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A screenshot of text from Hammurabi sits atop a grid background
Hamurabi
Graphic: William Joel/Polygon | Image source: Digital Equipment Corporation

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The nuclear war origins behind some of the earliest computer lab games

The computer labs of the 1970s looked a lot different from those of the ’80s and ’90s

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In the school computer labs of the 1970s, the games asked a lot of questions. More specifically, they asked for a lot of numbers. Typed-in numbers were the fuel needed to power the games — typically short programs written in BASIC — that filled the storage space on the minicomputers. There were no screens — only teletype machines, which sort of worked like typewriters except that the computers could type words on the page as well. When you played a turn-based strategy game like Hamurabi, the computer would print out key information, line by line:

HAMURABI: I BEG TO REPORT TO YOU,

IN YEAR 1, 0 PEOPLE STARVED, 5 CAME TO THE CITY.

POPULATION IS NOW 100.

THE CITY NOW OWNS 1000 ACRES.

YOU HARVESTED 3 BUSHELS PER ACRE.

RATS ATE 200 BUSHELS.

YOU NOW HAVE 2800 BUSHELS IN STORE.

After this came the questions, one at a time:

LAND IS TRADING AT 26 BUSHELS PER ACRE.

HOW MANY ACRES DO YOU WISH TO BUY? _

HOW MANY BUSHELS DO YOU WISH TO FEED YOUR PEOPLE? _

HOW MANY ACRES DO YOU WISH TO PLANT WITH SEED? _

Once answered, the game’s simulator component would come into play, processing your inputs across a series of complex equations.​​ Then the game would advance one year, and the whole thing would start all over again — provided, of course, that you did not fail badly enough for your people to overthrow you.

Despite the seemingly archaic nature of the tech, as well as the games, this was cutting-edge stuff in the 1970s school computer lab. And as it turned out, the origins of these games, and the systems used to program and play them, could be traced to one of the most important institutions of the post-World War II military-industrial complex: the RAND Corporation, based out of Santa Monica, California. Moreover, the question-and-answer games were originally designed to wage simulated nuclear war.

Sponsored mainly by the newly formed Air Force, RAND’s mandate was almost absurdly broad: “To further and promote scientific, educational, and charitable purposes, all for the public welfare and security of the United States of America.”

The RAND Corporation, originally called Project RAND, was one of the primary think tanks created by the United States government and military in the run-up to the Cold War. Given the importance of science and engineering in winning the Second World War, governments everywhere recognized the need to keep such work going as new battle lines were drawn. Despite its name, RAND was, and still is, a nonprofit organization. Its primary product is research reports, drawn from all manner of scientific and social scientific study. RAND officially reported to the Air Force, but it was also encouraged to publish and share its work for the “public good.”

Despite its almost absurdly broad mandate, RAND is perhaps best known for its wargames. Coincidentally, wargaming first emerged as a popular hobby in the early Cold War years, and the similarities between these professional and amateur pursuits probably played a role in their eventual blending in the digital age. There was a major difference at the outset, however. Rather than reenacting historical battles such as Midway or Gettysburg, as the hobbyists liked to do, RAND focused entirely on potential future conflicts. Which meant that many, but not all, of its games incorporated one of the most recent innovations in conventional warfare: the atomic bomb.

RAND received, and still receives, a lot of criticism for its apparently nonchalant attitude toward nuclear war in these years. One of its chief strategists, Herman Kahn, would go on to serve as the inspiration for Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s classic film of the same name. It could be argued that RAND was really just absorbing the thinking of many military leaders in the post-World War II era, with popular heroes such as Douglas MacArthur openly suggesting that atomic bombs be dropped on China to advance American interests in the Korean peninsula. Regardless, the antiwar movement of the late 1960s had yet to emerge in RAND’s early years, and Kahn and others saw no apparent reason to imagine how a nuclear conflict might unfold.

RAND’s wargames often differed quite substantially from our general understanding of the genre. Rather than asking players to move pieces on a board, RAND’s games often took the form of complex logistics simulations run by a central computer. Take the example of STROP, short for strategic operations. Despite its bland name, STROP was very much a simulation of nuclear warfare. According to its manual, it was up to players to “make decisions concerning R & D expenditures, weapons procurement, and offensive and defensive weapons targeting,” all of which supported ongoing nuclear exchanges.

There were no maps in STROP, nor any pieces to move around. Rather, there were questions to answer, and these answers took the form of numbers such as dollar amounts and force commitments. All of these were called “decisions,” a term that would carry forward into the medium. The questions were asked in the same manner as those in Hamurabi, minus the flavor text:

STROP EXERCISE: BLUE

R and D ALLOCATION

R and D for Multiples = _

R and D for AMSA = _

R and D for ABM = _

Procurement: Fighters = _

Procurement: Local Defense = _

Procurement: ABMs = _

Procurement: Shelters = _

A computer — usually an IBM variant, though RAND did once build its own machine — would process these decisions, churning these numbers through a complex game engine and outputting the results. The players would then reenter most of the information that they provided in the first turn, and play continued.

Computers were an essential tool in operating games like STROP, and as the machines started to move into professional and educational institutions, RAND’s model of mathematical gaming spread with them. RAND, fulfilling its public good mandate, was of course the catalyst. In the late 1950s, it connected with a management training organization called the American Management Association to create a game that the group could use in its work — essentially, a business version of a wargame.

The AMA manual expresses these intentions clearly. While extolling the virtues of military wargaming, it asks, “Why, then, shouldn’t business men have the same opportunity? [...] Why not a business ‘war game’ [...] ?” The wargame that they had in mind was not the back-and-forth board type. Rather, in keeping with the STROP model, they created a highly tuned logistics simulation.

Each value that players decided on was referred to as a “decision” — hence the name of the game: Top Management Decision Simulation. These decisions concerned budgeting for the creation and marketing of a product. Money was allocated for research, production, and marketing for the duration of a business quarter. The price of the product was also set.

Key to making this all work, of course, was a computer to accept and process results, in this case an IBM 650 mainframe. Data was sent to a keypunch operator, who created the necessary punched cards and fed them into the machine. The simulation ran, and results were printed out and sent to the players. Game time would advance to the next quarter, and players would adapt and adjust their inputs.

TMDS was the prime catalyst for a management game mania that spread throughout the United States. By 1961 there were 100 games in operation, and by the 1980s thousands of American businesses had incorporated games into their training. A hallmark of a good business game, especially in the early days, was the quantity of decisions one could pack in. The Carnegie Tech Management Game, designed in part by William Dill, a luminary in the field, was one of the most prominent in the genre, featuring roughly 300 decisions. All of these games leveraged the increasing power of mainframe and later minicomputers.

From business, the gospel of computerized decision games migrated to education, starting with an ambitious experiment conducted jointly by IBM and a school board in Westchester County, New York. Citing Dill and others in the field as influences, three “computer-based economic games” were produced for sixth grade students. One of these, known as The Sumerian Game, was the inspiration for Hamurabi. What made Hamurabi different was that the context was purely fictional, as well as historical. It also had a more limited set of decisions, given that the game was meant for children, not executives.

It took several years for these interactive games to fully infiltrate public schools, mostly because the needed computers were initially a bit of a rare thing. One of the major players changing this was the Digital Equipment Corporation, which marketed some of its PDP minicomputers directly to schools. The programming language of choice was originally the obscure in-house FOCAL, which was actually based off of a RAND product. The change to BASIC was made when that language started taking off.

By the 1970s, when such BASIC games were common currency in the school computer lab, fortunes had changed for the RAND Corporation. The Vietnam War and the antiwar movement that followed turned much of the public against military-funded outfits like RAND. The Mansfield Amendment, passed in 1969, largely ended the military’s role in cutting-edge computer science research. The future of the computer was personal, but this PC revolution would carry RAND’s work forward, inspiring future refinements to what would become the turn-based strategy genre. Whether playing or perfecting these games, computer lab kids would inherit the efforts of serious military and business minds, and add a lot more fun to the mix.

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