logical or Non-mathematical Programmes” — in part because such programs were so rare. As I put it in the chapter:

At the time of Strachey’s projects, when the first stored program computers were just coming into existence, artistic applications of computers were essentially unheard of. According to Jasia Reichardt, the prominent curator of the 1968 computer art exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity, computer art’s “first tentative steps date back to 1956.” The earliest examples cited in current surveys of digital art, such as Christiane Paul’s Digital Art, are from more than a decade after Strachey’s generator. It is, of course, quite possible that further research will reveal even earlier digital artworks than Strachey’s generator. For example, C.T. Funkhouser has written of a 1959 digital poem created by Theo Lutz using one of Zuse’s electronic digital computers — which may lead us to imagine that an earlier work of digital literature/art, using one of Zuse’s earlier systems, might be uncovered through further research. But whatever happens, we do know that the field of digital literature has more than a half century of history, almost as long as that of the digital computer itself and perhaps the longest of any of the digital arts.

All that said, the main point of the chapter is not to make a point about “firsts.” It is to make an argument about how we might undertake “digital media archaeology” (given that most media archaeology to date has focused on pre-digital media). My belief is that we need to engage computational processes to carry out such work — which will be no surprise to those involved in software studies.

More broadly, while I’ve only recently received my copy (I should check my physical mail more often) I’m also pleased to say that Media Archaeology looks like a fascinating book, both for those interested in its specific topic and those interested in wider fields of media, history, and culture. The international cast of contributors includes Casey Alt, Wendy Chun, Paul DeMarinis, Thomas Elsaesser, Wolfgang Ernst, Eric Kluitenberg, Machiko Kusahara, Claus Pias, Jeffrey Sconce, and Wanda Strauven. It’s a real pleasure to see this book project — long in the making — come to fruition.

About the author:  Noah Wardrip-Fruin is a Professor of Computational Media at UC Santa Cruz and the author of Expressive Processing: Digital Fictions, Computer Games, and Software Studies. Read more from this author

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